Tuesday, September 20, 2016

James and Lovecraft: Travelers

We're a little outside normal territory in this installment, as M. R. James takes us to Denmark and H. P. Lovecraft to the American West. The difference is that James had actually been to Viborg when he wrote about it, while Lovecraft, though he traveled more widely than his reclusive reputation would suggest, pretty much stuck to the Eastern Seaboard. Also, "Number 13" is a good story, and "The Transition of Juan Romero" is not.

"Number 13" is another example of how unusual a writer James, sometimes assumed to be a traditionalist, actually was. Haunted rooms are a dime a dozen, but the ghost of a room is something else again. And he makes it quite unsettling, to a point where the arm that comes clawing out of the door, far from being necessary, actually feels like a cheap device,irrelevant to the overall shape of the story. One of the guys on the M. R. James Podcast felt that "The Mezzotint" was weak because there was no overt threat to the present day characters, and sketched out what he thought was an improved ending where it all turns out to be the usual revenge bollocks. For me, these stories are effective because they're creepy despite containing nothing more than a changing photograph and dancing in the next room.

The opening paragraph of the story is a small masterpiece of Jamesian style. We go from the gentle description of Viborg's natural charms, to the brutal details of Erik Glipping's murder, to the ironic (and metafictional) self-deprecation of "But I am not writing a guide-book." And then, in the middle of the story, there is that very weird scrap of light poetry, as the shadowy dancer in the next becomes not ominous but amusing. And then back to ominous again, when the singing starts. The way James balances humor and horror is really quite something. It's interesting that the protagonist of the story is the narrator's cousin; there's usually more distance than that between the Jamesian protagonist and the Jamesian narrative voice, so that no emotional response is required. It's not surprising, then, that there is little evidence of personal warmth in the narrator's account: the cousin is "Anderson" and even "Mr Anderson" throughout.

One small point worth noting is the dialogue of the archivist, Herr Scavenius. Its mild syntactic quirks are a subtle reflection of his status as a non-native speaker whose English mostly comes out of books. Herr Kristensen, an innkeeper with occasional English guests, who therefore has more chance to practice the spoken language, sounds more natural. This is a level of nuance that James does not extend to English characters of the working class, and that Lovecraft does not extend to much of anyone. Which brings us, I suppose, to Juan Romero.

It's not actually a terrible story. It certainly doesn't belong in the "Early Tales" holding pen with actual early tales like "The Alchemist" and "The Beast in the Cave" and embarrassing racist, nativist tosh like "The Street." Don't get me wrong: the story is racist. "A large herd of unkempt Mexicans" is one of its politer moments. But it's not tosh, except in the sense that all Lovecraft is tosh. Lovecraft himself declined to publish it, but he did publish "The Street," so what the hell did he know?

The Western setting is a strange one for Lovecraft, who loved his gambrel-roofed New England. A couple of his revisions have Western settings drawn from the drafts and concepts supplied by his clients, but I think this is the only time a story purely by Lovecraft is set in the West. And with a British protagonist too, one who had been a soldier in India. Very jet-setting for Lovecraft, though both the West and British India are of course settings for pulpy (and racist) entertainments of different sorts. Consider the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, which trade between them on the perceived exoticism of both. A Study in Scarlet presents Mormon Utah as a sinister frontier cult, while The Sign of the Four deals with exactly the same sort of shady ex-military Englishmen as the present story.

The plot of "Juan Romero" is underdeveloped, but there's nothing wrong with it. S. T. Joshi faults the ending for being too vague, as he often does with early Lovecraft, but I think it leaves just enough ambiguity to be unsettling rather than uninteresting. For me, as for Thomas Ligotti, the formless horrors of "minor" Lovecraft are better than the cosmic aliens of the more innovative and more famous works. This, like "Dagon," is a story that you can see evolving into something significant if Lovecraft had revised and expanded it a little later in his career. As it is, it's just another quasi-juvenile curiosity. And racist. Did I mention it's pretty racist?

Doctor Who: Classic Doctors, New Monsters

A common criticism of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who as it aired was that it wasn't coming up with any good recurring monsters. I think that's true... so far as it goes. There aren't any good recurring monsters in that era, because the show wasn't trying to create any. It went instead for the splashy thrill of having something new almost every week, and using standards like the Daleks and the Cybermen when it wanted an old enemy. Which is perfectly acceptable practice, but makes things awkward for Big Finish's latest New Series boxset, which throws the 20th-century Doctors up against monsters created for the RTD era. Most of these aren't monsters designed with multiple appearances in mind, which has interesting consequences for the boxset, both good and bad.

We begin with a monster that, whatever the original intention, has become recurring: the Weeping Angels. Fallen Angels is basically a remake of "Blink," but with the fifth Doctor instead of the tenth Doctor, and Michelangelo instead of Sally Sparrow. Which sounds goofily high-concept, but in the broad strokes it's reasonably successful. There's some neat stuff to do with how these Angels wound up on Earth and how they're achieving their ends. The problem is that the Weeping Angels don't work on audio. The first scene is effective, but that's about atmosphere and the over-the-top villain (with an over-the-top Italian accent to match), not about the Angels. Later on, when we're supposed to be terrified that they're closing in, the repeated use of the "It moved!" sound effect from "Blink," divorced from any visual experience, becomes amusing rather than menacing. You could play a drinking game.

The other issue is that the story takes too many of its cues, large and small (and some spoilery), from "Blink." There's only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels without changing the rules, as Steven Moffat did when he brought them back to TV, but this story is too content to say, "Did you like 'Blink'? Well, here's a version set in the Italian Renaissance!" The fifth Doctor reuses a tenth Doctor catchphrase at one point, and there's even an embarrassingly nudge-nudge-wink-wink callback to That Line. Come on, writers: if you're going to invoke That Line, at least extend the joke. Don't just turn to the audience and say. "Remember that joke? That was a funny one, eh?"

Whatever its limitations of concept, Fallen Angels is well-executed. The script speeds along as a one-hour Doctor Who story must. Peter Davison is on fine form here, bantering with one-off companion Gabby Finch, who can't quite believe that she's been transported from 2015 to 1511. Diane Morgan's performance as Gabby is the high point of a guest cast in which Matthew Kelly also does solid work as Michelangelo, playing the script's stock "temperamental artist" bits without turning him into a caricature rather than a character. The characterization of Michelangelo is a good synecdoche of Fallen Angels' shortcomings, actually: it takes an established trope and simply invokes it in a particular context, rather than adding the little twists that would be necessary to give it new life.

If the Weeping Angels only seemed suited to star in one type of story, the next monster is an even tougher sell: it was barely the star of its one meaningful television appearance. But Judoon in Chains takes that into account and pushes the boat out, evolving the Judoon in an effective way that's difficult to discuss without spoilers. This is probably the story from this box that has the most dramatic potential. The trouble is, it's a tale of two halves that don't quite mesh, and the interesting half isn't the one the story's ultimately built around.

The main plot is a standard Doctor Who story about a corrupt space corporation that is soon sorry it ever crossed paths with the Doctor. It's fine, though the villain is one-dimensional and not especially menacing, and the final confrontation is thus kind of flat. In the middle of the story, though, is an interlude where the Doctor and the amnesiac Captain Kybo of the Judoon are trapped in a Victorian circus, and befriend Thomasina Thumb, charmingly played by Kiruna Stamell. There's what I can only call a gentleness to this material, a quietly sentimental focus on character as Kybo becomes something more than the average, and I wish the audio had stayed with it, rather than dumping it in favor of the usual stuff. You could actually strip the space corruption element away entirely and tell a different, perhaps more tragic version of this story. Ah, well. What we got is more than good enough.

The Sycorax are another monster that wouldn't have seemed worthy of a return: they're scary looking and all, but they exist only to be shut down by the Doctor without a second thought. He even explains why they're not much of a threat. But Harvest of the Sycorax finds a way to make them dangerous again. This is probably the closest the boxset comes to an old-fashioned Doctor Who monster story, with an invasion and a base under threat. It's also the overall funniest story, despite having a tired and tiresome satirical context.

The society the Sycorax are invading is so over-medicated that people have personal computerized assistants who can prescribe something for the least twitch of emotion. This might have felt novel in, say, 2007, when "Gridlock" showed us mood patches, but nowadays all you can see is the glibness of it. I don't think overmedication is enough of a problem to deserve this kind of satire. There are instances of it, to be sure, but I suspect that when many people (not necessarily including writer James Goss) complain about the phenomenon, there's an implication that most of those on mood medication don't need it, which is an unfair and actively damaging attitude.

Anyway. Whatever the problems with the concept, the script uses it to good comic effect, as the assistant programs chime in at the worst possible moment. Sylvester McCoy is also pretty funny here, giving a restrained performance that works within rather than against the rhythms of the script. And Nisha Nayar, who was very good in the small role of the Female Programmer in "Bad Wolf" and "The Parting of the Ways," is equally good in the larger role of quasi-companion Zanzibar Hashtag (did I mention the satire here wasn't subtle?). After a wonderfully prickly introduction in which he's quietly irritable and she's thoroughly on edge, they get up to some good old-fashioned seventh Doctor scheming. As with the rest of the stories in the box thus far, there's nothing especially surprising here on the level of plot, but it's well-made and there's a zip to it that elevates it above standard fare.

The box closes out with an eighth Doctor story set in the Time War and featuring the new Sontarans. I have to admit that I've always found the Sontarans tiresome. Alien races obsessed with honor are dime-a-dozen in science fiction, and they're almost always one-note and boring. They're not necessarily interesting as a species here either, but excellent performances by Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey keep them entertaining as a standard lone warrior revenge story plays out. (The Sontar-Ha chant is still awful, though.) The shifting alliances among that lone warrior, the Doctor, and the quasi-companion make for a story that's talky, but in a good way, as everyone is telling the truth, though not always for the right reasons. The Time War is used effectively here, kept offscreen yet shown to be devastating in its consequences. This bodes well for the eighth Doctor Time War boxset that's coming next year.

When the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters set was announced, I thought, "Really? That's what they picked for monsters?" Then I ran through the available options in my head and added, "Well, I suppose they took the best they could get." But having heard the set, I have to commend the writers on mostly finding interesting ways to revisit monsters who were conceived as one-offs, and weren't necessarily that exciting in those initial appearances. The biggest thing that works in the set's favor, though, is the single disc story format.

There's a reason most drama nowadays is done at this length: it allows enough plot complication for stories to become involving, but not so much that they bog down, and requires strict economy of characterization. Big Finish really ought to do more in this format for classic Doctors who aren't Paul McGann or Tom Baker. It's still called the Main Range, but it's hard to deny that these days the urgency at BF is elsewhere. It's nice to see the stalwarts that are Davison, Colin Baker, and McCoy get to take part in an energetic, attention-grabbing release like this. I'm very much looking forward to a new set of classic monsters in the next boxset, including the just-announced Racnoss. Like the Sycorax, they're basically a panto villain on TV, but I hope they'll become something more in Big Finish's capable hands.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Doctor Who: The Cradle of the Snake

If you asked me to explain why I think single-disc stories are the way forward for Big Finish, I'd point to The Cradle of the Snake. Not because there's anything horribly wrong with it, but because its flaws would be much less noticeable at shorter length. The return of the Mara written by Marc Platt ought to be an instant classic, but it uses its ideas so sparsely that all the thematic layering and character potential drain away, leaving a standard Doctor Who runaround.

The Mara is still in Tegan's head. The Doctor is worried, and so are Turlough and the much older Nyssa who, at least in this story, never acts a whit different than she always did. The Doctor takes steps to remove the Mara, and if you are the world's biggest chump you will believe for a few minutes that he succeeded. If you are not the world's biggest chump, you will immediately know what the Part One cliffhanger will be, and what the first bit of potential the story's going to waste will be.

Peter Davison is very good at playing the Mara-riddled Doctor throughout the story, but there's little sense of the kind of chaos a man of his intellect might be able to sow. His plan is an obvious use of the situation he finds, and while there's one small moment where he plays a couple his companions against each other, it is only one moment, and it comes to nothing in how the plot unfolds. Eventually the Mara gets ahold of Nyssa, and Sarah Sutton is great at giving her a patronizing hauteur, but in the long run it has nothing to do with anything. The Mara is only in her so she'll have something to be doing while Tegan and Turlough save the day.

Save the day, I should note, by doing something very like what was done in a previous Mara story, but without any psychological subtext: it's just a literal [SPOILER]. There's an attempt at mystical atmosphere via a one-note spiritual wise man, but his wisdom isn't moored to anything specific that the story might be about. This script knows the words of a Mara story, but not the music. There's also what the cover copy calls an "infotainment impresario," who I guess is a satire of celebrity presenters or telethons, or something, but this amounts to a couple good jokes that aren't really taken anywhere.

I can't help contrasting this with Fallen Angels, the fifth Doctor story from the first Classic Doctors, New Monsters box, which I also listened to recently (and will eventually review, I hope). That story doesn't really work either, also because it doesn't know how to build on its source material, but it's much more entertaining, because it's allowed to get in and out in 55 minutes rather than hanging around for almost twice that long. It doesn't spend its middle 50% treading water, which makes the thinness of its concepts less obvious, and the jokes hang together rather than hanging separately. The Cradle of the Snake is never noticeably padded, but all it actually does is combine different characters in various ways, repeating pieces of information as they move from one group to another. It feels like an exercise in filling out the season, which is just not what the Mara deserves, to say nothing of the audience.

Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Perpetual Bond/The Cold Equations/The First Wave

Jean Marsh is awesome. Did you know that? You should; it's a scientific fact. Anyway, a semi-recent thing in which she was awesome was a trilogy of Companion Chronicles audios written by Simon Guerrier, in which she played Sara Kingdom from that really long 60s Dalek story. I reviewed two of them for Unreality SF, which used to have a lot of tie-in reviewers and now has the very prolific Steve Mollmann. I'm not going to link to those reviews, because I'm sure they're pretty bad, unlike this review, which is going to be almost as awesome as Jean Marsh. Who is, by the way, not actually in the audios I'm going to be reviewing here. They are by Simon Guerrier, though, and they focus on another neglected companion of the first Doctor: Steven Taylor.

Indeed, the first of this trilogy picks up after Sara Kingdom's death at the end of "The Daleks' Master Plan," with Steven and the Doctor shocked and mournful in a way they never got to be onscreen. Classic Doctor Who was not very good at letting characters respond to trauma (one recalls Tegan saying "Auntie Vanessa" exactly once, and Nyssa looking a bit mournful for fifteen seconds after her planet blows up), so it's good that The Perpetual Bond, and indeed this whole trilogy, can make all the deaths from that epic battle with the Daleks feel like they meant something. It's not that these adventures are all doom and gloom, but there's a melancholy to them that would have been out of place in the action-serial goofiness of season three.

Steven and the Doctor land back in the 1960s, in Totter's Lane in fact, and, on their way to visit Ian and Barbara they get embroiled in an alien scheme involving the stock exchange. The storyline is not enormously interesting, to be honest; if you're in the Companion Chronicles for elaborate and surprising plots, you're going to be disappointed a good percentage of the time. Atmosphere and character are the high points of the range, and that's where The Perpetual Bond delivers. There's a nice 1960s men-of-business vibe to the setting, and Steven, who is from the far future, has a charmingly offbeat angle on all of it.

Then there's Oliver Harper, a young trader whose time as a companion is one of the thrulines for this trilogy. Tom Allen plays Oliver with a youthful charm that feels period-appropriate without descending into caricature, and makes for a nice contrast with the weary, battle-worn Doctor and Steven. Oliver has a secret that is not revealed in this story but is also not very difficult to guess if you think about the time period and the ways a modern drama might comment on it. It's not much more than a narrative question mark in this first story, anyway.

The Perpetual Bond by itself is a slightly above-average Companion Chronicle, not a patch on the Sara Kingdom stories. It's in the follow-up, The Cold Equations, that things really begin to cook... or freeze. Again, the plot is not the point. All you need to know is that there's a space station in Earth orbit in the far future, and that Oliver's first trip in the TARDIS takes a pretty grim turn. What's interesting about this story is the way it turns its predecessor on its head: again it's about aliens and their business dealings, but here we have Oliver providing a charming perspective on Steven's milieu, rather than the other way around. Steven's time as a fighter pilot is vital to how things develop here, using the character's origins and history in a way that didn't often happen for classic companions. The logistics of space travel matter here, which allows Steven to play the hero in a subtler fashion than he did onscreen.

The centerpiece of this story is a long conversation between Steven and Oliver aboard a chunk of the station that's rapidly losing oxygen. They think they're dying, and Steven convinces Oliver to reveal his secret. I have mixed feelings about this secret. It seems to have been done with good intentions but with little sense of how to make it fit into the main matter of the trilogy, which is disappointing given how well Steven's characterization is integrated. But this scene, taken in isolation, is perfect. Steven's reaction is not one he would have had in other circumstances, but it allows the script to avoid some obvious and over-earnest beats that might otherwise have been felt necessary and cut to the emotional truth. The sound design and the performances really sell the idea that these characters are dying, even though you know they're not.

The Cold Equations is probably the strongest link in the trilogy, but The First Wave comes pretty close. It's another space-based story with a largely inconsequential plot. I just listened to it last night, and I've already forgotten a lot of the details. It has Vardans in it, if you like those. What makes it brilliant is how it ties together a lot of the trilogy's themes, about mortality and the value of struggling onward rather than giving up or running away. Steven and Oliver think the Doctor is dead, and for once a misunderstanding like this isn't milked for cheap sentiment or dramatic irony. The cliffhanger to Part One does something very unusual in Doctor Who that slots right into the key themes. And the last scene of the story is a gorgeous emotional grace note that really sells a plot development that might otherwise feel rushed and less meaningful than it wants to be.

Someone once observed that characterization reached such a low point around season three of Doctor Who that the show seemed to hold the companions in outright contempt. Minimal personality, immediate abandonment of personal history, Dodo not getting a departure scene, that kind of thing. This trilogy goes a long way to correcting that by building stories around Steven's stated background and extrapolating an emotional arc from the serials he's in. Peter Purves does a great job of selling it all. The fact that he's much older than he was in 1966 lets him tap into the melancholy wisdom the character has taken on by the end of The First Wave. They also help him give a decent performance as the first Doctor. It's not an especially proficient impression on a technical level, but it's enormously entertaining, conveying a gleeful good nature that contrasts nicely with the devious scheming that the Doctor gets up to at a couple points in the trilogy.

What's hardest to capture about the success of these stories is how they fit together in a lot of small ways, in points of theme and tone and characterization that are all the more effective for not being hammered home. It feels elegant in a way that's a far cry from "The Daleks' Master Plan," which looks like the kind of sci-fi melodrama they would have torn apart on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Guerrier achieved the same thing with Sara Kingdom in his trilogy about her; he's clearly the go-to guy for building on the late Hartnell era. Which is why I'm looking forward to another trilogy of his Companion Chronicles, which also focused on Steven Taylor, using a frame story involving his life after the Doctor. I know just enough about how it plays out to be thoroughly tantalized. I'm sure there'll be a review here in a couple weeks, full of similar outsize praise for tie-in audio dramas. But seriously, if you both love 1960s Doctor Who and are aware of its limitations, you want to give these stories a listen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

James and Lovecraft: Classy

H. P. Lovecraft was a consummate bigot. So much is known. What is insufficiently understood is that he was not merely a racist and a xenophobe. To put it bluntly, he hated "inferior" white people just about as much as he hated everyone who wasn't white. His letters to Robert E. Howard, which among many better things are a sickening record of what happens when two bigots find common cause and really get going, are full of a need to classify different white ethnic groups by how close they come to the Anglo-Saxon pinnacle. And, like another American original known by his initials, H. L. Mencken, he was a firm believer in good and bad stock within an ethnicity. Which brings us to "Beyond the Wall of Sleep."

This is a better story technically than what has preceded it, and a good example of what I was talking about when I said it wasn't the style but the quality that I objected to in "The Tomb." Yes, the narrator of this story is incredibly pompous, and yes, his word choice and diction are a little unlikely in the early 20th century, but the flow of the language is much more natural than before: it's a difficult style but not a bad one. And the narrative is well-paced, with evocative hints of Slater's dream-world that are, if anything, better than the whole that is subsequently revealed. This is the first time that Lovecraft manages the gradual revelation of the supernatural that's so central to his modern reputation.

There is, as the guys in The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast point out, a kind of poignancy in this concept: the communion between two intellects trapped in frail and insufficient human forms. One thinks of Lovecraft, who at this time had few if any in-person friends but was already a great correspondent and a member of the amateur journalism movement, reaching out and communing as the narrator and Slater's inhabitant do. Reductive psychobiography is grating, but Lovecraft by his own account often felt like a man out of his own time.

But of course what draws your attention is the narrator's unbelievable contempt for Joe Slater. I would list all his insulting turns of phrase, but I don't have that kind of time. Here's a flavor of it: "strange, repellent scions of a primitive colonial peasant stock... who correspond exactly to the decadent element of 'white trash' in the South." We get scarcely a sentence in reference to Slater without some demeaning adjective: "debased," "filthy," "inferior," "pitiful," and so on. In a modern story this arrogance would be part of a character study of the narrator, whose own mental state would be called into question. There's no such complexity in "Beyond the Wall of Sleep": we're simply meant to take the narrator's self-regard at face value.

People like to talk about "separating the man from the work" when they deign to address bigotry in classic artists, but this story is as good an indicator as any of how facile that notion is. A person's worldview is not a series of discrete ideologies; it all blends together. The sense of isolation and discontent that powers many of Lovecraft's tales is inextricably bound up with his idea of himself as "unmixed English gentry" and therefore superior to virtually everyone else on the planet. There is of course something inherently defensive about that idea, the claiming of racial superiority to distract from questions of individual merit. The way "The Outsider" reverses this dynamic, making its protagonist the only monster in a world of normal people, suggests certain dualities in Lovecraft's self-conception. But we're drifting toward psychobiography again.

Issues of class superiority also pop up in "The Ash-Tree," an odder story than I had remembered. The guys in The M. R. James Podcast have a bit of a debate about what's happening and why. The problem, I think, is not a lack of explanations but an abundance of possible ones. The strangeness begins in the account of Mrs Mothersole's trial. James does a fair amount of throat-clearing about whether witch trials were entirely an irrational phenomenon, or if there might have been some real witches. This is obviously to do with the tension between his awareness as an intelligent observer that witch trials were horrifying nonsense, and his need as a ghost story writer to have an actual witch. But this hemming and hawing sets an ambiguous tone that will remain throughout the story.

James then goes out of his way to tell us that Mrs Mothersole is "rather better off and in a more influential position" than most accused witches. I imagine this is said to make clear that the kind of social anxieties and power dynamics visible in actual witch trials were not a factor here. And yet you have to wonder about Sir Matthew's evidence. I don't mean that he might be lying; it's perfectly obvious that he's not. But you do wonder about the implications of that night when he went right up to Mrs Mothersole's door and, finding her not obviously engaged in witchcraft, "had no good explanation to offer of his visit." I don't quite believe that James is alluding to more gossipy interpretations that might be placed on these events, but it does niggle. Nor can I quite escape the impression that the description of Sir Matthew's response to the whole affair, with the capper "as any reasonable man must have done," has an air of irony about it, of protesting too much. But perhaps I'm only projecting.

Certainly we're never really invited to sympathize with Sir Matthew, or with Sir Richard. It's easier to feel bad for the cat at the end of the story than for either of the two humans. The immediate follow-up to "they found their master dead and black" is not anything mournful but a brisk "So much you have guessed." (I love that line, by the way. For the way it casually tugs at suspension of disbelief, and for its knowing wink at readers who might have thought they'd outsmarted the writer by guessing his plot twist. The Simpsons once described marriage as "a beautiful thing, but also a constant battle for moral superiority." So too is the reader/writer relationship, with each trying to get one up on the other.) And all we see Sir Richard do is ignore the sensible advice of his social inferiors to form an immediate friendship with a stranger based on ancient family ties.

All this is coincidence, probably. The value of the folk wisdom of the lower classes is a trope in supernatural stories, and James was hardly any kind of revolutionary. But what is on the surface a superficial revenge yarn keeps spinning off questions, if only because James keeps piling up ominous indicators and coincidences without ever stringing them together into a full explanation. Why do Mrs Mothersole and her spiders strike when they do? Were they stirred up by the removal of Mrs Mothersole's grave (not that she was in there)? Were they waiting for a Crome visit, to enhance the overall narrative synchronicity? Could they only get into the room that's right next to the ash-tree (and if so, how were they "rattl[ing] about his window" in the other bedroom)? Never mind. This is a yarn, and while James' stories are in some ways deeper than they appear, we're not going to recover a secret plot underneath the obvious one.

Other stray observations:

This is the first story to show off James' great capacity to mimic period prose. The excerpt from Crome's papers is quite something. 

The end of the first paragraph is interesting. Are we to imagine that the actual M. R. James wanted a house like that? He seemed pretty happy at Eton and King's. Or is this simply a picturesque notion, to lull the reader before GIANT HAIRY SPIDERS start poking their limbs in?

I also find myself wondering if Mrs Mothersole's sort-of curse (which implies that she has pretty specific visions of the future) is a conscious echo of Sarah Good's "God will give you blood to drink," or if gallows curses from witches were common enough that James had some other source in mind. Good's reputed words were, of course, an inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables.

I think that's all this time. Next up are "Number 13" and "The Transition of Juan Romero." The latter is a story so dire Arkham House stuck in it an "Early Tales" section at the end of its minor Lovecraft collection Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, alongside "The Street," easily the worst story Lovecraft ever wrote, even though neither is actually all that early. So, um, fortunately "Number 13" is pretty good as I recall.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall

It's rare that you can describe literary fiction as "not for the faint of heart," but Matt Bell's new collection will test your resolve. Bell's two novels, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper, are harrowing explorations of human failings and yearnings, but their endings have a bittersweet quality that balances the bleak intensity. There are stories here that follow that pattern, but there are also some that lead the reader not out of but deeper into the darkness. And even the ones that end hopefully will take you on an uncomfortable journey to get there. It's not just that Bell is working with disturbing thematic material. His style is also psychologically intense, its poetic rhythms drawing the reader into a kind of aesthetic fever that, like a literal fever, can be exhausting. Moving in and out of that experience seventeen times, once for each story in this collection, was daunting enough that it took me a month to read the whole thing, even though Bell is one of my favorite contemporary authors.

But readers who brave these woods will be amply rewarded. The themes and motifs that drove Bell's novels-- the anxieties of parenthood, the terrible resilience of the human psyche, cycles of abuse and the way they blur the line between predator and victim-- are present here, explored with a tighter focus than the novel form allows. The title story is reminiscent of certain aspects of Scrapper, but with the eerie surrealism of In the House. One of Bell's gifts is a capacity to balance those surreal elements with naturalistic ones in a way that uses the unreal to reinforce the raw emotions of the reality. "Doll Parts" follows a young girl's psychological journey in the aftermath of her brother's disappearance. It's ~almost~ a naturalistic story, but the few unlikely elements and the style, which reflects the fractured yet emotionally coherent logic of a grieving child, give it a mythic quality.

Bell returns frequently to children threatened, damaged, destroyed. "Dredge" is another cycle-of-trauma story that manages to be physically as well as mentally upsetting, while "Wolf Parts" revitalizes the increasingly played-out genre of the reimagined fairy tale by telling the story in dozens of different ways that revitalize the underlying motifs of family relations, victimization, sexual awakening, and hard-won survival. In "The Stations," Bell invokes again the threat of kidnapping and abuse, but in a way that shines light instead on the more common pain of unmet needs within the family. And then there's the novella "Cataclysm Baby," which the writer Karen Russell describes in a blurb as "a baby name book for the apocalypse." These twenty-six vignettes explore parental fears and hopes through an array of worlds that are as twisted and dreamlike as the people who inhabit them. The conceit may hamper the project slightly-- some of the vignettes are better than others-- but on the whole it's an extraordinary piece of work.

The collection ends as it began, with a child in peril. But this time the threat is not from outside but from within: terminal illness. You could bring "A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way" down to a familiar metaphor-- hospital as labyrinth-- but that would do an injustice to its portrait of a father coping with unimaginable loss by telling himself a story that will take him down through the labyrinth, and then up and out again. The ending is at once tragic and beautiful in a way that perfectly encapsulates Bell's work.

Throughout the collection Bell jumps genres with gleeful abandon. "The Receiving Tower" is a kind of science fiction, a meditation on memory, identity, and perseverance that would be the most disturbing story in many collections but for Bell is only moderately troubling. "Inheritance" is on the line between science fiction and fantasy, and is one of the few stories in the collection I'm not sure works. Its concept is equal to anything else Bell has come up with, but the metaphors don't strike the heart as they do elsewhere, perhaps because the characters' psychology doesn't feel as central. I had similar issues with "The Migration," a near-future-but-also-present-day story (Scrapper also belongs to this highly hyphenated genre) that addresses some of our most pressing contemporary problems. This is a stylistic triumph, but it works mostly on the level of group rather than individual psychology, which makes its explanations feel facile even when they're basically accurate.

In addition to the various forms of science fiction and fantasy, Bell also offers a pair of very strange historical fictions. I got all the way through "His Last Great Gift" without ever imagining that its protagonist was real: he seemed too perfect an encapsulation of overlapping American ideologies of the 19th century. It was only when I got to "The Collectors" and realized it was about the Collyer brothers that I thought, "Well, they were all too real, so maybe..." "His Last Great Gift" is a well-crafted and evocative story, but "The Collectors"... well, if ever there was a writer to do justice to the Collyer brothers Matt Bell has to be it. Their story is inherently unsettling, and Bell cuts right to the heart of it. At first I dreaded reading this story, afraid that I was going to be dragged through their tragedy once more with no fresh insights to show for it, but Bell finds something new, by taking a hard look not at the brothers, but at us.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is a collection of remarkable stylistic and thematic unity. Bell's language is sometimes more intense and sometimes less so, but its rhythms are constant, as are the topics with which he is most deeply concerned. For some readers this will be limiting, will make the book feel claustrophobic. To my mind, however, the great range of settings and genres, the slide up and down the realism-surrealism scale, produces something that is better called resonant than repetitive. It echoes itself to create a larger music. Make no mistake: by the standards of literary fiction as commodity, the bestselling novels that bloodlessly reproduce upper middle class dysfunction, Matt Bell is a difficult writer. He looks at the traumas of the family through a different lens, he tugs at threads some would prefer to leave hanging. But what he does with those threads once they're pulled loose is extraordinary. This is one of the best books of the year, and well worth any effort it demands of you as a reader.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

James and Lovecraft: "The Mezzotint" and "Polaris"

Here's a thing M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft have in common: editors fiddling around with their paragraphing. It happened to Lovecraft in the 1930s, when pulp editors cut down his long paragraphs to fit the expectations of a pulp audience. James was spared until just a few years ago, when the great horror anthologist Stephen Jones chose to muck about with paragraphing and punctuation for his edition of the complete James, Curious Warnings.

Jones justified this meddling in an editor's note that jumps rather wildly among explanations. It starts off by calling James "not much of a stylist," then tries to soften this blow with the patronizing correction, "Well, he was a stylist -- but he wrote in a unique style that was very much all his own." (One can't help wondering what James would have made of being edited posthumously by someone who could put into print a sentence of such thudding redundancy.) Then there's some waffle about changing languages, with the implication that kids these days can't read long paragraphs anymore and chopping James up into the rhythms of an action thriller is the only way to get him read. This would be easier to believe if James weren't still in print in many other editions containing his original versions, a fact to which Jones alludes in an "if you don't like what I've done, go and read them!" aside.

We're also told that because James initially wrote these stories to be read aloud and "more than likely" never edited them for their formal publication, they had probably "never really been properly edited before." Anything is possible, but I think Jones is confusing James' habitual modest and lighthearted self-presentation with actual indifference. Certainly James was involved in editing his first collection; he wrote in a letter to his father about the interesting prospect of correcting proofs of something so different from his academic work.

But to be frank I doubt Jones cares all that much about James' level of editorial involvement or about what modern audiences will put up with. He plainly thinks he is improving James' work. "No longer are his wit, erudition or pleasing terrors lost amongst pages and pages of unbroken print, complicated sentences and protracted paragraphs." I can only reply that I don't think those things were ever lost. Millions of people had been finding them for over a century before Jones entered the picture. Yes, there are some very long paragraphs in James that could be split without much loss. But I don't believe anyone can look at the extent of Jones' changes and feel that they are in line with James' style. Paragraphs of two or three sentences create a rhythm very different from the restrained gradualism of the antiquarian ghost story. Writers use paragraph breaks to control the flow of the narrative; they don't and shouldn't stop every fifty words or so in case someone's attention is flagging.

You may wonder why I'm banging on about this in a blog post that's supposed to be about "The Mezzotint." Well, first of all I had to get it off my chest. Jones is a first-rate editor of contemporary horror fiction, but his approach to Curious Warnings ruined, from the perspective of the fusty James enthusiast, the only mass-market edition to include the fragments and the children's novel The Five Jars. (That Curious Warnings is already out of print and traditional editions of James are not is one of the ironies of the situation.)

And I don't think it's fair to suggest James was indifferent to things like paragraphing. In places, perhaps, but there are other places where he is plainly using paragraph breaks to create specific effects. In "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" you have, following the very long paragraph describing the sacristan's home and the book itself, the one-sentence paragraph  " 'If monsieur will turn on to the end,' he said." A short, sharp hint that something ominous is coming. There's an even better example in (yes, finally) "The Mezzotint." Setting the sentence "Williams had not noticed it before" off as its own paragraph draws the reader up, letting her know that this is no mere inattention but a plot point, a hint of the supernatural, something to send that first delicate shiver up the spine.

So is there anything good about "The Mezzotint" besides those six words? Sure. I'm not quite sure why it used to be my favorite, but the evolution of the engraving is a model of how a James story unfurls its supernatural presence. And the use of the present-day observers to tell the story of the ghostly kidnapping reflect James's careful manipulation of narrative distance. His stories are told at a remove. They happened to a friend of a friend, or were unearthed in old papers. The narrator is not personally implicated, and can describe characters and places with an ironic detachment, and without the profuse descriptions of confusion and terror that a first-person narrator would provide. To place the kidnapping of the Francis heir by Gawdy's ghost in the foreground would be a bit gruesome even for James, who softened the horror of the murdered children in "Lost Hearts" by making them such malevolent spirits. In fact this is a pretty light story all things considered; the nature of the frame narrative means there's no real climax, no "crumpled linen" or "odious writhings of a wasp."

This is the first story to really feature James' gentle satire of academics. It's amusing, especially the bits about golf. I suppose I should mention Mr Filcher, the servant who is, even more than Mrs Bunch, James' first full-on working class character or caricature. James is sometimes called a master of dialect, but I have to say he may over-egging the pudding here. Every quirk of language in isolation is no doubt accurate, but I doubt they often came as thick and fast as they do in Filcher's speech. Yes, this is exaggeration for comic effect, but James can make dons funny in a subtler, less condescending way.

Speaking of transitions, I don't have one to lead us toward "Polaris." According to S. T. Joshi, this is "a quiet little triumph of prose-poetry, its incantatory rhythm and delicate pathos sustaining it in spite of its brevity." I have the greatest respect for Joshi, but, you know, come on. I don't think Lovecraft ever wrote anything that featured "delicate pathos," and the heavy-handed mournfulness of this story is certainly not it.

I can see what Lovecraft was going for with the repetition of names and phrases, but the effect doesn't quite come off, although the last line makes for a pleasingly bleak final image. It doesn't help that he has no gift for fantasy nomenclature. Robert E. Howard and Lord Dunsany (who was not, despite what you might think, an influence on this story; Lovecraft hadn't read him yet) could put together evocative names that suggested an, and were often borrowed or tweaked from the actual, ancient world, but here we have stuff like Zobna and Kadiphonek that sounds silly in its own right and doesn't feel like it comes from any single invented language.

Lovecraft racism watch: the Inutos are "squat, hellish, yellow fiends" who "knew not the scruples of honour." They turn out to be the ancestors of the Inuit, or as Lovecraft calls them, using an old-fashioned spelling I've always loved, the Esquimaux.

I feel like I'm giving James a lot more space than Lovecraft in these posts, but then, as I've said before, James' early stories are his best, most representative work, while Lovecraft's are part of a great casting-about for style and substance. "Polaris," like "Dagon," is a story that could stand to be longer, to show the narrator's discovery and exploration of Olathoe in direct narration, so that the city's wonders are more clear and the loss of it resonates properly. And also like "Dagon," this is a story that's mostly interesting as a foreshadowing of what would come: in that case of the "Cthulhu Mythos," in this case of the "Dream Cycle." Neither of those things really exists as such, hence the scare quotes, but they do reflect certain broad currents in Lovecraft's work. "Polaris" points the way toward a lot of stories that, while not well regarded or widely discussed, are among my favorites in the Lovecraft canon. I hope I'll find more to say about them.