Monday, October 11, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 11: Queen of the Laugh Parlors

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Another year, another massive, expansive anthology of horror fiction edited by Peter Straub. Two this year, actually, but they're kind of a package deal, in that they are volume one and volume two of American Fantastic Tales, the first taking the reader from "Poe to the Pulps", and the second charting "the 1940s to Now". At what point Straub gets involved in these high profile anthologies, I don't know -- does he pitch the general idea to the publisher, in this case New American Library, or does someone at NAL have an idea and think "Straub's always good for this kind of thing." And he is, and in truth there's no real conrete idea to the American Fantastic Tales anthology that would need to be pitched. The idea is "We should do another giant collection sampling 200 years worth of horror fiction, because people like those", and you're off to the races. The point is, Straub seems to get a lot of cherry anthology-editing gigs -- he also did NAL's H. P. Lovecraft: Tales from a while back.

Anyway, obviously today I'm going to begin my two part look at this two volume anthology (whether or not I'll be doing part two tomorrow or later is something I haven't decided), and, counterintuitively, I've chose to do these back to front, covering the "1940s to Now" volume first. There's no reason for this, outside of the fact that I very much wanted to read the two stories from this volume that are on deck for today, and saw no reason to deny myself the pleasure. In general, volume two of American Fantastic Tales is fairly packed with stories I want to read, moreso than its brother: most inticingly is "The God of Dark Laughter", Michael Chabon's, by my count, second horror story ever, despite the fact that he promised a full book of them about a decade ago (his earlier story, "In the Black Mill", is, i thought, aces); something by Jeff VanderMeer called "The General Who is Dead"; "The Myseries of Joy Rio" by Tennessee Williams, and so on. You're guaranteed a good mix from Straub, although I wish he'd be a little more creative when picking work from established horror writers. Not all of Thomas Ligotti's fiction is easy to come by, so do we need to see yet another reprint of "The Last Feast of Harlequin"? And great as it is, Harlan Ellison's catalogue is vast enough that "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" probably could have used a rest.
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But who cares, really, because Straub also included stories by George Saunders and Steven Millhauser. It didn't shock me to see a Millhauser story included here, because while he's never been labeled a horror writer, and has too much literary cache' for that anyway (plus Straub is an avowed Millhauser fan), I'm pretty familiar with his work (I'm also an avowed Millhauser fan) and therefore know the dark games he can get up to. Saunders, though, threw me for a bit of a loop. I admit I'd never read his work before last night, but I was always under the impression that he was something of an arch satirist whose work, while possibly skirting the edges of science fiction (the premise, as I understand it, behind his story "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" struck me as something of an SF gray area), would rigorously resist any kind of genre categorization. But lookit here, because "Sea Oak" is a zombie story! It's so much a zombie story that the sucker also pops up in that John Skipp anthology I talked about yesterday.
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Though the zombie-ness of "Sea Oak" is not in question, if I were a betting man I would say that no one was more surprised to see a Saunders story included in not one, but two horror anthologies in one year than Saunders himself. Because I appear to have been correct: Saunders is an arch satirist, and a gut-bustingly funny one, at that. "Sea Oak" is a satire, one about modern poverty and living a life in which you're eternally doing without, as Aunt Bernie does in this story. Aunt Bernie lives with her nieces, Jade and Min, and her nephew, our narrator, in a tenement or rundown apartment building called Sea Oak. The nephew works at a male strip club called Joysticks, whose bizarre theme is World War II era fighter planes and pilots. Min and Jade, both of them single mothers, are first seen struggling to study for their GEDs while watching a TV show called How My Child Died Violently:
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The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it's a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn't look good. Jade says "regicide" is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn.
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Saunders could possibly be viewed as being downright nasty and condescending in his lampooning of poor people, even though "Sea Oak" turns the neat trick of becoming genuinely moving by the end. All the emotion in "Sea Oak" comes from Aunt Bernie, an old woman who never even had a boyfriend, and, when she dies from fright when faced with an intruder while she's home alone, her nephew reflects:
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Did she ever go on a cruise? All her life it was buses. Buses buses buses. Once she went with Ma on a bus to Quigley, Kansas, to gamble and shop at an outlet mall. Someone broke into her room and stole her clothes and took a dump in her suitcase while they were at the Roy Clark show. That was it. That was the extent of her tourism.
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Aunt Bernie comes back from the grave, however, and her former sweetness and overpowering, even obnoxious, optimism has been replaced with an angry, cursing, decaying terror who insists to her nephew and nieces that this time around she's going to get laid, because she never had anything in her first life, and she's sick of having nothing. She wants her family to start earning money, and tells her nephew that the way to get that particular show on the road is for him to show his cock (her words). As a stripper, he's limited to wearing what I guess are called "T-backs", as well as a penis simulator. It's against policy to show the real thing, but Aunt Bernie informs him that this is how to make real money. She even uses her otherworldly powers to imprint the women who are up for that sort of thing, so he won't anger anyone. The first time he attempts this, he notices that at the table with the imprinted women he's focusing on is an ex-girlfriend, from years ago. He lived at home at the time, with, among other people, his Uncle Ed, who, while the nephew and his girl were making out on the couch, came home drunk and urinated in the dishwasher. She broke up with the nephew after that, sending him this note:
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You will always be my first love...But now my path converges to a higher ground. Be well always. Walk in joy. Please don't think me cruel, it's just that I want so much in terms of accomplishment, plus I couldn't believe that guy peed right on your dishes.
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I tried to read that bit out loud to my wife, and I couldn't make it through. Really, the entire Saunders portion of this post could be given over to just rampant quoting, because "Sea Oak" is quite hilarious. As a horror story -- as a story intended to invoke feelings of horror or fear or dread or a particular kind of unease -- I'm not sure how to rate it, but I'm positive that doesn't matter. The Aunt Bernie character carries a lot on her back, including a great deal of humor, but most importantly she allows Saunders to stand free and clear (or free, anyway) of the harshest charges of condescension that might otherwise come his way by providing the story with an honest emotional punch at the end. But hell, if we were only allowed to make fun of the rich and the middle classes, what kind of a world would this be?
.Next up is Millhauser, and I'm very pleased to have an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite writers. Millhauser is an odd duck, writing, in a clear but mannered prose, stories about things like early 20th century American animators, or architects who construct entire cities within one building in downtown Manhattan, or magicians, or writers who create their masterpiece before the age of 10. That last one is the basic story of his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse. That novel may be a gloss on Nabokov's Pale Fire (a fact I wasn't aware of when I read the Millhauser, as I'd not yet read the Nabokov) but it's still very much it's own work of art, a brilliant, funny, wondrous, frightening and masterful piece of fiction that stands pretty high on my own list of favorite novels. Millhauser won the Pulitzer in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (that's the architect one, though my summary doesn't really quite get there), and wrote the short story (his preferred form, I've gathered) "Eisenheim the Illusionist", on which the Neil Burger film The Illusionist was based. And quite how Burger was willing and able to take that supremely odd little story and transform it into a contender for that year's big twist movie, I'll never know or understand. Suffice it to say, I was fairly annoyed by The Illusionist..
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“Dangerous Laughter”, the second story I read for today, is typical Millhauser, though it could not possibly be typical for anyone else. In its story of suburban teenagers – mostly female, I gathered, and located some decades back from the present day, or at any rate located out of a specific time – developing, from a strange but simple game to a kind of sensual mania, an obsession with laughter calls to mind his novella Enchanted Night, for example, as well as the story “Sisterhood of the Night” from his collection The Knife Thrower and Other Stories. In all three, but particular in “Dangerous Laughter” and “Sisterhood of the Night”, Millhauser seems to be exploring, through teenage girls, new kinds of witchcraft. In “Dangerous Laughter”, all the most powerful characters, those who are best at inducing wild, spasmodic, mad laughter in others, are female -- from Bernice Alderson, whose methods are methodical, her bearing almost regal as her house becomes one of the central locations for “laughter parties”, to Clara Schuler, the shy, disheveled girl who displays a surprising gift for prolonged, transformative laughter, or “performance”, as it’s sometimes referred to.
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Though she’s not the narrator (that role goes to someone who is, as always, unnamed), Clara becomes the focus, as she represents the possible, even likely, fate of anyone who seeks out this type of personal abandonment to ruthlessly, or is, perhaps, simply too good at it. But her fate is plain to see, even before we see Clara at one of the “laugh parties”, looking “suddenly old”. There’s a mixture of addiction and sexuality in “Dangerous Laughter”, though the latter is in some sense dismissed when we’re told that everyone saw the link between this intense laughter and sex, the true connoisseurs, which is who this story is about, reject making that link the point of it all. The point is…what? Abandonment, as I said, and power, and a strange kind of sorcery.
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But it’s the witchcraft of teenage girls, at least in his fiction, that makes Millhauser an occasionally interesting participant in the horror genre. Nobody is casting over spells, or reading mystical texts, or anything like that. But walking through the neighborhood on a summer night when all the houses are dark, and meeting your friends in a field to play a new game, that turns into an obsession…this is the kind of witchcraft that Millhauser is most often thinking about. And notice I didn’t say “magic” – nothing so charming as that. I said witchcraft.

5 comments:

otherbill said...

I can't believe there exists in this world an anthology that includes stories by George Saunders AND Carlton Mellick III. That an editor could read both and not notice the subtle differences in craft is just jaw-dropping.

All three of Saunders short story collections are quite rewarding. His essay collection- The Braindead Megaphone- is a lot more up and down and can be profitably skipped. Actually, I just figure I probably cost you enough dough with the Evenson suggestion- trying to help trim some fat.

I was just discussing Millhauser with a friend the other day. It was in the context of "Artists We Admire But Don't Want To See Stretch or Change". Which is to say I could gladly read another thousand Millhauser stories about 18th century automatons, people trapped in boardgames, odd museums, forgotten animators, etc.

bill r. said...

That an editor could read both and not notice the subtle differences in craft is just jaw-dropping.

Subtle!? Surely you're joking!

But yes, this has been the source of my frustration for years now. There seems to be no discernment within bulk of the horror community, which includes editors, writers, and fans. Robert Aickman can find himself brushing shoulders with motherfucking Brian Keene, and seemingly nobody can tell the difference.

This isn't an across the board problem, however, and Peter Straub has actually been somewhat outspoken about this sort of thing -- not this thing specifically, but general quality in the genre. He's been blunt enough that he's apparently earned some enemies, but that's as it should be.

And lucky for you, I already have PASTORALIA and CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE, so I won't need to drop any extra coin on Saunders right away, at least. I did enjoy "Sea Oak" tremendously, mainly because it was so funny, which is obviously no small deal, so I do plan on reading more of his stuff.

Which is to say I could gladly read another thousand Millhauser stories about 18th century automatons, people trapped in boardgames, odd museums, forgotten animators, etc.

Oh absolutely. That's one of the top two reasons I read Millhauser in the first place (the other being that he's a great writer). It's why he is Steven Millhauser. It would be like wanting Philip Roth to stop writing about sex, death and being Jewish.

Greg said...

I wish I read more horror fiction, or any, so I could engage more here. At first I got all excited because I saw "George Sanders" when you wrote "George Saunders" and I was like, "George Sanders wrote horror fiction?! Awesome!" But then he didn't.

But as always, these are fine write-ups and there seem to be people who do know the authors and can engage in discussion, which is a good thing.

Also, I'm an avowed Milhouse fan ("Everything's coming up Milhouse!").

Oh, and not to be left out, I work with a guy named Peter Staub. Just one letter off. Like working with someone named Stephen Kin or Clive Baker.

bill r. said...

Don't feel bad, Greg. You work with Peter Staub! That's almost as good as working with H. P. Lovecrat. But that's sort of in bad taste, because H. P. Lovecrat died yesterday. :(

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Saunders is amazing. I'll always bristle as those who sneer at "New Yorker fiction" simply because it was The New Yorker that introduced me to his work.

Along with his inventively nasty premises, it's worth noting his terrific ear. He's got a devastating knack for summoning the flattened, bent, spindled, folded and mutilated language of the commercial and the televisual, and an unerring knack for finding the con in the middle of a sentence.

All his short story collections are great, and I quite like the essays, in contrast to otherbill. But for a place to start, I'd recommend the collection "Pastoralia", which includes "Sea Oak".

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