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.

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