Monday, October 15, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 15: The Thing Did Not Mind

Shortly before Theodore Sturgeon died in 1985, he asked Harlan Ellison to write his eulogy, which Ellison did. Ellison included the eulogy as part of "The Wind Took Your Answer Away," Ellison's even more affecting than usual introduction to his story collection Angry Candy. Towards the end of the eulogy, Ellison talks about receiving the call that Sturgeon had passed, and he writes:

...[M]y promise to Ted makes me feel like the mommy who has to clean up her kid's messy room. I called CBS radio, and I called the Herald-Examiner, and that will go a ways towards getting him the hail-and-farewell I think he wanted, even though I know some headline writer will say SCI-FI WRITER STURGEON DEAD AT 67.

And the kid on the night desk at the newspaper took the basics -- Ted's age, his real name, the seven kids, all that -- and then he said, "Well, can you tell me what he was known for? Did he win any awards?" And I got crazy. I said, with an anger I'd never expected to feel, "Listen, sonny, he's only gone about an hour and a half, and he was as good as you get at this writing thing, and no one who ever read The Dreaming Jewels or More Than Human or Without Sorcery got away unscathed, because he could squeeze your heart till your life ached; and he was one of the best writers of the last half a century; and the tragedy of his passing is that you don't know who the fuck he was!"

I remember Ellison writing about a similar experience when calling some publication or other to inform them of the death of William Gaines, though in that case I believe he managed to keep his temper. Not that I blame him. It's certainly possible that Ellison simply expects too much, but it occurs to me now that at least a portion of my life has spent fortifying myself against the possibility of working the night desk at some newspaper type deal when Harlan Ellison calls to tell me that some great and unjustly forgotten writer has passed on, and all I got for him is "Who??" But I get it, is my point. I've developed just a bit of that particular brand of anger at this point, so if you work the night desk and I call you with something like this, brother, you better watch it.
But back to Theodore Sturgeon. If I had to guess, I'd say the three things that Sturgeon is best known for these days are "Shore Leave," the episode of Star Trek that he wrote, the one with the White Rabbit and Bones getting killed by the knight and Finnegan; "Sturgeon's Law" which posits that "ninety-nine per cent of everything is crud" ("crud" having long since morphed, by people who like to swear a lot and misquote things, into "shit"); and Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout, of course, is the fictional pulp science-fiction writer created by Kurt Vonnegut, who appeared with varying levels of significance in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and others. If you hadn't thought of it before, you've probably already, since I brought it up, made the connection between "Sturgeon" and "Trout," not to mention "TheoDORE" and "KilGORE." By way of explaining this link between his famous character and the writer who has since been overshadowed by that fiction, Vonnegut writes in his foreword to A Saucer of Loneliness, volume seven (of thirteen!) of Sturgeon's collected stories, about meeting Sturgeon face to face for the first time in 1958. So they're at Vonnegut's place one night when:

Ted had been writing nonstop for days or maybe weeks. He was skinny and haggard, underpaid and unappreciated outside the ghetto science fiction was then. He announced that he was going to do a standing back flip, which he did. He landed on his knees with a crash that shook the whole house. When he got back on his feet, humiliated and laughing in agony, one of the best writers in America was, indeed, but only for a moment, my model for Kilgore Trout.

Obviously, Vonnegut's purpose here is to communicate a sad, warm affection for a man he admired who died, but in a typically, though perhaps unintentionally, Vonnegut-ian twist of absurdist melancholy, he seems to have summed up Sturgeon's writing life. Sturgeon was one of the most humane writers I've ever read -- it's quite possible to read a Sturgeon story, even a violent one, with no real villain. He wrote a story once, not a violent one, called "Maturity" whose villain, if that's what you want to call it, is the title noun. Which is not to say he shied away from portraying villainy, but rather that Sturgeon was more inclined than most writers I've encountered to give someone the benefit of the doubt. He was by turns furiously productive and mired in career-stalling bouts of writer's block, he was beloved by his colleagues and an inspiration to many (not just Vonnegut and Ellison, but Samuel R. Delany and Ray Bradbury), was in fact regarded as one of those "writer's writers" who find that such genuine flattery nevertheless fails to pay the mortgage. Not counting novelizations and strange work-for-hire things (he wrote a novel called I, Libertine that was actually intended as a hoax, in collaboration with Jean Shepherd, whose own writing is now best known as the basis for the film A Christmas Story), Sturgeon wrote six novels under his own name and produced by his own ambitions (unlike the hoax novel, for example), More Than Human probably being his most famous (his last, Godbody, was published posthumously) and sixteen collections of short stories. His career as a published writer spanned from 1935 to 1983. 1986, if you count Godbody.

I'm building Sturgeon up a fair bit here, I realize that, but that's because I don't want him to be forgotten. Surely there are writers I like more, including writers whose names are in greater danger of turning to ash. Hell, it would appear that, just recently, all thirteen volumes of those collected stories published by North Atlantic Books, between 1994 and 2010, have come back in print. Either that or Amazon found a big sack of copies behind the mops. Either way, the fact is that Theodore Sturgeon is still out there. It's just that nobody knows it.

Meanwhile, until yesterday, I hadn't read anything by Sturgeon in a good many years. I've read three of his novels -- More Than Human, Some of Your Blood, and Godbody (this last because in his introduction to it, Robert Heinlein says it could be considered pornographic, though after reading it I had to wonder by whom) -- and a healthy scattering of short stories over many collections. Like a lot of writers I read in my youth, I drifted away from him, not through any fault of Sturgeon's, but because new writers I'd never read kept rising into view. I also seem to have drifted away from science fiction as a whole, though I'm not happy about that, and Sturgeon was primarily a science fiction writer, though by no means exclusively. Sturgeon wrote in a wide variety of genres, including Westerns (he has a whole collection of those stories called Sturgeon's West, yet for some reason it doesn't include the one such story by him that I can remember reading, a little two-or-three page Western about impotence; it ends with the words "I cain't" and is rather sad), and, perhaps more to the point, although even I can't tell anymore at this point, horror. One of his more famous horror stories is called "Bianca's Hands" and I commend it to your attention, and he also had one called "Vengeance Is." that was printed in the seminal 80s horror anthology Dark Forces. For today, though, I chose a story from Sturgeon's first story collection Without Sorcery. The story is called "It", and it was first published in 1940 in Unknown. This story inspired the creation of both the Man-Thing for Marvel Comics, and Swamp Thing for DC. Whether this makes reading "It" more or less appealing to you is none of my concern.
It's a great story, though. Ray Bradbury called it "one of the finest weird tales in the genre," and in Sturgeon's depiction of a creature built inexplicably from the heat and dirt and greenery of the woods, it is quietly eerie. Sturgeon begins:

It walked in the woods.

It was never born. It existed. Under the pine needles the fires burn, deep and smokeless in the mold. In heat and and in darkness and decay there is growth. There is life and there is growth. It grew, but it was not alive. It walked unbreathing through the woods, and thought and saw and was hideous and strong, and it was not born and it did not live. It grew and moved about without living.

This creature, "It," is violent, but not malevolent. Over the course of the story, it kills a dog, and it kills a man, and from these acts it learns. It learns what eyes are when it kills the dog, and observes the process of dying, and the effect that limb removal has on living things. It is curious, Sturgeon tells us, and in fact can be nothing other than curious.

There's not much plot to "It" until the end. Up until that point, Sturgeon connects the creature's path through the woods with a family -- Alton Drew, his brother Cory, Cory's wife Clissa, whom Alton loves but let go, and Babe, Cory and Clissa's daughter -- who live and work on a farm on the edge of the woods. It is Alton's dog Kimbo who runs afoul of the creature, which in turn leads to a misunderstanding between the brothers that itself leads to bad feelings and bad decisions, and more danger. Sturgeon's bringing together of all these characters makes up the bulk of "It," until, as I say, the ending, which adds a kind of-sort of explanation for what It is, without ever explaining why It is. I must say, the decision to leave that second question unanswered saves Sturgeon's bacon a little bit, because when the character and the plot material which seems to point to some neat answers enter the story, I became quite concerned. I needn't have been, because what transpires only creates a different set of mysteries that intrigue beyond the final pages.

And speaking of those final's difficult, because outside of some of the early sections, Sturgeon's best writing by far is located at the end, and to quote them the way I'd like to would be to spoil the story. Suffice it to repeat that the creature is driven entirely by its curiosity -- when it kills, you understand that it is experimenting; when it doesn't kill, you understand that there is no motivation for it to do otherwise -- and Sturgeon never backs down from that. He never humanizes it, and by not humanizing it he somehow renders it more pathetic. The fate of the creature -- I should really probably call it "the thing" -- is beautifully rendered, and is sad in a way that is nearly impossible to describe. Why should I feel sad for this thing that is only curious, about death and life, on a purely clinical -- what we would consider clinical, but which it would have no word for -- level? It's own fate interests it as much and on the exact same level as the deaths of the dog and the man it butchered. It's like Vergerus at the end of Bergman's The Serpent's Egg, but without the ability to understand morality so that, like Vergerus, he can discard it. It is oblivious.

"It" is a surprisingly gruesome story, though the true horror of it all, as it pertains to the human characters, arrives through survival rather than violence. The story's last paragraph is simply brilliant. It's as if Sturgeon understood that many horror stories end right after climaxes very similar to the one he just delivered with "It", yet he knew that if they were honest they'd go one step further and imagine the aftermath. That's what Sturgeon does here, and while "It" is otherwise a very good story, the last paragraph propels it to greatness.

Okay, well, that was a long one. Phew. If nothing else, I hope your takeaway from this is that Theodore Sturgeon was quite a bit different from most American genre writers of his or any other time, and, and this is my point, he's still out there.


highwayknees said...

I've enjoyed your criticism and reviews before, but you have outdone yourself here with the Sturgeon overview.
My history with the writings of Theodore Sturgeon began at about age 12 or 13. Soon after reading Bradbury probably, and those two were my yin and yang for genre intros. I went on to read everything I could find by T.S. Hunting down obscure PB copies of his work with wonderful covers that thrilled me to begin the journey that lay within. I believe the first story collection I read was E Pluribus Unicorn. And it contained such great tales as Bianca's Hands, A Saucer of Loneliness, and The Professor's Teddybear.

Needless to say I couldn't come up for air-and I couldn't get enough. I saw him as apart from other SF authors, because he was based more in humanity and it's problems than space exploration per se. IT was another favorite story, and, It Wasn't Syzygy, which I found a pinnacle of his style. He had wit, humor, pathos, and excitement running through his tales. His novel More Than Human remained one of my favorite books for a long time. But, like you mentioned after reading Go
dbody-I don't think I read much more of his work. Or tried reread i should say...who knows why? I did buy 2 of the new hardback editions of the collected story volumes-with plans to have them all, but didn't accomplish that feat yet. RIP Ted. You were, and are still loved.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much. I feel like I was sort of resistant to Sturgeon in my youth, because he really was so different from what I was used to, and this contributed to me drifting away from him (as well as the other reasons cited). For me, it wasn't so much the absence of more traditional SF themes, because Ellison's the same way, and I'm sure I learned about Sturgeon through him -- I really think it was the open-heartedness of it all, the kindness, even if it was often mixed with sadness and even violence.

In any case, now, as often happens during October, I want to read all the stuff I don't currently have time for, and that includes Sturgeon. I had my Sturgeon collection, which is sizable, out the other day, just wishing I could dive in. But soon, my pretties! Soon!