Friday, October 15, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 15: The Dull, Dumb, Faceless Thing

There are two subgenres of horror that, these days, work almost like poetry, at least in a commercial sense. Those are the weird tale and its near-sibling, the ghost story. Together, these subgenres practically make up the entire core of horror, and most everything else grows outward from them. So far outward that only the whispiest of connections can be traced now, but that doesn't mean they're no long there. The relation to poetry is that nowadays weird fiction and ghost stories, even the best of them, are most often published by very small presses, whose market is the hardcore fans, mixed with the collectors -- this is reflected in the prices charged by most of these small presses. Not that all poetry is published by small presses, but poets are doomed to not make a living from their poetry, as ghost and weird fiction writers are, I'd say, similarly doomed, although I know nothing, and care to know nothing, about the various financial situations of these writers. But this stuff is no longer easily marketed, because it's no longer what people think of when they think of horror (as poetry is usually not what people think of when they think of literature). You sort of have to know what it is before you even know it's out there. In other words, I only know who Mark Samuels is, for instance, because I know what weird fiction is.

Similarly, I only know who Terry Lamsley is because I know that there are still people out there writing classical (which is not to say derivative) ghost stories. Lamsley's work is published by small presses, and as is often the case with writers so published, there is one book that gets sold at a price that wouldn't make a regular working stiff horror fan such as myself blanch at the idea of paying for it. With Lamsley, that book is Conference with the Dead, published by Night Shade books. In his introduction to Conference with the Dead, Ramsey Campbell -- who has an incredibly sharp eye for this kind of writing -- relates an interesting, charming and even inspiring anecdote about his introduction to Lamsley's work. In brief, he says that he was at a science fiction convention, and encountered Lamsley hawking his self-published collection Under the Crust (check out how much that one is currently going for online). Because Lamsley was standing right there, Campbell found it difficult to simply put the book down, having just picked it up for a browse-through, and also Lamsley hailed from, and set much of his fiction in, Buxton, where Campbell had met his wife. So he bought the book, and later that night, after reading some of it, called Stephen Jones and Karl Edward Wagner to announce the arrival of a major new talent.

Later in the introduction, Campbell says:

In this book Lamsley consolidates his reputation as an inheritor of all the qualities of classic English supernatural horror fiction: wit, detachment, an economy of effect bordering on the poetic, a seemingly effortless originality.

Yes, yes, yes, and yes, from what I've been able to tell after reading seven of the ten stories in Conference with the Dead. Reading Lamsley, I'm reminded of M. R. James, without thinking that Lamsley is simply treading old ground. You might come away from your first Lamsley story tempted to say "They don't write 'em like that anymore", if it weren't for the fact that Lamsley is alive and well and writing at this very moment (well, probably). The fact, or the theory, that his classicism is why Leisure Books, the most productive publisher of affordable, mass market horror fiction (new and reprints), hasn't come near Lamsley yet is both depressing and inevitable (and, for the record, Leisure Books puts out some good stuff on occasion, and they're far from a total write-off. I just wish Lamsley and his kin could get a look into that sort of deal).

For today, I read two Lamsley stories, the first of which, "Blade and the Bone", is the most M. R. James-y of Lamsley's many M. R. James-y stories. It tells the story of Ogden Minter, a man of late middle age, but still very active, who is on vacation with his wife, Poppy. Poppy hurt her ankle in a bike accident, however, and "Blade and the Bone" find Ogden on his own, tracking Poppy's antiquarian interests through the English countryside. Specifically, on this day, he's looking for an old church called St. Margaret, with the intent of taking photographs of the church and its surrounding, and of collecting any lore about the area he might pick up from the locals, all of which he plans on presenting to Poppy later in the day. We're told that Ogden not only doesn't share Poppy's antiquarian streak, but that he's lost a fair amount of interest in Poppy herself. Still, this is something to do.

At one point, Ogden is caught in a massive rainstorm, and seeks refuge in one of a group of abandoned cottages and huts. Inside, he finds a vast collection of abandoned tools, some of them apparently fairly old, even ancient, and some quite unusual:

He came up short then, because he suddenly found hismelf contemplating some very strange toolds indeed. If they were tools, in the normal sense! Occupying a spcae of their own, and isolated in a frame fixed to the wall, were a number of knifelike objects with curving blades and ornately carved handles. They were quite free of rust. They were obviously part of an incomplete collection, as they had been set out in the form of a tapering cross, and there were three gaps where the missing weapons should have been.


Suffice it to say, the history of these tools, or weapons, is eventually laid out, as is the history of the region, and of St. Margaret herself. "Blade and the Bone" isn't very long, but, like the fiction of M. R. James, it's rather dense, condensing centuries worth of information into one long monologue delivered in a tearoom by an old man. There's some very nice imagery towards the end of this story, as the early chill builds to a full blast of cold air, though quoting those passages would defeat the purpose of reading it for yourself. I will question the very ending, as I'm not sure what happens there necessarily significantly heightens the story's natural dread, though having thought about it for a little while now, I'm not sure where else Lamsley might have profitably taken the story. Even so, the final half page has a whiff of the obligatory about it.

The longer of the two stories I read for today is called "Screens", and I preferred this one, even heavily preferred it, to "Blade and the Bone", which I already liked a good deal. If I have any nit to pick, it's not with the story itself, but rather with Ramsey Campbell's brief thoughts on it in his introduction. And it's not even that I think Campbell is wrong -- in fact, I think he's probably right in his view of what's happening in this story. But if he is right, then that means "Screens" has an explanation, of a sort at least, and I feel it would be more effective without it. That's not to say that in Campbell's reading of it, the bizarre events of the story are suddenly reduced to Scooby Doo-ian hijinks, because no matter how you slice it, "Screens" is still a pretty bizarre story. It's just that with Campbell's take on things, by the end of the story you do have a "who", whereas, the way I initially read it, you didn't even have a "what".

All of which will hopefully makes far more sense to anyone who's actually read "Screens". If you haven't, the story is about a hapless, utterly luckless man named Andrew, who has just returned to his little home village of Longton after some weeks away on a business trip in Scandanavia. Andrew is divorced, and also slightly disfigured, due to a hang-gliding accident (Lamsley's fiction is full of this kind of strange, off-hand detail). He's not a native to Longton, and therefore feels like a perpetual outsider. This feeling is alleviated a bit by his friendship with his neighbor, a widow named Kate. Slightly older than Andrew (by seven years), the wags of Longton nevertheless find much about their relationship worthy of gossip. Though their relationship has not proceeded with anything like the pace the townspeople believe, it's reasonably clear to the reader, if not to Andrew, that he wouldn't mind so much if it had.

Eager to see Kate again, Andrew finds himself waylaid into chatting with an elderly shopkeeper who tells him that Kate hasn't left her home in a some time, and the people who have seen her at home have noted her disheveled appearance. Concerned, Andrew makes his way to her home as quickly as he can, nearly running over a young girl walking her dog, who suddenly walks in front of his car. He finally makes it to Kate's home, but he does indeed find her a different person, as described by the shopkeeper. She is disheveled, and she's nervous, distracted, occasionally overly enthusiastic...but strangest of all is the haste with which she shuts off her television when Andrew enters her home:

He pointedly looked away from her toward the television. The screen was mostly dark, but formless, off-white, slithering shapes that he could not identify drifted langorously across it from time to time. He couldn't make out what was going on. He leaned forward and squinted. The volume was low; he was unable to understand a word of the whispered commentary.
When she saw what he was doing, Kate pointed the remote at the set and touched a button. The picture shrank and shrank. There was a whirr and a click, and Andrew realised that he had been watching a video.
From the there, things will become stranger, and worse for Andrew, as the plot expands to encompass a missing child (possibly the girl who dashed in front of Andrew's car) and a bizarre gray figure Andrew sees first in Kate's backyard. The appearance of this figure allows Lamsley to get at the heart of this kind of horror writing, as he describes Andrew regarding it more in awe than fear, as his ability to provide context to the thing before him shuts down.
Summarizing the plot of short stories often strikes me as foolish, though I do it every day in October -- still, I'm cutting off my summary of "Screens" right here. Best that you just read it yourself. And once you do, if you agree with Campbell's take on it, fine, but I think he's possibly being a bit too...maybe not literal, but perhaps too analytical. Probably not that, either, but the fact is that his interpretation of "Screens" can be supported by what's on the page, but it cannot be fully confirmed. I think "Screens", like most, if not all, weird fiction and ghost stories, roots its horror far in the past, even in another world, or dimension -- specifically when and where, I don't know, but I think what's going on in "Screens" is greater in its portent than simply the hideous results of somebody's dabbling in the occult (which would have to be the implication of Campbell's reading, I think).
In any case, Lamsley is a very fine writer, who deserves to struggle far less in order to get his work out there. Such is the lot of pretty much all the best horror writers these days, and in some cases I suppose it's appropriate, in a certain sense. In life, as in the fiction, this kind of creeping dread has to be dug for.


Will Errickson said...


Perhaps they were lemon knives.

bill r. said...

Those are real, you know.

John said...

I'm pretty sure I've read both these stories in different books. Probably a couple of Stephen Jones anthologies. I (very) vaguely recall "Screens" and remember zilch about the other.

Which would suggest (rightly) that I have no real enthusiasm about Lamsley's work. I've read a number of his stories to date (most of them similarly forgotten), and as much as I generally appreciate what he's trying to do in them, I'm also left with the impression that he just doesn't write well enough to pull it off. Way, way unlike M.R. James, Lamsley's writing strikes me mainly as clunkily verbose at best, and muddily vague, at worst.

I will say, however, that your write-up has got me thinking of giving him, and these two stories, in particular, another look, one of these days. Who knows, maybe I'll find something to like next time.