Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: Striking a Few Villainous Chords

The attempts of mechanicians to imitate, with more or less approximation to accuracy, the human organs in the production of musical sounds, or to substitute mechanical appliances for those organs, I consider tantamount to a declaration of war against the spiritual element in music; but the greater the forces they array against it, the more victorious it is. - from "Automata" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

E. T. A. Hoffmann was devoted to music, it was his greatest passion, and most of his creative life was given over to it, either as a composer, music director, critic, or performer, so it is a grand and tragic irony that the piece of music with which he is most associated wasn't written by him -- in fact, the man had hastened along with booze what was probably his impending doom anyway, long before it was written. I am speaking, of course, about Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, written around 1879. The libretto of The Tales of Hoffmann takes as its spine a loose adaptation of three of Hoffman's fantastic and tragic stories, "fantastic and tragic" being one way you might go about beginning to define horror, as a genre.

Hoffmann took his fiction seriously, though it was a practical occupation for him. According to E. F. Bleiler's quite thorough introduction to my 1967 Dover edition of The Best Tales of Hoffman, his writing, which did include a quite successful and influential period as a music critic, was the main thing keeping the wolves from his door (his writing, and one very generous friend). After a while, there was no hope of Hoffmann finding success as a composer and so he had to move on. To drink mainly, it would seem, but to writing, too, and his stories have survived almost two hundred years. His music hasn't; according to Bleiler, not only are most of his compositions lost, but they weren't even very good. His most successful piece, an opera called Undine, is praised by Bleiler as "a capable work, on the whole very pleasing." And you can take that to the bank!

You can still find Hoffmann's work in print -- he wrote several novels (Bleiler is very keen on one called The Devil's Elixir) you can find, and any number of collections of his stories, though I have yet to see anything called The Complete Tales of Hoffmann, which is an odd thing, and I hope I'm simply not looking hard enough. In any case, the collection you'll most often hear about and stumble across is the aforementioned The Best Tales of Hoffmann, which contains ten of his stories including the three that were adapted into Offenbach's opera. I read those three, plus one other called "Automata" just for the hell of it, sort of, but which anyway turned out to be entirely of a piece with "A New Year's Eve Adventure," "Rath Krespel," and what John Sladek considers Hoffman's most horrific tale, "The Sand-Man."

Of course, not even Offenbach has managed to swallow Hoffmann completely, because in 1951 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made film version of his opera, and so The Tales of Hoffmann is now more of a Powell and Pressburger thing than it is an Offenbach thing, and certainly more than it is an E. T. A. Hoffmann thing. Which, you know, if you have to be dead and your name forever associated with a couple of 20th century filmmakers, that's pretty good. But what are these tales, and what was done to them? In his essay on The Best Tales of Hoffmann in Horror: 100 Best Books, John Sladek isn't wrong when he says "In 'The Sand-Man,' the nightmare is relentless." It's about a man named Nathanael who, as a young boy, is terrified by stories about The Sandman, that otherworldly being who sprinkles sand into the eyes of children to make them sleep, and later associates that with a vile business associate of his father's, named Coppelius. Coppelius's work is mysterious, Nathanael's father his one employee, and it eventually is the death of the poor man, though not Coppelius. And so for the rest of his life Nathanael is obsessed by Coppelius, believing the man to haunt his very existence, until he one day falls in love with Olimpia, a strange, beautiful, but utterly blank girl, the true nature of whom the reader well knows.

"The Sand-Man" is eerily prescient in the same way Frankenstein has been (a comparison Sladek makes), as well as despairing, hopeless, a headlong plunge into ruin. It is also an elaborate fantasy in that it imagines a world on the cusp of being overwhelmed by automatons indistinguishable, except perhaps for the then-undefined "uncanny valley," from your neighbor. It is this, more than the horror of its tragedy, that Powell and Pressburger (and presumably Offenbach, though I'll belatedly admit that my experience with his opera comes only from the film) latch onto. In their film's first act, "The Tale of Olympia," an extremely free adaptation of a small portion of "The Sand-Man," is actually almost light-hearted, goofy in its surrealism, but in addition to inexplicable bits of strange imagery that pop up here and there, an undeniable uneasiness creeps in, exactly the uneasiness that so disturbed Hoffmann. The stage is overrun with gaudily dressed and brightly colored automatons, the air is festive, but the eyes are empty, the corners of the mouths turn neither up nor down, and the inevitable result is that their capering is grotesque and cold.

Hoffmann's "A New Year's Eve Adventure" at first seems like it might be just the thing to supply Powell and Pressburger with a similar tone for their take on "The Tale of Giulietta," Offenbach's second act, but the story, like every Hoffmann story I read, is almost a collection of stories in itself. In it, our point of view comes from a man named The Travelling Enthusiast, who drifts through a romantically disastrous New Year's Eve party and into a couple of bars where he meets a man who casts no shadow and a man whose reflection doesn't appear in mirrors. Melancholy and fanciful, until The Travelling Enthusiast encounters one tale after another and Hoffmann drops us further down until we learn the awful story of Erasmus Spikher, the man with no reflection, and it's a story of weakness, murder, obsession, and demonic seduction. Spikher informs the Enthusiast that he journeyed with great excitement to Italy, where his unwillingness to cheat on his wife despite the encouragement to do just that by virtually everyone around him marks him, ironically, and quite against the EC Comics style of moral horror, as a target for Giulietta, a soul-hungry succubus who sets about destroying his life.

Powell and Pressburger (and Offenbach, or mainly Offenbach, I know, I'm tired of covering my ass every time!) wisely choose Spikher's story as the focus of the adaptation, leaving out The Travelling Enthusiast, the New Year's Eve party, the bars, the man with no shadow, in favor of the bold fantasy of, as Hoffmann called it, "The Story of the Lost Reflection." It's kind of a swashbuckler, too, and visually calls to mind the 1940 film version of The Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell served as a co-director. But it's the dark elements -- even if it all leads towards a rather more optimistic finale than Hoffmann's original -- and the surprisingly frank, if still coy, sexual elements that distinguish "The Tale of Giulietta." I don't want to go nuts here, but in its creepy approach to high fantasy, "The Tale of Giulietta" feels like part of the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. But I said I didn't want to go nuts! It's just that there's a swordfight on what appears to be, though must not technically be, Charon's boat as it sails along the Styx, or a river that brings the Styx to mind. It's foggy and weird, with, again, like "The Tale of Olympia," occasional shots depicting things you can't quite understand. The film's disturbing "What is that exactly?" tone really takes hold here.

Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier, and Powell and Pressburger, finally adapted Hoffmann's sad and mysterious "Rath Krespel." It's the story of a deeply eccentric violin maker named Krespel, beloved by all for his charmingly odd way of going about life -- the first pages of the story focus on the building of his unusual house, and the celebration that follows its completion -- and his astonishing musical talents. But when our narrator learns that Krespel keeps as an apparent hostage a young girl named Antonia, who possesses, the narrator is told, an unspeakably sublime singing voice, a darker side of Krespel is hinted at. And indeed, as the narrator learns more, the more insane he appears. The two men become friends, and the narrator is even allowed to meet Antonia, but when the narrator's attempts to make the girl sing become more transparent, Krespel snaps, and expresses his outrage all the more frightening as it mixes affection with violence. To the narrator, Krespel says:

"In very truth, my esteemed and hounourable student friend, in very truth it would be a violation of the codes of social intercourse, as well as of all good manners, were I to express aloud and in a stirring way my wish that here, on this very spot, the devil from hell would softly break your neck with his burning claws, and so in a sense make short work of you; but, setting that aside, you must acknowledge, my dearest friend, that it is rapidly growing dark, and there are no lamps burning tonight so that, even though I did not kick you downstairs at once, your darling limbs might still run a risk of suffering damage. Go home by all means; and cherish a kind remembrance of your faithful friend, if it should happen that you never -- pray, understand me -- if you should never see him in his own house again."

I love that "softly break your neck," not to mention "setting that aside." As it turns out, though, mad or not, Krespel has an excellent reason for his behavior, as we learn through another of Hoffmann's tale-within-a-tale that reveals who Antonia is, and what, or who, is the true source of her danger.

For once, Powell and Pressburger actually pile on the horror. Though the tone of "The Tale of Antonia" is as melancholy as "Rath Krespel," it alters Antonia's history, and brings in a true villain in the form of Doctor Miracle, a character cobbled together from other Hoffmann stories, and so it becomes almost a classic tale of good and evil. The core idea of Antonia's character as imagined by Hoffmann is a rather ingenious fantasy concept -- might as well say, though not why, if she continues to sing she'll die -- that pays off, if that's the phrase, with the bluntest climax I've seen from Hoffmann. Powell and Pressburger, even with their addition of naked villainy, smooths that out, not by eliminating it but by casting events in a heavenly golden shine. It is, and this certainly seems logical, in fact quite the tonal opposite of Hoffman in that, instead of ending as sharply as the chop of a butcher's knife, it ends with an operatic upswell. The film's tragedy is grand, while the story's is simply lights out.

In Hoffmann's stories, his heroes had many names, as you'd expect, or none, in the case of the young attorney in "Rath Krespel," but Offenbach made the hero of his versions E. T. A. Hoffmann himself. Bleiler's introduction offers a good bit of biography, but he can only go so far in terms of the man's romantic life, but nevertheless Offenbach's choice seems right. The horror of love, to borrow a phrase, via the title of a novel by Jean Dutourd, appears in these stories in very similar way, the obsessions combine into a motif that sprawls over many stories, the terror of the artificial encroaching on the natural casts a shadow like the Angel of Death. In the opera, Hoffmann taking on the role of the protagonist feels like a choice that Hoffmann simply couldn't bring himself to make himself. At the end of the Powell and Pressburger film, Hoffmann's final slump is meant to be that of a drunk man losing consciousness, but looks very much like a man dying. Hoffmann's own death was at the very least sped along by alcohol, so intentional or not it's gloomily fitting. And after all those bright colors and all that sweeping music, all that imagination and vibrancy, for E. T. A. Hoffmann to end up like that...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 30: Good Fare, Some Accommodation

What specifically the above book cover is meant to communicate, as the image pertains either to the book's contents or to Robert Aickman in general, is difficult to figure. Granted, when it comes to Aickman's stories I tend to bounce around, never reading a collection straight through but rather picking among the various tables of content for a title that catches my eye, or for a story I've heard something interesting about but haven't yet gotten around to, so maybe somewhere in Cold Hand in Mine there is in fact a story about a beaked and handless armored hedgehog soldier and his dead Indian chief pal having adventures on an alien planet (maybe "Pages From a Young Girl's Journal," I haven't read that one yet), but even if not, and even though I doubt this ever entered anyone's mind along the road to publishing this particular edition of Aickman's classic 1975 collection, the very inexplicability of the image would seem to be, or could be said to be, the whole point. Aickman's reputation as a horror writer, apart from his quite frankly exquisite prose talents, rests on his special gift for creating haunting stories whose eeriness lingers because the reader's ability to to coherently describe what he or she has just read will always be very sorely tested. By which I mean, describe it in terms of "This happened and then this happened, and it all happened because of this." Aickman will not allow this.

If you've never read Aickman -- and if not what's your deal, I've pushed him on you guys often enough, God knows -- you shouldn't take the preceding paragraph to mean that a typical Aickman story features a guy sitting in a museum when suddenly a unicorn walks up to him and they eat peas together THE END. Although absurdity does play a part, even a large part, in his fiction, it is not merely absurd, nor does the absurdity overwhelm the story (though the most surrealistic Aickman story I've read, "Growing Boys," comes close). These elements, which are invariably unnerving in ways that are not always easy to pinpoint, are woven through the lives of his characters, even if only for a brief period of time. It may only be a day out of the decades of life to be lived by a given character, but as Aickman describes these strange -- and that's the word; it is, in fact, Aickman's preferred description -- events they can briefly seem, if not natural, then at least among those things that sometimes people have to deal with. Somehow, Aickman describes the strangest occurrences with a very precise verisimilitude.

Readers familiar with Aickman will probably find that description to be inaccurate as a general description of his body of work, but you must forgive me because at the moment my head is full of one particular story of his, one of his best-known and most-anthologized, called "The Hospice." And I do think the previous paragraph contains a workable description of this, one of his genuine masterpieces. Writing about "The Hospice" presents two problems, one of them being a problem that would spring up when writing about anything by Aickman: one is, how do you describe the indescribable without killing the impact for those who don't know the story; and two, how do you write about a story that you (me) honestly thinks is perfect? Given that opinion, it's entirely clear to me that there is nothing I can say about "The Hospice" that would not be better and more clearly, and I don't use that word ironically, expressed by the reading of "The Hospice" itself. I've read many stories by Robert Aickman over the years, and it's just now, with this story, that I found the one that is plainly the best introduction to his work for newcomers. This isn't to say it's my favorite -- that honor still goes to "The Inner Room," my favorite horror story of all time -- but to understand what Aickman is all about, "The Hospice" is where you should turn.

I will continue my pattern of beginning a new paragraph by referring to the contents of the previous one by assuring you that none of the above is my way of saying "And that's why I'm not going to describe 'The Hospice' to you," though my fear of ruining the experience remains. Nevertheless: Lucas Maybury has finished work at a location that, the reader gathers, is not familiar to him. Wishing he could simply "follow a route 'given' by one of the automobile organizations," he is instead bullied by the manager of the location to take a supposedly shorter route home, one whose benefits have been proven -- again, supposedly -- time and again. But Maybury experiences none of those benefits, and instead is soon lost, and his car is running out of gas. He gets out of his car and walks a bit, and is soon attacked what he, in the darkness, assumes is a cat. It bites his leg, and he kicks back savagely. "The strange sequel was silence," Aickman writes.

Eventually he finds, as you do, a place -- there are no other houses or buildings of any sort in sight -- where he might find food, gas, a phone, something. There is a sign at the entrance that reads: "The Hospice -- Good Fare -- Some Accommodation." Upon entering and asking for food -- and being followed into the restroom by a white-jacketed server while he quickly washes up -- he is shown to the dining room, the walls of which are covered with heavy, massive hangings, the reason for these being "possibly noise reduction":

It is true that knives and forks make a clatter, but there appeared to be no other immediate necessity for costly noise abatement, as the diners were all extremely quiet; which at first seemed the more unexpected in that most of them were seated, fairly closely packed, at a single long table running down the central axis of the room. Maybury soon reflected, however, that if he had been wedged together with a party of total strangers, he might have found little to say to them either.

This was not put to the test. On each side of the room were four smaller tables, set endways against the walls, every table set for a single person, even though big enough to accommodate four, two on either side: and at one of these, Maybury was settled by the handsome lad in the white jacket.

Immediately, soup arrived.

And so the strangeness begins. The food, which is served in enormous quantities, seems to be good enough, but Maybury's inability to finish a course drives the woman serving him to scold him and smash his plate on the floor. He notices, too, upon leaving the dining room that one other diner is attached by a string to a rail that runs around the room. Maybury's pleas to Falkner, the manager of the hospice, to help him find gas, seem to fall on sympathetic ears, yet he comes away from it all without any gas. There is no phone, a bit of information Maybury doesn't believe but he can't do anything about it. The potential for a sexual encounter with a strange, beautiful, "tragic" woman he first saw across the dining room tempts him in a way that belies his worries that his wife Angela will be horribly worried if he's not home soon.
It's all very subtle, and the eeriness is almost more of a nuisance, certainly as Aickman describes Maybury's reaction to it, than anything else. Along the way, and as the strangeness deepens -- and you are not wrong if you believe that Maybury will probably be forced to accept a room for the night -- bits of the kind of man Maybury is are revealed. At one point, through Falkner's attempts to be accommodating, Maybury is paired off with a sad, shrunken man named Bannard, who is delighted by the company as he is, he says, quite lonely. Bannard, a true believer in whatever The Hospice is, is clearly a long-term resident -- is his apparent lack of life experience a result of his being there so long, or is he there because it's the only place he can exist without hassle? Either way, he quizzes Maybury with great interest:

"Tell us about it," said Bannard. "Tell us exactly what it's like to be a married man. Has it changed your whole life? Transformed everything?"

"Not exactly," [said Maybury]. "In any case, I married years ago."

"So now there is someone else. I understand."

"No, actually, there is not."

"Love's old sweet song still sings to you?"

"If you like to put it like that, yes. I love my wife. Besides she's ill. And we have a son. There's him to consider too."

"How old is your son?"

"Nearly sixteen."

"What colour are his hair and eyes?"

"Really, I'm not sure. No particular colour. He's not a baby, you know."

"Are his hands still soft?"

"I shouldn't think so."

"Do you love your son, then?"

"In his own way, yes, of course."

A terrifically strange conversation -- funny, pathetic, unnerving, revealing. It reveals a coldness in Maybury, an absence of affectionate emotion, but what does that "In his own way," as opposed to the clearer and more appropriate "In my own way" reveal? Nothing too good, I'd wager, but it's a very curious bit of phrasing. This is the other thing about Aickman -- if his stories make no logical sense, that is not because he's ignorant of actual humanity.

The ending is one of Aickman's best, and I won't say a word about it. The story comes together, to the degree that it does come together, in a way that was entirely unexpected to me, but unquestionably right on target. It also, in the way Aickman goes about this sort of thing, moves the story from an ambiguous strangeness into legitimate, yet still deeply ambiguous, horror. It is, as I've said, perfect, the kind of ending that all great short stories have, one that is completely of a piece with what has come before, and crystallizes everything into a final paragraph that is inevitable and powerful.

I was talking to a Arion Berger about this story when she was considering covering it herself, and I had to admit I'd never read it. Considering the place "The Hospice" has among Aickman's work, this, I said, was a little bit like a Faulkner fan admitting that they'd never read As I Lay Dying. In retrospect, this was an interesting comparison. And you shouldn't assume that I've just now accidentally revealed too much, but then again, who knows?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 29: An Exquisitely Beautiful Skeleton

by Philip Tatler IV
Thinking it would boost her profile, Karen Blixen wrote under the male pseudonym “Isak Dinesen” for most of her career. Blixen/Dinesen is, of course, known best for her novel Out of Africa and her short story “Babette’s Feast,” both of which were adapted into acclaimed films (she also wrote “The Immortal Story,” which was adapted by Blixen uber-fan Orson Welles and unfortunately remains unavailable on DVD).

From the little bit of digging I did for this piece, Blixen sounds like a fascinating woman. She led a hardscrabble, lion-killing life in Kenya before returning to her native Denmark, where she started her official writing career at the age of 39, when she published Seven Gothic Tales.

What drew me to Dinesen’s Tales was its recent publication over at The Folio Society. (I imagine Bill has a healthy amount of bibliophiles that visit this blog so let me heartily recommend you folks head over to the Folio Society’s site and empty what’s left of your coffers; it’ll be worth the bankruptcy proceedings that follow, I promise!) I was also intrigued when, upon researching her, I discovered that both she and her father had contracted syphilis. He was diagnosed with it when Dinesen was 10 and promptly killed himself. She was 25 and living in Africa and suspected her husband’s infidelity as the root cause. I bring this up not for shock value, but because I think it has some bearing on the Dinesen story I chose for today's piece. Back to that in a second.

First, there's the term "Gothic" -- defining which is a bit of a sticky wicket; the term has become warped beyond recognition. For most people, "Gothic" has become truncated to "goth" and is used solely to describe those unfortunate teenagers with black lipstick and no curfews that haunt the malls looking for fellow Type O Negative fans. I'll revert to the loose description employed by H.P. Lovecraft in his Supernatural Horror in Literature:

...the infinite array of stage properties which include strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All of this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel...

That's not really even a proper definition of "Gothic" so much as a cataloging of the elements which inform the style. However, Lovecraft's elements stack up nicely enough to convey what I think most readers of this blog think of when they hear the word. In essence, Gothic stories are fairy tales for adults, the logic of the fairy tales warping with age and taking on the more sinister stains of the mature world.

The story I chose was "The Monkey" and it certainly has some of the “stage properties” Lovecraft mentions. “Monkey” is, for me, another evocative word. Like extraterrestrials, I find primates upsetting on a soul-deep level. It’s their “same-but-other”-ness that gives me a chronic case of the willies. Humanoid in shape, beastly in manner, too smart for their own good. I figured a Gothic tale called “The Monkey” would do the trick on a cold autumn night.

In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe,” the story begins, “there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.

The setting is remote, off-kilter: a nunnery for women who aren’t religious and who are, in fact, desperate to be married off to whomever will take them. The convent is presided over by an imposing Prioress who keeps a pet monkey from Zanzibar, gifted to her by a suitor. The women joke that the creature is the Prioress’s Geheimrat or “secret counselor.”

…it would be found … in the library, pulling out brittle folios a hundred years old, and scattering over the black-and-white marble floor browned leaves dealing with strategy, princely marriage contracts, and witches’ trials.

The monkey has interesting, and significant, choices in reading material. It also has, Dinesen reminds us several times, glittering eyes, which made me wonder if she hadn’t read Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” at some point before writing this.
The story begins with a visit to the convent from the Prioress’s nephew, Boris Boris has recently become embroiled in a career-damaging controversy “(connected) somehow with those sacred shores of ancient Greece they had till now held in high esteem”, which is Dinesen’s polite way of telling us that Boris is either a homosexual or a pedophile. Either way, he’s not exactly pursuing interests that are encouraged in nineteenth century Europe, especially within the military. This kerfuffle has driven him to the arms of his aunt.

Initially, Boris is the soft center of the tale and presumably our surrogate. Boris is a young man “under some great agitation of mind” and therefore immediately sympathetic. The convent gives him “an unsure welcome, as if he might have been … a young priest of black magic, still within hope of conversion.” His last hope to save face is to marry a woman and, since his aunt’s convent is chockablock with eligible virgins of various ages, he’s come to the right place.

However, his aunt’s solution to the quandary is to do a bit of outsourcing; she suggests he marry Athena, his childhood playmate and the daughter of a local Count. The Count’s star has fallen a bit; his fortune has been sliding, “House of Usher”-style, into decadence for years, as it’s been tied up in a legal battle the Count expects to die fighting. “Athena,” the Prioress points out, “has never had an offer of marriage in her life.” We learn later that Athena has been virtually the Count’s only companion and he has, in turn, raised her as something like a son. Her manliness is emphasized in Dinesen’s description (“a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat”) so, if Boris’s predilections lie that way, it’s more than implied that Athena’s a viable close second.

“If Athena will not have you, my little Boris,” his aunt says, “I will.” The statement is equally playful and presciently menacing. Boris is too desperate (and weak of character) to protest and he’s immediately off to the Count’s to plead his case.

Throughout “The Monkey”, Dinesen effortlessly weaves layers of biblical and Classical allusion, while also drawing heavily on folk myths of the region, to create an atmosphere thick with transcendent tradition. Two asides – before we even dig into the paranormal meat of the plot – keep the Gothic torch burning. As Boris rides to the Count’s castle, he is suddenly struck by the enchanting landscape:

…[It] seemed cool, all blue and pale gold. Boris was able now to believe what the old gardener at the convent had told him when he was a child: that he had once seen, about this time of the year and the day, a herd of unicorns come out of the woods to graze upon the sunny slopes… The air smelled of fir leaves and toadstools, and was so fresh that it made him yawn.

During the journey, Boris has another recollection of a time when he and a friend were travelling this same countryside on a three week holiday:

One night they had come, very tired, to a farmhouse in a grass field, and had been given a large bed in a room that had in it a grandfather’s clock and a dim looking-glass. Just as the clock was striking twelve, three quite young girls appeared on the threshold in their shifts, each with a lighted candle in her hand, but the night was so clear that the little flames looked only like little drops of the moon. They clearly did not know that two wayfaring young men had been taken in… and the guests watched them in deep silence from behind the hangings of the big bed… one by one they dropped their slight garments on the floor and quite naked that walked up to the mirror and looked into it… absorbed in the picture. Then they blew out their candles, and in the same solemn silence they walked backward to the door… and disappeared… The two boys remembered that this was Walpurgis Night, and decided that what they had witnessed was some witchcraft by which these girls had hoped to catch a glimpse of their future husbands.

Not for nothing does Boris recall this instant. To him marriage – and women – are an eerie, mystifying, erotic mess that he’d probably rather view from “behind the hangings of the big bed.”

This is the whimsical stuff of fairy tales – certainly an important element in horror, Gothic and otherwise. The sinister side of the fairy tale coin – the witches who eat children, the trolls under bridges, wolves who stalk grandmothers – enters the story soon enough. Pulling up to Hopballehus – the Count’s estate – Boris is greeted by his potential father-in-law:

...the old Count appeared at the top step, standing like Samson when in wrath he broke down the temple of the Philistines… his mighty head surrounded by a mane of wild gray hair, like a poet’s or a lion’s… scrutinizing his visitor, like an old man gorilla outside his lair, ready for the attack… imposing upon (Boris) a presence such as the Lord himself might have shown had he descended, for once, the ladder of Jacob.
Obviously, the Count isn’t a man to be trifled with. Dinesen has constructed the story in such a way as to make us immediately defensive of young, sensitive Boris in the face of this imposing man. However, the tone shifts and the Count is immediately warm toward Boris. He enthuses over his recent legal victories, which have effectively restored the Count’s fortune and good name. He doesn’t hesitate to offer up the hand of his virtuous, strong-willed daughter (pending, of course, Athena’s acceptance of the arrangement). Everything becomes very “Happily Ever After” very quickly.

Except, there’s about two thirds of the story to go and Dinesen has very carefully left crooked signposts along the way that suggest we’re not in a safe world. There’s the unicorn, the witches, the bizarre aunt-nephew relationship, the oddly close (again, echoes of Usher) father-daughter relationship, and that damn monkey, who disappears after he’s introduced, only to be spotted by Boris on his way back from receiving the Count’s good news. This brief sighting signifies a change in the story:

And suddenly it came upon (Boris) that somewhere something was not right, was quite wrong and out of order. Strange powers were out tonight. The feeling was so strong and distinct that it was as if an ice-cold hand passed for a moment over his scalp. His hair rose a little upon his head. For a few minutes he was really and genuinely afraid, struck by an extraordinary terror. In this strange turbulence of the night, and the wild life of dead things all around him, he felt himself… terribly and absurdly small, exposed and unsafe.

All of that business above about defining “Gothic” wasn't to pad out my word count or make this sound like a grade school book report. This book comes wrapped in a label that suggests horror, hence my choosing it. However, for a while “The Monkey” seemed like it was just headed toward territory that was sort of Bronte-lite – yearning young lovers in a haunted landscape. Nothing wrong with that but not particularly horrifying either. About twenty pages in to the story, I started wondering if I should put it down and make another choice. But there was still that titular beast to contend with.

“The Monkey” certainly takes a turn for the Gothic – and extremely unnerving – in its last few pages. I won’t spoil it except to say that rape, attempted murder, and shape-shifting pay rather unexpected visits to the convent. And Boris becomes less and less sympathetic. Okay, I’ll spoil it a little, because this passage is just too wonderfully bizarre not to share:

“Boris, in the meantime, had been looking at Athena, and had let a fantasy take hold of his mind. He thought that she must have a lovely, an exquisitely beautiful, skeleton. She would lie in the ground … a work of art in ivory, and in a hundred years might be dug up and turn the heads of old archeologists… Less frivolous than the traditional old libertine who in his thoughts undresses the women with whom he sups Boris liberated the maiden of her strong and fresh flesh together with her clothes, and imagined that he might be very happy with her, that he might even fall in love with her, could he have her in her beautiful bones alone… Many human relations, he thought, would be infinitely easier if they could be carried out in bones only.”

Suffice to say, in “The Monkey” Dinesen works out what I imagine must have been some serious trust issues regarding men and sex. Having a syphilitic father and subsequently being infected with the disease via an unfaithful spouse has to take its toll. Which is not to reduce this beautifully written (and deeply disturbing) story to mere Freudian analysis; there was enough capital-W Weird going on here to sustain the mood well after I’d finished reading it (in fact, in light of the startling revelation at the climax, “The Monkey” certainly warrants a reread). I look forward to reading the other six of Dinesen’s Tales.
Philip Tatler IV writes occasionally for GreenCine and his blog, Diary of a Country Pickpocket. His as-yet unproduced screenplay, Eyepole, won Best Screenplay in the 2010 Knoxville Horror Film Festival and he plans on resting on this laurel for the rest of his days.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Eternal Image of You

As trilogies go, the three films that Michelangelo Antonioni made between 1960 and 1962 -- L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse -- are bound pretty loosely.  I say this as someone who has not yet seen L'Eclisse, but unless that one ends with the revelation that all of Monica Vitti's characters were the same person, and maybe Lea Massari's character Anna, who vanishes in L'Avventura returns to gather together everybody from all three films and says something like "You were all chosen for a reason," I feel like I'm on pretty solid ground.  I've seen the trilogy described variously as a "unified statement about the malady of the emotional life in contemporary times," which is one way of looking at it, and as "trilogy on modernity and its discontents," which is another, one might say similar, way of looking at it.  So it's not as if there's no point to be made here, but "unified statement" or not it strikes me as an oversimplification.  You might as well say that Kafka spent his creative life writing sequels to "The First Long Journey By Rail."

Years ago, The Criterion Collection, following some twisted logic known only to themselves, already released L'Avventura, the first of these films, and L'Eclisse, the third film, and are only now getting around to releasing the second, La Notte.  I'm not actually complaining, though, because this release has acted as the kick I needed to finally dive in.  L'Avventura is a fairly damning portrayal of a certain kind of solipsism, a special kind in that it hides behind its opposite, and an especially insidious kind because, whatever class satire (of a uniquely non-humorous sort) one might wish to find in it, or even that Antonioni may have put into it, it can live inside everybody.  The lead characters in that film, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Vitti), even know that their emotional connection to their missing friend is a put on, and Claudia at least has the decency to be quietly horrified by this.  Antonioni is quite sympathetic towards the people he's damning.

La Notte is not dissimilar, even though, while love and desire feature strongly in L'Avventura, in La Notte the emotional collapse becomes very focused.  If I had to boil L'Avventura down, as far as what Antonioni seemed to be trying to communicate, or expose, or examine, I'd say the limits of empathy is the secret subject.  La Notte does rein things down to something that is perhaps not unrelated, which is the dissolution of a marriage.  This is another oversimplification.  As a matter of fact, while the story is about a husband, a well-known novelist named Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), realizing they no longer love each other, and the night of social networking during which they separately realize and come to terms with this, the opening credits and final shots reminded me of David Cronenberg's Crash (and in one way more J. G. Ballard's Crash than Cronenberg's, but this is a potato/potato kind of distinction).  The words "modern" and "modernity" are not thrown at these Antonioni films for nothing, and the opening credits of La Notte play over images in elevators, looking out at parking garages, concrete angles, glass and metal.  The location is a hospital, where Tomasso (Bernhard Wicki), a close friend of Giovanni and Lidia's, is dying.  They go to visit him, chat, soothe, mostly listen.  It's made clear that Tomasso's fast-approaching death is gutting Lidia more than it is Giovanni -- while Lidia is outside the hospital crying, Giovanni is (against his better judgment, which is about the best thing you can say about the man) succumbing to the not inconsiderable, in their way, charms of a sick -- mentally at least, but physically as well, you have to assume -- young woman just down the hall from Tomasso.  La Notte's emotional stage is set.

As in L'Avventua, the main couple will split to go about their separate business (in the earlier film, that business will pretend at an urgency that Sandro and Claudia don't actually feel), and here Antonioni's gift for drifting narratives and a drifting camera takes over.  Lidia's aimless stroll into a nearby village where she watches kids shoot off fireworks (and this is Italy in the 60s, so kids could buy the industrial kind that now have to be licensed out to stadiums for officially sanctioned Fourth of July celebrations, so it's pretty sweet, guys) is completely mesmerizing, and is probably my favorite stretch of the film.  For all the almost otherworldly gloom, so powerful that it even seeps like fog into the extended party sequence that makes up roughly the last half of the film, Antonioni is able to capture within that life as it is lived, and as it is observed by those, like Lidia, in a situation that leaves them witnessing this kind of joy with a fascination over what it must be like to feel that way again, or ever.

The story being told is loose and floating, yet not exactly digressive.  Or rather, when La Notte is digressive, it is being itself most completely.  At the elegant party that carries Giovanni and Lidia to morning, the couple go their separate ways, Lidia to watch others, and to ward off advances, and Giovanni to look for any excuse to betray her.  In this way, and in others, La Notte resembles Rossellini's Journey to Italy -- if I'm being straight with you, it has a good deal more in common with that than with Crash, but Crash is there too, I'd swear to it -- though its fairly clear that Giovanni's infidelity would crush Lidia somewhat less than Alex's would Katherine's in that film.  An argument could even be made that as off-putting as Giovanni's behavior is -- its very helpless casualness comes off as especially cold-blooded -- he and Lidia, in their mutual falling away, are playing the same, or a very similar game.  As the two part company with Valentina (Vitti), a young woman at the party who's somehow seductive even in her morality-based rejection of Giovanni, and who after that has sought to befriend, honestly, Lidia, Valentina says "You two have really worn me out tonight."  I think we can agree that this line is not exactly not sexual, though it's a curious sort of threesome.  It fits into the concept of romance as doom, however, and from there it's just a matter of denying the truth.

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 28: At Night All Birds Are Black

by Don R. Lewis

I’m a big fan of our humble host having got to “know him” virtually over the years via blog comments and his Twitter feed. So, when I saw that he was asking for guest writers for this year's The Kind of Face You Slash, I promptly butted in and asked if I could contribute. I’ve always been a horror novel junkie and remember doing a book report on Stephen King’s Cujo when I was in 4th grade. I even made a shoebox diorama for the book that I would kill to find today. (Side note: I recently reread the novel and am shocked my mom and teacher approved me to read it and present it to the class. It’s a nasty little thing.) Anyway, Bill said yes and here we are.

Having grown up a Stephen King fanatic I read interviews with him where he praised H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson and others and these interviews inspired me to seek those writers out. Thus a creepy, morbid fat kid who was way too quiet as he sat in the corner reading horror stories all alone at recess was born. I think my interest in film really took off due to my love of books and the VHS boom of the 1980’s and I’ve always been a horror fanatic both on the page and screen.

All that being said it’s been a while since a book truly skeeved me out and since I’m always on the lookout for such a thing, I was drawn to Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I try to look into books as little as possible before reading them much as I do when I see a film. I like to figure out my own thoughts without other peoples’ creeping in because after all, everyone’s on edge waiting for my un-altered views on books and film. So after I saw a few people I respect had loved this novel and I read an article in which Night Film was purported to be a terrifying and possible companion piece to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Spoiler alert: it’s not) I immediately downloaded it to my iPad kindle reader and dove in. Having just finished the novel, I’m now afraid I may have blown my assignment for “The Kind of Face You Slash.”

Night Film isn’t a bad book by any means. In fact, it’s a quite thrilling page-turner that I’m surprised took me as long to read as it did. There were times where I couldn’t put it down and I always looked forward to picking it back up. However, it’s not a very scary book and only gets relatively creepy a few times. Night Film is more of a mystery with some occult type activity throughout to keep you guessing. But what impressed me most and would make me recommend the book to fellow cinephiles is the world Pessl creates involving the book’s antagonist, a reclusive cinematic genius named Stanislas Cordova.

The premise of the book is pretty straightforward. Stanislas Cordova is one of the most well respected filmmakers on the planet. His films are said to be so terrifying and so filled with horror and truth, to see them will shake you to your very core. Thus many of his films have been banned and Cordova himself hasn’t been seen in over thirty years. Disgraced journalist Scott McGrath earned his bad rap by trying to drag up information on Cordova some years earlier. His snooping and later false claims against the director lead to Cordova filing suit against him and irrevocably staining a once promising career as an investigative journalist. Soon thereafter McGrath’s wife left him taking their young child along with her, leaving McGrath to nickel and dime his way through his life savings while enduring sleepless nights and gallons of scotch. That is until one night while jogging, McGrath spots a mysterious, ghostly girl in an odd red coat following him. Jarred by this creepy, almost otherworldly figure, McGrath manages to let it go until he soon discovers that Ashley Cordova, only daughter of Stanislas Cordova, had leapt to her death that very night. Was the girl in the park Ashley? Was she trying to tell Scott something? Did she jump to her death or was she murdered? The journalists mind whirls with possibilities and thus, the hunt is on. Dun-dun-duhhhhh!!

McGrath soon straps on his dusty investigative journalist boots to find out why (or, if) Ashley Cordova killed herself and if she was in fact trying to connect with him to share information about her reclusive director father. Perhaps she was trying to confirm what McGrath had accused the man of years earlier and proving it would now rebirth his career, integrity and public image. McGrath decides to trace Ashley’s steps that night and soon meets a quirky, naïve coat check girl named Nora who still has the coat Ashley was wearing the night she died. It matches the coat of the girl McGrath saw in the park. McGrath also meets a scraggly, yet handsome young kid named Hopper who has been mailed an eerie keepsake from Ashley, one that Hopper never knew she had. Against the wishes of the lone-wolf McGrath both Nora and Hopper join forces with him to try and unearth the mystery of what happened to Ashley as well as just what the hell is up with Stanlislas Cordova. What transpires is a fun mystery investigation as well as a character study in people who are more or less forced together ala a buddy-cop movie. But the very best part of “Night Film: A Novel” is the world and cinematic history Pessl creates for Stanislas Cordova.

Clearly a mixture of the brilliance of Orson Welles, the mystique of Stanley Kubrick and the terrifying horror of early Dario Argento, Stanislas Cordova is the kind of filmmaker that fellow film freaks wish really existed. Having grown in popularity due to films with wonderfully characteristic titles such as At Night All Birds Are Black, Figures Bathed in Light and the winner of the Oscar for best picture in 1980, Thumbscrew (which was an audacious upset over Robert Benton for Kramer vs. Kramer) the films of Cordova have inspired a group of fanatics called “Cordovites” who cling to the auteur and his works the way Star Wars fans did before the advent of the Internet. Cordova’s films are shown in secret screenings all across the globe and a secret, invitation only website called “The Blackboards” houses all his films as well as forums to discuss the meaning behind Stanislas’ works.

But let’s face it, when you’re artistically gifted yet reclusive, rumors and innuendo tend to follow you and Cordova is no different. Tales of the occult, witchcraft, murder, kidnapping and torture have emerged from the heavily guarded, countryside estate named The Peak where Cordova lives and creates all his films. No one who has ever been invited there returns unaltered and most of these same people lead disparate lives out of the public eye forevermore. Great actors never act again and people refuse to speak of what went on during their time there, thus adding more dark mystery and intrigue to an already eerie man.

Again, Night Film is a really fun read. Pessl has created a cinematic idol with craft and precision and I wouldn’t at all doubt if some Internet groups like the ones in the book began springing up to pay tribute to the pretend director. His character and works are so realistically imagined by the author you forget they’re made-up. The book also drives this wonderfully realized world and character home by featuring news clippings, snapshots of websites and photos of Ashley as well as the one interview Stanislas ever did for Rolling Stone. No true photos of him are known to exist and tales of him being seen and spoken to are traded like precious coins. Several times while reading I honestly had to remind myself not to bother looking Cordova up on IMDB. Pushing this idea even further is an app you can get for the book.

Frequently photos and pictures show up on the page featuring a small bird. The bird is an international symbol for Cordovites to know how to find secret screenings of his work. If you use the app to take a photo of this bird on the page, various “Easter Eggs” come up enhancing the experience. I’ve never seen an interactive book done in this way and it was an extremely cool idea executed badly. The movie trailers look cheesy and some of the interviews feel really phony. It’s kind of a slap in the face of such a well-written book but it’s a cool idea. I’m sure this will be a concepttaken on by many authors and publishers and could really be an interesting advancement.

Aside from the Cordova stuff, the rest of the book is a good read as well. I genuinely cared for Scott McGrath, Nora and Hopper and pulled for them to gel as a group and succeed in battling their personal demons as well as solving the Cordova mysteries. Pessl has as much a knack for well-written, likable characters as she does for creating an entire artistic career for a phony filmmaker. My only disappointment in Night Film (aside from my own expectations of a “scary” book) are the way Pessl seems to frequently hedge on who or what Cordova really is as a man. While I fully understand a major theme in the book is storytelling, rumor and fantasy all being more intriguing than real life, the paths McGrath and company travel down never feel fully realized and it seems like Pessl wasn’t sure she wanted to go there either. Again, I do think this is intentional and ties into the idea of never “really” knowing a person, particularly an artist. But it’s no less as frustrating as it is in real life.

Night Film isn’t as creepy as I had hoped when I started it but it was an intriguing and fun trip once it got going. The interactive app is more of a gimmick but it’s still an intriguing idea. It’s definitely not needed to enjoy the book although it also doesn’t detract. I’m curious to check out Pessl’s other works as well to see if her insightful and clever cinematic inklings are a common theme but even if they aren’t, she a skilled and craft writer that we’re going to hear more from in the future.
Don R. Lewis is managing editor at Film Threat and is also a filmmaker. He’s produced The Violent Kind (Sundance, 2010) as well as producing and co-directing the feature documentary Worst in Show. His latest film, Holy Ghost People premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival and will be widely available this February. He lives in Petaluma, CA with his wife and daughter.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 27: Crimson Plastic River

Paula Guran does me no favors in that her annual anthology The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror provides no ancillary matter other than a very short and kind of jokey introduction and an "about the author" after every story.  She doesn't even help me choose my stories because her short one-sentence lead-ins to each story tells nothing about what kind of thing we're dealing with here, and as a result I'm not really sure either of my selections for today count as horror.  In fact, I'm sure they don't.  Yesterday, in my post about Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year collection, I made a joke to the effect that Guran's "Dark Fantasy & Horror" categorization was basically like saying "Horror & Horror" and now boy is my face red.  In my defense, I first saw the term "dark fantasy" applied to Clive Barker, and while I do see what folks mean by using the term for his fiction, that doesn't change the fact that it's also, in essence, horror.

But now what about this stuff I read for today?  Peter S. Beagle's "Great-Grandmother in the Cellar" is unquestionably dark, but it's also unquestionably a fantasy story.  So I guess I'm the asshole.  Beagle is a sort of living legend in the fantasy genre, which is not a specialty of mine.  But Beagle's most famous novel is The Last Unicorn, a stone-cold classic (I've seen the movie!).  This was his third book, and came out in 1968.  Since then he's racked up awards and respect for books like Giant Bones and The Innkeeper's Song.  Though not a household name, Beagle is a beloved figure, who, by the way, is still at it to a degree that I find frankly absurd.  According to his Wikipedia page, Beagle has, or had, a ridiculous nine books slated for publication in 2013.  I have no idea if all of those came out, and I'm not to check either because I won't be a party to this nonsense.  But anyway, Beagle is still at it, and it's interesting to me that at this late stage of his career (a career, I reiterate, about which I'm basically ignorant) an idea like "Great-Grandmother in the Cellar" would occur him, as if for the first time.  Surely he's done something like it already?  Well, it doesn't matter.  It's a fine story about a small group of characters in a vaguely defined, but kind of default fantasy world -- sort of Middle Ages, with magic, etc. -- who are facing a powerful threat.  The threat is named Borbos, a "witch-boy" of considerable power who has cast a spell on Jashani, the "beautiful, beautiful, sweet-natured idiot sister" of Da'mas, the narrator and sort of protagonist, so that she will sleep, Sleeping Beauty-like, until Da'mas and Jashani's father agrees to let her marry Borbos.  This can't be allowed, such a terrible thing is Borbos, so Da'mas hits on the idea to dig up his Great-Grandmother, who is dead and buried in the cellar.  Da'mas believes, correctly, that his Great-Grandmother was a figure of enormous magical abilities, and also is maybe not dead as we understand the term.  He's right, and against his father's wishes he digs her up -- she's instantly alert, explains the situation, and Great-Grandmother agrees to help.

Beagle writes very well about Great-Grandmother.  Here he's describing her leaving her grave:

So my great-grandmother stepped out of her grave and followed my father and me upstairs, clattering with each step like an armload of dishes, yet held firmly together somehow by the recollection of muscles, the stark memory of tendons and sinews.

She's a strong character, one who admits to a life of wrong-doing -- the details of her death, when they come out, make her seem like she'd be the villain in anybody else's story.  In this one, however, she isn't, and "Great Grandmother in the Cellar" is simply a story about a battle between two magical beings.  If it's appealingly unique in any way it's that the battle is quite lop-sided, the issue never in doubt, but it feels like the kind of thing that a long-time expert in the field like Beagle could dash off on his lunch break.  But it's a good example of the kind of story it is, so where is there room to actually quibble?  I think now about how I actually enjoyed reading it, and wonder, as I look at my complaints, when I became so jaded.  If I'm frustrated, I think it's because it's not a horror story, and Paula Guran said it might not be, and I was like "Yeah okay, whatever lady."

Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Fake Plastic Trees" comes closer to horror by being about the end of the world, or a little bit after it, and resembling one of J. G. Ballard's many chillingly weird Apocalyptic visions.  Indeed, Ballard does seem to be the primary influence here (well, him and Radiohead):  Kiernan's end of the world comes through a strange series of events, which she describes with just enough scientific detail, that results in a planet being overcome by an ever-encroaching plastic blight, which is nicknamed GOO.  Trees, roads, people, water, are all effected; water that has been "infected" becomes almost rubbery, or gelatinous.  Trees become what the title says they do.  And people, well, that's where the horror comes in, late in the story.

The narrator is Cody Hernandez, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in Florida where there is a small outpost of a new kind of civilization.  Her best friend, and perhaps more, is Max, who urges her to write down her story, because, we get the sense, something special has happened to her.  And something indeed has, involving her attempt to cross a plastic-encrusted bridge, which has been strangely left unguarded since beyond it civilization is gone, and plastic is all.  On her trip -- Cody does concede to write her story -- she finds a car, a single car, where no cars should be.  And the car has not been enveloped by the plague.  Where did it come from, and what's inside?  What she finds is the horror:

The woman was sitting with her back to the door, and her arms were wrapped tightly around the gift.  The woman's fingers disappeared into the gift's hair -- hair and hand all one and the same now.  I figured they drove as far as they could, drove until they were too far gone to keep going.  It takes hours and hours for the infected to die.

I love how Kiernan refers to the woman's child as "the gift" -- that phrase means a couple of different things, one sweet, the other grotesque.  The plastic has made this little girl a toy.  And of course the nature of the plague itself is a bit of social commentary -- what about the trees, you guys?  Why all this plastic stuff in the world, anyhow? -- but it's only there if you want it, Kiernan doesn't hammer at the thing, and if you don't, or even if you do, the imagery is effectively surreal.

The problem with the story is how it begins to undercut itself in the final pages.  I won't say how it does this, but Kiernan seems to have changed her mind about the tone she wanted to set for her climax, but didn't want to take out the stuff she'd changed her mind about.  I'd say if she did that, and just threw out the pages that hit the note she now rejected, the ending would have better achieved what she wanted it to.  As it stands, the structure of the ending makes little sense, and takes on the structure of the "twist," which is a bad structure.  I am, of course, presuming a lot, as I often do, but it's hard to understand what other motivation Kiernan could have had to let things play out in this manner.  It heightens nothing, and in fact makes "Fake Plastic Trees" feel a little bit chickenshit.  The pisser is it didn't need to, as the ending she wants, played straight, would have worked fine.  I think the other one she hints at might have been better, and more of an emotional jolt, but better one or the other, not both.  Pick one.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 26: Smoke and Flying Salt

Every year, at around this time and in some cases several months earlier, readers of horror fiction can be sure that soon they will be able to wallow in the pages of a variety of "best of" anthologies. By "a variety" I do only mean three, but they're reasonably jam-packed, and there's a lot less cross-over, in terms of stories appearing in more than one of them, then you'd probably think. Of course it's all objective, but the editors have access to a good deal more horror fiction in a given year than I do, and I've always regarded these things as handy sampler platters, which is probably the secret intent anyway. So every year, like I'm saying, these things come out, and I devote at least a couple of posts to a small fraction of what these backs have to offer. Now, there's three big ones, editor Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year, Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and Paula Guran's The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror (a somewhat distinctive title that I believe translates to "horror"), but right at the moment I have in my possession only the Datlow and Guran books.  Jones's anthology won't hit stories until October 29, which makes sense in its relation to October 31, but right at the moment does jack-shit for me.

Today I'm going to focus on the Datlow volume, which, like Jones's, offers a nice little overview of the previous year in horror, and I've already ordered a copy of Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye which is mentioned therein, so thanks for that.  Outside of that, it's all stories, you guys, and I, as is my wont, selected two.  To begin with, I homed in on Jeffrey Ford's name in the table of contents, because even though I've never read him before he wrote a book of short stories that looks like this:

If you don't want to read that book just after looking at that picture, then fuck you.  I'm hoping though that the whole idea that sometimes good writers write bad stories holds true with him, because the one I read, "A Natural History of Autumn," was rather disappointing.  The story is set in Japan, and I think Ford wants you to know that he has just returned from Japan.  Which would have been entirely fine if he'd taken his knowledge of certain Japanese traditions and myths and created something unique, but instead he took it all and sprinkled it like wasabi, a traditional Japanese spice, over a story that is almost depressingly ordinary.  Even drinking sake, a Japanese rice win, afterwards can't make this story work.  Also have you guys heard about that weird suicide forest they got over there?

"A Natural History of Autumn" is about Rinko, a kind young man who might work for a gangster, and Michi, a young woman who works at a hostess bar.  Rinko likes her because she seems shy and sweet, and as they talk at the bar he learns that her ambition is to write a book called A Natural History of Autumn, sort of philosophical non-fiction examination of her favorite season.  She says that she asks the men she meets at the bar about their most pronounced memory -- happy, sad, or otherwise -- of autumn, and this she does by way of research.  Rinko says that he can tell her a story, and take you to a location especially lovely in an autumn sort of way.  It's called an "onsen" and that's a kind of spa.  So they go, fall in love, wonder about the old woman who runs the place, and then at night Michi sees the old woman fucking her dog, and the dog smiles at Michi, and she wants to leave, just all out of the blue.  The dog, we learn, is ajinmenken, which I looked up.  Jinmenken are dogs with the faces of humans.  These are basically a Japanese version of chupacabras, in that their legend consists mainly, from what I can tell, being seen (or "seen") and reported and not believed in by the majority of Japan's population, but once they're introduced in Ford's story they become just interchangeable monsters trying to kill Michi and Rinko.  At this point, it's just a run-from-the-monster story, one with a twist at the end that helps nothing (in fact it brings the story down further), so the Japanese-ness -- the onsen, the jinmenken, the hostess bar, some other minor bits -- is finally completely irrelevant.  It's maybe a nice setting, but why do nothing with this?  Why do nothing with jinmenken other than say "You know what, they're sort of like werewolves" and then make then sort of like werewolves?  Not to mention that title, "A Natural History of Autumn," implies I'm not sure what, but something, that Ford apparently had no intention of following through with.  It's a story about monsters eating people dressed up in a kimono, which is a traditional Japanese gown.

The other story is by Adam L. G. Nevill called "Pig Thing."  Obviously I'm going to read a story called "Pig Thing," but I also wanted to read it because of Nevill, and holy shit I just realized something.  Okay, I wanted to read the Nevill story because I thought "Hey, he wrote those novels I want to read, this will be a good way to get some idea about his writing and if I'd like him or not" but I just remembered that I did the exact same thing last year in a post about John Oliver's anthology The End of the Line; from that collection I chose, among others, Nevill's story "On All London Underground Lines."  So I already went through all this with Nevill.  How am I supposed to lead into "Pig Thing" now?  Goddamnit, I've been doing this too long.  Jesus Christ.  Fucking hell.  Shit.

Well, there's your lead-in, I guess.  "Pig Thing" is about an English family who has moved to a home in the wilds of New Zealand.  As the story opens, the three children -- Hector, who is ten, Jack, who is nine, and Lozzy, who is four -- have just watched their parents, Dad first, then Mom to search for him, leave the house and not return.  And they won't return.  Dad was going to go for help, but no help is coming.  There is a pig thing outside, a creature that has haunted their home since they moved in, but now appears to want in, and to eat.

The pig thing looks almost like you might expect -- it has a "snouty face" -- but with some disturbing details -- it has "thin girlish hair that fell about its leathery shoulders."  Nevill does a good job of sketching the thing in, so that a not quite fully seen, but massive creature is burned into the reader's brain as he otherwise focuses on the three children.  He does good work with them, too, not making them unreasonably adult in their behavior, which is so often the approach to these things.  Horror writers write about kids quite a lot, but they often write about them in a way that makes me think they'd rather be writing about adults, and Nevill doesn't do that.  In fact there's an element to all this that really highlights how ruthlessly he does not do this, but I'd have to tell you the whole story, so maybe check it out yourself.  Otherwise, it's a good story from an old tradition that, again, like the Ford story, tries to draw from a relatively exotic locale.  But Nevill pulls it off better by not making a big deal about it, and by making "Pig Thing" part of two traditions, the other being that those not familiar with the wilder parts of nature should take them very, very seriously.  Simple, perhaps, but sometimes that's just the thing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 25: What Is This That I Have Done?

by Roderick Heath

Montague Rhodes James, like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien after him, exemplified a bygone variety of creative and scholarly fecundity that many people would easily conjure to mind: the image of the British university don, scribbling away at private, eccentric visions as a pastime in between lectures and research. Perhaps James helped create the image himself, with his characters often coming from the ranks of tenured savants, variously absent-minded, churlish, gruff, and/or asocial. The impact James, Lewis, and Tolkien had on the fantastic genres of the twentieth century was powerful, and yet they stood far outside the usual flow of pressures familiar to most commercial genre writers, in their own time and ours (quite distinct from today when literary writers basically have to become teachers to make a living). Rather the contrary, their appeal and achievement lay precisely in the way they offered to readers respite from the raucous. Like Tolkien, James made his own delight in the arcane and the trappings of the scholarship he enjoyed part of the texture of his work, and likewise, the sense of untold lodes of lore and knowledge informs so many fleeing concepts and words found in their work. But James, a medieval scholar, archaeologist, translator, archivist, and finally teacher, was ultimately a very different kind of artist to the two later fantasy writers, and not just because they were Oxfordians. James’ world is our world, petty, mundane, often chokingly dull and predictable, and yet every now a veil is ripped and emanations of another zone invade stable reality and shock his characters into comprehending the fragility everything that surrounds them. The past stalks them like a bloodhound. Their transgressions, their need to learn, to uncover, to profit, to know, becomes their undoing as they run into the limits of the liminal. If they are to be saved, if they can be saved at all, they must abide the primal rules of the taboo and the ritual. Return the treasure to its hiding place. File the ancient document in the deepest archive. Pass the runes back. Run away as fast as you can.

An anecdote from James’ childhood holds that he broke out in tears when faced with a birthday party, and only calmed when he was allowed to retreat into a library, and around the same time he developed a fascination for an antique bible that he poured over for hours in delight. Not surprisingly, he died unmarried. Yes, James was what we’d now call a nerd, and much of his later writing contains an element of self-criticism, and self-provocation, in having the bubble of scholarly calm, and the domesticity and regulated, conciliatory civility of English life around it, disturbed by reminders of the uneasy nature of all stability. James’ prose is off-hand, rarely descriptive, except when sensatory experience starts to be distorted by strange presences and epiphanies. Oftentimes he writes as he’s speaking to another academic scholar, mumbling about manuscripts and pedantic details of dating, often commencing stories with dry anecdotes how he obtained such and such a paper and recounting the peculiar story behind it. The feeling of confidentiality, even intimacy, that James could create, turns his readers into confidants, fellow academes, someone to be told over a nice glass of sherry and a warm fireplace just why Professor so-and-so had to retire last year, or why Mr somebody-or-other seemed to just vanish. There’s often the carefully contrived feeling that he’s writing down a conversation or experience of his, or a friend’s. James got a kick out of reading his stories to fellows and friends around the university. It’s also certainly an aspect of the dryly realistic approach he takes, and indeed often gives his work a unique quality, at once fustily old-fashioned and peculiarly modern, even post-modern, as texts and accounts pile up, as if loosely arranged in a pile on his desk, trying to add them up into a narrative, scanning the evidence for the pivotal phrase, the revelatory moment.

There’s anticipation in James of Jose Luis Borges’ games with fake manuscripts and troves of imagined lore in this method. ‘Count Magnus,’ one of his most famous and anticipatory tales, is amassed in such a fashion, and indeed James states it upfront: these “papers out of which I have made a connected story…assumed the character of a record of one single experience, and this record was continued up to the very eve, almost, of its termination.” The recent craze for “found footage” movies – The Blair Witch Project, Rec, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Chronicle, ad nauseum – which has proven particularly popular in horror cinema, is based around exactly the same method, and popular for exactly the same reason. As a storytelling method, it raises an ambiguity, however spurious, over the presumed nature of the narrative the audience is experiencing, bringing some elements into crucially sharp relief whilst helping obscure others. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Bram Stoker’s Dracula exemplified the epistolary novel as a method for making the supernatural seem credible, but James’ approach is consciously much less neat. Whereas Dracula makes very clear what threat the living protagonists are dealing with, and gives them all the power of a rational society to meet it, ‘Count Magnus’ is genuinely disturbing for its elision, even abstraction, generated by James’ careful diffusion of the narrative in making the reader conscious of how it’s been recorded, or not recorded. He’s far more engaged with the almost tactile nature of the document as a repository of selective truth.

James was the great suggester of horror fiction, what Val Lewton would be for the cinema, the firm proponent that true interest lay in just what can’t be entirely identified, quantified, or treated with a rational mind. James’ namesake Henry had laid the building blocks for the psychological horror story with ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ but both men digressed from taking such a tack too literally, knowing the effect of such stories would degrade if reduced too obviously to symbolic tales of repression and frustration, and probably such an approach would have bored them anyway. And yet these qualities haunt M.R. James’ stories, stalking his heroes with their dried sap and fusty introversion. James’ stories often seem to ramble at first, partly because of his methods, as if the product of some intelligent but disorganised mind and disinterest in the reader’s immediate desires. ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ commences with a full, long paragraph of Latin, an antiquarian’s nastiest joke on his average reader. Structure and language often seem quaint, distracted, and yet his best stories always seem to suddenly crystallise in some memorable piece of phrasing that doesn’t violate the authorial voice and yet signals the presence of the unnatural, an obtuse invocation of something intensely disquieting, with an effect that can raise goosebumps at the right hour of the morning. Examples stick in my mind years after first reading them:

“…He could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs.” – The Ash-Tree

“There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.” – Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

“One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from life.’” – Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

“…But now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones.” – Count Magnus

These lines are generally benign out of context, only effective after the mood James creates has done its work. Only the last quote resembles a kind of gore money shot found in movies, where the other quotes are more oblique, yet all contain a queasy communication of unnatural physicality, made flesh out of the perversities of nightmare figurations. As Nigel Kneale, one of many genre writers who counted James among his influences, noted, James was always at his most concise and effective when describing physical mutilation and abnormality. The line from ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ comes at the end of a passage describing an illustration in a medieval book, of a Satanic monstrosity so perversely shaped a sane and lively contemporary expert in morphology couldn’t sleep for nights after seeing it. The idea that it’s so real, so troubling, that it can only have been drawn with the model standing before it, provides a gleefully alarming punchline. H.P. Lovecraft often tried to achieve a similar effect, to impart to the reader a sense of something so utterly inhuman that it beggars both countenancing and description. Lovecraft is often mocked for sometimes failing to achieve what he was going for, which indicates perhaps how skilled James was. He never made the mistake of describing too much. The use of the most seemingly bland, inexact word imaginable, “something,” in the quote from ‘Oh, Whistle,’ is James’ coup there, conjuring a disturbing image for the reader without anything concrete: everyone can fill in their own disturbing movement. The thing with more than four legs that mysteriously stalks the estate in ‘The Ash-Tree’, which proves, in the climax, to be a spider: nothing so unnatural in that, except that the spiders, when uncovered, prove to be poisonous brutes the size of a king crab. In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,’ the treasure-hunting hero uncovers a horde of treasure, only for an unseen monster to gasp him with a clammy sensation of cold flesh, unknowable numbers of limbs, and wretched stench. James’ ability to concisely communicate a sense of tactile unease permeates so many of his tales that some commentators have believed he was trying to work through a phobic dislike of all physical contact.

‘Count Magnus’ begins, as usual, in a conversational manner, as the narrator, James “himself,” imparts how he assembled the tale from many documents, whilst mentioning that the reason he now possesses them thanks to a stroke of fortune which, however, he can’t reveal until the story’s end. The protagonist of his tale, Wraxhall, is only vaguely rescued from the obscurity of the written word and the fragmentary nature of the evidence; even his first name isn’t given, and the sorts of accidents that render a historian’s work frustratingly hard, in this case a fire that consumed a repository, have conspired to keep Wraxhall’s background all the more obscure. A professional writer with scholarly interests, Wraxhall embarked upon writing a guide book for English tourists who wanted to venture to Sweden, having already written one on his time in Brittany. James takes a poke at the fad for such books in the 1840s and ‘50s, a time when the idea of recreational travel was becoming more possible for burgeoning middle class folk in Britain, and explains the formula for writing such books: “reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers and garrulous peasants.” James’ sideswipe at a sort of dated version of Lonely Planet and the well-manicured paths of popular travel gives both an aptly mundane background to his story, a hint of satire, and also a digression of mood that’s a familiar part of his method. Wraxhall, James goes on to explain, travelled widely in Sweden before visiting a hamlet in Vestergothland, where he wanted to investigate a large archive kept by a prominent local family, at their manor house, known as Råbäck. As if out of deference to the family’s respectability, he only goes so far as to refer to them by the name of one of their antecedent clans, De La Gardie.

Loneliness is a keynote of ‘Count Magnus’ – loneliness, rootlessness, exposure, and finally desperation. Wraxhall is a forgotten being, albeit one who, in his time, was successful, but untethered to any hearth or heart, past middle-age and “very much alone in the world.” James notes that “he had, it seems no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding-houses.” He declines an offer to stay with the De La Gardies and instead takes up in a hotel a mile away from the manor, a consequential choice. Wraxhall’s intention to write a usefully middling book is twisted back on itself, as he all but disappears within his travel notes with their seemingly inane lists of fellow passengers. James folds the narrative inwards like origami until he only comes through as the distant but haunting memory of strangers of a frantic man who died mysteriously and gruesomely. Whilst sifting through the De La Gardie archive, he learnt unusual things about the founder of the family’s fortunes, Count Magnus, whose body rests securely in a large sarcophagus in the church that sits halfway between manor and hotel. The church sits in the midst of a private forest Magnus used as a game reserve. So zealous was Magnus about the inviolability of his property and protecting it from usurpers that he burnt down the houses of neighbours, with whole families inside, and earned infamy for vicious reprisals to a peasant rebellion. Yes, Magnus was a right charmer, but for Wraxhall, as for most any inquisitive contemporary person safe in their vantage centuries hence, horror and tyranny have become sideshow. Discovering that Magnus apparently dabbled in alchemy and magic on top of such ruthless aristocratic behaviour “only made him a more picturesque figure.”

Count Magnus should be, like Wraxhall, a mere vestige, for, like the writer, he is held firmly in the grip of the past, extant to posterity only through his works, writings, and legend. But here emerges qualitative difference: Magnus is force of nature and force outside of nature, as desolating and consuming as nuclear fallout, and the totems of his existence have terrible power. Far more so than Wraxhall, who can barely dominate a page of his own narrative. Wraxhall is hapless Everyman. Magnus is extraordinary aristocrat, a product of an age with a different, less constrained idea of power, made immortal by different concepts of existence. Magnus’s portrait, Wraxhall records, depicts an extraordinarily ugly man. His book of cabalistic and alchemic research, which the unlucky writer finds in the De La Gardie archive, contains references to the unholiest lore. His body still lies in a sealed sarcophagus in the church, held in check by three massive padlocks. His house and grounds are still inviolate. Upon the sarcophagus are engraved unusual designs, including one that depicts a mysterious, diminutive form chasing a hapless man in a forest, at the direction of an onlooking master. Of the pursuer, we’re told, “the only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxhall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish.” Holy hentai, Batman. But most of all the power of Magnus is sensed the effervescent fear apparent in the locals when questions about Magnus’ activities are raised. The terror engendered by Magnus in his tenants and neighbours when alive was bad enough, but his malign reputation still reverberates. Wraxhall’s enquiries are, in what is now a familiar pattern for genre fans, deflected and delayed by garrulous men and helpful priests who suddenly clam up and avoid further questions when some particularly grim or evil subject is broached, especially that matter of the Black Pilgrimage.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote fine some fantastic stories situated on similar fault lines of the modern consciousness to his, James was essentially a late Victorian writer, but one who also kept producing stories until his death in the 1930s, who helped mediate his era’s struggle to accept the coexistence of emergent modernity’s sanitising urges and nagging cultural spectres. The capacity of the Victorians to be both archly rational and airily religious stemmed from a zeitgeist very different to the one James, with his knowledge of the arcane world of medieval and classical literature, knew underpinned much of the European intellectual tradition. In studied contrast to the sun-dappled, pacific moods of the tea-sipping Anglican sensibility, James dredges up pages torn from ancient alchemy textbooks, points of lore from near-forgotten grimoires, relics from before Hastings, and obscure evils from the darkest corners of Mosaic and early Christian mythologies, like the monster from ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’, a Solomonian grotesque that quite literally seems to eat its way off the page to stalk the milquetoast sons of men inhabiting the future. James delights in suggesting such scarcely plumbed depths from ages when distinctions were far more permeable and the zone of religion, science, magic, philosophy, and politics grew in tangled, troublingly intimate awareness of each-other. Lovecraft synthesised a body of imagined lore to prop up his morbid universe. James merely refers with sinister vagueness to such a body of possibly imagined yet authentic-sounding volumes from the dark vaults of Medieval Europe’s covert intelligentsia violating boundaries of presumed reality. Wraxhall records Magnus as possessing “the book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words, book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba philosophorum, and so forth.” At the heart of the story’s mystery is a genuine piece of Biblical lore, the village of Chorazin in the Holy Lands, where the Antichrist will supposedly be born. Magnus went on his “Black Pilgrimage” there to kneel in obeisance before a Satanic emissary, and “brought something or someone back with him.”
Could it be that Magnus returned to his home with his own personal devil, that disturbing imp, the one portrayed on the side of his sarcophagus? Well, duh. Small wonder that Magnus in all his cruelty and malignancy emerges far more vividly than Wraxhall from his artefacts, to the point where Wraxhall falls under his spell, quite literally it seems. “Ah, Count Magnus, there you are,” he utters fatefully (and fatally) in a seeming jest whilst gazing at the Count’s mausoleum: “I should dearly like to see you.” Later, “James” informs us, Wraxhall recounted an odd interlude of distraction bordering on compulsion, recovering to find himself “singing or chanting some such words as, “Are you awake, Count Magnus?” or, “Are you there, Count Magnus?”’ There’s an echo here of the repeated name that manifests Clive Barker’s Candyman, with a similar note of reference to both religious liturgy and childish invocation. “He had not no eyes for his surroundings, no perception of the evening scents of the woods or the evening light on the lake,” James notes as Wraxhall is drawn towards the church for one of his dissociative reveries, drawing the reader’s attention to imagine precisely those things whilst describing Wraxhall’s state, a fine example of James’ minimalist skill.

‘Count Magnus’ is interesting not least because of its resonance with that more famous undead literary count; indeed, the anthologist Peter Haining once included the story in a collection entitled The Rivals of Dracula, where I first read it. As in Stoker’s book, a Briton travels into an unfamiliar locale in one of Europe’s extreme places, and encounters a supernatural remnant of an aristocracy that once lorded over a Europe so different to the new society, and yet whose powerful grip on the mind and reality of the structure of that society can still prove staggeringly powerful. Like Dracula, based on Vlad ‘the Impaler,’ Count Magnus De La Gardie is associated with the past’s harshness. Except that where Vlad was a religious warrior in a time of invasion, Magnus is characterised as a vicious oppressor, who seems to have actively sought as much power in the spiritual world as he had in the human, his hubris both transcendingly mighty and amazingly petty and greedy (a common trait of those who set evil in motion in James’ tales). Unlike Dracula, Magnus remains a threatening cypher, a black figure at the far end of the path in the twilight. James’ manipulation of viewpoint and storytelling texture is most pronounced when Wraxhall finally extracts the source of his innkeeper Nielsen’s anxiety in discussing Magnus. Nielsen cautiously offers up his own anecdote from “my Grandfather’s time – that is, ninety-nine years ago.” Another layer of storytelling, another layer of time, and yet here the presence of threat becomes tangibly immediate. “I can tell you this one little tale, not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done.” Nielsen presents details like James himself, hard and impersonal, descriptive but unelaborate, telling everything by only telling what was sure. Nielsen’s recounting of grandfather’s story of two men who decided to mock Magnus and violate his domain, that private forest, culminates in pure horror movie shtick, recollections of dreadful screams (“just as if the most inside piece of his soul was twisted out of him”) and mocking, inhuman laughter. The fearful morning after finds one man driven mad, pushing away what he still imagines is threatening him, and the other man, the good-looking one, the one who no longer had a face: “The eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them.”

Yikes. By James’ standards this is gory, showy stuff, but splendidly achieved, wrought with an exacting skill, like the use, in the sentence I quoted earlier, of the word “sucked” in noting the mutilation of Bjornsen’s face. Not a cliché like eaten, gnawed, or ripped, but sucked. What the hell kind off unholy creation could suck a man’s face off, we’re left to wonder. Perhaps even more effective is the description of the reaction of the men present – so appalled were they that they buried Bjornsen on the spot – and those who have been told this tale and have its intimations engraved upon their natures. This note recurs again in the story’s finale. The precision of James’ words, the suggestive quality, both avoids description and yet somehow describes the business here with true menace and clarity. Nielsen’s anecdote is a work of artisanal concision, delineated with pronouncements that describe the edge of taboo and atrocity, recalling an event so terrible it still chills the blood of people 99 years later, and ending with the bluntness of a smash cut in a movie, for the story continues the next day, without note of what sort of night’s sleep Wraxhall had after hearing that. Not too bad, it seems, as Wraxhall remains ignorant of threat until it’s too late. Too late being when, about to depart for England, he stops for a farewell visit to Magnus’ sarcophagus from which the padlocks keep seeing to fall off (a touch pilfered by Terence Fisher and Peter Bryan for The Brides of Dracula, 1960) in defiance of basic physics. The last one clangs to the floor at his feet, and “there was the sound of metal hinges creaking, and (he) distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards.” Bad enough, but Wraxhall further describes that “there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this thing I have done?”

Wraxhall’s subsequent flight from Sweden and journey home dissolves then, James reports, is described only in a peculiar series of lists he makes of fellow passengers, and James’ inference from his handwriting that a mere few days of sailing reduced him to “a broken man.” It becomes clear what he was looking for, a tall man under and old-fashioned hat and a short companion in a hooded cloak. Magnus and his familiar, pursuing the scholar, for whatever reason, whether for a petty slight or in maliciously black-humoured fulfilment of his wish, the undead master and malignant imp dog Wraxhall’s footsteps until he meets his fate in a village, Belchamp Saint Paul. The sparseness of the narrative style here, with James’ bare-boned, inference-laden telling from scant details, somehow manages to wring the worst kind of existential despair from the situation. Wraxhall finds himself spiralling unavoidably towards the most terrible of ends. The bitterest of ironies, this man who has no home and knows only boarding houses and hotels can find lodgings in the village but no aid, for even the parson’s away for some reason, and we’re left to imagine a Wraxhall in his final hours quivering in terror at what will inevitably be his horrific end. “What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?” James questions bleakly.

Nor does James provide any final escape: “And the jury that viewed the body, seven of ‘em did, none of them wouldn’t speak of what they see,” he recounts. Note the shift to the regional dialect, James’ last twist of technique, as he now quotes an eyewitness (and not even distinguished by quote marks), another layer of storytelling and this one the most immediate and faux-authentic, spoken to James’ own ear, or so he would have us believe. And how did he piece together the bulk of Wraxhall’s narrative? Why, he happened to inherit the house where Wraxhall found his last lodging, so benighted by the event that no-one would live in it, so he had it demolished, uncovering Wraxhall’s papers. Nice one, Monty. James wasn’t always a downbeat or unsentimental writer, and some of his great endings, as tales like ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Lost Hearts’ provide memorable defeats for evil, as does the closest thing I think he ever wrote to a romantic narrative, in ‘The Tractate Middoth’. But never in James’ work is the feeling that the forces of the supernatural are more than briefly containable. No silver bullets, no stakes through the heart, no handy exorcisms. Often his tales end with the protagonists wisely repairing whatever violation they’ve committed and retreating gratefully into obscurity. This quality makes him still feel modern and vital in the horror genre, and one reason why his influence seems to me to be everywhere in it today, even in product from another culture, like those signal J–Horror works, The Ring movies. Whereas Bram Stoker finally demonstrated that the new world of the mercantile bourgeoisie could forge alliance with the deferential local aristocracy and the new prophets of science to defeat an emissary of an evil variously identified as foreign, bygone, and tyrannical, James offers no such solace, nor even a grip on the phenomenon. Magnus and his familiar are finally as alien as Stanislaw Lem’s planet in Solaris, as cryptic and unforgiving as Kafka’s unseen forces, seemingly as unstoppable as Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. Magnus is the pure spirit of the past’s evil, but also the future’s, blank, abstract, and implacable, sure as death. Wraxhall does at least achieve one small victory. No-one who reads his tale would ever make the mistake of wanting to meet Count Magnus.
Roderick Heath is an author, poet, and hopeless film geek, a resident of the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney, Australia. He is a proud dropout of the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. He writes for the blogs Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.