Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 4: The Logic of the Rolling Ocean

Whenever I'm working on these posts, or doing the the frankly too-expensive prep work, I learn about writers and books and things about which I had previously been unaware. The first of many such writers I'll be looking at this month is William Browning Spencer, who I learned about through his inclusion in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's new horror anthology The Weird (about which much more in the not so very distant future). The stories in that book are each accompanied by a short introduction -- this is a common practice, common enough that when it's not done I get twitchy and uncomfortable -- and whichever VanderMeer wrote up the story introductions in that book described Spencer like so: "His weird tales often contain an undercurrent of dark humor...", while the story chosen for the anthology is "effortless, understated, at times terrifying, and nicely updating the weird tales tradition." Okay, sounds good to me! I was for whatever reason so moved (no, that can't be the word) by this encomium to not feel satisfied by what was on offer in The Weird, and so therefore sought out an actual volume of the stories of one William Browning Spencer. And I'm tempted, by the way, to talk about a problem I have with being the worst enemy of the writers I write about here, due to the ridiculous expectations I build up, all by myself, about their work before I've even read it. I have this thing where if I haven't heard of a particular horror writer, and then I hear about them, my first thought -- and this is very much despite my frequent negativity, I hasten to add -- is "Well, they must be pretty great." "If I haven't heard of them," is the part that goes unsaid, or unthought. Anyhow, as you will see, this is not much of an issue in the case of William Browning Spencer, but it is something you might, for your own sake, keep in mind any time I seem overly pissy.

The first story I read, somewhat perversely, was the one the VanderMeers chose for their anthology, and the title story of Spencer's second collection, The Ocean and All Its Devices. A striking title, I think we can all agree (and taken, with some rejiggering, from Lloyd Frankenberg's poem "The Sea"). Told from the point of view of George Hume, the owner of a beachside hotel in North Carolina, it's the story, obliquely, of the Franklins, a morose family -- mother, father, daughter -- who have come to Hume's hotel every year for the past eight years. As the story opens, they're arriving to stay, mysteriously, once again. Mysteriously because they certainly don't seem to enjoy themselves. They're described as dressing formally, Greg Franklin is slow and precise, his wife seems oddly frightened, their daughter Melissa sickly, at least in appearance -- "pale as the moon's reflection in a rain barrel."
Meanwhile, George Hume and his wife are also welcoming a visit from their daughter Nancy, a formerly troubled teenager, now a senior at Duke University. She comes with her boyfriend Steve, who plays a certain role in the story, and is sidelined when not needed, but this somehow achieves the effect of making Steve, who up until now had not met Nancy's family, and is also, at the time of this story, a relatively new recruit in Nancy's life, seem like a real person, the unfortunate outsider to the family dynamics -- intimate, but only by proxy.

From here, the story gently chronicles the weirdness of the Franklins, such as when George, idly tracing the family's path -- coincidentally more than because he's being nosey -- after they'd walked down to, and returned from, the beach and finds, at the termination of their footprints before they turned back, a mass of dead sealife:

There might have been a hundred bodies. It was difficult to say, for not one of the bodies was whole. They had been hacked into many pieces, diced by some impossibly sharp blade that severed a head cleanly, flicked off a tail or dorsal fin. here a scaled torso still danced in the sand, there a pale eye regarded the sky.

This, needless to say, is just the beginning. A death, concerns for the psychological health of young Melissa, and another death, lead us inexorably into some pretty blatant Lovecraft territory. And I'll tell you, the naked influence H. P. Lovecraft has had on contemporary horror fiction, particularly short fiction, is starting to wear on me. In its own way, this trend matches the glut of zombies in film and television. And also fiction. So fine, so zombies are the real threat to the genre, and better Lovecraft than another "wickedly" funny subversion of the zombie etc. that turns the etc. on its fuck off already. But if everybody else, or near enough, is going to wear the influence of this one very specific writer on their sleeves, then where is the genre going to be in ten years? Full of stories inspired by the stories that were inspired by Lovecraft? Which would happen anyway, but when you signal it, when the influence is not absorbed almost unconsciouly but rather just sits there on the skin, then it's all going to get very thin very soon.

On the positive front, I'd say that we're not quite there yet, because when I step back from the thoughts expressed above, I can see that "The Ocean and All Its Devices" is rather good. There's a lot that Spencer does right. I like the setting, for one thing, and the point of view of the normal-guy hotel owner. Also, while Browning is a considerably less ostentatious writer than I'd expected him to be -- this is neither a good nor a bad thing -- I can't deny that he can write. I loved, for example, his description of the child psychiatrist who comes into the story briefly as "a very kind but somehow sad man, a little like Santa Claus if Santa Claus had suffered some disillulsioning experience..." Somewhat more to the point, in this story Browning hits on a, as far as I can tell, fairly novel way of describing the indescribable, something any true Lovecraft devotee will tell you is key. The moment when that unknowable horror is seen by Hume is a good one for a lot of reasons, but mainly for this:

Then something rose up in the water...The world was bathed with light, and George saw it plain. And yet, he could not later recall much detail. It was as though his mind refused entry to this monstrous thing, substituting other images -- maggots winking from the eye sockets of some dead animal, flesh growing on a ruined structure of rusted metal -- and while, in memory, those images were horrible enough and would not let him sleep, another part of his mind shrank fromt he knowledge that he had confronted something more hideous and ancient than his reason could acknowledge.
Now, a lot of that is Lovecraftian boilerplate, but the substituting of unconnected horror images, especially the one about the flesh growing from rusted metal, for something else that cannot be recalled at the risk of Hume's sanity, is pretty great, I think. It's great in concept, while very smoothly expanding the scope of the horror in "The Ocean and All Its Devices" to psychologically, and probably just plain geographically, global reach. Also, the payoff to all this, while not exactly original in a general way, is (again, as far as I can tell) original to the Lovecraftian story, and this almost counterintuitive pairing of theme and form is fairly successful.

After that, I checked out another, much shorter, story from The Ocean and All Its Devices, one whose title, “The Death of the Novel,” appealed to the side of me that enjoys metafictional shenanigans, especially when paired with one of my favored genres. Unfortunately, that’s not really what Spencer had in mind with this one, though it would be wrong of me to hold that against him. What this one is actually about is a creative writing professor named Ron Latham, who, as the story opens, has just been ranted at, with, it would seem, good reason, by a young man whose sister, a student of Latham’s at the time, had an affair with him, and committed suicide after he broke it off. Latham privately acknowledges the affair to himself, though apparently not to anyone else, but dismisses any responsibility for her death, as that all happened two months after he broke it off with her. This is assuming a great deal about the power of two months; still, it seems to work for him. Also, he’s confused about the whole thing on one level, as the young woman in question he knew to have a sister, not a brother. Anyway…

Later, when Latham is reading through the manuscripts submitted to him by his students, he finds one called The Death of the Novel, written by the young man from earlier. The book, as he reads along, appears to be a thinly veiled, or not at all veiled, account of his affair with the deceased girl. Not at all veiled, and not at all flattering, either, but he can’t help but acknowledge that the thing is well written. So when chapters continue to appear, he continues to read, and soon the manuscript is describing things that happened to him just the day before. You can see where this is going, at least in part. What “The Death of the Novel” mainly is, is a riff on M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes,” though it’s not as explicitly that as “The Ocean and All Its Devices” was explicitly riffing on Lovecraft. “The Death of the Novel” isn’t as good as that other story, but here Browning is less overwhelmed by his influences. In this case, the James story only comes through in bits and pieces. In its sneering contempt for certain elements of academia, it also put me in mind of John Langan’s “Tutorial,” but here the contempt seems more earned, and less petulant, than the Langan story. “The Death of the Novel” also has a strong ending, with a nicely sardonic last line.

So that’s William Browning Spencer, I guess, at least for now. As I say, he’s written several novels. Time to see what that’s all about.


Jose Cruz said...

Good stuff. I've wanted to get my hot paws on THE WEIRD since I heard about it a few months back.

And I really like the way that Spencer describes "the unnamable" as you mentioned. That's one aspect of Lovecraftian prose that always irked me. The imitators, the bad ones anyway, seem to just leave it at "It was indescribable, so that made it scary." Don't give me that shit. You have to throw me a bone. Like King said, you have to open the door to show the "bug" on the other side at some point, even if its 70 ft. height is a little pale compared to the 700 ft. you imagined it to be. Even Lovecraft was generous enough to tell us what Cthulhu looked like, at least in artistic represantation. Like you, I fear that "Lovecraftian" is in danger of becoming shorthand for lazy writing, much like zombies. Just because the horrible thing shows up, whether its the Ram of Forty Tongues or a deadite that chews on faces, doesn't mean you instantly have a "mood." But enough of that.

The premise of the second story intrigues me. This may not (or may) surprise you, since it has a similar theme to "W. S." the L. P. Hartley story I recommended. (I feel kind of bad bringing it up so much since I now fear that I'm building your expectations up and you'll curse me with a pox once you read it and find it underwhelming. Maybe I just need to stop talking).

Taidan said...

"Resume With Monsters" is probably his best novel.