Friday, October 5, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 5: A Whole Churchful of Open Coffins

As fas as horror fiction is concerned, the 1980s were a rich yet overstuffed time, when writers and readers alike were...oh, fuck it. It's hard to talk about horror in the 1980s for a lot of reasons, not least among them the soul-crushing prospect of trying to cut through all the romanticism that many people, fans mostly, like to squeeze into it. The short version is one writer and a small handful of books by other, less prolific writers, were so successful that a boom occurred, because of money, and whenever that happens there's lots of good stuff and even more bad stuff, and the bad stuff kills the goose, and that goose was sitting on an egg that eventually hatched and it was like The Serpent's Egg or the cockatrice and it grew up to be Edward Lee. And the world was as a furnace, and the oceans of blood, and the damned did cry out for surcease; but o! their cries were silenced by Leisure Books, which in fairness published some good stuff too before they went under. Anyway.

But during the 80s horror boom there was so much stuff, that you have to wonder what happened to it all, and the writers who churned it out. "Churned it out" is probably not the correct phrase, because while the publishing industry certainly did that, a lot of writers didn't, necessarily, so you have strange cases like T. E. D. Klein (whose silence probably has more to do with himself than anything else) and Michael McDowell. I've known about McDowell for a long time, since around the time I started really gravitating to horror. This would have been sometime in the 1980s, when McDowell's writing career was at its peak, and his name was on several books I saw in bookstores, new and used, at that time. For many years, the only credit of McDowell's I had any familiarity with -- and in my youth this was a reasonably strong familiarity -- was as one of the writers, with Warren Skaaren, of Tim Burton's 1987 horror comedy Beetlejuice. As for his novels, my attitude was that I would get around to them. Which in fairness I have, but twenty-plus years feels like it's pushing it to me. Especially considering that, like T. E. D. Klein, McDowell had a reputation as one of the good writers, one of the guys who didn't necessarily see horror as a means to an end, or get all buzzed by the delirously strong market for horror that could in no way ever end because nothing ever ends ever so here's my novel about a vampire country singer GIVE ME MY MONEY. Not that McDowell was necessarily always artistically "pure of heart," which I put in quotes as a way to indicate that not only do I not care, but acknowledge that it's none of my business, if McDowell, as certain quotes from him I've turned up over the years would suggest, was consciously and admittedly writing, if not exactly for a specific market, but writing to be read, which means writing books that would sell. Elmore Leonard did and does that too, and if you have a problem with it, take it up with him.
I'd say take it up with Michael McDowell, but McDowell passed away in 1999, from an AIDS-related illness. At the time, he hadn't published a novel since 1987, though he'd had a few screen credits in the 90s (inlcuding as co-writer of the screenplay for the pretty much completely awful adaptation of Stephen King's Thinner, though I'm perfectly willing to place all the blame for that one on Tom Holland). He hadn't published a novel that was unambiguously part of the horror genre since 1983, when he completed Blackwater, his series of short horror novels. After that, there was Toplin, a book I'm told is not horror, even though I guess it's sometimes mistaken for horror, which must mean something, and a series of Thin Man-esque time-hopping mysteries. A final novel, called Candles Burning, was left unfinished at the time of his death, but was later completed in 2006 by Tabitha King, to, commercially speaking, thudding indifference, though I, for one, am pretty curious about it.

Other than that, he left a couple of pseudonymously written thrillers, and, under his own name, the novels for which he is remembered: The Amulet, Cold Moon Over Babylon, Gilded Needles, Katie, The Elementals, and the aforementioned Blackwater series. At least two of these belong with Toplin as novels that don’t count as horror unless you ask someone who thinks they do. Katie at least sounds like a rather nasty period-set thriller, and Gilded Needles I know for a fact is a rather nasty period-set thriller, Gilded Needles being one of the McDowell novels (one of two, I finally confess, lest my rambling be mistaken for expertise) I’ve read. I liked Gilded Needles a lot – it’s grotesque and high-pulp and set in 19th century New York, so I was sort of on its side before I’d even begun, but McDowell rewarded my faith with a highly entertaining read. But it wasn’t horror, or not quite, or not horror unless you want to get into an argument about it (not with me, but I imagine there’s someone on the internet who’d take you up on that), so after reading the book last year, I still didn’t know what McDowell’s work in that genre was really like. With that in mind, for The Kind of Face You Slash this year, I threw out my opinion-gathering net, seeking thoughts on a good place to start, received a few replies, and finally settled on The Amulet, McDowell’s first novel, from 1979, mostly because that book has been in my library for well over twenty years, and I figured the time had come to finally break the seal.

Thankfully, the genre to which The Amulet belongs is thoroughly unambiguous. It’s sort of an old-fashioned horror novel, at least in its plot if not in McDowell’s approach to it. In the prologue, two men who have recently been drafted into the Army and are in basic training in preparation for being shipped off to fight in Vietnam, are talking about their lot in life. Or rather one of them, Dean Howell, a young man for whom this particular Alabama branch of Army basic training didn’t involve much travel, is talking about his lot in life, and moaning about what he views as the betrayal that landed him here. It has to do with a factory in his hometown of Pine Cone, AL, that puts together rifles for the military, the very rifles these two men are holding and are preparing to use on the firing range. Dean believes he should have been handed a job at that factory by a friend of his who holds a management position there, and that job would have gotten him out of having to go to war. He didn’t get the factory job, however (though his wife did) and now look at him. At around which point the rifle in his hands explodes, shattering his face and skull and part of his brain. But not, crucially, killing him. Unfortunately, perhaps, for him, and very definitely unfortunately for many others.

Before basic training, Dean had been living with his wife Sarah and his mother Josephine, or Jo. Jo, we learn rather quickly, is a woman of fairly dubious morals, and there are rumors that her late husband died of a rather mysterious snakebite. And she’s also just generally awful (and very fat, which is something McDowell doesn’t tire of reminding us about), treating Sarah as her maid – her maid that she treats terribly – even though with Dean, who is now home, little more than a vegetable (despite the fact that his recovery, the doctors say, should have progressed beyond this point), Sarah is the only one bringing any money into the house. So food and doctor’s bills, that’s where Sarah’s paycheck goes, and on top of this, because Jo lets Sarah, her son’s wife, stay in Jo’s house “rent free,” Jo feels it is only proper that Sarah also do everything else under the sun that needs doing. So Sarah’s life is miserable, leavened only by her job at the factory – not because of the job itself, which is grindingly monotonous, but because she works there with her best friend, Becca, a kind and generous single mother who, along with keeping Sarah from losing her mind, also drives her wherever she needs to go, one of Dean’s last acts prior to entering basic training having been to total the family car and not tell Sarah about it.

So that’s the groundwork, and McDowell does a fairly good job of sketching out the hideous expanse of nothingness that would now appear to be Sarah’s life before introducing the horror element. Which, not surprisingly, is an amulet, given by Jo to Larry Coppage, the factory employee and friend of Dean’s who failed in what Dean and Jo considered to be his duty to hand over to Dean a job that would have saved his face, skull, and part of his brain. Larry has come by to sheepishly visit Dean and face Jo’s ignorant wrath when Jo, much to the surprise of Larry and on-looker Sarah, gives him the amulet, stating that Larry’s wife would probably like it. Larry does give it to his wife when he gets home, and later that night, while Larry and his five children are incapacitated by some severe stomach ailment that took hold after dinner, the Coppage house burns down around them all while Mrs. Coppage obliviously tries on the amulet. The next day, in the ruins of the Coppage home, the daughter of a police officer finds the amulet, undamaged, and brings it home to her mother, who later tries it on. Things go badly from there.

First thing's first: that's the structure of The Amulet. That, the amulet passing from dead hand to living hand to dead hand to soon-to-be-dead hand, and long sections in which Sarah alternately wonders if her husband might not be in better shape than he's letting on, and if the amulet could possibly be behind the bizarre and relentless string of local deaths -- mostly murders and possibly suicides, and accidents, all gruesome and horrible. As you might imagine, Sarah has trouble convincing herself of this, but she manages after a while. This is fine, as far as it goes, though this is almost always the most strained element of a horror novel, getting the protagonist to believe the unbelievable so they can defeat it. Okay, but McDowell refuses to progress things until towards the end. The debate is between Sarah and Becca, and Becca continues to want none of this nonsense, which you can hardly blame her for, but I might be willing to let everyone accept this a bit faster if it dispenses with Becca once more saying "Oh no Sarah, not that again! Can't no amulet kill nobody!" For about 150 pages, this is more or less how Sarah's part of the story goes. Her investigation of the matter, such as it is, doesn't really get off the ground until maybe 200 pages in. Maybe.
But The Amulet is something of an odd, galumphing sort of a novel. It almost comes across, or it would come across this way if not for Sarah, as a book of short stories all riffing on a theme, that theme being gruesome murder and death. Some of these are quite good, and quite effectively horrifying. At his best, McDowell's approach to violence is almost dry (there's a lot of dry wit in the early goings of the novel, when he's setting up Pine Cone). The deaths of all the Coppages in particular made me uneasy, especially this passage:

The two fire engines of Pine Cone were driven onto the lawn of the Coppage house, and the hoses were hooked up as quickly as possible; but it was impossible to save the building. It was not known at first whether the Coppages were still inside or if they had escaped and were at a neighbor's or somewhere in the gathering crowd. Their names were called continuously. Then the eldest boy, only six, jumped from his bedroom window. He caught his foot in the gutter, twisted around, and dropped headfirst onto the brick steps. He died in a fireman's arms.

This is better than, for instance, later on when two women die in a beauty salon, and McDowell seems almost to be parodying trendy horror gorefests when he has one of them get decapitated by a ceiling fan, which she fell back into from the top of a stepladder. I feel like this is maybe a tad implausible, and is either there because gore is what you write about when you write horror, or, as I said, but didn't mean, that McDowell was satirizing it. If he was satirizing it, that's a strange idea to be shoehorning into this particular book. In any case, what's good about this stuff, or interesting when it's not quite good, is that these sections of the book -- and there are several -- do very nearly function as short stories. Short stories that, if they were stand alone, would end quite abruptly and shockingly, even nonsensically, but still about different people in different environments, facing sudden horror. Plus, within a linear novel it might not have seemed feasible to McDowell to expand on these in the way that he might have liked to.

And yet. By the end, the cumulative effect of The Amulet is fairly strong. This is pure speculation, but it feels like McDowell knew he had to hammer his way through the plot, such as it is, to get to the end, and in order for that ending to have any impact there had to be a pretty broad swath of bodies leading towards it. On top of that, the ending has an element of payback -- going two ways, as a matter of fact -- and there needed to be a motivation for that. So pile of bodies, motivation for vengeance...he wanted to write that, but not any of the connective tissue. William Goldman got around the same desire to not write certain parts of his novel The Princess Bride with the ingenious idea of presenting his original story as the abridged version of something much older. The problem with ideas that perfect and specific is it can only be done once, so if McDowell was actually staring down a book fifty per cent of which he didn't want to write, he just had to do it. I wonder if this might have anything to do with certain threads left dangling: what happens to the surviving daughter of one of the slaughtered couples, or what Dean is actually capable of. Or where'd the amulet even come from? That's the other strange thing about all this -- I don't necessarily need or even want answers to those questions, but McDowell is apparently so willing to beat the "Can an amulet kill people?" question into the dirt that it's curious, though not necessarily bad, that he's fine letting so many seemingly more urgent questions drop off the planet. It's as if McDowell didn't even want this to be a novel.

But it's a good ending, chilling and appropriate. It makes the novel seem better to me some days after I finished it than it did as I read it. But pretty clearly it's the moment he was writing towards the whole time, and I have to admit, he got there.


Noumenon said...

"In any case, what's good about this stuff, or interesting when it's not quite good, is that these sections of the book -- and there are several -- do very nearly function as short stories. Short stories that, if they were stand alone, would end quite abruptly and shockingly, even nonsensically, but still about different people in different environments, facing sudden horror. Plus, within a linear novel it might not have seemed feasible to McDowell to expand on these in the way that he might have liked to."

Is this in any way similar to the effect of Pontypool Changes Everything? My enduring impression of that is one of meandering incidents linked by a general situation, even though while reading they often occur without obvious connection towards a strong central plot.

You are, of course, directly responsible for me having read it at all, not to mention watching the film. So, "thanks".

bill r. said...

No, PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING is, if it's anything definable, more like a picaresque, I think. Maybe? But THE AMULET literally has chapters that tell more or less entire stories about characters we either barely knew or didn't know at all until the chapter began, and who were dead by chapter's end. These chapters are very nearly self contained, and don't have the flow of a journey that I remember being an element of PONTYPOOL.

Also, "thanks" in quotes? Didn't you like them?

Noumenon said...

On the contrary. Please remove those quote marks.

Taidan said...

Glad you generally liked it, but I would highly recommend the Blackwater series as some of his very best work.

lrobhubbard said...

Actually, GIVE ME MY MONEY is NOT a bad idea...