Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 8: Only Her Own Blood

Four years ago, I wrote about a story by Patrick McGrath called "Cleave the Vampire, or A Gothic Pastorale" which was part of editor Michele Slung's 1992 anthology I Shudder at Your Touch. I don't believe I went into much detail about what that book was all about, but basically, and perhaps one can even deduce this from the title, Slung's book was a collection of horror stories revolving around sex in some way. The subtitle is 22 Tales of Sex and Horror, so there's your proof. In another context I do believe I've said this before, but I'm at least wary of art that attempts to wed horror to sex, not because I'm any kind of prude, but because by and large the presentation of it tends to be "Look, here's some sex, but uh oh right next to it is some horror, and now the horror is on top of the sex. Did I shock you?" I don't take any particular issue with it until I'm being asked to take it seriously, which, even then, I would do, if there was anything worth taking seriously. In film, two directors who routinely pair sex and horror in ways that feel meaningful to me are David Cronenberg and Jean Rollin, but I rarely see anything like that in the horror fiction I read. It can happen, but it's rare. Too often the writer thinks their job is done simply by having the idea.

Before reversing myself, I should also add that as a younger man I would have defined sex in this equation as axiomatically synonymous with eroticism, though in my defense the fiction and films of this type I was taking in rarely gave me reason to define anything more broadly. And this is how I approached I Shudder at Your Touch, which to this day I've read very little of, and anyway the cover would indicate that I was probably right anyway. Well, I wasn't. Or I'm guessing I wasn't. Among the writers included in that book who hardly seem the type to fall into the easy sex/death/horror/boobs pit where most such fiction has been piling up are Ruth Rendell, Robert Aickman, Thomas M. Disch, Michael Blumlein, and Angela Carter. And perhaps more to the point, McGrath's "Cleave the Vampire" is not like that at all. So sex, I'm betting, manifests itself in any number of ways both in Slung's approach as editor, and in the fiction she's collected together.

This has been borne out by my reading for today, which was not taken by I Shudder at Your Touch, but rather from Slung's 1993 follow up anthology called Shudder Again. Among the writers represented there are Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Ligotti, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison. Plus there are the two writers who wrote the stories actually under discussion today, J. G. Ballard and Elizabeth Jane Howard. So clearly I'm an idiot.
Where to begin with J. G. Ballard? I would say that of all the writers I read on a semi-regular basis -- of his work, I've so far read seven novels, one collection of short stories, and a random scatter of short fiction outside of that -- Ballard is the most frustrating and baffling, but endlessly compelling to the point that I obviously keep coming back. Best known as the author of the sex-and-car-crashes classic Crash (read), the autobiographical and Booker-shortlisted Empire of the Sun (not read), Ballard, who passed away in 2009, began his career more or less unambiguously as a science fiction writer, and while most of his books and stories would fall in that general area, it was science fiction unlike any other writer was even thinking about, much less trying. If science fiction is defined by the extrapolation of current technological or sociological trends and ideas, then even Crash could be said to belong to the genre. His brand of SF is, anyway, very psychological, and cold, and filled with abandoned airports and sick surgeons and the deaths of cities and the disappearance of humanity. His style, and here is I guess my problem, tends to follow suit, in that any baroque quality is in what is being described, and what is being described is done so with computer-like precision. His words themselves have the chill of metal to them.

I don't know how to describe J. G. Ballard, is what I'm trying to say. I've struggled with each of his books that I've read, but have never left one unfinished. There is something about him, for good and ill, and there was no one else like him, nor will they be. To try to write like him is to copy him outright, I would imagine. And as fate would have it, the good and the ill come into play in the story Michele Slung included in Shudder Again, "A Host of Furious Fancies." I think it would be a simplification to say that Ballard was a Freudian, but at the same time he wasn't not a Freudian, and anyway "A Host of Furious Fancies" strikes me as pretty Freudian. It's about a young heiress who, following the accidental death of her mother, and the eventual suicide of her wealthy father, winds up in a Catholic hospice. In a typically strange bit of Ballard plotting, she is tracked down there by Dr. Charcot, a dermatologist for some reason, who doesn't know a thing about her but whose interest in her case was piqued after snooping the open file left out by his psychiatrist colleague (at an American clinic in Nice where they both worked, which is another curiously Ballardian detail). Charcot, dermatology expertise be damned, goes about treating the girl, sort of, and trying to shield her from the threat of a successful pop-mystic psychiatrist who also takes up the girl's cause.

If this story is a horror story, and I understand the argument that it is, that all comes in something of a rush of revelations in the final pages. It's difficult, therefore, to describe the horror fiction qualities of "A Host of Furious Fancies" without giving a bunch of stuff away, but suffice it to say, the girl's psychic breakdown has something to do with the story of Cinderella, and much of the horror has to do with who Prince Charming was, and is, and will be. It's creepy, but also easy. I feel like Ballard is making some sort of joke here, plunking a dermatologist into the middle of a situation he should have nothing to do with, professionally and personally, and having him take the reins with all the confidence and arrogance of Freud himself. I suspect there is the joke there, but as is usually the case with Ballard, it's not the kind of joke you're necessarily meant or expected to laugh at. This story is rather like a condensed Patrick McGrath novel in that way, though it's more reminiscent of Ballard as I'm used to him in that I don't really have any idea what to think of it. I'm sorry if that seems like I'm cheating.
A story that is more traditionally horror, and easier to write and have an opinion about, is the second story I read from Slung's book, Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Mr. Wrong." For most of the time I've been aware of Howard, I've known her as the second and last wife of one of my favorite writers, Kingsley Amis, and the stepmother of another one of my favorite writers, Martin Amis. But she was, and is, her own writer, known best for a series of novels about a family during World War II, known collectively, I've gathered, as the Cazalet Chronicle. But like so many other British writers, she also has has an affinity for horror fiction. As a matter of fact, there's a rather curious book out there called We Are for the Dark, which is comprised of six horror stories, three by Howard, and three by Robert Aickman, who I think I've mentioned here from time to time. When the book was first published in 1951, the stories were not attributed to either author, though when Tartarus Press reprinted the book in 2011 this was either corrected or altered, depending on the original intention. Anyhow, that's a connection that intrigues me.

And "Mr. Wrong" is quite good, one of the most relentlessly heartbreaking horror stories I've read in some time. It's about a shy, not terribly attractive young woman who moves from her quiet and confining home to London, where she spends much of the story failing to make a go of it. She shares an apartment with too beautiful and reasonably nice young women who she nevertheless fails to become close friends with, she has a monotonous job at an antiques story owned by a friendly but moody man named Mr. Whitehorn, she owns a car paid for by her parents, whom she visits as often as she can, and she is just basically unhappy, a state that doesn't require the regular stomping down of her spirit by a host of cruel individuals to attain. This is one of the strengths of Howard's story -- it describes a sadness that is not caused, but simply is. Meg meets no men and therefore can't be rejected, she happily awaits a shared home cooked dinner with one of her roommates until that roommate is called away and Meg is left alone to watch television. She notes how her other roommate seems to find endless ways to style her hair, inspiring Meg one night "to do her hair at least one other way." But of course even this doesn't work out.

The horror comes, oddly enough, through the car she buys with her parents money. The car turns out to be haunted. She suspects this at first from strange, sourceless noises -- sounds of breathing -- she hears while driving to see her parents one weekend, and later has confirmed when she stops to pick up a young female hitchhiker on a particular stretch of road one night in the rain. As that young woman is getting into her backseat, a man opens the front passenger door and gets in. A strange, uncomfortable conversation follows, during which the woman in the backseat refuses to say a word, and the unpleasant man in the front speaks of, among other things, his interest in real-life murder cases. Along the way, the man asks her to pull over so he can go into the woods and relieve himself, and while he's gone the young woman vanishes. Upon his return, the man pleads ignorance of the whereabouts or even existence of the woman, who Meg naturally assumed was with him. But Meg is no fool, and she ends this frightening encounter by pulling into a well-lighted gas station, telling the man she doesn't like or trust him, and commands him to leave, which he does.

Meg will go on to learn much that explains at least part of what happened that night, and the story ends up in a place you might expect. I don't know. It's devastating, predictable or not, because Howard spends a lot of this long-ish story -- almost forty pages -- putting the reader in Meg's skin, and it's such an empty, sad place to be that any possible speck of happiness is clutched at by us as much as it is by her, only to have it blow away again like ash. There are a couple of instances of strange and awkward alliteration (which Kingsley Amis must have hated), but otherwise "Mr. Wrong" is terrific, with the kind of attention to and use of just the right detail, or phrasing, to bring everything to the rainy, melancholy, solitary kind of life that Howard is portraying. There's the line about Meg doing her hair that I quoted above, and any number of other examples, such as when her roommate offers to shop for dinner for the two of them, and Howard writes:

Meg felt this was terrible kind of Val, who was also pretty stunning, but in a less romantic way. Neither of the girls had ever shopped for her before; perhaps Val was going to become her friend.

That's just too much. And then for the story to go where it's just too much.


John said...

...and the mother of another one of my favorite writers, Martin Amis.

Don't you mean "stepmother"?

bill r. said...

Oops! Yes I do. Thanks, and fixed.

lrobhubbard said...

"Ballard, who passed away in 1978..."

WTF?!?! Then who died in 2009, then?

bill r. said...

Oh for God's sake! The one time I don't proofread one of these the night before...

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