Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 14: A Lost Ball in the High Weeds

The way things currently stand, I don't know if horror is generally considered to be a niche, or a cult thing (speaking of horror fiction here, because clearly everybody likes horror movies, except for pussies), or a fringe, or what. From a business standpoint, that certainly seems to be the case at the moment -- horror publishers are being roped off into tighter and tighter groups -- but as the genre is perceived in a general sense, I don't know. One of the reasons I'm thinking about this is because horror is the only genre I can think of in which there is ever a debate about whether or not a given work actually counts as horror. You never hear people ask "Well, but is Star Wars really science fiction?" (It's not, it's fantasy, but whatever.) And actually this does apply to films as well -- within the last few months I've seen people claim that neither Let the Right One In and The Blair Witch Project are "really" horror movies. Personally, I think they are, because one has a vampire in it and the other has a witch, and they are scary. But what I'm getting at is, the question is asked. Frequently it's a dumb question, but it's asked.

The other reason I'm thinking about this, apart from the fact that I gotta start these posts somehow, is that writers who might not have ever set out to write a horror story might sometimes find themselves being pulled into that world by a crafty horror anthology editor. I don't know if these writers mind or not. If the writer is dead, then I guess they don't. I used to wonder this about Joyce Carol Oates, but since she edited that book of American Gothic fiction, and stood up for Stephen King, and as her books have focused more and more on particularly grim subjects, and as she seems determined to complete her physical transformation into an Edward Gorey drawing, I've decided that she probably doesn't. But what of, oh, I don't know, just to pick two names at random from the ether, William Gay or Dan Chaon? Now of course, William Gay died this past February (a fact I discovered when searching for his name on the internet, to find out what he was up to...), so as I've noted he could probably give a shit that his story "The Paperhanger" wound up in a new horror anthology put together by John Skipp entitled Psychos. And Dan Chaon, his story "The Bees" was picked by Peter Straub for his anthology Poe's Children. Straub has been a vocal champion of Chaon's work in general, and I think the two of them might be pals or something. But the books that these guys publish, or published, do not appear to be intended to draw in the curious horror fan. Here's the cover for Dan Chaon's collection Stay Awake, in which "The Bees" can be found:
To me that looks like your standard-issue cover for a volume of contemporary American short fiction. "Blandly evocative," I'd say. But the first story is "The Bees," and it's pretty rough stuff, actually. I'll admit here that in the case of both Chaon and Gay, I hadn't read any of their stuff before tonight, and my general sense of each would in no way preclude the idea that either would write a horror story, or something horror-tinged. Gay, a man from Tennessee who didn't publish a word until he was 58, was the kind of Southern writer that makes you think "I bet he really admired Cormac McCarthy." I don't know for sure that he did, but I do know that his root literary inspiration was Flannery O'Connor, which I suppose amounts to the same thing. Meanwhile Chaon's novels are always described in a way that almost makes them sound like thrillers, but in a way that leaves "Don't worry, this isn't stupid" left unspoken. Which isn't a knock on thrillers, so with that understood you might infer that I wonder if there are genre writers walking around out there whose publishers and editors would rather hide that fact.

Boy, I could do a much better job with this argument if I'd come into this with more than one story by Chaon or Gay under my belt, but there it is. Perhaps the best way to move past these ramblings is to talk about the stories themselves. I'll start with Chaon's "The Bees," a story I was not entirely sold on for much of its length, and I suppose I'm still not, but it has a damn strong ending. It's about Gene, a UPS driver who is married to Karen, with whom he has a son named Frankie. As the story begins, Frankie has been experiencing sporadic bouts of night terrors. When questioned by his parents, he claims that he hasn't had any nightmares, and he seems generally happy and healthy. The healthy part is at least confirmed, more than once, by their pediatrician.
As the story continues, whatever is bothering Frankie is bothering his parents far more than it is him. His mother becomes a hypochondriac once-removed, and Gene begins to focus on memories of his past, most of which Karen doesn't know about. Karen, we're told, was "uncurious" about Gene's past, but we're made privy to all of it. A former drunk and married before to a woman named Mandy, Gene nearly wiped himself out permanently in a drunk-driving accident that occurred while he was in the process of abandoning his wife and son, DJ, the tagger to several years of treating them like shit. Current Gene, the Gene we know, is nothing less than deeply ashamed of his former behavior, and he's long since kicked the bottle. But he doesn't know where Mandy and DJ are; he's tried to contact them before, yet they seem to have vanished. In any case, all of this is crowding back into his skull, and as the memories get worse, and his concerns about the fates of his lost family grow blacker, Frankie begins comparing what's wrong with him, with Frankie, to bees buzzing inside his skull. And early in the story, we must remember as we proceed, Chaon writes:

Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, [Gene] thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.

And how. My problem with "The Bees" is that, as a horror story, which I pretty much have to think it is, whether Chaon thought of it that way or not (and I have basically no doubt that he thought of it that way), it's rather diffuse. He seems to not want to land on what the horror actually is, which I don't complain about because I think he should commit to some sort of traditional subgenre, or because I kept shouting "Well is this about giant killer bees or isn't it!?" But he seems to try out and then abandon different horror ideas after just lightly touching on them. That's how it felt, but eventually the thing does come together. I can't now think of a single horror idea -- the bees, what happened to Mandy and DJ, Gene's bizarre dreams about DJ -- some of which are little more than insinuated, that isn't in some way, not paid off, or tied into a bow (certainly not that) but dealt with. I'm defining "dealt with" quite broadly here, but there's nothing that you can't on some level relate to the ending. Which is the story's true horror, by the way, and which completes a descriptive motif that, until the story's final line, I wasn't sure was actually a thing, or an accidental repetition that Chaon never noticed. But he noticed.
Gay's story, meanwhile, is something else again. If Chaon's story is ultimately strong, Gay's "The Paperhanger" is a near masterpiece. In the story (which, as well as the aforementioned Psychos, can also be found in Gay's story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down; the title story was adapted into the film That Evening Sun starring Hal Holbrook), the titular character is part of a renovation crew working on the home of a wealthy Pakistani doctor and his wife.  The couple have a small daughter, who we learn in the opening lines has disappeared, or is about to disappear.  In the first encounter we’re privy to between the paperhanger and the doctor’s wife (all the characters are referred to in this way, save for the sheriff, a minor character who is nevertheless, for some reason, allowed to have a name, Bellwether, and the little girl, named Zeineb), the doctor’s wife is upset that the paperhanger is, she believes, charging too much, and doing a shoddy job to boot.  Initially, the paperhanger seems to calmly rebuke her claims, but then says that she shouldn’t be upset anyway as she’s already getting “cocktease” rates.  Understandably, this infuriates the doctor’s wife, who calls the paperhanger “trash” and “scum” before storming off.  She’s preparing to get into her car and drive away when she calls for her daughter, who had been hanging around the paperhanger and playing with his long hair.  But now Zeineb doesn’t seem to be anywhere.  The span of time between her mother seeing Zeineb standing nearby while she argued with the paperhanger and calling for her to join her mother is miniscule, yet she’s nowhere to be found.  The paperhanger and the rest of the crew search the house extensively, but they find nothing.  The doctor’s wife begins to panic, and begins to wonder about the bulldozer operator she’d seen in the yard, and soon becomes certain that her daughter was taken away by him.  The police are called, and Bellwether orders a manhunt.  He also serves a search warrant to the irate bulldozer driver, who says maybe he should look at the paperhanger instead.  The paperhanger, the man says, is a “sick puppy.”  When Bellwether says the paperhanger’s whereabouts at the time can be accounted for, the man says that means he’s a sick puppy with a good alibi.
But the girl is not found.  No evidence pointing to anyone or anywhere turns up.  Gay writes:

That was all. There was no ransom note, no child that turned up two counties over with amnesia. She was a page turned, a door closed, a lost ball in the high weeds. She was a child no larger than a doll, but the void she left behind was unreckonable. Yet there was no end to it. No finality. There was no moment when someone could say, turning from a mounded grave, Well, this was unbearable, but you've got to go on with your life. Life did not go on.

That passage is a pretty excellent example, I think, of Gay’s talent, and honestly I could, and almost did, structure my write-up of “The Paperhanger” as simply a series of quotes like this, with some thin connective tissue. It would have been lazy on my part, but it would have gotten the point across. The story is not simply about a girl who vanished and what happened to her, but what happened to her parents, and Gay’s chronicle of the wealthy doctor’s slide into disaster is gut-wrenching and precise as a scalpel. The doctor’s wife, meanwhile, a woman of some arrogance – perhaps, anyway, though this is certainly the way the paperhanger reads her – has been, I guess you’d say “humbled” by the experience. And this humbling would further seem to be the point. Not Gay’s point, mind you, but the paperhanger’s. Because he is, indeed, a sick puppy. We learn something of his hobbies and habits, which include the drinking of San Miguel beer and robbing graves. We don’t know what, if any, connection he has to the missing girl until the very end, and what we learn then is horrifying, and the cap that is set on that tragedy is perhaps even worse. It is, in fact, one of the cruelest acts I can imagine, and Gay describes it in prose as elegant and haunting as the passage quoted above. Occasionally, Gay’s writing can veer a bit too far into a certain brand of country sentiment, but this works more often than it doesn’t, and besides, Gay’s prose is of the kind of smooth toughness that easily and immediately places you in the middle of his story, and all its horror.


John said...

Is it made clear in The Paperhanger that "Bellwether" is the sheriff's actual name, and not just another character's derisive nickname for him (maybe derived from a name like Bill Withers or something)? Seems like a fairly loaded choice of name, especially for a male authority figure, given the original sense of the word.

Anyway, sounds like a good story. Has Gay written anything else you'd praise as highly?

bill r. said...

His name is clearly Bellwether. And I thought of the double meaning, too, but he really just functions as a plot device.

Never read any other Gay, unfortunately, but his novel TWILIGHT (not that one, a different one) is supposed to be excellent.

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