Monday, October 10, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 10: Death's Nicer Than Life

I was poking around my bookshelves the other day and I found a horror anthology I've had for God knows how long, but had completely forgotten about called The Supernatural Reader, edited by Groff Conklin and first published in 1953 (my edition is from 1970). Though perhaps not at the same high level, The Supernatural Reader reminds me of The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural in that both were picked up by me with no particularly high expectations, but both turned out to be loaded with a wonderful lineup of talent. In the case of The Supernatural Reader, you have stories by John Collier, Ambrose Bierce, Nigel Kneale, Lord Dunsany, Theodore Sturgeon, Saki, E. M. Forster, and so on. How I forget I owned this book, I do not know. The extra special bonus to this discovery is that it allows me, however briefly, to post something about horror of the late-early, early-mid 20th century, which period I often feel makes up the hinge of this entire series every year.

The first story I chose is "Minuke" by Nigel Kneale. Kneale is best known as the creator of Quatermass, and the writer, obviously, of Quatermass and the Pit and The Quatermass Experiment and the like. Also a playwright and writer for British television, Kneale is most intriguing to me as the author of a collection of short stories called Tomato Cain and Other Stories, a volume that is regularly mentioned as an important part of British horror writing but is also now completely unavailable unless you are willing and able to spend $100 or more on a single book, which I am not (though I sometimes kick the idea around in relation to Charles Willeford's Off the Wall, but that's neither here nor there). So generally when I think of Kneale, I don't think of Quatermass, but rather my own disappointment. Happily, though, I have twice now found stories from Tomato Cain tucked away in old anthologies, and have now read both. I almost wrote up "The Patter of Tiny Feet" last year, and can't now remember why I didn't, but in any case that's probably for the best as "Minuke" is better, and is, I'll admit right here, my favorite of the three I read for today.

"Minuke" takes the form of a story being related to our...narrator? Does that count if only two or three paragraphs are narrated by him? Anyway, I guess it's a two-person narration story, where the bulk is narrated by a man referred to only as "the estate agent", the other narrator being a potential customer. The estate agent wants to ease the other man's mind regarding some odd business transaction he's just witnessed, so the estate agent tells him about the Pritchards, a family who has bought through the estate agent a newly-built bungalow. And right there, it's interesting straight away because "Minuke" is a haunted house story where the house is brand new, and therefore has had no chance to build up a history of horrific psychic anguish or restless spirits or anything. There is a hint that perhaps, maybe, the bungalow was constructed on land of some questionable past, but this is very vague, and as far as I'm concerned could have been left out entirely. The most important part for me is that, apart from that, "Minuke" is fairly standard as a plot, but Kneale has such an easy way of depicting the horror and of sketching his characters out, and the mild personality clashes, and the well-earned cynicism towards his clients of the estate agent, and also the off-handed way that he reveals that this estate agent isn't entirely skeptical towards the idea of ghosts or hauntings. And this gets Kneale over so many hurdles, by making the characters open to the idea right from the beginning, that I don't know why more writers don't do it. It's a wonderful, professional -- a cold-sounding approbation until you've suffered through long periods of its total absence -- spooky piece of writing, very clean and entertaining and British in its prose, this last I mean in the best sense, and for me that counts as high praise, if based very squarely in personal taste.

Next I read, largely because I couldn't figure out how I was able to go four years without mentioned him, a story by Ray Bradbury called "The Tombling Day." This story, like the third one, as you will see, isn't really horror, and that's a shame, but I can't blame Groff Conklin (he didn't call his anthology The Supernatural Horror Reader, after all) but at least this gives me an opportunity to talk about horror tropes used for different purposes, and to talk about Bradbury. Who I'm very, very mixed on. I think the first Bradbury story I ever read was "In a Season of Calm Weather" from A Medicine for Melancholy, which I'm sure I chose because it was short, and which Young Me was quite dismayed to discover was about Picasso drawing pictures in the sand. I think that actually put me off Bradbury for a while -- I was a kid -- but since I became a fan, and then dropped way back down to being put off again. Bradbury has written some unimpeachable masterpieces -- "There Will Come Soft Rains", "The Small Assassin", pretty much all of The Martian Chronicles, great swaths of The October Country and I'm very fond of his poem "When Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns" -- but my God, his desire to wallow about in words like "summer" and "sunlight" and "flowers" and "grass" and "golden" and he can be so goddamn turgid about themes of aging or childhood or loneliness...I ground my teeth to shrapnel trying to get through From the Dust Returned, a book I thought would go down like water. All of this to the point that I haven't read any of his straight-up novels (The Martian Chronicles doesn't count) because I don't think I could put up with this in any kind of long form. And considering that "The Tombling Day" is only six or seven pages, and I still struggled, what hope is there?

"The Tombling Day" is about an old woman named (oh for Chrissake) Grandma Loblilly who, with her family, and for reasons I can skip here, has to dig up the graves of their deceased and plant them again elsewhere. Among those exhumed is the old woman's one-time fiance' William Simmons, who died very young, and whose body has somehow, sixty years on, been perfectly preserved. This drives home Grandma Loblilly's own age and sends her into despair as she remembers how she once looked:

"...And me, I was twenty and all golden about the head and all milk in my arms and neck and persimmon in my cheeks. Sixty years and a planned marriage and then a sickness and him dying away. And me alone, and I remember how the earth-mound over him sank in the rains -- "

I have to be honest: I can't stand that stuff. "Golden about the head"? In fairness, sometimes Bradbury in this mode can really strike me, such as here:

The sunlight was late by each window, the last butterflies were settling amongst flowers to look like nothing more than other flowers.

That's great, and I admit that once I saw the word "butterflies", I kind of panicked. And with good reason!: "Yes, him lyin' there, all twenty-three and fine and purty..." And by the end, the reader is meant to celebrate Grandma Loblilly's sudden embracing of the idea of living in the moment, and life being better than its opposite, but this follows a rather horror-like disintegration scene so that Grandma Loblilly's reaction to it seems almost cruel and mocking and frankly in poor taste. Not to mention insane. The story ends like this:

"Whee-deee!" she cried. "Whee-heee!"

You telling me that's sane?

Finally, I read a story called "The Stranger" by Richard Hughes. Hughes is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, A High Wind in Jamaica from 1929. This novel is to me what everybody else claims Lord of the Flies is but is too tedious to actually be, which is a mercilessly God's-eye-view of childhood cruelty. I cannot praise this novel too highly, a novel whose last paragraph forced from me one of those little from-the-nose laughs inspired less by humor, even though a very black sort is there, but rather a kind of disbelief that A High Wind in Jamaica actually turned out to be as brilliant as I'd come to suspect it must be (please do not see Alexander Mackendrick's film version, by the way. Or rather, go ahead and see it, but read the novel first). Hughes didn't publish much, and I've subsequently struggled, possibly my own fault, with what I've tried to read. Which hasn't been much. His short novel In Hazard and a short story, the title of which escapes me, which I was going to read for last year but had to abandon it due to a case of profound indifference on my part. I was determined to not feel that about "The Stranger", though, mainly because I wanted to yell at you all to go out right now and read A High Wind in Jamaica. Nothing else about this post matters but that.

So "The Stranger" isn't bad. Like the Bradbury story, it's not quite horror, but it comes closer, and anyway doesn't have any of Bradbury's gentleness of spirit as its goal. "The Stranger" eventually turns out to be a kind of religious satire about a small Welsh village (probably a double redundancy there). The village, called Cylfant and containing citizens with names like Mrs. Grocery-Jones and Mrs. Boot-Jones (unrelated), has a church pastor named Mr. Williams whose wife finds the titular Stranger on their doorstep:

...a grotesque thing, with misshapen ears and a broad, flat nose. His limbs were knotted, but the skin at his joints was yellow and delicate as a snake's belly. He had crumpled wings, as fine as petrol upon water: even thus battered, their beauty could not but be seen.

Hopefully that passage gives you some hint of Hughes's talents -- "fine as petrol upon water" is superb -- though it can't possibly give you any idea of the extent of Hughes' romance with the punctuation mark known as the "colon". He uses that thing more than commas, to the point that it's actually ridiculous. But never mind, I'm getting off track. The Stranger in "The Stranger" turns out to be a devil who is seeking to do bad, and there is a rather amusing cruelty which is not unheard of from Hughes but is of the type that places the story more in the realm of satire than horror -- it doesn't even, somehow, quite function as satirical horror. It's an odd story, which, all things considered, is perhaps expected.

Anyway, you know what you guys should all do? Read A High Wind in Jamaica, goddamnit.


Bryce Wilson said...

Another Haunted House story about a new House being haunted was Anne River Seadon's The House Next Door. I haven't read it, but I've heard it's intermittently effective.

It's funny I was pretty hard on Bradburry in my younger days, but I really have grown to have quite a bit of affection for him. I read both The Illustrated Man and The October Country last year and while the lyricism does get to be a bit much, when he's on he's one.

So you'll be happy to know that I downloaded High Wind In Jamacia before I even finished your article (E-Readers do have certain advantages). Though I probably won't get a chance to read it until after October. The Cover of the edition I bought looks like a Henry Darger painting.

ptatleriv said...

So late to this but I wanted to thank you for goading me into reading HIGH WIND. What a fantastic book, full of mirth and mayhem. I was never able to recover from the Big Event (about a third of the way in) that the children so easily recovered from. I love his depiction of the toddler/baby brain, too. Looking forward to re-reading it.

And Bryce: that looks like a Henry Darger painting because it IS a Henry Darger painting. Francine Prose references Darger in the foreward.