Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Little Stranger

Near the end of his recent book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson paints a grim picture of the lives of wealthy British landowners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Because of death duties and other skyrocketing taxes, he tells us, most of the rich "lived within a semipermanent state of crisis," forced to sell off the heirlooms from their country houses, and sometimes the country houses themselves.  Beautiful estates were torn apart or torn down, their treasures scattered to the four winds.

When I read that section of Bryson's book, I rolled my eyes.  I don't generally do well with being asked to sympathize with idle rich people who are no longer permitted to be idle, and I've never cared about the "fate" of pretty houses and the pretty things inside them.  But this week I've been rereading The Little Stranger, the latest novel by the great Sarah Waters.  It's about the fate of a wealthy British family and their grand manor in the changing social and political climate of the late 1940s-- and, as before I found it captivating and remarkably moving.

Part of the reason for that is that Waters, unlike Bryson, is taking the decline of the great estates as her primary subject rather than as an epilogue, so she can paint a more nuanced portrait.  More importantly, it never feels like she's trying too hard to make us feel pity or sympathy for the Ayres family.  Each member of the family, from the widowed, ladylike Mrs. Ayres to her injured veteran son Roderick to her tough-minded "spinster" daughter Caroline, is carefully-drawn and multi-faceted, much more complex than the stereotypes my descriptions may have evoked.  They're not heroes or sacrificial lambs for a cruel modern age, but people, with all the faults and virtues of their class.  Mrs Ayres may be unfailingly polite, but when the conversation turns to trained monkeys she's also capable of this little gem: "“Some society or other would prevent it, or Mr. Gandhi would object. Probably monkeys have the vote in India now.”

Likewise, Waters offers a balanced view of the evolution of postwar British society.   She acknowledges the regrettable loss of gorgeous eighteenth-century architecture without losing sight of the affordable council housing that will replace it.  Whenever one of the Ayreses reflects on the loss of their genteel way of life, the novel's narrator, Faraday, who rose from the lower class to become a doctor, is able to provide a contrary memory of deprivation or ill-treatment by that same aristocracy.

"That's all very well," you may be saying, "but why are you writing about this on a ghost story blog?"  Well, The Little Stranger is also a ghost story, a subtle, evocative one in the manner of M. R. James and other early twentieth-century masters.  Something seems to be wrong at Hundreds Hall, the Ayres mansion.  Is it all in the imagination of the new housemaid, Betty?  Is it the ghost of the household's dead daughter, Susan?  Or is it something even stranger?  Like all the best ghost stories, this one builds slowly, to the point where the first hundred pages or so may be a bit of a slog for the first-time reader.  (My mother put the book aside about halfway through and had to be persuaded to pick it up again.  Once she did, she sped through the second half in a white heat.)  When the supernatural manifestations begin, though, there are some genuinely chilling sequences, including an extended one that's so brilliant I wish I could copy the whole thing out and quote it here.  The only thing I'll say is that it provides more confirmation that the most effective terrors are those that are aural or tactile rather than visual, not to mention those that go undescribed entirely.

The book is suffused with imagery that's simple but nonetheless intensely atmospheric, as in the opening of Chapter Eight:

In purely practical terms, changes occurred almost at once, for the estate's already overstretched finances were hit hard by the fees of [spoilery reference removed], and drastic extra economies had to be put in place in order to accommodate them.  The generator, for example, was now routinely turned off for days at a stretch, and going up to the hall on those wintry evenings I'd often find the place plunged into nearly total darkness.  There would be an old brass lantern left out for me on a table just inside the front door, and I'd pick my way through the house with it-- the smoke-scented walls of the passages, I remember, seeming to dance forward into the soft yellow light, and then to recede again into shadow as I moved on.  Mrs Ayres and Caroline would be together in the little parlour, reading or sewing or listening to the wireless by the light of candles and oil-lamps.  The flames would be weak enough to make them squint, but the room would seem a sort of radiant capsule in comparison with the inkiness all about it.  If they rang for Betty she'd come with an old-fashioned candlestick, wide-eyed, like a character in a nursery rhyme.

It's at this level, where the mildly gothic ghost story trappings run in parallel with the decaying lifestyle of the postwar aristocracy, that The Little Stranger achieves its greatest success.  It helps that Waters isn't determined to run the metaphor into the ground.  It's always there, but only rarely comes to the forefront as thoroughly as it does in the following exchange:

I shook my head. "This is a weirder thing even than that hysteria.  It's as if-- well, it's as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family."

"Something is," he said with another bark of laughter.  "It's called a Labour Government."

I could witter on a lot longer here.  I haven't mentioned, for instance, how Waters is able to keep Dr Faraday's narration stolid and straightforward without making it dull, or how perfectly managed the book's final twists are.  But I think I've said enough.  Whether you admire elegant classical ghost stories or thoughtful, well-observed historical novels, The Little Stranger is well worth a look.  It's one of my favorite books from 2009.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction of Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

Near the end of "The Man on the Ceiling," a story that won the Stoker, the International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award, co-author Melanie Tem writes:

"It was hard for us to write this piece.

For one thing, we write differently.  My stories tend more toward magical realism, Steve's more toward surrealism.  Realism, in both cases, but we argued over form: 'This isn't a story! It doesn't have a plot!'"

I think that's an apt description of the Tems' different approaches to their solo work.  Their prose styles are also distinct: Melanie Tem's is smooth, more suited to her magical realism, while Steve Rasnic Tem's has a harsher, disjointed quality, fitting his surreal tales of loss and psychological degeneration.  Despite their different approaches, the Tems have written nearly two dozen collaborative stories over the past quarter-century, all of which are collected in the new Centipede Press volume In Concert.  These twenty-one finely crafted, insightful tales highlight the talent of both members of this husband and wife team.

Although I was most familiar with the Tems as writers of horror and dark fantasy, several of the stories included here are science fiction.  Some of those, such as the earliest entry, "Prosthesis," are dark, using aliens and alien worlds as metaphors for loneliness and fear.  But the title story, the longest in the collection, in which an old woman's intermittent telepathy brings her into contact with a trapped astronaut, is more optimistic, showing how human connections can ease the pain of life.  That may sound overly sentimental, but the story's observant portrayal of the elderly protagonist's life keeps it from feeling cheap or idealized.

The dark fantasy pieces included here frequently feature familiar monsters; vampires and vampirism are central to six stories, while two deal with zombies.  But the focus is not on these creatures as boogeymen, but on what they can tell us about humanity.  "The Tenth Scholar" appeared in a book called The Ultimate Dracula, but its true protagonist is the streetwise young woman who goes to him in search of an unlikely education.  The vampire mother of "Mama" offers a poignant metaphor for the devastating power of a mentally unstable parent, while "Nvumbi" puts a unique spin on a father's sense of isolation and impotence in a household dominated by women.

Ultimately, it is this interest in the human condition that defines and elevates the Tems' work.  As Melanie writes in "The Man on the Ceiling," a haunting, jointly-narrated metafictional meditation on family, love, and fear:

"And the world also has in it: Werewolves, whose unclaimed rage transforms them into something not human but also not inhuman (modern psychiatry sometimes finds the bestial 'alter' in the multiple personality).  Vampires, whose unbridled need to experience leads them to suck other people dry and are still not satisfied.  Zombies, the chronically insulated, people who will not feel anything because they will not feel pain.  Ghosts.

I write in order to understand these things.  I write dark fantasy because it helps me see how to live in a world with monsters."

It is because she and her husband understand this human darkness so well, and describe it with such sympathetic insight, that In Concert makes such a fine, harrowing volume of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Click Click Click: A Ghost Story for Christmas

Every year the extended family on my father's side gets together for a big Christmas party.  Earlier this year I was thinking that instead of the usual arrangement, where I put my name in for our Secret Santa thing and buy for one other family member, I might do something creative for everybody.  And, since the ghost stories of M. R. James were originally written to be read at Christmas, why not write a small tribute to those subtly chilling tales, print up a couple dozen copies, and distribute them at the party?

So over the summer I wrote a draft of a story about a peculiar Christmas tree.  But when I'd finished it occurred to me that no one in my extended family particularly likes ghost stories other than me.  So why, under the pretense of a gift, oblige them to read something they won't enjoy?  I decided instead that I would put the story online, where it might potentially find its way to the attention of other enthusiasts of the classical ghost story, who might find it entertaining, or at least momentarily diverting.  Over the past few months I've tinkered with the story at intervals, and now here we are.

You can click here to see the story as an online PDF, which you can also save or print if you'd like to read it offline or in dead-tree format.  As with any piece of writing it's still in some sense a work in progress, so if you have any comments or suggestions for improvements, don't hesitate to let me know.  And although this story happens to center around Christmas, I'd like to wish a happy holiday season to all the two or three readers of this blog, no matter what holidays they do or don't celebrate.