Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 2: He Doesn't Know What Dying Means

Ramsey Campbell has a way of finding his way into these posts, if not every year than near enough.  I've written in the past about my reservations about his work, but I think, I hope, I've made it clear that those reservations are of a substantially different sort than my reservations about, say, John Shirley.  Campbell is a serious, talented writer, whose reputation, I'd say, is deserved, but whose body of work warrants a maybe more agnostic appraisal.  So anyway, in a nutshell, that's where I stand.  But since Campbell is such a serious (and I mean that in a good way, even though a lot of people these days consider "serious" to be a pejorative) and knowledgable writer, any time he feels compelled to offer up recommendations, I'm going to listen, not least because Campbell views the current ("current" meaning "about the last thirty years") state of horror fiction in much the same way I do -- in other words, he thinks a lot of it is bad, except for the stuff that's good, the problem there being the good stuff often does not announce itself, and needs the Ramsey Campbells of the world to do the announcing for it.  Which isn't to say I always agree with his tastes, but I do more often than not.

This all leads me to today's anthology, edited by Campbell and bearing the typically 1980s childishly "spooky" title Fine Frights.  The concept behind Fine Frights is very simple:  it is made up of horror stories that Campbell loves and would like you to read.  There are few anthology concepts better than this one, really, and in approaching it for today's reading was a simple matter; any one of them, or two of them, could pay off.  As it happens, my decision was made simpler yet by the fact that in a June post in which I essentially begged you people to help me, a reader going by the handle "frobbert" listed quite a selection that included a story called "Child's Play" by Villy Sorensen.  This recommendation was seconded by noted horror fiction blogger Will Errickson, and so when I did an "internet-web search" for Sorensen's name, Fine Frights popped right up.  Because "Child's Play" is in it, you see.

But "Child's Play" can wait for a minute.  It has been my habit over the years to, for some reason, confine myself to a rigid and strictly chronological structure in these posts, in that when I'm covering two or three stories in one post, I cover them in the order I read them, even if that means I close out with a shrug.  "Child's Play" is not a shrug, and I'd like to end on that one.  Not to say my other selection, "The War is Over" by David Case, is much of a shrug, either.  In his brief story introduction to "The War is Over," Campbell tells a charming story of first meeting Case in the bar of a hotel that was hosting a horror writers' convention, the charming part being that Case and his wife were there just to drink, completely unaware that the hotel was full of other horror writers who revered him.
And with good reason, so far as I know, though "The War is Over" is thus far my first experience of Case's work.  And it's an interesting one.  As the title implies, the story takes place post-war...some war, any war, I guess, though my mind took me to World War II, possibly only because that's where my mind usually goes when faced with the word "war."  Case, though, refuses to specify nations or nationalities, the character names -- Maria Schell, Rudolf, Paul -- sounding vaguely European, or American (but probably European, for some unspoken logistical reasons, and anyway, "Maria Schell," but never mind).  Maria is in love with Rudolf now, though in the recent past their countries opposed each other in the war in question, an apparently horrific one, as these things tend to be.  But somehow this no longer matters, their former grievances lost in the murk of the actual countries, mattering on that plane, but not on theirs, and anyway if they can get past that, they can get past anything.  As the story opens Rudolf is away, having a day out with Maria's daughter, Maria's husband having died in the war.  Maria is feeling happy again, confident that her life with Rudolf is as assured as can be reasonably expected.  As she returns to her apartment, she meets Paul, a wartime friend of Rudolf's who says he came by to speak with Rudolf.  In his absence, Paul and Maria begin to talk, about the shared differences of their war experiences, and of Rudolf's own, and what he faced, and what he did.

It's a simple story, and a good one, and one whose outcome I more or less figured out maybe halfway through.  This is not a criticism, because while this is getting off the subject of whether "The War is Over" is any good or not (it is), what's interesting to me here is what led me to guess the ending, which is simply that I knew I was reading a horror story.  Had I not known this, I might well have followed it blindly and unaware into that horror, but that knowledge, paired with the setting and the structure pretty clearly left only one possibility.  And I wonder if genre writers think about this, specifically if Case did in this particular instance, if genre writers ever say to themselves "I write these kinds of stories and people know I write these kinds of stories, so pretending I don't as I write this one is an empty exercise but I have to do pretend because otherwise this isn't a story."

This is not a knock on Case, or the genre, or any genre, or fans, or anthologies specific to a given genre, or anything at all, really.  But it's a reality of genre writing, even if that genre is Stories About Divorce.  At some point, you're gonna have to put a divorce in there.  This, by the way, isn't even, or not quite, a matter of formula, which is a subject I do feel almost right on the brink of going off, perhaps even losing my shit, about.  But no matter how much a writer refutes the very notion of "the requirements of the genre," you can't write a horror story that's about a happy child who takes a nap and dreams about daisies and wakes up happy and then that's it.  "The War is Over" is a horror story, so the horror's coming.
But, so, "Child's Play."  Now this one, this is really interesting, and extraordinarily disturbing, for a number of reasons.  It's also a hard story to write much about because it's rather short, and rather simple, and also rather predictable but here not because it's in a horror anthology and therefore etc., but rather because the ending is a tragically foregone conclusion.  Villy Sorensen's small masterpiece is about two young brothers who have an uncle who hurt his toe, developed blood poisoning, and had to have his leg taken off.  This is a subject of great fascination for the brothers. One day the two boys come upon another, even younger boy, who himself has injured his toe.  Sorensen writes:

A little boy was running barefoot alongside a horse and cart.  He was trying to find out how a horse has four legs and yet still manages to run.  But he quite forgot how he himself should run and suddenly he got such a pain in his big toe that it seemed as if there was no other feeling in his whole body.  He hopped about on one leg and said, "Ooh!" and screwed up his little face that would never get any bigger.

Well.  That's on page two, by the way.  Sorensen wrote "Child's Play" in 1953, it's rather gruesome in the way that only restraint can produce, and is all the more disturbing for the fact that the perpetrators of the horror have no clue what they are doing, there is not an ounce of malevolence fueling their actions.  There have been horror films where there is actually, it turns out, no real villain -- The Sixth Sense leaps to mind -- but in those cases it turns out that the frightening moments can eventually be accepted as benign, if still eerie.  "Child's Play" is more like Richard Hughes's classic A High Wind in Jamaica where the awfulness is unambiguously awful -- it never reveals itself to be merely sad, or even, actually, helpful -- but the blame lays only on the fact that children don't know any better, and can't know any better, and the mistakes that stem inevitably from this can be as nightmarish as the most premeditated cruelty.  Sorensen of course meanwhile writes it all in simple, childlike prose, an eerily removed children's book author who can't stop what's coming, but he can tell you a story about it.  And the last line is killer.


Jonathan Stover said...

I love Campbell's work, and one of his strengths is his own (often hilarious) self-appraisal in his introductions, generally of early stories but sometimes of much later ones.

In any case, you might want to cehck out another of Campbell's reprint anthologies, UNCANNY BANQUET, which I picked up fairly cheaply, especially for a first-edition hardcover. The gem of the whole thing is the short novel THE HOLE OF THE PIT by Adrian Wilson from about 1914 but there's other nice stuff in there too.

Cheers, Jon Stover

bill r. said...

Thanks Jonathan, I'll look for that one.

Greg F. said...

"'Child's Play' is not a shrug."

They should use that as a blurb on the next printing.

bill r. said...

That was my plan all along!

frobbert said...

Yay, I'm famous! ;-p

Anyway, glad it's october again

John said...

I read the stories in Fine Frights over a few years, a while back, so it's not necessarily a criticism to say I don't recall much about these two in particular.

Two other stories from this book I can still recall pretty well, in terms of their central images if not plot specifics, however: the one by Joseph Payne Brennan, and The Fifth Mask, by Shamus Frazer. Two of the better horror stories of my recollection (as far as I can trust it, anyway), for sure.

Will Errickson said...

Yeah, the Brennan story in FINE FRIGHTS is pretty awesome! Been reading tales of his from various anthologies... and bemoaning the fact that years ago I lost my copy of his now-collectible work SHAPES OF MIDNIGHT, which contained his "classic" tale "Slime." Other stories like "Canavan's Backyard," "The Willow Platform," and "Jendick's Swamp" are solid and straightforward horror entertainments.

John said...

Yeah, Slime and that "infinite backyard" story, especially, remain pretty memorable for me, and I'm sure there are a number of other Brennan titles that have left a positive impression over the years. But that one in Fine Frights is really a cut above for creepiness. A better suggestion of the terror and the otherworldliness implied by "the supernatural" would be hard to find.

bill r. said...

You fellows are intriguing me. I hope I have time to get to Brennan before the month's up.

John said...

Bill, if you happen to have a copy of Gahan Wilson's Favorite Horror Stories, I'm pretty sure there's a story in there that might make an interesting comparison with this "Child's Play" story, involving another little kid doing something horrible, with the most innocent intentions. "Kitty Fisher" it might have been called. I have very vague recollections of this one being pretty disturbing.

bill r. said...

John - My Charles Birkin post is already locked and loaded, and it includes "Kitty Fisher."

I also have the Wilson book, which I will be plundering for other stuff soon.