Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Kind of Face You Slash: The Struggle Was Brief and Weird

The dedication to a bizarre 1946 horror novel written by Paul Bailey provides, maybe, a clue, or clues, to, well a variety of things. The dedication is:

and the life that
is slowly loosening
my skull plates...

There's humor there, certainly, but humor of a particularly grim, even despairing, sort. How much weight should be given to the humor, and how much to the grimness? Or the despair? While recently reading the novel to which that dedication is attached, called Deliver Me from Eva (another joke, obviously), it never really occurred to me that, as crazy as much of the book is, I was not supposed to regard it as serious. Yet when I consulted Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's indispensable reference book Horror: 100 Best Books, from which I first learned of the existence of Deliver Me from Eva way back in 1988, in the introduction to Forrest J. Ackerman's short essay about Bailey's novel written by Newman and/or Jones, I find the it described as "blatantly silly" before reading this:

...Deliver Me from Eva has just enough suggest that the author wasn't absolutely serious.

Which, okay. That's certainly not the same thing as claiming the novel was intended as parody. But in Ackerman's essay, the legendary editor/publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, noted goofball, and lover of puns (he points out, not incorrectly, that if Bailey hadn't used the title Deliver Me from Eva, Robert Bloch certainly would have) comes perilously close to dismissing the novel as deliberately tossed-off hackwork at the same time that he's ostensibly praising it as his favorite, or at least among his favorite, horror novels. Deliver Me from Eva is a pretty healthy distance from being a masterpiece, but I nevertheless find the opinions expressed by Newman/Jones and Ackerman to be pretty curious (as I find many of the opinions expressed in Horror: 100 Best Books, however indispensable it remains). Deliver Me from Eva struck me as, yes, ridiculous in the way that pulp often is, but also genuinely horrified, if not quite horrifying (though you might find it to be that as well). An interesting distinction, if I do say so myself, and one that, if I'm write about this, strongly implies that Bailey wasn't in the business of winking at the audience. At least, not the whole time.

If Deliver Me from Eva's entry in Horror: 100 Best Books did nothing else, it did give me a lead on Paul Bailey, clues about whom I was otherwise finding to be non-existent. I was finding him to be rather pleasantly mysterious -- no biographical information that could be linked with that dedication about loosening skull plates was actually turning out to be an eerie detail. Still, the truth isn't necessarily less interesting. Newman/Jones toss out titles for a couple of Bailey's other novels, and subsequent rudimentary investigation turns up that Bailey was primarily a historical novelist whose focus was the American West, and occasionally more specifically Mormons, and Mormonism, as they and it existed within that Western expansion. Trust me, if you found this out directly after finishing Deliver Me from Eva, your reaction, like mine, would be something along the lines of "...Wuh?" It can be a little bit tough to put all this together, and indeed my 2011 Bruin Crimeworks reprint of Deliver Me from Eva offers no contextual addenda, which is odd for this sort of thing these days. Anyway, it turns out that Bailey was better known in his day as Paul Dayton Bailey, a crucial difference -- Paul Dayton Bailey's Wikipedia page mentions Deliver Me from Eva not at all (Paul NMI Bailey's Wikipedia page doesn't exist). At any rate, in addition to writing books like The Gay Saint, For Time and All Eternity, and Jacob Hamblin, Buckskin Apostle, Bailey also wrote essays and articles with titles like "Polygamy Was Better Than Monotony." So, you know. (Bailey's maternal grandfather was Joseph Barlow Forbes, a major figure in Utah history, and I though Bailey might have had connections to others Forbes, those of Steve and Magazine fame, but so far I don't think he does. Just FYI). I have no interest, by the way, in trying to link through smug armchair psychoanalytic means Bailey's Mormonism with what goes on in Deliver Me from Eva. That novel's apparent disconnect from the rest of Bailey's work is part of what's so fascinating here. And it's not like he wrote Eva before find his way to the church. His Mormon writing both precedes and follows after this weird piece of horror fiction.

So then what is this fucking book about, you might well ask. Okay then. That dedication about loosening skull plates isn't incidental, by the way, because listen, here's this guy, Mark Allard, he's around forty years old, and he's seeing a young woman named Edith Brinkley, the daughter of his law partner. Except when we first meet Mark, who is our narrator in Deliver Me from Eva, he's already thrown Edith over for someone else. For whom? For Eva Craner. To be brief, Mark was drawn away from Edith to Eva for reasons we're not entirely clear on (there's nothing wrong with Edith, we're assured), but basically Eva is hopelessly gorgeous and Mark is swept up. And she tells him that her father, Dr. Craner, is a great man, a genius whose ability to manipulate the craniums of human beings -- because the human skull is divided into hinged segments, which must serve a purpose, yes? -- allow them to achieve feats of great genius. See not just Eva's breathtaking knowledge, but also her brother Osman's accomplishments as a concert pianist. Another step along which path he's about to take when Mark is brought into the family estate, or compound maybe, which Dr. Craner, a man born without legs or ears, has dubbed The Cradle of Light.

There's your set up. And a couple of things, or three things, about that: the title, Deliver Me from Eva, is misleading, because Mark is pulled into this world not because Eva, who he loves so much that he's fled his apparently quite lovely girlfriend, as well as his lucrative job as an attorney, is such a femme fatale. She is in fact not that. Mark is drawn in because of the weird and freakish Dr. Craner. It's this detail that begins to slide Deliver Me from Eva from crime fiction into horror. Because it does always seem to be on the cusp of becoming a crime novel, though it's not that easy to say why. I'd suppose it's because religious cults in California are a rich and thriving -- I won't even say cliche' -- pool into which crime writers have and will always dive. Cults, or even just New Age scams, have been covered by Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and pretty much every other crime writer who has staked their ground in L.A. Bailey shifts that to Pasadena. That's where Dr. Craner's estate The Cradle of Light is located, and within that is found the house where Mark and Eva are expected to live. That house is called Thalamus.

The thalamus, of course, being a gland, which, I just now read, might be called the human body's "hub of information." Plus remember those skull hinges, the manipulation of which, etc. Bailey's dedication suddenly seems less random, possibly less personal (does it?), and more of a nod to his novel. Mark winds up having his skull manipulated by the legless and earless Dr. Craner, and he turns from a skeptic to a true believer. Because of course Dr. Craner is both evil and sort of on to something. But anyway, the point is, Eva isn't the villain. She, like her doomed brother Osman, who when we meet him is in a small way revolting against his father's treatments, is an acolyte, rightly or wrongly. And is she wrong? Her maid Margot, who will turn out to be far more than just a maid, supplies information along the way that both condemns Dr. Craner morally, but perhaps absolves him on scientific grounds.

So that's one of the three things. And it connects to the second thing, which is that Deliver Me from Eva feels, for at least about the first third, like a crime novel. Which it isn't, at all, but you do have a professional guy in Los Angeles throwing away his business and his girl for a mysterious and sexy woman. It's just that Eva isn't asking or driving in any way Mark to murder anybody. For profit, or any other motive. Yet the James M. Cain-ian pulse continues to throb. Deliver Me from Eva is a genre hybrid (comedy/horror, adventure/comedy, horror/crime, etc.), but unlike most such stitched-together creatures it's not trying to be. It's a horror novel of the Mad Scientist variety that perhaps due simply to the year of its publication, and our own contemporary view of pulp fiction from that era, and the fact that it doesn't begin in a dungeon but rather the Honeymoon suite of a San Francisco hotel (a good place for crime to begin) fools us into reading it as hardboiled crime. But out hero Mark isn't just a decent man who fends off the hypnotic cult-ish powers of Dr. Craner so that he is finally aware of the body horror, the rampant decapitation, of The Cradle of Light -- he continues to be a decent man throughout it all, who fights the push into Hell.

The third thing is, what did Bailey mean by any of this? Newman/Jones and Ackerman seem to suggest that he meant nothing, but I'm (obviously) not convinced of that. For one thing, none of them offer any evidence, apart from the pun of the title. I would even add to their meager case the novel's last line, which I won't quote because I guess it's a spoiler, though plot-wise it reveals very little, but in any case it's a joke, one I don't like that much, but anyway, it's a joke, is the point. So they have that. They're not wrong. But what I have is the dedication, which is grim, and its connection to the plot, which becomes a frenzy of mortality, and then, finally, I have the end, which isn't a matter of ten pages or so. No, the climax of Deliver Me from Eva hits, but you're aware, as a reader, that there's a good clutch of pages to go. Without giving away too much, or giving away the bare minimum I can give away while still going forward, Mark, our hero, has to contend with the possibility that Dr. Craner, the madman, the murderer, might, when you boil it all down, have been on to something. That humans, in essence, are fucked, are dumb, blank-eyed zombies, without his skull-plate manipulation (which, also, the reader gets the sense is only the tip of the iceberg). It's insisted to Mark that Dr. Craner's evil aside, humanity stands to benefit enormously by the continuation of his work. Yet Mark is us, he's just a goddamn person, who can't see past evil, or past love. I'll finally quote Bailey, by way of Mark:

The ethical concepts of my nature, as interpreted in normal human behavior, seemed dulled by the impact of forces beyond control. If it were dementia, it seems odd that my mind was still crystal clear as to every detail of past events. The interpretive functions of my intellect were the parts which seemed to have gone awry. As I see it now, the norm of my conscious thought followed a pattern of oblique distortion which seemed in that hour perfectly lucid and logical. I felt the urge not to brush away the evils and oddities of my existence, but to perversely examine them one by one. I knew they were interesting, and I knew that I would write of them, but in this moment it was Eva I wanted; the woman I had married; my wife, and loved one.

Am I supposed to regard this passage as insincere? This, to clarify, is after the violence. This isn't part of a build towards pulp madness. Pulp madness -- of a quite mad sort, I must admit -- has already occurred. What this is, and what the roughly thirty pages in which this is included is, is a dealing with the insanity section that you don't often find in novels like this, and which I can't interpret as frivolous. I don't know what Paul Dayton Bailey's deal was, and I haven't read any of his other novels. They may offer greater insight into him than Deliver Me from Eva could ever begin to. But pretty clearly, this novel is his big outlier. He wasn't in his twenties when this came out. He was forty. He said right up top that life was loosening his skull-plates. I'm sorry, but I can't see the joke.


John said...

I can't offer an opinion on the book itself, but it seems worth noting that just a few hours before reading this I was watching some "Ancient X-File" TV business about the 4,000-year-old corpse of a suspected "vampire" unearthed by a Czech archaeologist. Much was made of the various skull fragments and what their careful assembly revealed, indications of some sort of disfigurement or traumatic head injury. It's possible I missed some crucial information there.

A couple of hours before that I was reading an item in the newspaper from which I quote the following:

...During World War II, she worked at the Chelmsford Essex hospital. She explained that in order to finish the autopsy quickly, various removed organs were simply put into the abdominal and chest cavities rather than where they'd come from. Apparently the cranium was easier to suture up if it had something in it, and mum's copy of The Daily Worker was the filler of convenience. Talk about forcing your ideology into someone's head!

bill r. said...

Well. This explains a lot about the 20th century, I must say.