Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: Till My Ghastly Tale is Told

I've decided, for this last post, to end at the beginning, the metaphorical beginning, sort of, anyway. In terms of modern horror, though, the night in 1816, in a house off of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, when Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Polidori, and one other person I don't care about, gathered together for probably all sorts of reasons, but left the rest of the world who couldn't get in on that action one of the greatest novels in the horror genre, and also a short story that's kind of a piece of shit. So let us hop into my Delorean and, as Christopher Lloyd once so famously urged, go "all the way backwards into the past."

Not that this post is going to be about that night. It's not even going to be about Frankenstein, or how much or how little credit Percy Shelley should get for that great novel. I know there's a push these days to shift focus away from Mary and over to Percy as the real brains, or at least the real stylist, behind Frankenstein, but for one thing, I simply don't care, and I will always consider Mary the author, and for another thing as terrific as the book is, almost front to back (it's not perfect, obviously, but whatever) the core brilliance of it is in the ideas. Frankenstein is one of those perfect ideas that is so rich that other writers have been able to play off it, quite rewardingly even, again and again in the almost two hundred years since, with the understanding, always explicit, that this is Mary Shelley's ground, we know that, but it can't be left alone. It's too good. No, this post is going to be about a later Mary Shelley story, as well as, apart from Frankenstein, the only other complete work of fiction to come out of that evening, John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale, which is now considered to be the first vampire story, as we might think of those, ever written. It gave birth to the genre, basically, so that's an accomplishment. But, you's sort of lousy.
This is not an original opinion. I'm not sure anybody now really likes "The Vampyre," and having read it now I find no reason to push against that tide of negativity. The story is, two guys suddenly find themselves moving into London society at the same time. One of them, our hero, is Aubrey, a young man who fell ass-backwards into a pile of money when his parents died, and is beholden in any way only to his sister, who I guess also got a wad of cash out of the deal, so he, Aubrey, a romantic fellow, enters London society, and is found by the ladies of that society to be most winning:

He was handsome, frank, and rich: for these reasons, upon his entering into the gay circles, many mothers surrounded him, striving which should describe with least truth their languishing or romping favourites: the daughters at the same time, by their brightening countenances when he approached, and by their sparkling eyes, when he opened his lips, soon led him into false notions of his talents and his merit.

You get the gist: swelled head, handsome fellow, romping favourites. But he's no dummy, and the romantic notions of life and women that he'd picked up from books he soon realizes is maybe kind of bogus. However, then he meets Lord Ruthven, the other, more mysterious, person to recently enter high society. Lord Ruthven's face bears a "deadly hue," he has one "dead gray eye," (I think it's just the one) and he stares at people a lot, doesn't talk much, but the ladies seem to take to him, as well. For example:

Lady Mercer, who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage, threw herself in his way, and did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice: - though in vain: - when she stood before him, though his eyes were apparently fixed upon hers, still it seemed as if they were unperceived; even her unappalled impudence was baffled, and she left the field.

That is ice cold, baffling a lady's unappalled impudence like that. And perhaps you noticed that unbelievably goofball punctuation, that batshit colon-dash-colon-dash dump right in the middle there. And the commas! I thought I overused them, but Polidori scatters them like road spikes out of the back of James Bond's car (that's good, right?). The point is, very early in "The Vampyre" is all screwy and straining for the kind of educated and worldly prose that Mary Shelley achieved in Frankenstein. That's not to say Polidori wasn't educated, he was, but he wasn't much of a writer. To give you some better examples, I should inform you that Aubrey is fascinated by Ruthven, and accompanies him on a trip across mainland Europe. There, Aubrey clues into this weird power that Ruthven has of drawing women into his circle and, not turning them into vampires, or killing them, as you might expect, but rather turning them into slutty jerks. Aubrey's having none of that and tells Ruthven that he'd like to part company and go his own way. Ruthven says "Okay," and Aubrey moves on to Greece, where he meets a girl:

Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing to portray oil canvass the promised hope of the faithful Mahomet's paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain's side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to taste of an epicure.

So what you're saying is, she's pretty. Also, in the next sentence Polidori just drops the fact that her name is Ianthe so casually that I thought at first that "Ianthe" was another reference, like "Mahomet" (Lord Ruthven's name is revealed in a similar way). Anyway, the story is packed with this kind of writing. All it is, is this kind of writing. Everything that can be stated not only can but should be overstated; anything that can be stated plainly can be obscured by nonsense. Or, now and then, what you can do is, you can state something so plainly that the reader is somehow, against all logic, left wondering what you meant. So, Ianthe's not long for this world, Lord Ruthven also kills women and he kills her, and when Aubrey is there, cradling her dead body, her parents show up:

To describe their grief would be impossible; but when they ascertained the cause of their child's death, they looked at Aubrey, and pointed to the corpse. They were inconsolable; both died broken-hearted.

What, right then? Are we meant to think that, many unhappy years down the road, Ianthe's parents slipped sadly into the Great Unknown, thoughts of their lost daughter never far from their minds, or there, that night, they pointed at Ianthe's body, went "Ack! Grief!" and then died? Obviously, my preference is for the latter, but I would have liked to read another giant block of text barely explaining it in further detail. Polidori did manage to appease me with his ridiculous ending, however. It's all so stupidly overheated, and I've rambled about this one long enough, but I'm going to skip ahead and spoil it. Basically, Ruthven sets his evil eye on Aubrey's sister, she falls for him, Aubrey's all "We'll see about that!", everybody else is all "You're crazy!" so that by the time Aubrey tracks down his sister, who has by now married Ruthven, it's too late. The last line of "The Vampyre" is:

Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!

Like the reveal that Ruthven's a vampire is a shocking twist. Not only has Ianthe already indirectly clued Aubrey, and therefore the reader, into this, but the story is called "The Vampyre." That exclamation point did make me shit my pants, though. The funny thing is, Polidori had to fight for the credit of having written this, because at the time (it was published in 1820) people naturally assumed Lord Byron was the real author (all these people, Shelley, Byron, Polidori, were connected, and Polidori was reworking a basic idea from Byron). Lord Byron, less surprisingly, was frustrated over having been linked to "The Vampyre." "Thanks, but no thanks," is what I imagine he said about fifty times a day, through gritted teeth.
Moving on to finer things, lastly we have Mary Shelley's "Transofrmation." Written in 1831 (nine years after Percy Shelley died, making it impossible for him to shepherd her through the writing of this (or any number of other novels and stories) very good story, as Stuart Gordon, of all people, notes in his introduction to The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, where you can find "Transformation," so take that, you stupid jerks), it tells the story of Guido, an Italian orphan taken in by the Marchese Troella, a kind and wealthy man -- Guido himself is due a very decent inheritance down the line -- whose daughter Juliet catches young Guido's eye. Shades of Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth, there, but this romance goes rather differently. Guido's affections are reciprocated, but the problem is, Guido is kind of a shithead. A different kind of shithead from Victor Frankenstein, I should note. "I desired to see the world," Guido says, "and I was indulged":

I was arrogant and self-willed; I loved display, and above all, I threw all control far from me. Who could control me in Paris? My young friends were eager to foster passions which furnished them with pleasures. I was deemed handsome -- I was master of every knightly accomplishment. I was disconnected with any political party. I grew a favourite with all: my presumption and arrogance were pardoned in one so young: I became a spoiled child. Who could control me? not the letters and advice of Torella -- only strong necessity visiting me in the abhorred shape of an empty purse. But there were means to refill this void. Acre after acre, estate after estate, I sold. My dress, my jewels, my horses and their caparisons, were almost unrivalled in gorgeous Paris, while the lands of my inheritance passed into possession of others.

He gets worse, too. He burns through his inheritance and can't support Juliet without hand-outs from Torella, and any plea for sensible behavior is at best scoffed at, at worst it results in violence. Eventually, Guido is cast out, though he knows that a changing of his ways and mind will bring him back into the fold, and he will be free to marry Juliet. But he resists, and becomes bitter and impoverished, until one day, while witnessing a horrible shipwreck from a rocky shore, he meets a strange dwarf who seems to have scrambled to safety from the sinking ship. The first words the dwarf says are "By St. Beelzebub!", which, right there, is a clue. Seeing an evil in Guido's heart similar to his own "To what saint did you offer prayers, friend -- if not to mine?") the dwarf listens to Guido's tale of self-made woe and makes a curious offer: the dwarf while inhabit Guido's handsome body for three days; Guido will inhabit the dwarfs somewhat demonic form for the same period of time. Guido's reward will be the dwarfs wooden chest filled with gold and jewels, which he can use to fund his revenge against those who he, Guido, feels have done him wrong. Guido is unsure, but agrees. And guess what? After three days, the dwarf doesn't show up to switch back. He did leave the treasure, and food, but now Guido is stuck in a body that Mary Shelley describes in uncharitable terms (I myself have chosen to go easy in that regard). Furious and frustrated, and also coming to realize that this mess, the whole mess of his life, is his own fault, Guido twigs to what the dwarf is probably up to, and he chases after him, back to Genoa.

"Transformation" offers up a number of possible endings, and I frankly believe that Shelley chose the easiest one. It's not that the ending doesn't work, but the moral lesson being taught -- and I'm not against that, particularly since the lesson is essentially "Don't be an asshole" -- might have carried with it a few more barbs. It's described rather well, and rather interestingly, and anyway I hope that you, like me, can easily see the difference between Shelley's prose and Polidori's, but though he's filled with remorse, Guido comes out of this rather more unscathed than I think is appropriate. Or, I don't know..."appropriate" doesn't sound right. But something more visceral. Still, he has to live with himself, which as Shelley sees it constitutes a wound that won't heal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 30: It is All Disease and Nobody Will Know

When I wrote briefly about Ray Bradbury last October, circumstances dictated that I focus on those aspects of his writing about which I'm less than fond -- the particularly Spring-choked nostalgia, the cuteness, his special brand of densely sentimental prose. I haven't warmed to those aspects since he passed away earlier this year, but the story under discussion last year, "The Tombling Day," offered the opportunity to talk only about those things, and while I tried to temper my negativity with a "but I like these ones" list of Bradbury stories I was quite fond of, the overall impression I gave was not what I would call sympathetic to Bradbury's vast body of work. Given that vastness, I might have tried to temper things a bit more, but for what it was, the post was an honest one.

When Bradbury died on June 5, like the rest of you I read a lot about him on-line, and along with coming across this quote...

I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was nine. Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

...which is unimpeachably magnificent, I also picked up a lot of recommendations for Bradbury stories I hadn't read. That night, I scoured through my collection of his books and picked two of those stories, "The October Game" and "Heavy-Set," and read them. Both are terrific, "The October Game" being an especially nasty horror story of unconscionable revenge, and "Heavy-Set," while not horror, turned out to be a pitch-black chronicle of a mother and son relationship that ends, I suspect, right before it did, in fact, become a horror story. I loved "Heavy-Set" in particular -- there was no genre category in which it could be slotted, it didn't deal with imagination, there was no hint of fantasy, even in a metaphorical sense, which in my experience of Bradbury was up to then unheard of. That one opened up the possibilities of Bradbury for me a bit, that for every story I disliked there could be one or two or three that hit me like a brick across my jaw. The fact that both stories were rather chillingly bleak did not escape my notice, and did not strike me as coincidental. I hope that doesn't say anything about me.

I read four Bradbury stories for today, but one of those wasn't horror, and I plan on dispensing with it quickly. Also, I didn't like it. While "The Haunting of the New" is certainly not a happy story (I'm not sure Bradbury wrote a lot of those, to be honest), in terms of the prose it does make room for just about all of the things about Bradbury I don't like. Nearly a ghost story, but a self-conscious flip on the idea, "The Haunting of the New" describes characters who live lives of unending and frivolous decadence, the globally scattered crew coming together every few years at Grynwood, the home of Nora, the chief and most enabling sybarite. But Charles, the narrator, arrives one day after being invited to another blowout only to be told by Nora that Grynwood burned down four years ago -- the identical structure he can see and walk through is a complete, exact-to-the-last-dust-speck replica. And this house being new, despite looking old, it doesn't want them anymore. Nora says that people like her and Charles are "evil" (a strong word that I doubt even Bradbury means) and is forcing her to leave. She offers the house to Charles, but the house wants him gone, too. A fine enough idea for a story, I suppose, except:

"There are a thousand young men in me, Charles.

They thrust and buried themselves there. When they withdrew, Charles, I thought they withdrew. But no, no, now I'm sure there is not a single one whose barb, whose lovely poisoned thorn is not caught in my flesh, one place or another. God, God, how I loved their barbs, their thorns. God how I loved to be pinned and bruised. I thought the medicines of time and travel might heal the grip marks. But now I know I am all fingerprints. Their lives no inch of my flesh, Chuck, [that] is not [in the] FBI file systems of palm print and Egyptian whorl of finger stigmata. I have been stabbed by a thousand lovely boys and thought I did not bleed but God I do bleed now. I have bled all over this house. And my friends who denied guilt and conscience, in a great subway heave of flesh have trammeled through here and jounced and mouthed each other and sweat upon floors and buckshot the walls with their agonies and descents, each from the other's crosses. The house has been stormed by assassins, Charlie, each seeking to kill the other's loneliness with their short swords, no one finding surcease, only a momentary groaning out of relaxation."

So. Lots of metaphors in there. I won't try to sort through them all, but I'm pretty sure "barbs" are penises. So are "thorns" and "short swords." This story made me groan and squirm and fire buckshot at crosses, and I was very glad to realize it wasn't a horror story and I could flee from it in good conscience.

But the Bradbury stories that were horror? Or near enough anyway? Those are something else again. Taking the stories in the order of least to most horror, I'll begin with "A Touch of Petulance," first published in Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces anthology. This story exemplifies one of Bradbury's greatest strengths, which was to take an old idea and employ it towards an end no one had thought of before. "A Touch of Petulance" begins this way:

On an otherwise ordinary evening in May, a week before his twenty-ninth birthday, Johnathan Hughes met his fate, commuting from another time, another year, another life.

His fate was unrecognizable at first, of course, and boarded the train at the same hour, in Pennsylvania Station, and sat with Hughes for the dinnertime journey across Long Island.

That "fate" turns out to be Hughes's future self, an old man who has traveled from 1999 (that Bradbury doesn't waste a second with some useless explanation of the mechanics of time travel is also to his credit) just a few days after murdering his wife, a woman that present-day Hughes has only been married to for one extremely happy year. It is the goal of future Hughes to make current Hughes aware of this, and to plant the seeds that will stop this from happening. What could have gone wrong in their marriage, the current Hughes wonders, and his older self really doesn't have an explanation. All he can say is that over time, Hughes will come to hate his wife, and he must avoid this at all costs. To say more about the plot would be to ruin it, but this story did wind up in a horror anthology. I'm not sure it is horror, really, but it's black, all right, even hopeless. The old man is referred to as Hughes's "fate," after all. That's no accident.

Better still is "The Women," from his 1969 collection I Sing the Body Electric!. If "A Touch of Petulance" is a great example of one of Brabury's creative gifts, "The Women" is an example of what may have been his greatest gift, which was to imagine something entirely new, to look at something ordinary and imbue it with a mystery that is unique. In "The Women," a man and his wife are near the end of their vacation at a beach-side hotel. They are on the beach, and the man is anxious to take one last swim before they have to leave, but his wife keeps finding ways to distract him, by asking him to do a favor, or getting him talking about some other topic. She does this because she knows she has a romantic rival, namely, the ocean.

This sounds absurd when phrased bluntly, but at his best, Bradbury's magic was to take the most wild and ridiculous fantasy or horror ideas and make them seem, if only for the span of a ten page story, entirely believable. Not to beat a horse I'm sure I killed years ago, but one of the keys to this is to not explain himself. Bradbury doesn't tell us why or how the ocean can love anything (the thinking and feeling part of the ocean is described only as "the phosphorescence"), let alone this particular man, whom Bradbury describes as having a "cow body," nor does he let us in on how the man's wife clues into this. That's just how it is, and the world is a mysterious place. Bradbury writes:

Each day he should have come down to the water, to bathe, to swim. But he had never moved. There was a woman on the sand with him, a woman in a black bathing suit who lay next to him talking quietly, laughing. Sometimes they held hands, sometimes they listened to a little sounding machine that they dialed and out which music came.

The phosphorescence hung quietly in the waves. It was the end of the season. September. Things were shutting down.

So from the ocean's point of view, it's now or never. Well, it turns out to be now, and the end of "The Women" is brutal and tragic and free from any maliciousness or villainy. Like any natural disaster, it just is.

Finally, there's "Fever Dream," an eight-page bit of awfulness and horror that seems to have been written specifically to terrorize all of Bradbury's young readers the next time they got sick. Available any number of places, but read by me in The Vintage Bradbury, "Fever Dream" is about a young boy named Charles, who is sick. With a cold, maybe, or maybe, according to his genial but possibly arrogant doctor, scarlet fever. Charles is convinced something else is going on, something much worse. He sees his hands and legs changing color and twitching, and he forms a theory that he explains to his doctor this way:

"I've been thinking...Do germs ever get big? I mean, in biology class they told us about one-celled animals, amoebas and things, and how millions of years ago they got together until there was a bunch and they made the first body. And more and more cells got together and got bigger and then finally maybe there was a fish and finally here we are, and all we are is a bunch of cells that decided to get together, to help each other out. Isn't that right?"

"What's all this about?" The doctor bent over him.

"I've got to tell you this. Doctor oh, I've got to!" he cried. "What would happen, oh just pretend, please pretend, that just like in the old days, a lot of microbes got together and wanted to make a bunch, and reproduced, and made more--"

Of course, no one else can see these changes in Charles's body, which leaves the door open for more than one explanation for what's going on here, but the best-case scenario is that a thirteen-year-old boy has gone insane. The worst case scenario is one of the blood-chilling "Patient X" scenarios I've ever read, and, like I say, "Fever Dream" is all of eight pages long. It really is a superior story, and the last page or so is so wonderfully precise in its clinical horror that I had to smile. Wonderful, and terrible. That, to me, was Bradbury's greatness.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 29: She's In Her Coffin, Laughing Merrily

Perhaps you'll recall the many times this month when I've expressed some amount of displeasure over the sanity-crushing grip the eldritch immensity of Howard Phillips Lovecraft's influence has on modern horror fiction. I haven't changed my mind about that, and in fact I'd rather all influences, whatever or whoever they happen to be, would be shoved more aggressively into the attic rather than set with a proud wink on the desks of horror writers everywhere. I can't change the world, alas, but what I can do is point out other stories by writers who have been influenced by someone who, in my opinion, is more deserving, and has a greater claim, on the souls who toil within the genre than Lovecraft (yeah, I'm sick of him! What of it?!). That writer is, well, look:
It hardly needs to be said that without Poe there would be no Lovecraft, or at least not the Lovecraft we know. This is not to say that the two writers are all that similar, and as for Poe himself I'd appreciate it if you'd allow me to link to this post, and let what I wrote there suffice. The gist is, in terms of modern horror, at least in America, Poe's shadow looms larger than a lot of people, including people who write in and about horror, seem willing to admit. To the degree, I should say, that the existence of editor Ellen Datlow's Poe feels like kind of an anomaly. Even Straub's anthology Poe's Children only really took Poe's name as a symbol in the title -- it didn't look for stories that explicitly absorbed Poe as Datlow attempted here. Striking a note that was slightly worrisome, in her introduction Datlow writes that she told her writers that she didn't want pastiches (fine, good) but "I asked each writer to tell me in advance what work of Poe's was to be riffed on..." Oh, hm, well. Why does a specific Poe story have to be riffed on? Why can't something wholly new be written in his spirit? I don't know, you're asking the wrong guy, but based on what I read for today I can't say that Datlow's choice is giving me a great deal of heartburn.

As far as whose stories I chose to read, I had several options, including a number by writers I'd never covered on this blog before. This normally would have been my preference, but in the end I was too strongly pulled in by stories by two guys, Laird Barron and John Langan, I've dealt with before, more than once in the case of Barron. About Laird Barron's "Strappado," I'd only heard it was a good one, and I've been wanting to ramp up my reading of Barron's fiction, so that's that one taken care of, and as for Langan's "Technicolor" I knew that it dealt in some way with Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," and it was told entirely as a lecture delivered by an English professor. Barron I already liked, but what I knew of Langan's work hadn't impressed me, and I suspect it would be lying to myself as much as you if I claimed part of my interest in "Technicolor" wasn't to see if Langan sprawled face-first into a giant table full of pies after the seat of his pants split in front of everybody. Which...more about how that turned out in a little bit.
Barron's "Strappado" is actually fairly close to being in the spirit of Poe than being a straight riff. Reading this removed from the context of Datlow's anthology, I don't believe I would have automatically made the connection to "The Cask of Amontillado" that comes through reasonably strongly once you know the idea. Still, Barron's excellent story stands firmly on its own two legs. It's told from the point of view of Kenshi Suzuki, a man who's ashamed of his lack of connection to Japan, the home of his parents, and overall has a quietly nervous, not withdrawn, but unsure-of-himself demeanor. Kenshi is nevertheless successful, his vague Hollywood production job taking him all over the world on various junkets, during one of which he had a brief but torrid affair with an Englishman named Swayne Harris. As the story opens, the two men find their paths crossing again in an Indian tourism mecca. After sex, they head out for a night on the town, eschewing Kenshi's suggestion of a popular disco in favor of Swayne's of a more hole-in-the-wall location. Kenshi's discomfort with exploring the fringes of foreign countries is overcome by his inability to assert himself, and much of the rest of the story will find him following along. In the nightclub Swayne picked, the two men find themselves in a group of mixed European high-rollers (including one American, who is of course fat and loud and bigoted, Barron choosing to stick with the tiresome "Ha ha ha we're terrible!" self-xenophobia that I find so obnoxious; also, one of the characters is named Luis Guzman, which, I feel, is a strange choice). Swayne adds to the electricity so far generated by money, booze, and vague hints of sex by announcing that he can get them all into the new exhibit by guerrilla artist Van Iblis. This is a big deal -- Van Iblis's work has been banned in England, and his stuff work is often dark and disturbing and is often of an extra-legal, if not quite criminal -- if you get my distinction -- nature. So like Banksy, essentially, but more likely to be focused on death.

But they all go, and are quite excited during the journey to the hidden away warehouse where the exhibit will take place, a journey which is long enough that it's dawn by the time the two cars carrying the wealthy international group arrives. But Barron gets at something very appealingly specific when he writes:

Guzman and Rashid's groups climbed from the vans and congregated, faces slack and bruised by hangovers, jet lag, and burgeoning unease. What had seemed a lark in the cozy confines of the disco became a more ominous prospect as each took stock and realized he or she hadn't a bloody clue as to north or south, or up and down, for that matter. Gnats came at them in quick, sniping swarms, and several people cursed when they lost shoes to the soft, wet earth. Black and white chickens scratched in the weedy ruts.
Embarking on drunken adventures you soon wish you'd been sober enough to decline (as Kenshi actually wanted to) is universal, although the adventures open to these characters is a bit beyond what most people are used to. Which is not beside the point, I suppose, but given Kenshi's head-down, charmingly shy demeanor, their wealth becomes irrelevant pretty easily, if you choose to make it so. In any case, the "adventure" continues when outside the warehouse, associates of Van Iblis instruct the partygoers to strip naked. They're paired off -- due to an odd number of people, Kenshi is alone at the end of this process -- and two by two, they're ushered into the warehouse. And since Barron is vague about what goes on inside, I'll leave it even more vague by telling you nothing. But, you know, it's not good. However, what makes "Strappado" stand out from other horror stories to which it might bear some similarity (I can't think of a specific one, but "Strappado" does not bowl you over with its originality, nor does Barron mean it to) is that in this case, there is actually room for an aftermath -- typically the aftermath in stories like this is someone feasting on corpses or something, but with "Strappado" Barron is at least a little bit interested in the kind of effect horror can have on somebody, the anger and disgust and even upending of basic personality that can follow. In a very subtle way, Barron's story achieves a greater sense of dread than if it had ended with everybody getting their heads split in two, because in Barron's story, for some people the dread doesn't end. An obvious idea, you'd think, but just as obviously an idea few writers have, or at least had and then didn't reject.

As for Langan's "Technicolor," I...okay, I'll just relieve whatever meager suspense I've managed to build up and say that Langan wins this round. I'm not entirely convinced that he brings his very complicated story all the way home, but he at least comes damn close. And anyway, he may have -- a reread someday will decide that for me. But what Langan pulls off here is fairly extraordinary. I'm wary of overselling this, but when you consider that the story, as I've said, takes the form of a college English lecture, and that I, at least, rarely failed to believe the language used, I could picture the professor, any male English professor I ever had, really, saying these very things (well, up to a point), and was moved by the end to pull my Poe biography off the bookshelf to see how much, if any, of what the professor is going on about was based even a little bit on truth (one important element does seem to have come from Poe's delirium in the hospital shortly before his death), and read, and read, and read on fascinated by the strange alternate partial biography of Poe that Langan was laying out, clueless as to where this was all going, I'm fairly confident has achieved something quite admirable with "Technicolor." And he does that, by the way, with a story that finally feels a bit less like something Poe would have written than fuckin' Lovecraft! But I'm not even angry about that!
"Technicolor" is a hard story to summarize, primarily because I'm loathe to spoil the narrative force of it. Langan very seamlessly carries his story from an interesting analysis of the color scheme at play in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," told in a thoroughly convincing impersonation of academic speak, into the shadow inspiration for Poe's classic story, who the man was who inspired it, what the man did that inspired it, what the man was trying to do when he did the thing that inspired it, and where this led, and left, a drunken, tumor-addled, and grief-stricken Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Langan even drops a throwaway bit of classroom atmosphere that pays off quite fairly later on. All structured like a lecture. And it's no small feat -- one I honestly didn't believe Langan would bring off -- that the language necessary for this premise never drives into a ditch. There's interaction between the professor and his students, and the students' words are not given to us, yet at no point does Langan resort to "What's that you say? You want to know what Poe meant by placing the braziers where he did in each of the colored rooms? Well, I'll tell you..." He might skirt that once or twice, but never goes off the road. Plus, the ending, which I think is fairly strong (if I have an issue with it, it's that for as present as Poe is in this story, there's not much of Poe's specific imagination in the ending) somehow feels even more chilling knowing that it's occurring somewhere as innocuous as a college classroom. Not sacred, mind you, because, well,, it's that it's so ordinary and everyday, and I can pull up a vision of one of several versions of that place in my head at any time. This is like the idea of horror being more frightening in daylight, but in this case it's more like horror being more frightening in a barbershop. So I guess you may have had the last laugh, John Langan.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 28: Some Appalling Violation of Myself

Editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's anthology The Weird strikes me as hands down the most significant horror collection published this year. I think they might resist the idea that the stories gathered together in their book are simply "horror" stories, or even horror at all (I have my own doubts in this regard about one the stories I chose for today), but early in their introduction to the 1,100-plus page volume, they set about defining the "weird" story in terms that not only sound pretty good to me, but render the core goals of weird fiction as inseparable from what horror is, at its best. They write:

With unease and the temporary abolition of the rational, can also come the strangely beautiful, intertwined with terror. Reverie or epiphany, yes, but dark reverie or epiphany -- not the lightness of "I wandered softly as a cloud" but the weight of, for example, seminal early twentieth-century writer and artist Alfred Kubin's sensation of being " a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations." The Weird can be transformative -- sometimes literally -- entertaining monsters while not always seeing them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.

I don't really know what else I have to add to that. Good night, folks. Ha ha no, but seriously, the VanderMeers then go about providing the reader with 110 examples -- that's how many stories this book contains -- of the above written by authors like Franz Kafka, Mervyn Peake, William Gibson, Marc Laidlaw, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Bloch, Thomas Ligotti, Brian Evenson, and, well, shit, I'm not going to name them all. And obviously, I've only read a sliver of this thing, but as far as I'm concerned weird fiction is the wing of the horror genre that offers up the most potential for unease, and the greatest opportunity for writers to unchain their imagination -- it's where the real thrill of the genre comes from, so if you're maybe not sold on horror as an artform, maybe this is the book that can make you feel like a stupid idiot.

Now, I have to confess, I chose the stories for today in something of a panic. Since purchasing The Weird, partially with an eye towards this current project, I had one story pegged as my number one choice. I'd never heard of it, or of the author, it sounded strange and beguiling and eerie, it was long and I felt it could stand in for the book as a whole, or anyway I'd do my damnedest to force the issue. But then I started it this morning, and I just couldn't hack it. Not today, anyhow. I could tell early on that this story, which I won't name for fear of putting readers off it, through no fault of its own, was too dense and disorienting for my current state of mind, which, if you're curious, is "blown out and useless." So I was scrambling, but as luck would have it I ended up landing on two quite good ones that illustrate rather well what the VanderMeers are trying to illustrate.
The first is "The Hell Screen" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa killed himself in 1927, at age 35, claiming in his last words that he felt a "vague insecurity," which I'd say is about as sad and skin-crawling, when you think about it, a final emotional state as I can think of. Akutagawa is best known as the author of the source material for Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon. The two Akutagawa stories adapted by Kurosawa for the film were "Rashomon" and "In a Grove." There's a hefty dose of confusion here when you realize that the story of Kurosawa's film is taken entirely from "In a Grove" whereas from "Rashomon" Kurosawa only took the title. I'm not going to be able to explain this to you, but I remember being baffled by this as, some years ago, I read a slender volume of Akutagawa stories called Rashomon and Other Stories. That book (and if you've ever seen Jim Jarmusch's film Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, you may remember Forrest Whitaker's character reading a book with that title; he was reading the exact same edition I read, and so when I first saw Ghost Dog when Forest Whitaker was shown reading it I said "Hey I read that book." True story) is a little bit lost to memory now, but I do remember the story "Yam Gruel," which I enjoyed considerably, and overall I was fascinated by Akutagawa's very clean, fairy tale-like prose. The simplicity of his style made his fiction live in a way that a more insistently baroque approach would not have achieved. "The Hell Screen" is very similar, though it is a quite a bit darker than anything else I can remember reading by Akutagawa.

The story is about the benevolent Lord Horikawa, a man who:

...had a kind and generous heart that would partake in the happiness and distress of all, even the humblest among his subjects. For these reasons, when he encountered a procession of ghosts in the large palace of Nijo, he was able to pass through them unscathed. And when the spirit of Secretary Tooru prowled every night the Kawaranoin Palace in Higashi-Sanjo, famed for the garden inspired by the marine landscape of Shiogama in the Michinoku province, the Lord reprimanded it, after which the spectre vanished forever. Of course, as soon as the people of Kyoto, young and old, men and women, heard Horikawa's name, they would genuflect as if they had seen Buddha's avatar.

Among Lord Horikawa's subjects is Yoshihide, a great painter, and a terrible man. "He was avaricious, mean, cowardly, lazy and insatiable, but above all he was insolent and conceited," Akutagawa writers. Many stories exist about Yoshihide abusing, even torturing, his models in order to get the painting he wants, based on his belief that he has to see a thing actually happening before he can paint it. He is despised by everyone. In turn, he despises everyone, except for his daughter Yuzuki. Yoshihide adores her so much that he scares and chases off any potential suitors, because he never wants Yuzuki to leave her side -- whether I should be reading something more into Yoshihide's love of his daughter, I don't know. Similarly ambiguous is the relationship between Lord Horikawa and Yuzuki, after the girl, against her father's wishes, though he's powerless to stop it, goes to work for Horikawa. The narrator of the story, a servant who doesn't factor into the plot but is around to observe much that goes on, mentions the gossip that Horikawa harbored a love for Yuzuki, but the narrator refutes this as impossible. Though I don't think it's impossible.

One day Horikawa hires Yoshihide to paint for him a vision of Hell, and Yoshihide agrees. Much of the painting Yoshihide -- who now is almost frothing with rage at Horikawa -- is able to complete from memory, of fires, of dead bodies seen on the street, and so forth, but there is one detail that he can't complete, involving a royal carriage, that he must ask Horikawa to provide for him -- not just the carriage, but what Yoshihide imagines happening to the carriage in his painting of Hell. Horikawa agrees, and this is as much as I'm prepared to reveal about the plot of "The Hell Screen." Where it goes is genuinely shocking and horrific, but, it must be noted, it is not supernatural. So what makes "The Hell Screen" a "weird" story? The key is the ambiguity in various relationships Akutagawa has set up, but also in what one character does in the end. Why would this person do this thing? There is no explanation, not provided by Akutagawa, and not known by the nearly all-seeing narrator. But the narrator cannot see what's hidden inside a person's mind, and he can't hear what's never said aloud. If "The Hell Screen" was ever turned into a movie, it would never survive the motivation whores who demand nothing less than irrefutable logic, clearly stated, supporting the actions of every character in every film, but it is precisely the absence of that that makes "The Hell Screen" both so terrifying and so weird. Actions are performed in the story that in practical, and mechanical, terms could be carried out by any living person, but nevertheless they make no goddamn sense.

More traditionally weird, in that it is both bonkers and provocative, is M. John Harrison's "The New Rays." Harrison almost found his way into an earlier iteration of The Kind of Face You Slash through his novel The Course of the Heart. That book is a kind of philosophical expansion of Arthur Machen's classic horror story "The Great God Pan," and back when I wrote up that story, I thought hey, this'd be good. Well, it wasn't. Not because the novel is bad , but rather because I truly did not, and do not, know what I thought, or think, of it. The Course of the Heart defeated me in a way -- my delight in noticing that Harrison was mirroring Machen's enigmatic references to the Jack the Ripper murders (then not far in the past) in his story by referencing with similar mysteriousness the notorious Moors Murders in his novel, was short lived, due the sudden realization that wherever Harrison was going, I was unable to follow. For the time being, I'm willing to blame myself for this, but if I ever try to re-read The Course of the Heart, I'll be going in punching.

For now, though, I can heartily recommend "The New Rays" as a wonderful example of the weird story, and as something that is quite unlike what I imagine anyone unfamiliar with the genre might expect. The main character is a woman, who is dying. The disease that is killing her we might assume to be a form of cancer, though we're never told specifically what it is. Perhaps it's the idea of cancer. Anyway, she's visiting a clinic run by Dr. Alexandre, assisted by "a beautiful crippled girl," and in back of the clinic is a treatment shed where his unusual methods are put into practice.
In the black and chaotic moment when the rays arrive, Dr. Alexandre and his assistant struggle into their loose yellowish rubber suits and round tinted goggles. Once they are covered from head to foot like this all their kindness seems to be replaced by panic. They grab you roughly: there is no turning back: up on the table you go, trembling as you help them fasten the straps...

If you are getting your treatment free of charge, you have to agree to have it without an anesthetic. You mustn't pass out.

Through the most abyssal vomits and discharges, when the rays seem to be laying down a thick coat of poison in every organ, you can still hear the urgent, earnest voice of the crippled girl. 'Are you conscious? Can you raise your head? Are you aware that you have lost control of your bowels? We must know.'...

Sometimes the rays don't arrive at all. What bliss to be let off with a cup of tea in the reception room and told to go home again!

Obviously, there is a parallel here with chemotherapy, but Dr. Alexandre's treatment is much stranger than this. Another part of it is the "blue bodies," little smooth, faceless, translucent creatures, the use or importance of which remains unclear right through to the end of "The New Rays," even when an actual physical use of them is described. For the most part, these blue bodies sound kind of, you know, cute, and are treated in relaxed moments as charming lab animals. But it's clear that the clinic creates these things, and the narrator gets some cold glares and a verbal dressing down for wondering about the fates of the blue bodies after they've served their bizarre medical purpose.

What is weird, the story seems to think, is medical science, medical treatment, the experience of a dying person moving through these strange rooms and being enveloped by massive humming machines. It would be rather difficult to make that work completely, though, since as unpleasant and frustrating, even infuriating, as such experiences may be, the reason behind it all could be logically explained. Not so in "The New Rays." The story does seem to invite such readings, but then what of the blue bodies? The story was written in 1982, so even the contemporary and controversial medical issues that might provide "The New Rays" with a convenient metaphorical explanation for its strange goings-on, would not have applied then. But the uneasiness remains the same, the desire to be made well and the desire to escape the things and the people that are supposed to make you well, are all the same. The desire to maybe just go home and sit in a room and maybe die, rather than put up with all of that, remains. There's no real plot to "The New Rays," outside of the consideration of those desires.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 27: Lord of the Desert

It's very easy to forget how many different areas of horror Robert Bloch managed to cover in his long career. At some point in his career, unquestionably after Hitchcock's adaptation of Psycho was released, Bloch became known primarily as a writer of non-supernatural horror and suspense, but you didn't even have to know his work solely through that film or novel. When I was growing up, my reading of Bloch was restricted to what I could find in used bookstores, which tended to mean that I was reading the various Tor reprints of suspense novels Bloch wrote in the 1950s, 60s, and, well, so on -- the Tor reprints covered a lot of years. But among those novels, none of them (that I read), not The Kidnapper or Firebug or The Night of the Ripper or Night-World or American Gothic, involved any kind of supernatural element. One Bloch novel that Tor published at around that time, Lori, was a ghost story, but it was at the time a new novel (1989), plus I didn't read it until many years afterwards, and, not that this is exactly relevant to my point, it was far from Bloch's finest hour.

Bloch's specialty, the popular perception went, was writing about killers, not exactly of the everyday type, but at least of the technically possible type (another contributing factor to this was the amount of Jack the Ripper-related fiction Bloch wrote). He also gained a reputation for writing short stories that ended with a kind of punchline, some horrifying revelation in the last sentence that gave the whole thing its punch. The first Bloch books I ever read, before I even read Psycho, were a pair of story collections from the 1980s, published by Tor, called Midnight Pleasures and Fear and Trembling, and the two stories I remember best are "Nocturnes" and "The Night Before Christmas," both of which end in punchlines, neither of which are supernatural, and, for the record, both are terrific. So he was good at this stuff, but it might surprise some people -- not you, probably, but some people -- to learn that Bloch was originally another, albeit earlier than most, Lovecraft acolyte. Lovecraft even replied to a young Robert Bloch's fan letter with writing advice. And that Lovecraft influence could be found rather heavily in his early work. (By the way, I know that there are plenty of supernatural stories in both Midnight Pleasures and Fear and Trembling -- I just don't remember them.)

It was not my intention today to write about Robert Bloch's Lovecraftian fiction. As I think I've made clear this month, the whole world of Lovecraftians, and even Lovecraft himself to a degree, is starting to wear me out. My intention was only to write about Bloch, a man I wrote only a glancing post about several years ago. Since I've gone back to several other horror writers since loosening up the restrictions I originally placed on myself, I figured Bloch was more than deserving of a second go 'round, and so from my bookshelf I removed my old Belmont paperback copy of his 1962 collection Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (that title story is probably the most famous and most influential thing Bloch ever wrote, outside of Psycho, of course). I picked two stories I hadn't read, based on their titles, and have only myself to blame if I somehow didn't wonder to myself "I wonder if this Robert Bloch story called 'The Faceless God' is going to be anything like H. P. Lovecraft, who Bloch so admired." I must have. This was just yesterday, so I should remember, but I must have.

The other thing is, also unplanned, both the stories were set in Egypt (there's at least one other Egypt story in this book, called "Beetles"). The setting of one of those, "The Eyes of the Mummy," could be assumed. The plot is very basic: our narrator is fascinated by Egypt and its strange myths, but following a strange and fatal incident that occurred before the story's action, one involving a possibly supernatural occurrence the resulted in the death of a colleague, he withdrew from this field of interest. Until, that is, one day when another colleague, Professor Weildan, approaches him with an opportunity that seems hard to resist. Basically, go to Egypt, where there's this tomb that has a mummy in it, a mummy of a priest from an ancient, diabolical cult. But because of this priest's outcast status at the time of his death, the tomb is for all intents and purposes unknown, and Weildan assures our narrator that there will be jewels a-plenty. Once in Egypt, though, things get dicey when Weildan meets with their contact and spy, who our narrator overhears the two men arguing -- the spy seems afraid. And although the narrator doesn't see this, it's pretty clear that Weildan murders the man. The fact that Weildan does this, and the narrator knows he did it and doesn't flee, should tell you something about both of them.

They get to the tomb, and things are looking up when they throw off the mummy's lid and see two astonishing jewels in place of the corpse's eyes:

Two great yellow disks burned up at us through the darkness. Not diamonds or sapphires or opals were they, or any known stone; their enormous size precluded any thought of inclusion in a common category. They were not cut or faceted, yet they blinded with their brightness -- a fierce flashing stabbed our retinas like naked fire.

These were the jewels we sought -- and they had been worth seeking. I stooped to remove them, but Weildan's voice restrained me.

"Don't," [Weildan] warned. "We'll get them later, without harming the mummy."

I heard his voice as though from afar. I was not conscious of again standing erect. Instead I remained stopped over those flaming stones. I stared at them.

So the narrator is pretty taken with these jewels, and I'll halt the plot summary right there. What I found interesting about this one -- and this is a very solid story overall -- was its treatment of the mummy. It's not a shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies, it's a much more psychological thing here, but then, early on, mummies usually weren't shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies. The original Freund/Karloff 1932 film feature the mummy that way very briefly, as a highly effective early mood-setter, but after that Karloff's Imhotep can pass as living. Those bandages became a staple later on in the Universal films, but then those stopped, and more recently in those iffy Stephen Sommers mummies are like ghost demons or something. Yet the bandages are what we think of when we hear the word. Isn't that interesting? No? Well, I thought it was.

"The Eyes of the Mummy" connects to "The Faceless God" beyond the shared Egypt setting. This plays into "The Faceless God" more, but in both you have protagonists who are morally questionable. Typically, it's my belief that having basically evil characters (the narrator of "The Eyes of the Mummy" isn't evil, but he is greedy) face, and lose to, the horror of your story or novel is a little bit of a cheat, in that seeing a villain get their comeuppance can rob the horror of its horror. EC Comics did this time and time again, but they had such a bright and vividly salacious way of going about it that it was essentially the house style, and quite entertaining. The problem is that it can turn horror into just another kind of revenge story. But with "The Faceless God," which features a truly awful piece of filth as its main character, Bloch makes it work. The character is Doctor Carnoti, a man with archaeology and anthropology in his background, but who is introduced to the reader in the first paragraph as he is torturing a man for information -- this is medieval, bloody, disabling torture -- and, once Carnoti gets what he wants he orders the man killed by one of his servants. What he wants is information on the location of a massive statue buried in the middle of nowhere, Egypt division, but which was briefly and partially uncovered by accident by a passing caravan. Carnoti is interested because it's supposedly very well preserved, the Egyptian god depicted is unknown (and three-headed), and all of this comes together to cause Carnoti to believe this discovery will make him rich and famous. The problem is, the Egyptians who hire him know that this is a statue of Nyarlathotep, a walking nightmare of a god whose existence has been wiped away from Egyptian mythological texts, and whose specific attributes were disbursed to other legends of other gods. It is best, it had been decided, that no one speak of Nyarlathotep.

"The Faceless God" is basically a Lovecraft story written by Robert Bloch, which for me at least means that it goes down a lot more smoothly. But it's very explicitly Lovecraft. First there's Nyarlathotep, which is a Lovecraft creation, and then there's this passage, one of the most interesting in "The Faceless God," where Bloch turns briefly away from Carnoti to create a scholarly history that combines our world and Lovecraft's:

[Nyarlathotep] is mentioned cryptically in the Necronomicon, for Alhazred heard it whispered in tales of shadowed Irem. The fabulous Book of Eibon hints at the myth in veiled and diverse ways, for it was writ in a far-off time when it was not yet deemed safe to speak of things that had walked upon the earth when it was young. Ludvig Prinn, who traveled in Saracenic lands and learned strange sorceries, awesomely implies his knowledge in the infamous Mysteries of the Worm.

But his worship, in late years, seems to have died out. There is no mention of it in in Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, and most reputable ethnologists and anthropologists are frankly ignorant of the Faceless One's history...

For whatever reason, I really like that mention of The Golden Bough, even if it's only to point out how strange that Frazer never mentions Nyarlathotep. But of course that's the point: The Faceless God is sadistically and diabolically and hatefully powerful, he cannot even exist in legend. And uncovering that statue is a form of blasphemy, and will bring him down on you.

Which is what happens to Carnoti. The reason this story can put a villain like Carnoti front and center without seeming like a cheat is that only someone like Carnoti would go after this statue, his avarice driving him straight through any objections offered up for his own good. And simply freeing a portion of that giant statue from the sand is actually sort of the end of the story, even though there are several more pages to go. But he's doomed, and in the rest of "The Faceless God," Bloch merely chronicles, with no little satisfied cruelty, Carnoti's descent into madness and finally a kind of reverent death. Along the way, Bloch writes in a way, and about things, I'm simply not used to from him; however often he may have done it, it's outside of my experience of his work. But his handle on this sort of thing, giant evil gods who live only to destroy men and make them suffer, is quite firm. It's like Lovecraft, but without the turgidness. "The Faceless One" is swift that Lovecraft only achieved in his very short stories, like "Pickman's Model" and "The Music of Erich Zann." It's really, really effective, this story, and genuinely horrifying. In fact, that's another reason Carnoti's villainy doesn't really cut into the terror: the terror of Nyarlathotep is so immense, that the Earthly evil of Carnoti feels almost like nothing. Carnoti doesn't become humanized by the end of "The Faceless One," and he's not redeemed at all, but he becomes such a helpless insect under the magnifying glass of a sadistic god, that from a certain distance he could be any one of us.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 26: This Is Really Happening

In one of my favorite thriller novels, Marathon Man by William Goldman, what the reader had up to a certain point believed, or was meant to believe, were two separate characters is revealed to be the same person at the moment of his death. One of them is Scylla, government assassin, and the other is Doc, regular-person brother to our hero, Babe (nicknames both, of a very Goldman-y sort). In the novel, in one strand of the plot, we are witness to Scylla being mortally wounded. In another strand of the plot, Babe is coming home from somewhere or another, and when he enters his apartment he sees his brother dying on his floor from the exact same kind of wound we know Scylla has recently suffered. Ergo, one and one makes two. It's a brilliant piece of narrative legerdemain, exquisite in its simplicity (the film version doesn't even bother trying to mask Doc/Scylla's identity because it can't). That novel was written in 1974, and in 1986 Goldman set about ruining what I consider the best moment from the earlier novel (not counting that great ending) by writing a sequel to Marathon Man called Brothers, in which, as you might suspect from that title, he brought Scylla/Doc back to life. He survived because, phew, that was close, but I'm okay now. Basically. A maddening, frustrating choice. But what Goldman's decision failed to do, though it took me a little while to realize it, was it failed to ruin Marathon Man for me. Part of this is probably because Brothers is not an entirely bad novel; it's completely fucking bonkers, and its own ending is an intriguing downer, but it's not bad. But more than that, I seem to have been blessed with the capacity to acknowledge an original novel or film as completely separate from its sequel, should one exist, if I choose to do so. If the sequel works, then it's part of a larger whole. If it doesn't work, then fuck it. It's often said, and it sounds right to me, that if you become upset to the point of fuming and brooding for days on end because of something somebody else has done, then you are allowing yourself to be made upset, and that each person has the power to essentially get over that and move on and be happy. The realm of failed sequels is the only area of my life in which I've been able to make this work.

Before getting to the main parallel I'm about to lay out here, it's interesting to note that Ira Levin, the writer under discussion today, once achieved a very similar feat of ingenious simplicity in his 1953 novel A Kiss Before Dying, where a major twist in the plot is obscured just a smidge by the judicious withholding of information. This of course is done all the time by all writers everywhere, but there is a way that Levin and Goldman go about it, the sly style of it, the methods of their distraction, that really powers these moments. Another parallel between the two writers is that, like Goldman, Levin wrote a genre masterpiece, 1967's Rosemary's Baby, and thirty years later wrote a sequel, Son of Rosemary (incidentally, another parallel is that these novels would turn out to be their authors' last, with Levin dying ten years later without a follow up, and Goldman, at 81 and no novel since 1986, seems to have long since packed it in), that is terrible and ruins the earlier book by association. No, it doesn't ruin the earlier book. I've already gone over that. But it is...well, wait, is it terrible? I'm not convinced it is. I'm perfectly comfortable stating that Son of Rosemary is fairly bad, but terrible I don't know about.

Ira Levin had a rather interesting career, it seems to me. A Kiss Before Dying was his first novel, Rosemary's Baby his second (a fourteen-year gap between the two, you'll note), and after that he wrote five more: This Perfect Day (probably his most obscure novel, apparently science fiction, though I haven't read it), The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil, Sliver (which got the film it deserved, let's put it like that), that was 1991, and then in 1997, Son of Rosemary. Seven novels in forty-four years seems a bit lean, but in between all that he also wrote nine plays, the most famous of which would clearly have to be No Time For Sergeants from 1956, turned into a TV play and later a film starring Andy Griffith, and Deathtrap from 1978, the record-breaking and intensely clever piece that was adapted four years later into the very underrated Sidney Lumet film with Michael Caine and a frankly terrifying Christopher Reeve. He also wrote a musical -- book and lyrics, anyway -- called Drat! The Cat!. A full career, I'd say, and an interestingly crafty one. So with that in mind, wouldn't you sort of have to think that if Ira Levin was going to write a sequel to his most famous novel, that he wouldn't just toss it off out of spite for, I don't know, his fans? That some level of that craftiness must be at play somewhere, and that if it wasn't this would be the first time in his career that he chose to leave that bit out?

Apparently you wouldn't have to think that, because the consensus on Son of Rosemary has always been that it's an unforgivable cop-out that not only doesn't work on its own terms, but even completely washes away his classic 1967 original (and by extension, Roman Polanski's masterful 1968 film adaptation, about which more in a little while). In 1999, I worked with a guy who I judged to be a discerning horror fan, and I asked him if he'd read Son of Rosemary, a book that at that point I was pretty sure I'd never bother with. He said he had, and it was terrible. I asked him what was so terrible about it, and he told me -- and listen, I'm going to be spoiling Son of Rosemary in this post, so if that matters to stop reading....NOW! -- that (SPOILER I WARNED YOU GUYS!) at the end of the novel, Ira Levin reveals that it was all a dream. Not just Son of Rosemary, mind you; Rosemary's Baby turns out to have a been a dream, too. A dream had by Rosemary Woodhouse, so at least there's that, but everything else? Down the shitter. Needless to say, I was appalled, and disappointed that the ever-crafty Levin would pull something as bone-stupid as that. Well, skip ahead a little while (no idea how long, possibly as soon as later that same night), and I decided I wanted further details, so I read some on-line reviews of Son of Rosemary. Most of them echoed my friend, but I saw at least one that said "Wait, hold on you guys, read the book a little closer. It's not what you think." I'm paraphrasing, but the gist is on the money, and left me somewhat intrigued by the notion that maybe this anonymous internet douche was right, and my friend was wrong. Maybe Son of Rosemary was actually being misunderstood and unfairly maligned by, essentially, everyone except this one person. Skip ahead again to this year, to now, and I've finally gotten around to reading Son of Rosemary, and you know what? It was being misunderstood. This lid-blowing revelation is somewhat tempered by the fact that it still isn't a very good novel, and it will be my choice and preference hereafter to regard Rosemary's Baby as the "real" book and Son of Rosemary as the failed but, if not exactly noble, then at least not ignoble, experiment.

And so what, at last, is the story of Son of Rosemary? The story is, it's 1999. The millenium is about to turn (which, I realize that, but just let it go, will you?) and on November 9, Dr. Stanley Shand, who you might remember as one of the Satanists working in league with Roman and Minnie Castavet to impregnate Rosemary (who was offered up without resistance by her ambitious actor husband, Guy) with Satan's child in the original story -- Phil Leeds played Shand in the film -- is hit by a car and killed. At just about that very instant, Rosemary Woodhouse, who has been in a coma since 1972, wakes up. This coma, we will learn, was brought on by the Satanists via a curse of some sort to get her out of the way so that Adrian, the Son of Satan (aka Andy, to Rosemary) could be raised by them without his mother's interference. And what Rosemary has awoken to, in 1999, is a world where Adrian is 33 years old, goes by Andy, is incredibly rich, and is beloved by the entire planet for his peacekeeping, peacemaking, charitable and humanistic deeds. He's like a secular preacher, or, to be more to the point, a secular Jesus. He even looks like Jesus. The important thing here being when Rosemary wakes up, all the hospital staff are wearing "I Heart Andy" pins, and are thunderstruck to learn that this old woman who has been asleep for the last twenty-seven years, is the mother of Andy -- that Andy, the one everybody hearts.

Rosemary and Andy finally meet, and it's quite a loving reunion. (And incidentally, Levin, who writes well about Rosemary's initial, unthinkable shock over the years lost to her coma, pretty swiftly moves her past that, which I can see being necessary on one level, but otherwise feels like he sort of didn't give a shit.) Andy informs Rosemary that she is the only one who knows the secret of his birth, and that one of the reasons he'd very much prefer to keep it that way, apart from all the obvious ones, is because he's shed all that Satanist baggage, the Castavets are dead, all of them are dead (Shand's death revived Rosemary because he was the last one). Not only that, but Andy has met his true father, and assures Rosemary that he found him even worse than advertised. As for Guy, Rosemary thinks:

Guy must have died early in the twenty-seven years.

Or Satan was a welsher -- and why not? To mangle Oscar Wilde or whoever, once you commit rape, the next thing you know, you're not paying your debts.

For whichever reason, Guy hadn't gotten his agreed-upon price for nine months' use of her. He hadn't become the next Olivier or Brando.

Poor Guy.

Sorry, no more tears.

Which is better than that piece of shit deserves, but I quote this only because I find it indicative of the kind of playful touch Levin brings to his cynicism, and the entirely winning way in which Rosemary is portrayed for much of the novel.
Anyway, Andy's the head of what you might call a massive corporate non-profit charity, and at the time of Rosemary's literal awakening, plans are moving full-steam ahead for a global candle-lighting once the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000. Candles -- all the candles, for the world -- provided by Andy's company, called God's Children. And yes I know I called it secular, which that name would seem to belie, but outside of that, and Andy's Jesus resemblance/complex, the whole megillah does seem removed from any particular faith, Christian or otherwise. Okay, so the candles thing, which Rosemary thinks sounds beautiful, and soon she's part of the company, and she's famous and there are "I Heart Rosemary" pins, and she's starting to get flirty with Joe, Andy's driver, and what's losing twenty-seven years here and there?

Having no desire to turn this post into the Cliff’s Notes for Son of Rosemary, I shall now cut to the chase. Eventually, as you might expect, things begin to feel off. Rosemary meets a woman, an employee and former lover of Andy’s, who says things like “You have no idea what goes on” on a certain floor of Andy’s apartment/office complex. This woman wants out of the business. She is subsequently murdered, and it turns out she was actually a double agent, working for one of Andy’s few enemies (a group of Randian objectivists) who, it further appears, murdered her themselves and unsuccessfully tried to pin it on Andy. But Rosemary, knowing what she does about her son’s paternity, can’t shake her discomfort about the whole thing. This discomfort begins when she first sees Andy’s eyes transform from normal human eyes to the slit, tiger-eyes we know from the original story, and he has little horns, too, both features he explains he can mask from the outside world, to disguise himself. But he doesn’t always choose to disguise himself from Rosemary. There’s also the fact – and I think we can agree that this is no small thing – that Andy starts putting the moves, sexually I mean, on Rosemary. Who, you’ll remember, is his mother. His excuse, in the face of Rosemary’s shocked rejection, is some nonsense about her being beautiful and the only one who knows the truth about him and so on, and there’s no one in the world he loves as much as her. But frankly he takes the whole episode (or episodes) rather too lightly. So does Rosemary, when you get right down to it, but she’s had a lot thrown at her, I guess. Anyway, her fears become so great that she wonders about these candles that Andy is dispensing to all the peoples of the world. She asks Joe, who has connections, to have them tested by a lab for some kind of poison bioweapon junk or whatever, which he does. The results are negative. The candles are clean. Two more things: the woman, the double agent who was murdered, was into word games and puzzles and such, which you might recall is a pastime shared by Rosemary (remember Scrabble?), and in the early days of their short-lived friendship, she gives Rosemary a doozy of an anagram. “Roast mules.” That’s an anagram, Rosemary is told, for a single ten-letter word that would be known to any five-year-old child. Off and on, Levin describes Rosemary’s attempts to solve this anagram, usually as a way to focus her brain on more urgent matters. The other thing is, at one point we learn that of the many Broadway plays knocking the New York theater crowds for a loop in 1999 is a hugely successful revival of Drat! The Cat!. See above.

I’d like to cut even more to the chase now, since the ending is the main thing worth talking about here. One of my main problems with the bulk of Son of Rosemary is how much it resembles Sliver in its dull-corporate-skyscraper “intrigue” and focus, for too much of the time, on new technology and business practices – when this stuff kicks in, Levin’s prose becomes much less interesting and funny, and turns instead airless and technical. There’s obviously much crazier stuff behind the plot of Son of Rosemary (and in fairness, even Sliver includes a guy getting his eyes clawed out by a cat), but if I didn’t know that I might have been tempted to drop the whole thing. And Son of Rosemary, to whatever degree it succeeds, and even fails, really depends on a familiarity with Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t imagine someone picking this book off the shelf, saying “Hm, I wonder what this is all about” and getting anything out of it whatsoever. But I’m doing a lousy job of cutting to the chase, so: it’s New Year’s Eve. Rosemary has figured out that Andy was behind the murder, and he shamefully confesses to it (I’m very unhappy to report that Rosemary says that if he can honestly deny his culpability, she’ll go to bed with him; not that I think she had any intention of following through, but still, I mean, Jesus…). He pins it mainly on his overzealous followers, but Rosemary’s point has been made. Later, she goes to meet him at his apartment (she really gets over shit fast, this lady) to prepare for the candle-lighting, and finds him crucified to his wall. He’d been pinned there by his dad, Satan. Who has been hiding out as Joe, the flirty driver, this whole time. After Rosemary un-stabs Andy from the wall, Satan arrives, offers Rosemary a place in Hell, which Andy urges her to take, because just now, outside, candles are being lit, and the poison that Joe/Satan lied about not being in there begins to rise into the air, and the world begins, very quickly, to die. Rosemary, meanwhile, is all set to say “No thank you, Satan,” but Andy and Satan both insist that being the Devil’s best lady really makes Hell go down a lot smoother, and she finally, reluctantly, agrees. She gets on an elevator to the Underworld, and it’s like a furnace, and Rosemary thinks this is all rather a bit more unpleasant than she’d been promised. At which point Joe transforms into more of what you’d expect Satan to look like, roars “I LIE!” to her, and then eats her, or something. Or is about to eat her or something, but then Rosemary wakes up. In 1967, with Guy. They’re still looking for an apartment. In Rosemary’s Baby, the apartment building they moved into, the one housing the Castavets and other Satanists, was called the Bram. But in this New York, in 1966 (the original novel was published in 1967, but the story is set in 1966) there is no Bram, as, indeed, there isn’t in our, Levin’s readers, world. Guy is preparing to audition for a new musical called Drat! The Cat!. Then Hutch calls. Hutch is Rosemary’s friend, who shared her suspicions about the Castavets in Rosemary’s Baby, and was rewarded by being put into a coma, from which he never awoke. But here’s Hutch, alive and well, and he’s got great news about an apartment. The apartment is in the Dakota. The Dakota is real. The Dakota also played the Bram in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Mention is made of one of the Beatles moving into the Dakota, and we all know what happened to him outside of that very building fourteen years later. Hutch also says that he figured out the “roast mules” anagram in no time flat. Which…hm.

The solution to “roast mules” is never given in the novel. I know the answer, only because I stumbled across it in the course of what I will charitably refer to as my “research.” But the answer, which is one thing I don’t think I’ll spoil, is not irrelevant to where Rosemary finds herself at the end of Son of Rosemary. Also not irrelevant, I’d say, is the fact that “roast mules” is an anagram for “soulmaster,” one of the solutions Rosemary discards, as it doesn’t fit all the requirements laid out by the murdered woman. The point is, there are all sorts of reasons to think that this “dream” twist that ruined everything for everybody forever, is not, in fact, a dream. And at the very end, it seems pretty clearly insinuated that Rosemary doesn’t think it was a dream, either. Things are just not right. She’s back where she was, somehow, but slightly different. What happens next? The same thing? Is this damnation? Is this the horror that Satan really prepared for her, to repeat the nightmare of her life? If so, then why the Dakota, and not the Bram? So that she won’t be prepared for a repeat? Or, perhaps, it WAS all a dream, but a dream of what’s actually to come, in real New York, in a real place like the Dakota. Plus there’s more practical reasons to believe the “it’s all a dream” business is a misdirection, such as why her dream of 1999 life would so closely resemble what we know 1999 life to actually have been like. You can either give Ira Levin credit for not cheating that horribly, or you can’t. I can, and do, because there’s too much that’s too weird about Rosemary’s post-“dream” life.

And it’s all in the aid of what, exactly? To render a sequel that is frankly misbegotten no matter how you slice it somewhat more interesting and at least defensible? Obviously, no, I don’t believe this was Levin’s circuitous motivation for writing the book, though that was the result. In the acknowledgments, Levin says he was given the “roast mules” puzzle at a party by Bebe Neuwirth’s dad some years before he wrote Son of Rosemary. I have to think this was the seed. Or rather, the eventual solution was the seed. Or a seed. But also, curiously, it wasn't until well after Levin published Rosemary's Baby that he realized a couple of things. One was that, as he'd mapped it out, Adrian was born in June of 1966. Or 6/66. Somehow he hadn't realize that. Also that in 1999, Adrian would be 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified. So plugging Adrian into that year, as a Messiah figure at war with his father (and he is at war -- Adrian is not a complete liar, or completely bad) as the millennium ended...well, I mean, the man's not made of stone. Would he take all that blessed serendipity and just obliterate it like so many claim he did with Son of Rosemary? But Levin was not a religious man, which probably accounts for why he was so wry about the whole thing, and he was also not entirely thrilled that his original novel spurred people to take the idea of Satan more seriously, rather than less, as he'd sort of hoped they would. It must be said this lends some fuel to the idea that the dream is a dream, as does the sheer cartoon version of Hell that he presents as Rosemary and Satan are taking the elevator down to...well, just typing those words out. How can you take something seriously when it all turns out to be a dream? And I haven't even talked about Drat! The Cat!, the presence of which means, I guess, that in the world of these two novels, there is an Ira Levin who wrote that musical, but presumably did not write Rosemary's Baby or Son of Rosemary. Although, maybe instead of bolstering arguments that this is a dream, perhaps it's Levin's way of distracting angry readers of Son of Rosemary. "Whatever has upset you about that book, I didn't do it. I was somewhere else."
That's only a philosophical argument, though. The evidence on the page indicates something else, that the dream cliché is being messed with, and the reader is being messed with, and that Son of Rosemary is a puzzle to be solved, and to close the book angry at the thought that Levin has obliterated the book you originally loved is to quit the game early. Of course, all this realization achieves, as far as I'm concerned, is to turn the book from very bad to just pretty bad. But it's not dismissable. After today, I may never speak of Son of Rosemary in the same breath as Rosemary's Baby, and when I watch Polanski's film or reread Levin's novel, that story will be contained within itself, and I won't think "Interesting, because I know that in thirty years, these characters will..." Because no they won't, Rosemary's Baby ends when it ends. However, I will, should the opportunity ever arise, defend the sequel, provided it's being denigrated for the wrong reasons, which it almost certainly will be.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Some of the above information about Ira Levin and his inspirations comes from the new Criterion Blu-ray disc of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, which is due in stores on Oct. 30. One of the special features on that disc is a short interview with Levin conducted by Leonard Lopate, from 1997 when Levin was promoting Son of Rosemary. It's very interesting, and nice to hear Levin talk about his career, but I'd say that the real pull of Criterion's edition is, well, the film (which looks gorgeous here, by the way), which wins a tight race against Chinatown for my favorite Polanski films, and is simply one of the greatest films of all time. I'm endlessly impressed and chilled by it, and while it's well known as one of the most slavishly faithful novel-to-film adaptations ever made (there are a few anecdotes about this aspect of the film, but in the interview with Lopate, Levin talks about writing about clothes worn by characters being a certain color in his novel, which Polanski diligently reproduced on film, even though for Levin the color was chosen more for the word -- red, yellow, whatever -- and how it played into the rest of the sentence, rather than anything visual he was trying to get across), there is a great deal that is unique to the film that just knocks me out.

For instance, John Cassavetes. Casting Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse was a stroke of genius on a number of levels. Not least of course is who Cassavetes was, as a filmmaker and as an actor, and how he would peddle his skills in front of the screen -- which were considerable -- in order to fund the films he wanted to write and direct and only occasionally star in. Given the passion of the man, it's not hard to find a connection between what Guy does to Rosemary and what Cassavetes may well have thought he was doing to himself, and how he weighed that in his mind, against what would, for him, have been the benefits. Not that I'm interested in psychoanalyzing the man, and I'm certainly not judging him, even a little bit. It's just, you know, interesting.

Still, of more immediate and lasting importance is the performance Cassavetes gives in Rosemary's Baby. In a film packed with terrific acting and casting so perfect as to feel almost foreordained (Ruth Gordon gets all the praise, and she's wonderful, but Sidney Blackmer as her Satanist husband is even better, for my money; I realize there's a great deal of satire and black comedy at the end of the film, but the way Blackmer responds to Mia Farrow-as-Rosemary's horrified "Oh God...!" by shouting "God is dead! Satan lives! The Year is One!" is genuinely frightening), Cassavetes still manages to stand out. He happened to have just the right face and voice and general bearing (I can't define this, don't ask me to) for Guy, and watching him skulk around in the background at the end when Rosemary confronts the Satanists during their celebration, Cassavetes embodies the vermin in a suit Guy has become. Guy can't face Rosemary, and seeing him slipping into shadows and hiding behind walls is one of the many dead-on-the-money bits this film is bursting with (I'm quite the fan of this one, just for the record). But the single best moment in the film, in the whole thing, is this:
Here, the audience, if they're new to Rosemary's Baby, won't know what Guy and Roman have just been discussing. Their conversation had previously been represented by Polanski through a shot of the room the two men would be facing as they spoke, the smoke from their cigars blowing infernally into view while the men themselves are blocked by a doorway. Now we see them after the conversation is over. And when we go back and watch it again, because why wouldn't we, we can look at John Cassavetes-as-Guy's face and know that Roman has just told him that he and Minnie are Satanists working to bring the Antichrist to Earth, and that to do so they need a woman to be impregnated by Satan. He has further told Guy that they want to use Rosemary, and that if Guy agrees to this, and aids them in this goal, of allowing his wife to be raped by the devil and thereby bring Hell to Earth, then Guy's acting career will proceed without obstacle to the greatest heights of success and fame. And in Cassavetes' face, you can see the lingering shock. And you can also see that the motherfucker is considering it. This is the genius of Rosemary's Baby.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 25: Name of a Little Blue Man

The back cover copy of my reprint edition of The Devil's Bride from Creation Publishing, Seabury Quinn's only novel about paranormal investigator (or whatever) Dr. Jules de Grandin informs the reader that Quinn's fiction was known for "strong elements of sadistic violence, misogynistic torture and cruelty, negative racial profiling, and frequent female nudity." Leaving aside the delight I always take in a work of prose being described as "containing nudity," this stuff is always intended to draw in readers more than it is to warn them, but there's some junk later on about "relics of a less enlightened age," so clearly they want everybody, including themselves, to feel okay about reading this garbage. I'm always bothered by this "Oh dear, the past..." hand-wringing when it comes to pulp fiction, though I certainly have my limits, which probably aren't much less or more severe than your own. I just don't need the warnings. I can handle myself, I think.

Of course, at the moment I have to take Creation Publishing at their word regarding the contents of The Devil's Bride, it not being the Quinn I read for today, but what I did read, about which more in a moment, while containing some pretty sadistic violence aimed at women, I don't happen to believe that it's axiomatic that such violence equals misogyny (in the stories I read, this sort of thing is pretty severely frowned upon). I also read nothing in the way of "negative racial profiling," or even any nudity! I was guaranteed nudity! "Quinn was sure to include at least one scene of a naked girl...", it says! THIS IS BULLSHIT!

Anyhow. Enough about Creation Publishing's PC ass-covering. I read stories published in The Casebook of Jules de Grandin, one of a series of Quinn reprints put out by Popular Library back in the 1960s and '70s, when they didn't give a crap about any of this. Now, I'll be honest, I approached these stories with some trepidation, because I have a feeling that, speaking generally, I enjoy this kind of pulp series more in theory than I do in practice. There was a lot of very fine writing from the pulp era, but there was a whole lot of quite terrible writing. A few years ago, I was very excited to finally read The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, and I was pretty stunned at the vice-like grip and breakneck momentum that book did not offer. It felt mired in quicksand even during the action scenes, and Rohmer seemed to have no sense of urgency or velocity or drive. It sort of put me off the whole thing for a while, and I worried Quinn would not be much different. And the two Jules de Grandin stories I read for today, "Children of Ubasti" and "The House of Horror," are either kind of dumb, in one case, or chickenshit, in another, but momentum is not something either lacked. They moved damn fast, almost to a fault, though I'd rather, with this sort of thing, that the writer err on that side than the other.

These stories don't chronicle the beginning of Quinn's de Grandin series, but from what I can gather, Jules de Grandin is the Sherlock Holmes figure, though maybe a little bit more polite and less outwardly arrogant, not to mention more comfortable with people, and Dr. Trowbridge, with whom he lives and who subsequently writes down their adventures so that others might marvel, is Watson, though with considerably less personality or things to do or words to say. Trowbridge really is a blank, only once in the two stories showing any kind of unique reaction (in the moment I'm thinking of, he feels de Grandin is being rather too ghoulish), but it doesn't really matter. The reason it doesn't matter is the same reason I don't have a great deal to say about either "Children of Ubasti" or "The House of Horror," which is that these stories are fairly trashy, reasonably fun, kind of shocking -- the whole sadistic violence thing, while generally not presented "on-stage," as it were, is still very much present, and inventive -- and very clearly meant to achieve those goals and nothing else. Ironically, if they'd actually been as racist and misogynistic as I'd been told, I'd have a great deal more to think about and wade through. There would be something with heft to deal with.

Not that I mind, as a reader, that they don't. For stories written in the 1920s about an occult detective, I'd much prefer that they don't, if you want to know the truth. Anyway, I'm not left with nothing to deal with. I do have one thing, which Robert A. W. Lowndes, who wrote the introduction to The Casebook of Jules de Grandin, gets to the heart of when he begins his intro by defining the difference between a writer, and a teller of tales:

...I consider the "writer" of fiction as a person who carefully plots and plans his fiction out in advance, before resorting to a first draft...The writer will then resort to secondary elaboration when he or she sits down to write the story...But the teller of tales starts out at once with nothing more than an idea, and sometimes not so much as that.

Needless to say, Lowndes considers Seabury Quinn a teller of tales, and quotes him as describing the writing of his first Jules de Grandin story in that very way. And brother, does it show. Spoilers for both "Children of Ubasti" and "The House of Horror" follow, but, so, in "Children of Ubasti," two African demons, spawns of the ancient and evil city of Bubatsis (and before you say anything, the demons were not sent by the people of Africa, or anybody in Africa, to destroy the Western world; these demons terrorize the inhabitants of their own continent just as thoroughly) have arrived in, you know, New Jersey, and what they do is, they've set up shop -- ostensibly, one's a man and one's a woman -- and they hire young women from an agency that hires out housekeepers. But no housekeeping is to be done, and the women are used as vile pawns in a terrible game, which involves the women being told, basically, "If you can escape us, good for you. If you can't, we'll kill you and feed you to the next girl. That's what you ate last night, by the way." We learn all this because one young woman actually did escape, via the cunning method of throwing footstools at the demons and jumping out a window. When de Grandin hears this woman's story, he says "Oh, well, these are cat demons from Bubatsis," so he and his heroic cohorts -- including a Muslim Turk, who just kind of shows up -- go to the demons' house, the address of which de Grandin discovered because the demons told somebody, and then they kill the demons with shotguns. It was touch and go there for a while, but they had shotguns. Jules de Grandin has done it again.
Meanwhile, in "The House of Horror," Trowbridge and de Grandin are on the road at night, trying to find their way to a "workmen's settlement," where a young boy is in need of a dose of anti-toxin, which the two doctors plan on administering. They get lost and figure, screw the kid, he's hopeless, and decide to ask for help from the inhabitants of a big, opulent house that's out there in the woods there. The door to this house opens, seemingly of its own accord, and closes in the same way, but it's not ghosts -- it's an old man, who asks the doctors to check out his daughter, who's sick. De Grandin gets suspicious early on, he gives the daughter, who the father believes is suffering from sleeping sickness, a placebo, and they go to bed, where de Grandin shows Trowbridge that the windows are basically sealed shut. They're prisoners! Except they can get up in the middle of the night and wander around the house. They go see the girl, who is awake, and super pretty, except her eyes have been dicked around with so that they "roll[ed] grotesquely to right and left, they peered futilely in opposite directions, lending to her sweet, pale face the half-ludicrous, wholly hideous expression of a bloating frog." So that's no good. De Grandin and Trowbridge are like "We'll see about this!" and they find the secret button on the wall that opens the front door, which they open, and outside a massive storm is raging. They go out and see the old man rolling Trowbridge's car down a very steep hill or something. Trowbridge and de Grandin go after him, but before they can reach the old man the storm causes a massive branch to break off a tree, and it falls on the old man and kills him. The villain of the story has just been killed by a falling tree branch while the two heroes go "Hey, what?" The dying old man has a few confessions left in him, thankfully, and he says "The reason I did all this shit is in my office. Go read it. Go in my basement, too." Which they do, and it turns out his crippled son, years ago, had been rejected by a beautiful vaudeville actress, and he killed himself, so his dad vowed revenge. First on the actress, then on just ladies overall. He's been kidnapping young women and removing all their arm and leg bones and keeping them alive in his basement. This is all pretty surprising, and weird, and disturbing. De Grandin goes "We can't bring these women back to society. It would be too cruel! I don't know if I want to just murder them, though. I need to think about this." So he and Trowbridge go upstairs to think about if they're going to murder these women, but before they can reach a decision, the huge storm floods the basement and drowns the women and then Trowbridge and de Grandin grab the girl with the mudskipper eyes and then the house collapses. "I'll fix her eyes," de Grandin says. The end.

Now...this is all pretty absurd. Both stories are, specifically because of the way the stories unfold, if that's the phrase I want. The sick kid in "The House of Horror" means nothing. The fact that de Grandin and Trowbridge are locked into the house means nothing. Why this old man would ask the doctors to look at his daughter is never explained, because why would he ever do that? But it's the next part of the story. Each thing is just the next thing. And I was, in a grimy sort of way, getting into the moral dilemma that faced our heroes at the end of that particular story, and Quinn bails in the most cowardly way imaginable. "Should we put these women out of their misery? Wup, the whole house is suddenly falling down, we better skedaddle." This is ridiculous.

And I honestly don't care. Or I do care, but I take it as less of a negative than a supremely goofy near-positive. If all of Seabury Quinn's stories are this stupidly wild, then I think I'm on board. I mean, why not?