Monday, December 19, 2011

Digital Domains

Between 1996 and 2005, leading speculative fiction editor Ellen Datlow selected original fiction for three different online-only publications: OMNI Online, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. In Digital Domains, Datlow reprints fifteen stories, many of them award winners or nominees, culled from those outlets. As the anthology's theme is place of publication rather than content, the stories are remarkably diverse, from near-future science fiction to mythic fantasy to a very modern ghost story. I could say that these stories, uniformly well-written and often excellent, prove that great fiction can be published online, but I think that in 2011 most people know that, even if they would prefer to read that fiction in paper formats. So I'll make a broader and equally accurate statement: these stories demonstrate the strength and range of turn-of-the-century speculative fiction, period. That's why the subtitle is "A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy," full stop.

With contributors like Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, and Kim Newman, Digital Domains doesn't lack for big names, but the stories by less familiar writers are just as good, from the inimitable Howard Waldrop's "Mr. Goober's Show," an eerie tale about the dangers of nostalgia and the history of very early television technology, to Simon Ings' "Russian Vine," a quietly poetic piece of science fiction that meditates on the mechanisms of imperialism. A fine companion piece to "Russian Vine" is M. K. Hobson's "Daughter of the Monkey God," in which an unusual form of outsourcing is the basis for a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness and emotional catharsis. And then there's Severna Park's "Harbingers," where the instability and violence of contemporary Africa is the backdrop for a mind-bending story about two young women caught up in events beyond their comprehension, involving aliens, time travel, and more disturbing things. These are the elements of science fiction, but Park uses them in an eerie, suggestive manner that gives the story a welcome flavor of dark fantasy.

Some stories speak directly to the concerns of the modern world; others have timeless, unearthly settings. Almost a prose poem, Jeffrey Ford's "Pansolapia" echoes the Odyssey, providing a sense of the epic and the numinous in only three pages. Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective" is an unclassifiable, difficult to describe melding of elements from myth, fairy tale, and twentieth-century juvenile fiction into a surreal, strangely evocative story about the search for meaning and emotional connection. Plus it's pretty funny. Actually, there are a few funny stories in the mix here, like Paul Park's "Get a Grip," the concept of which has aged in the years since its publication, but which remains a pleasure because of the ironic sharpness with which Park imagines its details. Or Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town," in which a utopian society based on the ideas of classic science fiction turns out not to be quite what was hoped for.

Although Datlow has edited and enjoys all types of speculative fiction, she's most strongly associated with horror, not least because of her long career identifying the genre's best stories, which will hit the quarter-century mark with the 2012 volume of The Best Horror of the Year. Unsurprisingly, several of the stories in Digital Domains are dark enough to be called horror. Most striking to me were Nathan Ballingrud's "You Go Where It Takes You," with its potent, upsetting metaphor for the flight from responsibility, and Richard Bowes' "There's a Hole in the City," a story about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks that demonstrates the author's ability to write fondly but unsentimentally about New York City, and to evoke the tragic force of memory and regret.

Although there were a few stories that resonated less for me, like James P. Blaylock's "Thirteen Phantasms," a World Fantasy Award winner that I thought was well-crafted but driven by hollow, unconsidered nostalgia, there was nothing I thought was so outright bad it brought down the total grade for the anthology. I'll admit that I bought Digital Domains on a whim at a bookstore liquidation sale, and didn't expect to enjoy it all that much. But as is so often the case, a retrospective covering a longish span of time turned out to offer the cream of the crop. As Datlow's dedication mentions, there was a time when online publication was seen as a risky, vaguely unprofessional proposition. But a group of great writers took the risk, and the positive results, of which this book is just one, are all around us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There's Nothing in Why: Robert Aickman's "The View"

"The View," Robert Aickman's third contribution to We Are for the Dark, is the first of four of his "strange stories" that have very similar narrative outlines. A man goes on holiday, where he meets an attractive and mysterious woman with whom he forms a brief, blissful physical relationship before some disaster separates them, bringing his happiness to an end. This might be "The View," or "The Wine-Dark Sea" (where there are three essentially interchangeable women rather than one), or "Never Visit Venice," or "The Stains." To point out this similarity is not to suggest that the stories are repetitive; indeed they are not, for the specificities, of character and setting and supernatural phenomenon, render them quite distinct. One common feature, however, makes them difficult to write about within the framework of these essays: there is little about them to explain. Both in terms of broad narrative meaning and of wide-ranging theme, they seem to me fairly straightforward. (If I can be forgiven a digression, this may be why they have never struck me as among Aickman's finest tales; the air of unsettling ambiguity, though present in all of them, is not as strong or as all-pervading. In this, and in most other ways, I think "The View" is the best of the four.)

One could, of course, dig deeper, searching for a hidden level of meaning, a key to unlock the story and make every bewildering detail relevant. But I'm not sure that's a helpful approach. Both Aickman's theory of the ghost story as an artifact of the unconscious, "akin to poetry," and his philosophical stance that the modern over-reliance on reason and the scientific method represents a "wrong turning" for the human race, suggest that past a certain point the search for meaning is fruitless or even dangerous. "The View," though not the first Aickman story to hint at his criticism of the modern world-- there are intimations of that perspective in both "The Trains" and "The Insufficient Answer"-- is the first to move it into the foreground, contrasting the over-explained, dreary, unhappy world of contemporary England with the baffling, beautiful, fascinating Island and its lovely inhabitant, Ariel.

The critique of modernity begins with the description of the protagonist's temperament in the second paragraph. "Carfax always saw all good in terms of 'emancipation': all beauty, all duty. Others had seen the vision, but the slave selves of their past had intervened, making the gorgeous tawdry, the building in strange materials as rapidly failing in beauty, use, and esteem as the human body itself." (In the same vein is his later remark that "There are no beautiful houses in England now. Only ruins, mental homes, and Government offices." Note, by the way, that Carfax's own brief escape from his "slave self" is followed by the rapid aging of his own body.) Shortly afterward comes a glimpse of several such slave selves, in the array of overheard comments on the deck of the boat, which captures in a few brief paragraphs the depressing, faintly absurd quality of daily life and the various unsatisfactory bulwarks built against it.
"She has no idea how plain she is and of course you can't tell her," observed a conspicuously unattractive woman of about forty-five to a replica of herself.

"Communism gives the workers something to work for," vehemently asserted a man in a raincoat. His wispy colorless hair appeared on his prematurely obtruding scalp-line like the last vegetation in the dust bowl.

"So I said I'd give it to her if she promised to have it dyed green," remarked a round matron to her bored and miserable-looking husband.

"If you'll bring in the orders, I'll look after production. You can leave that to me. I know how to handle the ruddy Government."

"In the end I had to drag the clothes off her, and she tried to turn quite nasty." The speaker looked away from the other man and laughed gloatingly before resuming his former confidential manner.

"There's no hope for the world but a big revival of real Christianity," said the serious-minded, rather important-looking man. He was apparently addressing a large popular audience. "Real Christianity," he said again with emphasis.

"Look, Roland! A porpoise!" said a woman of thirty to her offspring, in the tone of one anxious to guide rather than dominate the child's formative years.
The pessimistic tone set by this passage and by the disagreeable boat journey is disrupted by the arrival of the woman known as Ariel, Aickman's first real femme fatale and the voice in this story of the rejection of modern communal values. There is her dismissal of her real names as "hideous commonplaces names of schoolgirls and young brides, and elderly lonely pensioners, and pure women in books. Godparents' names. Goodly names. Useful names which people in shops can spell." There is her description of Carfax's usual existence:
You live surrounded by the claims of other people: to your labor when they call it peace, to your life when they call it war; to your celibacy when they call you a bachelor, your body when they call you a husband. They tell you where you shall live, what you shall do, and what thoughts are dangerous. Does not some modern Frenchman, exhausted by it all and very naturally, say 'Hell is other people'?
The complaints she invokes are at once sweeping-- describing life in England as lived "entirely among madmen"-- and exact-- references to the absence of British taxes on the Island and to eating a lot of butter with breakfast. And finally there is the couplet written in her hand, reiterating her rejection of the pursuit of explanation: "There's nothing in why/The question is How?/Whatever you learnt/From the golden bough."

Faced with a story that itself seems to abrogate exegesis, one might simply throw up one's hands and enjoy it as an encounter with the irrational and beautiful and disturbing world that exists, or might exist, or ought rightly to exist, under and around the common one. But the details of that world, while not fitting into a reductive schematic explanation, do contribute to its resonance in ways that may not be obvious. "The View" is one of Aickman's more profusely allusive stories, rich in reference to the worlds of myth and art, and the remainder of this essay will track down some of those allusions for the benefit of readers who don't wish to do so themselves, suggesting in places how they relate to the larger theme of the story. Such a process does, of course, leave one at risk of "fancying absurd resemblances" and "making quite false identifications," but when analyzing Aickman, such risk is never far away.

Carfax: the name of Dracula's home in England in the Stoker novel, but I doubt that matters much. Its origin is in the Latin word for a crossroads, which would certainly fit the character's status, but it may just be the sort of British name Aickman was drawn to: at once vaguely aristocratic and faintly ridiculous (cf. Wendley Roper, Laming Gatestead).

Ariel: Shakespeare's air spirit from The Tempest, obviously, perhaps with reference also to the Biblical angel of the same name. Considering the gender ambiguity surrounding the Shakespearean character, which is explicitly mentioned in the story, the Aickman character's habit of dressing as a man is striking, if only as a suggestion of a more than human quality or of a duality comparable to a simultaneously human and non-human nature.

Fleet: Time is fleeting, indeed.

the Island: wherever it is. That it is left unnamed is surely the point. The Isle of Man is located in the right general area, and is likewise something of a tax haven, but I don't detect specific reference to that or any other place.

The Last of England: a Ford Madox Brown painting, shown here along with an accompanying sonnet by the author. The poem is, in tone if not in details, suggestive of Carfax's ambivalence about his holiday.

the Pastoral Symphony: Beethoven's Sixth,  intended to suggest the pleasures of travel in the countryside, with movements labeled "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country," "Scene at the brook," "Happy gathering of country folk," "Thunderstorm, storm," and "Shepherds' song, cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm." The association with Carfax's pastoral recollections and reflections is obvious.

Voltaire: his freethinking tolerance is, of course, quite fitting for Ariel.

the carpet: Possibly with an echo of Henry James' "The Figure in the Carpet," where a writer's great and secret intention is compared to "a complex figure in a Persian carpet," though one hardly needs to have read James to use carpet patterns as a metaphor for pointless meaning-seeking.

a huge and burly man: "one of the Island gods" according to Ariel, and therefore perhaps with some reference to giants of Celtic myth. It's worth mentioning that, with its mysterious woman, its strange and magical landscape, and its unexpected time dilation, "The View" has an underlying similarity to very old stories about visits to faerie lands.

Ariel's verse: This is a translation of a Sappho fragment by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of a pair of fragments he combined into a poem variously known as "One Girl" and "Beauty." Aickman's ellipsis at the end covers his omission of the final words "till now." The second fragment as translated by Rossetti is "Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,/Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,/Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground." Sappho has already been mentioned as part of Carfax's train of thought that was interrupted by Ariel-- that drew her into being near him, if one wants to interpret the story in that way. Critics have observed that Rossetti's use of these fragments has mythic significance, reflecting on love and death with reference to underworld myths like those of Orpheus and Persephone. But that observation postdates the writing of this story, and the general resonance of these images of the desired, the unattainable, and the destroyed for "The View" is a simpler matter given Ariel's own fleeting quality.

Così è se vi pare: Literally means "You're right if you think you're right." The title of a Pirandello play dealing with the fragility of truth and the relentless search for meaning.

Beddoes: Thomas Lovell Beddoes' work demonstrates an ongoing obsession with death, which would seem to make it a poor, or perhaps a telling, choice for Carfax's musical endeavor.

Dahlmeier's collection of Judaeo-Arabic fables: I assume this is a real book, though I can find no information about it. I have no idea about the relevance, if any, of the first fable to Carfax's situation, unless to suggest he has made or will make a wrong choice, but both the second, with its tradeoff between lifespan and pleasure, and the third, with its "pleasurable but dangerous activities... of some visitor from another world" are certainly suggestive.

"Dover Beach": I imagine the relevance of the poem to Carfax's situation is obvious from the section quoted by Aickman, but for those who somehow got through school without reading it the whole thing is here.

the golden bough: As the text suggests, Sir James Frazer's book was The Golden Bough, a rationalist, non-theological study of myth and religion, and as such a logical target for Ariel's (and Aickman's) criticism of scientific analysis at the expense of metaphysical significance. The absence of capitals, if it means anything, may also be meant to bring to mind the specific "golden bough" out of which Frazer's book grew. This was a ritual associated with the goddess Diana Nemorensis in which a runaway slave could pull down a bough from a special tree and fight the priest-king to the death; if he was successful, he became the new priest-king, at least until someone successfully challenged him. Frazer linked this practice to a perceived worldwide myth about a sacred king, married to a goddess, who died and was reborn as part of a cycle associated with fertility.

Without forcing a tempting but imprudent one-to-one comparison (Carfax as runaway slave, the impossibly tall figure as dominant god), one can see this legend and others reflected in "The View," a story that, for all its distinctive Aickmanesque touches, has something classically mythological about it. Whether a conscious product of revision or a result of the unconscious workings to which Aickman attributed the success of all true ghost stories, this air of myth produces that juxtaposition of the quotidian and the uncanny on which Aickman and so many other great writers of the supernatural have drawn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One)

One of the pleasures of reading widely is that you can achieve enough distance from an author's work to make you forget how brilliant it is, so that when you return to that author, the rediscovery is almost as powerful as the initial encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is such a talent, and her latest collection, Two Worlds and In Between, is ideal both for discovery and rediscovery. It's a "best-of" volume spanning 1993-2004, and like all great retrospectives it demonstrates at once the range of which its author is capable and the recurring themes, images, and stylistic features that make her work distinctive. At about 200,000 words and nearly 600 pages, it's a generous selection, including 25 short stories and novelettes and a long novella, each followed by a brief author's note on its genesis or its place in Kiernan's oeuvre. But enough of facts and generalities: on to the stories.
Lucy has been at the window again, her sharp nails tap-tapping on the glass, scratching out there in the rain like an animal begging to be let in. Poor Lucy, alone in the storm. Mina reaches to ring for the nurse, stops halfway, forcing herself to believe that all she's hearing is the rasping limbs of the crape myrtle, whipped by the wind, winter-bare twigs scritching like fingernails on the rain-slick glass. She forces her hand back down onto the warm blanket. And she knows well enough that this simple action says so much. Retreat, pulling back from the cold risks; windows kept shut against night and chill and the thunder.
The tricky thing about retrospectives is that they're usually arranged chronologically, putting the weakest work in front. Kiernan herself observes of two of the first three stories in the collection that they seem to her more ambitious than successful. But the ambitions themselves are enough to make these stories basically satisfying, especially given Kiernan's style, which even in her earliest work lacks any hint of awkwardness and has the darkly propulsive intensity that has become one of her hallmarks. The prose has been touched up over the years, but a look back at the original versions shows that this was only a honing of already-polished language.

"Emptiness Spoke Eloquent," quoted above, follows the long decline of Mina Murray in the aftermath of Dracula, and by interweaving her personal tragedies into the sweep of the century (world war, influenza, interwar Paris, war again, psychoanalysis in 1950s Manhattan), impresses even as it fails to compel on an emotional level. "To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889)" has a few extraordinary evocations of a storm, but likewise lacks the psychological force that would be necessary to guide the reader through its careful tangles of prose.

But with the very next story, "Tears Seven Times Salt," that force arrives, and is instantly overwhelming. This story was recently chosen for the mammoth Century's Best Horror Fiction, and its invocation of displacement, dissatisfaction with identity, despair easily earns the distinction. The great genius of Kiernan's early writing is its depiction of the lives of outsiders and isolates; as Neil Gaiman put it, she is "the poet and bard of the wasted and the lost." Addicts, prostitutes, blocked artists, those who can't or don't want to find a place in what is sometimes called the adult world: Kiernan's gift is to write about them so sympathetically that even those who dismiss them as lazy or twisted can be made to understand how their lives feel, how the "unnatural" becomes the only natural thing.
Three very small rooms and each of them filled with his books and newspapers, his files and clippings and folders. The things he has written directly on the walls with Magic Marker because there wasn't time to find a sheet of paper before he forgot. Mountains of magazines slumped like glossy landslides to bury silverfish and roaches, Fate and Fortean Times, journals for modern alchemists and cryptozoological societies and ufology cults. Exactly 1,348 index cards thumbtacked or stapled to plaster the fragile, drained color of dirty eggshells and coffee-ground stains. Testaments uncorrelated, data uncollated, and someday the concordance and cross-reference alone will be a hundred thousand pages long.
That's from "Rats Live on No Evil Star," a portrait of something like schizophrenia, of pattern-making and the desperate search for truth, and the portrait of eccentricity, the evocation of a decayed yet strangely attractive place, are found throughout these early pieces. The settings, from the heat of a New Orleans summer to the chill solitude of a millionaire's estate on the Hudson, are as vividly captured as the flawed, obsessive, volative characters who populate them. But there's more at work than human yearning and despair; these are, after all, fantasy stories, dark and disturbing ones. Kiernan's supernaturalism, enhanced by her knowledge of geology and paleontology, of things so ancient or unrecognizable that to the common imagination they might as well be monsters, is, in its very different way, as reserved and elusive as that of the classic ghost story; it's unsurprising that the producer who wanted to turn the marvelous "Onion" into a screenplay should have mistaken it for only the first half of a story. Her work may not offer the expected answers, but as Kiernan writes, "one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions," and it is the awe brought on by the inscrutability of the phenomena she writes about that gives them their staying power. Without answers, there are only the images, which tap into the terror that comes when our fragile sense of order is disrupted.
But Frank didn't run away, and when he pressed his face to the crack in the wall, he could see that the fields stretched away for miles and miles, crimson meadows beneath a sky the yellow-green of an old bruise. The white trees that writhed and rustled in the choking, spicy breeze, and far, far away, the black enormous thing striding slowly through the grass on bandy, stilt-long legs.
As Kiernan's style develops over the course of the collection, another gift becomes evident, a mastery of narrative structure comparable to H. P. Lovecraft's. Stories told out of chronological order, further flashbacks within those disordered sections, dreams that echo the unrevealed past or foreshadow the future, excerpts from books whose banality is belied by the reader's knowledge of their true significance: Kiernan has mastered every device, gradually pulling back the curtain to reveal as much as she's ever going to. Small masterpieces like "Andromeda Among the Stones" and "La Peau Verte" use this non-linearity to great effect, building up to their defining moments so that those moments have the grandeur, the terrible and long-lasting reverb, for readers that they do for the characters.  Eventually Kiernan begins to experiment with the first-person point-of-view, which she had long resisted, and the narrator's struggle with ordering events, with describing the indescribable and focusing on the horrific, further increases the brilliant structural complexity out of which fleeting and sinister knowledge emerges. For readers expecting the straightforward, the double whammy of elaborate structure and elusive meaning will be frustrating, but for those who prefer carefully-orchestrated and suggestive cosmic dread, there are few greater pleasures.

I wish I could convey what makes each of the stories in this collection excellent, but I don't know how to do so without bogging down in plot summary, which is beside the point. So let me mention only a few favorites. "The Road of Pins," a werewolf story except that it isn't one at all, in which profound unease grows out of the work of a contemporary artist, a mysterious film, and the writer's block and fragile romance of the protagonist. "The Dead and the Moonstruck," which shows the unexpected ease with which Kiernan's decidedly adult vision can be adapted for a satisfying young-adult story. I especially admired the few science fiction stories mixed in with the fantasy. Science fiction allows the weirdness that exists in the shadows of Kiernan's fantasies to emerge into the light and define her universe, which makes the element of cosmic terror all the more potent. In "Riding the White Bull" and "The Dry Salvages," the aliens are truly alien, but they're only a part of the strangeness of space-- vast, dangerous, beautiful-- and human society itself has or might become a nightmare scenario.

I give up. That paragraph feels hopelessly false, exactly what I might say about half a dozen writers I admire, nothing specific to Kiernan's talent. All I can think to do is quote more, the stopgap of throwing out the author's words when my own prove insufficient. And in the end, it's perhaps the way an author uses words that matters most. Themes, motifs, structural devices: they're common coin, accessible to anyone, but the flow of sentences is nearly impossible to imitate.
And all the world goes white, a suffocating white where there is no sky and no earth, nothing to divide the one from the other, and the Arctic wind shrieks in her ears, and snow stings her bare skin. Not the top of the world, but somewhere very near it, a rocky scrap of land spanning a freezing sea, connecting continents in a far-off time of glaciers. Dancy wants to shut her eyes. Then, at least, there would only be black, not this appalling, endless white, and she thinks about going to sleep, drifting down to someplace farther inside herself, the final still point in this implosion, down beyond the cold. But she knows that would mean death, in this place, this when, some mute instinct to keep her moving, answering to her empty belly when she only wants to be still.
A simple paragraph in some ways, picked more or less at random, but what I respond to in Caitlín R. Kiernan's fiction is there as much as it is anywhere else. It's not representative of her style-- no one paragraph could be-- but it has a compelling rhythm, captures the sense of being tossed into the deep end, somewhere you can't catch your breath, can only hold it in as you navigate the marvelous, malevolent landscape while looking for the way out. An easy experience? No. Never crude, Kiernan's work is nonetheless raw, likely to upset certain readers in ways they aren't looking for. But anything worth reading is going to upset someone, and if you want fiction that juxtaposes emotional frailty with the magnitude of the universe, fantasy that leads you someplace else and makes that place as real as here and now, Kiernan should be at the very top of your reading list.

Fantasy, Lite

At the risk of becoming one of those people who gets sniffy every time Tolkien is mentioned in the mainstream media, I'm going to take a minute to look at this New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. Which isn't actually about Tolkien; as far as I can tell, it's an attempt to explain the popularity of Christopher Paolini, into which Tolkien is awkwardly interjected. Of course Paolini is influenced by Tolkien; he is, as you would expect from a writer who began his series as a teenager, influenced by virtually every piece of fantasy and science fiction he ever read. But, superficial points aside, is there an actual basis for comparison? Paolini has the same relationship to Tolkien that caffeine-free diet soda has to the caffeinated, sugared variety: everything that makes it what it is has been taken out. Considering Tolkien through the lens of his imitators is inevitably going to diminish what makes his work different. Focusing on Paolini, and to a lesser extent Stephenie Meyer, also means the article flirts with treating The Lord of the Rings as a similar young-adult saga, even though it manifestly isn't.

Considering which, the key thing about the article is that it isn't too bad. There are problems, of course, or we wouldn't be here. We're told that The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are early works, which is of course an oversimplification: depending on which texts you're looking at, they're early, they're late, they're contemporaneous with The Lord of the Rings. The context in which they're called early is the interesting part; they're distinguished from The Lord of the Rings because they lack "Hobbits and humors and pipe-smoking wizards" and are "as dull as dishwater in consequence." The irony is that the earliest version of The Silmarillion has a frame story that, while hardly a counter-balancing social comedy like Hobbiton, is more immediate and human than the later approach that of necessity won out in constructing the published text. That both The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are, despite the existence of editorially-managed continuous versions, incomplete is also something Gopnik doesn't mention or consider.

But none of that really matters, and one can hardly argue the general point that for a lot of readers The Silmarillion as it stands is less interesting than The Lord of the Rings because of the absence of "lovable local detail." (One might, however, demur from the notion that J. K. Rowling's invented world is anything like "Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery realm," or that Tolkien's realm has anything to do with what's usually called sword-and-sorcery. All fantasy is not pretty much the same thing.) More important is this:
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
That's a little better than an absolute denial of moral depth, but not much so; in the fundamentals it's no different from the usual response you get when readers of psychologically realistic fiction bounce off Tolkien's epic morality. Several things might be said in response: that in a novel about the seductive nature of power, self-interest is not readily separable from conscience; that Frodo's failure, a vital part of the novel's moral structure and not reducible to "self-interest," hasn't even been mentioned; that talk about who "we" do or don't come to admire or deplore is an act of projection. The underlying problem is that some readers confuse the style by which moral complexity is conveyed in twentieth-century literary fiction with the substance of that complexity. That the tragedy of Boromir is not described in interior monologue doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that it isn't part of the appeal of the novel. The absence of a debate about the morality of takings sides in a particular invented war is not the absence of morality.

Eventually, after some mockery of the Inheritance Saga, we get the explanation of the appeal of fantasy:
And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style. The enchantment the Eragon series projects is not that of a story well told but that of an alternative world fully entered. You sense that when you hear a twelve-year-old describe the books. The gratification comes from the kid’s ability to master the symbols and myths of the saga, as with those eighty-level video games, rather than from the simple absorption of narrative.
 It's not so much that that's objectionable, although there are young adult fantasies that don't deserve to be treated as mere exercises in world-building, or that it's inaccurate, although I'm not inclined to take someone who writes with such anthropological distance as an expert on how kids read. It's that, as an explanation, it's utterly banal. Fantasy is unrealistic but people respond to the depth of the mythology-- this is an insight worthy of four pages in The New Yorker? It's like writing an article on Cubism whose big insight is that Picasso actually meant his paintings to look that way. The young-adult spin, that books like Eragon and Twilight provide typical adolescent struggles plus a light gloss of magical wish fulfillment, is equally unprofound. This, I suppose, is what gets on my nerves: that in 2011 the audience of a putatively intellectual magazine still needs to be told that fantasy isn't purely juvenile escapism, that it has some connection to the real world. An article like this should be an elaboration of the complicated appeal of fantasy, not a basic look at how the other half reads. The argument Gopnik makes ought to go without saying.

(By the way, is Huckleberry Finn really "a narrative whose purpose is to push the hero toward a moment of moral crisis?" I rather doubt it.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities

In 2003 there was The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, in which a group of roughly fifty authors described bizarre, humorous, or downright disturbing illness the mainstream medical community refused to acknowledge. That anthology built on the work of the brilliant, eccentric, and entirely fictional Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead. Now it transpires that the doctor, who died in 2003 at the age of 103, was also a great collector of artifacts, inventions, found objects, and miscellaneous junk, and an even larger group of authors and artists has undertaken to describe the highlights of his collection. The result is a quirky blend of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that ranges from the comical to the creepy and back again.

After an introduction that elaborates the fiction of Dr. Lambshead, perhaps excessively so, the first of several themed sections is "Holy Devices and Infernal Duds: The Broadmore Exhibits," which features four unusual pieces of steampunk tech, from "The Electrical Neurheographiton," an unusual electroshock device invented by Nikola Tesla and described by Minister Faust, to "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," the ultimate in high-tech child-reading as explained by Ted Chiang. An excerpt from the former will suggest the particular note of weirdness much of the book strikes:
On January 12, 1943, Mr. Tesla was claimed to have died, although reports were conflicting. Many in Hollywood conjectured immediately that assassins in the pay of Big Cinema had done in the Serbian genius for selling them "exclusive" rights to a device whose blueprints contained, in tiny print, the phrase "I have omitted an explanation only for the motive unit which makes the entire machine work, in fear that the alchemists of celluloid might enthrall their nation and the world with ludicrous tales of vacuous lives." Others believed that Mr. Tesla's madness finally claimed him, infecting him with a Jovian "brain burst" that produced not Minerva but rather a puddle of bloodied grey matter upon Tesla's hotel room floor. Among the modern-day Fraternal Society of Teslic Scientific Investigators, there remains the belief that Tesla's "corpse" was an electrophantasmic discharge that had merged with organic materials in the hotel room to produce a permanent simulacrum of Tesla, while the "real" man departed from this world to explore the Universe, unhindered by the constraints of mortals.
Next up is "Honoring Lambshead: Stories Inspired by the Cabinet," six fictions based on artifacts from the cabinet. From Garth Nix's "Ambrose and the Ancient Spirits of East and West," about a British government operative with a gift for magic, to Holly Black's "Lot 8: Shadow of My Nephew by Wells, Charlotte," about the fate of a bear raised as a human, all the stories are good, but several lack the peculiar charm of the rest of the cabinet. Only "Relic" by Jeffrey Ford, with its lonely church and surreal parishioners, is as disarmingly funny, strange, and sad as the catalog entries. Tad Williams' "A Short History of Dunkelblau's Meistergarten" is also great, but it's not really a story, and but for a superficial similarity to Chiang's piece, it would be more at home among "The Broadmore Exhibits."

The next two sections are built around artists: four pieces illustrated by Mike Mignola ("The Mignola Exhibits") and two by China Miéville ("The Miéville Anomalies"). As it happens, one of the Mignola illustrations is for Miéville's "Pulvadmonitor: The Dust's Warning," one of the eerier entries. Although it's found, whimsically enough, in the attic of British Dental Association Museum, the Pulvadmonitor is no joke, but an unsettling reflection of the human search for meaning. Lev Grossman's "Sir Ranulph Wykeham Rackham, GBE, a.k.a. Roboticus the All-Knowing" is funnier, but its account of a British nobleman whose fame in artistic circles is enhanced rather than diminished by his prosthetic lower body and head has an edge of pessimistic melancholy that runs throughout the Cabinet of Curiosities, making it more than an extended steampunk gag. Another example: the second Miéville Anomaly, "The Gallows-horse," is at once a satire on contemporary philosophy and academic theory and a series of unpleasantly pessimistic variations on a memorable image.

The final section of exhibits is simply titled "Further Oddities," and lives up to that title. There's "The Thing in the Jar," in which Michael Cisco recounts Dr. Lambshead's seven attempts to explain the origins of "an anthropic creature" that might be an aborted minotaur, an Olmec carving come to life, or the offspring of a man and a volcano. And Caitlín R. Kiernan's "A Key to the Castleblakeney Key," an epistolary horror story about an impossible bog artifact and the terrible dreams it brings, suffused with its author's gift for balancing historical and archaeological erudition and portrayals of the fraying human mind. And Alan Moore's "Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction," which uses elements from his unfinished novel Jerusalem, envisioned as an enormous but unfinished building:
Making a considerable contribution to the already unsettling ambiance is the anomalous (and even dangerous) approach to architecture that is evident in the unfinished work: the lowest floor, responsible for bearing the immense load of the weightier passages and chambers overhead, seems to be built entirely of distressed red brick and grey slate roofing tiles with much of it already derelict or in a state of imminent collapse. Resting on this, the massive second tier would seem to be constructed mostly out of wood and has been brightly decorated with painted motifs that would appear to be more suited to a nursery or school environment, contrasted with the bleak and even brutal social realism that's suggested by the weathered brickwork and decrepit terraces immediately below.
Following these oddities are personal accounts of visits to the collection, dating from 1929, when N. K. Jemisin studies Dr. Lambshead's supply of kitchen implements to acquire the awesome power of "The Singular Taffy Puller," to 2003, when, as recounted to Gio Clairval, Dr. Lambshead's housekeeper sealed the collection's fate by trying against orders to clean "The Pea." That might seem an ideal conclusion for the book, but there's one more thing for those who just can't get enough of Lambshead's collection: "A Brief Catalog of Other Items," paragraph-long descriptions of such curiosities as the Bear Gun (it fires bears), the box of Reversed Commas, and St. Blaise's Toad (a miraculous relic).

With a contributor list featuring some of the biggest names in several varieties of imaginative fiction and art (in addition to those mentioned above, there's Aeron Alfrey, J. K. Potter, Michael Moorcock, Holly Black, Brian Evenson... I could go on), The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is a treasure trove of the weird. The playful metafictional conceit and some of the more tongue-in-cheek items may lead some readers to expect a wearyingly cutesy volume, but there's more than that going on here, and the total effect of the varied items is all the more powerful precisely because they don't adhere to one easily-described style. Beautifully designed and laid out, this is one curio that any reader of non-mimetic fiction should at least flip through, and many will want to own.

Three Creatures and a Castle: Robert Aickman's "The Insufficient Answer"

After much consideration, it seems to me that the best approach to an explanatory analysis of "The Insufficient Answer" is three mini-essays on the story's central characters, each of whom appears to be a supernatural being of one sort or another.

Felicity: The Ghost

That Felicity is a ghost now seems so overwhelmingly obvious that I have no idea how I ever missed it. She has a tomb, for heaven's sake, even if housekeeping standards at the Schloss Marcantonio are so eccentric that it might just be an unusual bed. And Cust considers the possibility that she might be a ghost, which is, in an Aickman story, the equivalent of a large neon sign spelling out "SHE'S A GHOST!" in violent green letters. Her ability to move among the locked rooms of the schloss is another clue. But I didn't quite put it all together when I read the story a few months ago. That's the thing about Aickman; his stories are so rich in detail and implication that they become overwhelming, creating an impression of inscrutability so profound that even obvious connections can be overlooked. For that reason, I'll deal briefly with Felicity's two appearances in the narrative, highlighting the hints of her ghostly nature, some of which may not be noticed even by those who know a ghost when they see one.

Felicity died when, in her desperation to escape the schloss, she threw herself from its only large window, the one Cust finds and wonders about. As a ghost, she relives those moments over and over again. This is why, in her first conversation with Cust, she begins to fade as the sounds from the hall are overheard; the sounds are her, weeping as she runs down the corridor toward the window, and disappearing from the room altogether as she and the fallen iron shutter, which Cust sees at the end of the story, on the ground outside and covered with years' worth of vegetation, strike the ground below, setting up the enormous clattering that is either the source of Mrs Hastings' aversion to noise or an especially ironic mockery of it. That there is, despite the comparatively new glass Cust notices, no sound of its breaking when he sees the figure fall from the window, is another indication that the fall is spectral rather than physical.

A few aspects of Felicity's dialogue, which is, like Beech's at the end of "The Trains," a model of the suggestive yet opaque manner of certain Aickman characters, also allude to her status, of which she seems at least partially aware. (If that's so, there's a chilling pathos to her description of being imprisoned and looked in on and getting out.) The statement that Cust wouldn't believe how long she has been at the schloss implies her death was so long ago that, if she were aging normally, she'd be much older than she appears. The concern about whether women still say "bloody" in London also reflects the passage of time. Her reference to "the goose who lays the golden eggs" is presumably about herself as Mrs Hastings' model, killed like the goose by another's cruel greed. And finally there's the remark that Poppy is always ill "at these times," a sign that she knows there is some unnatural cycle involved in her escapes.

But how did that cycle begin? Why was Felicity imprisoned, and what need of Mrs Hastings' did she fulfill?

Mrs Hastings: The Vampire

Just as "The Trains" brought Aickman's distinctive devices to certain horror tropes, so too does "The Insufficient Answer" seem to be his variation on two great nineteenth-century tales of vampirism: Stoker's Dracula and Le Fanu's "Carmilla." As "Carmilla" was itself an influence on Dracula, the specific source of some of these similarities can't be pinned down. All three works have English characters in Central European castles, with an emphasis on secrecy, locked doors, and emergence late in the day. All three feature mysterious, powerful characters whose effusive and learned conversation is emphasized. Dracula and Mrs Hastings are both unexpectedly robust and both are shown sleeping in chapels deep inside their castles (though for very different reasons); both castles are without mirrors. Even Miss Franklin's delirious mutterings about Whitby may be an allusion to Stoker's novel, in which that city was the site of Dracula's first landing in England. There's also the mention at both the beginning and the end of the story of the Irving statue near which Benson's gallery is located. That would be Henry Irving, whose friend and biographer Bram Stoker used the actor-manager as an inspiration for Dracula. The most salient direct parallel between "The Insufficient Answer" and "Carmilla" is that in both stories the dominant figure and her victim are female.

Given the absence of explicitly monstrous behavior in the Aickman canon, the question these similarities raise is not so much whether Mrs Hastings is a blood-drinking vampire as it is what subtler form her victimization might take. One need not assume any supernatural manifestation at all; it might be that she is simply a cruel, controlling woman whose behavior drives people to despair. One certainly doesn't know what she might have done to cause her husband's plane crash, or exactly what (if anything) happened to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian, whose belongings are for some reason stored in the castle. But in the case of Felicity, we have a little more to go on.

In the first place, there is something off about Felicity's willingness to travel halfway across Europe to stay at a ruined castle with an older woman she's only just met.  It's perhaps not insignificant that one of the subtexts of "Carmilla," and many other female vampire stories, is lesbianism. The reference to unspecified "talk" about Mrs Hastings could support such a reading (or any number of others, of course), and even the mention of "just a phase" could be so interpreted if one wished. Most interesting in this context is Miss Franklin's explanation of why Mrs Hastings came to Slovenia: "I should say it was simply to get away from the world of men." This, like several of her explanations, appears to be consciously disingenuous, trading on the difference between "men" as a species and "men" as a gender; it is at the very least suggestive. But in any case a sexual reading is hardly necessary, as the strongest intimations of strangeness around Mrs Hastings are not about love but about art.

If Felicity is to be believed, Mrs Hastings imprisons her simply to use her as a model. That could be motivation enough; she has great hopes for the work she does with Felicity's image, and it is, in Cust's judgment, "curious" and "astonishing;" he "had never seen anything like it." The tomb sculpture in her shape is "brilliantly suggestive" and a "masterpiece." More is involved than beauty, though; in one of the story's more bizarre moments, Mrs Hastings' statement that she is learning to paint in the dark "seemed perceptibly to shake the previously assured Miss Franklin." Is there something dangerous about her talent? A now-obscure allusion may be significant here.

When studying Mrs Hastings' library, Cust pulls out a book at random, Chris Massie's Corridor with Mirrors. This is a real novel, published in 1941 and therefore fairly recent at the 1951 publication of We Are for the Dark, but both it and its author are so poorly-known today as to have left little mark on the Internet. Any readers of this essay who are familiar with the book or the author are encouraged to leave a comment, but in the interim I must rely on this summary of a 1948 film version. If it's at all representative of the novel's plot, Aickman's allusion to the story of a woman shaped by an eccentric figure into the ideal female of his imagination may be a hint of how intense, ominous, and possibly supernatural is Mrs Hastings' interest in Felicity. Or it might just be that the title of that novel allows Aickman to bring up the absence of mirrors in the schloss.

Whatever her precise nature, Mrs Hastings is certainly a powerful personality. But by the end of the story one suspects she is not the most powerful woman in the castle. That dubious honor must go to the third member of the story's peculiar triad.

Miss Franklin: The Witch

I've suggested that Miss Franklin's answers to Cust's questions are sometimes dishonest. Three times she pauses before replying to him: when asked about the loud noise, when asked about Mrs Hastings' reason for leaving England, and when asked if she has any control over Felicity's appearances.  In the first instance, her answer is a lie with a hint of the truth; in the second, it's so ambiguous as to be meaningless. I would argue that the third answer is also dishonest: that Miss Franklin is in fact the source of the apparition of Felicity, and since that apparition is (savor the irony of her name) the reason the older women "must absent ourselves from that felicity [of leaving the schloss] a while," she has therefore imprisoned Mrs Hastings as thoroughly as Mrs Hastings once imprisoned Felicity. Cust himself, remembering Felicity's "fear and hatred" and "constant references to her rather than the sculptress," is on the verge of a similar conclusion, and back aways from it only out of fear.

Before going over the evidence for this proposition, it's worth looking at the relationship between the two older women. Felicity says, "They hate each other, of course," and Mrs Hastings' indifference to Miss Franklin's potentially fatal illness ("It's very tiresome of her and quite unnecessary") backs up that contention on one side. On the other, Miss Franklin shows no sign of warmth toward or about anything or anyone. It's unlikely such enmity was there from the beginning; Miss Franklin would hardly have taken so solitary a job with a woman she despised. One might speculate, then, that the mutual hatred began when Miss Franklin saw what Mrs Hastings was capable of, what she did to Felicity, to her husband, or to Miss Franklin's sister Lilian. Possessed of that knowledge, Miss Franklin apparently armed herself against becoming the next victim. As she says to Cust, after inexplicably unlocking her door without a key, "I have no intention of being trapped."

There are a few signs that she is linked to Felicity's appearances. It's Felicity herself who observes that Miss Franklin is always ill at these times, and Miss Franklin is said to have woken suddenly in the middle of the night, presumably around the time Felicity appeared or disappeared. But the largest clue is her amusement when Cust suggests a mundane cause for her illness, and the exchange that follows.
"Pneumonia?" Cust might have said rabies.

"I recollected your cold when we last met."

"Oh yes. That." Miss Franklin laughed. "I followed my sister Lilian's remedy."

"Your sister Lilian?"

"Two heaping tablespoonsfull of salt in a tumbler of water piping hot and drink it down."

"I see. It certainly seems to work like a charm."

"Well, it works, Mr Cust. Charms often don't and when they do you oftener wish they hadn't." She still looked extraordinarily ill and her hair was a disorganized heap; but she was fully dressed in an ugly brick-coloured frock.

"You know about charms?" inquired Cust lightly but, all recent events considered, fearing for the answer.

"I've been asleep for goodness knows how long. That's something I'm not used to at all. I think there must have been magic in the air." The sentimental cliche sounded ludicrously sinister.
Magic indeed. In this light, Miss Franklin's unflappable calm (I think especially of her "neat ladylike figure" and amused laughter during Mrs Hastings' fitful response to Felicity's appearance), and the statement that she loves her job, make a grim sense, as does her fear of Mrs Hastings' ability to paint in the dark: if the two women are in some way dueling forces, an unexpected advance on the part of one might endanger the other. And their relationship is psychologically rich as well; one hardly need invoke the supernatural to imagine dangerous power games, driven by secrets, in the dynamic between a servant and her mistress. Possible sexual interpretations of Mrs Hastings' behavior become interesting again here: Miss Franklin as abandoned lover, Miss Franklin as willing or unwilling procuress.

But whether one prefers a reading that involves sex or one that emphasizes other deep, mysterious drives, the psychological element is a constant. It's often true of Aickman that even when the narrative details of a story remain obscure, the philosophical and psychological weight is clear. Whatever the specific connections and secrets that were involved, all three of the story's female characters are trapped in the Schloss Marcantonio by networks of mutual need and loathing, and each is, despite evident flaws, tragic or pathetic in her own way. There is, as Miss Franklin suggests, no end in sight to their suffering, and Cust, who only spends a week with them, loses his job as a result of the contact. Not all Robert Aickman's stories are bleak, but the world of this one does seem to be an inescapable and permanent hell.

Open Questions

1. As mentioned above: how similar is Massie's novel to that film version? What further connections might be made by one who had read the book?

2. Names are important in Aickman. "Cust" is probably related to constancy and perseverance, which is rather funny in the circumstances, and the irony of "Felicity" has already been mentioned, but what about Lola Hastings and Poppy Franklin? Is there anything there? And why is it called the Schloss Marcantonio? A reference to the engraver? The composer? Someone else? My guess would be the first, but what would be the reason? Is there a specific work of his that might be relevant?

3. Is something particular meant by that bit about painting in the dark?

As ever, comments on these or any other aspects of the story are welcome.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Secret Books of Paradys

This four-book series is linked by the milieu of Paradys, a city that's not so much a fictional analogue of Paris as a distillation of the Decadent, Gothic, and romantic aspects of its image. Populated by vain noblemen with decaying mansions, unappreciated poets drinking in darkened taverns, and lunatics locked into cruel asylums, Paradys is a perfect setting for the brand of lush, ornate horror that is, I think, the most distinctive of the many modes in which Tanith Lee writes. In both style and substance writing of this type can seem exaggerated, ludicrous, but for those on the right wavelength it captures something of the glittering intensity of obsession, a state of mind in which the exaggerated and the ludicrous seem natural, are in fact the only way to express one's heightened awareness.
Darkness closed on Paradys. But the night City was no worse, no more impenetrable, than a night in the country. This too had its own strange sounds, its own pitfalls, and generally the City gave more light than the forests, hills and fields, which were lit only by fire-flies, fungus, stars and moon. The City moon was made of dull plate, but lower down other luminosities shone out. High round windows in various towers of a college where the students pored late over huge books and parchments, dim bars of light behind iron grills and panes of sheep-skin. Sometimes, at the gates of a fine house, or along the river and its bridges, torches flashed on poles. But on the lower bank the hovels crowded to each other in sympathy, darkling, though here and there an occasional fire bloomed on stones in the street.
The Book of the Damned is made up of two short novels and a novella, unlinked in narrative terms but sharing recurrent motifs of duality, mutable gender, and romantic obsession. In "Stained with Crimson," the poet Andre St. Jean becomes infatuated with a mysterious noblewoman, but as you might expect the consummation of his desire comes at a terrible price, trapping Andre in a cycle of lust, violence, and revenge from which escape may take a very long time. In "Empires of Azure," Louis de Jenier, who makes a living and finds an obscure satisfaction in imitating women on the stage, rents a house in Paradys that proves already occupied, by a ghostly female presence to which he is fatally drawn.

These are fine stories, but the highlight of the first volume is "Malice in Saffron," an especially dark and disturbing meditation on such ambiguous distinctions as male/female and good/evil. Jehanine escapes a physically and sexually abusive stepfather to join her half-brother Pierre, the only remotely good person in her life, in Paradys. But her reception is not what she expects, and Jehanine soon carries out a cruel revenge whose consequences will come to haunt her. With nowhere else to go, she finds a bifurcated life in Paradys: by day the female Jhane, novice of the convent called the Nunnery of the Angel, and by night the male Jehan, leader of a band of thieves that terrorizes the city. Her existence has the febrile quality of a dream or a delusion, as pregnant with meaning as an allegory yet more potent in its fearsome strangeness than flatly symbolic fiction. Plague, satanic mysticism, festival, and a horrifying sacrifice are some of the components of this harrowing short novel.
He had of course lost himself on emerging from his apartment. There were no lights anywhere, only the worm-runs of windowless corridors on which the occasional door obtruded. Now and then, from perversity, he had tried these doors. Three gave access to barren chambers, empty of nearly anything. One had a shuttered window, another a candle-branch standing on the floor. (The branch was of iron, worth little. The candle-stubs had long ago been devoured by vermin.) A few other doors resisted his impulse. He fancied they were stuck rather than locked. Presently he reached an ascending stair he was certain he had not seen on entry with the hag. He paused in irritated perplexity, wondering if it would be worthwhile to climb. Just then a woman appeared and went across the stair-top, evidently negotiating the corridor which ran parallel to that below.
 She did not carry a candle, and that he saw her at all was due to his own light, and the pallor of her hair and skin which caught it. Her gown was of some sombre stuff, high-waisted as was now not always the fashion, and she held her hands joined under her breast. A stiff silver net contained her hair; it glittered sharply once as she glided by. That was all. She was gone literally in that flash. Her face he did not really see, yet her slightness, something about her, made him think her girlish.
Come to Paradys to pursue his education, Raoulin finds himself more interested in this woman-- this ghost, as he suspects-- of the ancient, decrepit house where he has taken a room. A disturbing experience with a local prostitute only increases his certainty that there is a story to be discovered, and eventually, he finds the woman and encourages her to tell it. Once she was Helise la Valle, daughter of one noble house and promised to marry into another, the d'Uscarets. Ignorant of what will come on her wedding night and overhearing whispers of some terrible rumor about her new husband's family, Helise waits in fear. But what happens after the ceremony, and what she does to stop it, are not quite the Gothic cliche one might be expecting.

It's true, though, that a curse haunts the d'Uscaret line, a curse the novel eventually traces back to Roman times, when the city was known as Par Dis, and a soldier called Vusca received a strange gift. Following the story of The Book of the Beast back in time has its fascinations, even though the core of it, once revealed, is not terribly complicated. Vusca's story is especially evocative. When the narrative returns to the present for its resolution, the thread of interest is lost, but the luxuriant, slightly antiquated flow of Lee's language carries it through to a satisfying conclusion.
Paradys too has its cemeteries, its little graveyards tucked out of sight, its greater yards of death that hug the churches, the cathedral that is called a Temple. It has its places of graves, between the houses in sudden alleys. Between the paving stones, here and there you may look down and see a name that paves the way, a date of beginning and the other of surcease. Even under the house floors now and then they will raise a carpet and a board and point you a grave: Sylvie sleeps here, or Marcelin. Paradys is a city of the dead as she is a city of the live, the half-live, the undead, and perhaps the deathless.
The Book of the Dead is a short story collection, its tales of the city linked by the cemetery in which the characters have been laid to rest. Generally I'm a great fan of Lee's short fiction, so it was a surprise to find this the weakest of the four Paradys books. None of the stories are bad, but without the elaborate structure of the longer works set in the city, they aren't particularly atmospheric, and too often the resolutions are disappointingly simple. "The Weasel Bride" carefully builds up a mystery about the tragic events of a wedding night, but its solution is a familiar, and rather crude, piece of folk mythology. "The Nightmare's Tale" is nicely written, but the Haitian voodoo on which it builds is too lodged in the popular imagination to become truly threatening.

Despite their limitations, a few of the stories make for pleasant minor reading. "Beautiful Lady" offers a nice, if ultimately irrelevant, twist on a basic concept, and the interplay between the eccentric, unsettling siblings who explain the history of "Morcara's Room" is far more interesting than the history itself. Perhaps the ultimate failing of the collection is that it doesn't consistently capture the particular mixture of eroticism, fantasy, and horror that makes Paradys a fascinating place to read about.
It was early afternoon, but as ever the daytime City was enveloped in gray mist. The sun had been invisible for years. The architecture of the City itself-- decayed, ruinous, romantic, and depressing by turns-- was visible in shifting patches, or regularly to a distance of seven meters. So that, as Felion climbed the long stair of a hundred steps, his world sank away into a sea of fog from which a few ghostly towers poked. And above, the Terrace of Birds began to form around a single dot of light-- which would be Smara's lamp. That is, he doubted anyone else would have climbed up here. The unhinged citizens of Paradise were also sluggish and indifferent, obsessed with rituals and trivia.
Felion and Smara are residents of a city called Paradise. But their inheritance from their late uncle includes a house with an icy labyrinth that leads to another city, called Paradis. That city, in turn, is ambiguously connected to Paradys itself. Is it one place at three different times, or three parallel realities? Who can say? What matters is that the distance between them is not insurmountable. In Paradise, Felion and Smara are as mad as any of the city's residents, but in a different way, and they hunger for something new. A second inheritance awaits them in Paradis, if they can handle the "cousin" who holds it for them. But Leocadia has troubles of her own.

Framed, as she sees it, for the murder of a lover, she is held in Paradis' asylum, given every luxury but certain that those luxuries are a ruse to cover poisons that will make her as mad as they claim she already is. Her art may be the only thing that can save her, but how will it be affected by what she discovers in the ruins of a former asylum, whose warders were killed and whose prisoners disappeared in a mysterious event many years ago? Meanwhile, in Paradys, a lovestruck young woman initiates a sequence of events that will lead to her imprisonment in a medieval madhouse, far harsher than the one in Paradis. Only the kindness of some of her fellow inmates might save her from the stupidity of the guards and the indifference of the sole doctor.

Subtle interactions among these storylines emphasize their parallels, but for the most part they function separately as stories of the tragic dignity of insanity. The interlocking structure gives a sense of great scope to a comparatively short novel whose stories are, taken individually, not all that complicated, and the sympathetic treatment of madness provides an appropriately moving conclusion to a series that has dealt with overwhelming emotion in all its wonderful and terrible forms. Paradys is as much a state of mind as a city, and we all go there from time to time. The Secret Books of Paradys is an excellent dark fantasy series, and an example of Tanith Lee's most striking and passionate work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Blood and Iron: Robert Aickman's "The Trains"

This is the first in what will, I hope, be a series of in-depth essays on individual stories by Aickman, in the hope of diminishing the unwarranted air of utter impenetrability that surrounds them. Disagreements, amplifications, alternate theories, and other additions are strongly encouraged. Use the comment form at the bottom of the post.

Robert Aickman's career as a writer of what he called "strange stories" began in 1951 with the joint collection We Are for the Dark, containing three stories by Aickman and three by his then-lover Elizabeth Jane Howard. Coming second in the table of contents, Aickman's "The Trains" was his first story in that collection, and therefore (though we cannot to my knowledge ascertain the order of composition) in some sense his first published work. (It was eventually reprinted as the penultimate story in his final, posthumous collection Night Voices, and thus comes close to bookending his career.) Perhaps fittingly for a writer whose stories would often be seen as constituting a modern variation on the classical ghost story, "The Trains" combines narrative elements from traditional horror stories with the psychological focus, fear of modernity, and surreal opacity that are common to Aickman's fiction.

An Old House With a New Twist

Certain aspects of the plot of "The Trains" would not be out of place in a campfire yarn. The travelers, the sudden storm, the isolated house, the eccentric inhabitants, the dimly-seen figure on the stairs, and Margaret's final vision of the hanged Miss Roper, described in terms that are for Aickman unusually explicit (and I think chilling, though less so outside the context of the story):
Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman's crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret's compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself, her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.
Such similarity to the popular idea of the ghost story is uncommon though not unique in the Aickman canon. But for all that "The Trains" is recognizable as a ghost story in the way that something like "Into the Wood" or "The Hospice" is not, it has features that are, from the perspective of tradition, baffling. The ambiguity over whether Margaret's vision of Miss Roper is "real" or internal is the least of these.

The description in the above passage of Margaret's room as "compartment-shaped" is part of a pattern in which the old house Margaret and her traveling companion Mimi take shelter at is described not in terms of an "old dark house" in the Gothic sense but of a train or some other feature of the railways. This begins with the doorbell.  "'It's a curious bell,' said Margaret, examining the mechanism and valiant to the soaking, shivering end. 'It's like the handles you see in signal boxes.'" (Signal boxes are, as some readers may not know, the points along a rail system by which the movements of trains are controlled. The handles would shift the rails and other equipment so that trains moved in the correct direction.) Later railway-influenced descriptions of the house introduce a note not only of oddness but also of distaste. The first floor of the house (in British usage; the second floor to Americans) has "several large doors, such as admit to the bedrooms of a railway hotel, but no furniture... nor were the staircase or either landing carpeted," an unappealing sparseness. The comparison to a "railway hotel door" is later repeated.

Images of railroads as well as railroad-influenced design begin to appear. The dining room contains engravings of the railway construction done by the house's builder, and a clock that "clicked like a revolving turnstile," though the association of turnstiles with mass transit may be too recent for Aickman to have meant this as a railway allusion. The drawing room, which is like the dining room described as "bleak," has more railway items, including "scale models of long-extinct locomotives" and "a vast print of a railway accident, freely coloured by hand." Margaret later realizes something about her room, whose barred windows had disturbed her: "the room suddenly struck Margaret as having the proportions of a railway compartment, a resemblance much increased by the odd arrangement of the windows, one at each end. Old-fashioned railway carriage windows were commonly barred, Margaret was just old enough to have noticed." At dinner Margaret comments on these "railways influences about the house," and eventually, finally invited into a room she regards as normal and inviting, Margaret thinks that "the railway blight" is totally absent.

Of course, it is not simply that the house happens to invite various railway associations; it is located directly next to the tracks of the railway the house's builder constructed, and on which he died in what may have been an odd accident or a suicide. The passage of trains is a constant, disconcerting undercurrent during events in the house: when first noticed it is "a sudden rumbling crescendo, which made the massive floorboards vibrate and the light bed leap up and down upon them. Even the big black stones of the walls seemed slightly to jostle." It punctuates the meal-- "At intervals through dinner, passing trains rattled the heavy table and heavy objects upon it"-- and continues late into the night. It is little surprise that Wendley Roper, grandson of the builder, once worked in the railway business like the rest of the family, and even having gotten free continues to research and publish books on the history of railways, under an ironic pseudonym, Howard Bullhead, that is itself a railway reference. (For the curious, "bullhead" refers to a particular type of rail design, based on its cross-sectional shape, and fishplates, the subject of Roper's book, are the pieces of metal that link the rails at either end.) His conversation with Mimi as they drink coffee in the drawing room uses trains as an existential metaphor: a branch line, a dead end, getting off the rails. It is little wonder that he should say, "I can't get it altogether out of my blood... The family motto might be the same as Bismarck's: Blood and Iron."

Why, from a literary perspective, all this focus on trains? To answer that question fully we must step back and look at the opening section of the story, before Wendley Roper and his railway-blighted house have even appeared.

"It's Not Nice Country"

Before the storm that traps them at Roper's house, Margaret and Mimi pass from pleasant countryside into a bare, deserted valley. "They noticed no traffic on the road, which, when reached, proved to be surfaced with hard, irregular granite chips, somewhat in need of re-laying and the attentions of a steam-roller. 'Pretty grim,' said Mimi." The first building they visit is an abandoned wreck, the second a barely used and unlicensed Guest House. "'Not much traffic,' said Margaret... 'They all go by train' [said Mimi]." Met in the Guest House with taciturn service, Margaret learns from a local man that the area is called the Quiet Valley and that indeed "the locals don't come here... They all take the railroad. They scuttle through shut up like steers in a wagon."

After leaving the Guest House, Margaret and Mimi have a close encounter with one of those trains.
As they stood uncertain, the sound of an ascending train reached them against the wind, which, blowing strongly from the opposite direction, kept the smoke within the walls of the cutting. So high was the adverse gale that it was only about a minute between their first hearing the slowly climbing train and its coming level with them. Steam roared from the exhaust. The fireman was stoking demoniacally.  As the engine passed to windward of the two women far above, and the noises from the exhaust crashed upon their senses, the driver suddenly looked up and waved with an apparent gaiety inappropriate to the horrible weather. Then he reached for the whistle lever and, as the train entered the tunnel, for forty seconds doubled the already unbearable uproar. It was a long tunnel... A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering.
And later, as Margaret is in bed in Roper's house attempting to sleep:
Immediately she had groped into the pitch-dark bed, a train which seemed of an entirely new construction went past. This time there was no blasting of steam and thundering or grinding of wheels: only a single sustained rather high-pitched rattling; metallic, inhuman, hollow. The new train appeared to be ascending the bank, but Margaret for the first time could not be sure. The sound frightened Margaret badly. "It's a hospital train," her mother had said to her long ago on occasion of which Margaret had forgotten all details except that they were horrible. "It's full of wounded soldiers."
Out of all this one could construct a theory that for Aickman trains are an unpleasant and malevolent force. As he says in "An Essay," his remarks on winning the World Fantasy Award in 1976 for the short story "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal," Aickman believed that humanity had taken a "wrong turning" around the time of the Industrial Revolution, pursuing rationalism, science, and technology at the expense of our sense of the inexplicable, supernatural, and numinous. Trains, stark, loud, and polluting, seem an ideal symbol of that error, and the notion of a countryside deserted because people are taking trains past it rather than traveling through it-- a countryside where Miss Roper's frantic waving for help is ignored or misconstrued, and only the sight of blood has any hope of drawing attention from the mechanical passersby-- has obvious implications as a metaphor for indifference and isolation in a technological society. Up to a point such a reading is useful, but there are stumbling blocks.

In the first place, Aickman plainly did not dislike trains. He was (for a time) a close friend of railway enthusiast L. T. C. Rolt; both were founding members of the Inland Waterways Association, and Aickman apparently appreciated Rolt's ghost stories, some of which have railway settings and are not noticeably down on railways. And within the story itself there are signs that Aickman's point of view is not as crudely anti-industrial as a shallow interpretation of his philosophy might lead one to believe. As the story opens, Margaret and Mimi have just departed an industrial city, which Margaret has not at all disliked but Mimi has hated.
The city Margaret had found new, interesting, unexpectedly beautiful and romantic: its well-proportioned stone mills and volcanic chimneys appeared perfectly to consort with the high free mountains always in the background. To Mimi the place was all that she went on holiday to avoid. If you had to have towns, she would choose the blurred amalgam of the Midlands and South, where town does not contrast with country but merges into it, neither town nor country being at any time so distinct as in the North. To Margaret this, to her, new way of life (of which she saw only the very topmost surface), seemed considerably less dreadful than she had expected. Mimi, to whom also it was new, saw it as the existence from which very probably her great-grandfather had fought and climbed, a degradation she was appalled to find still in existence and able to devour her. If there had to be industry, let the facts be swaddled in suburbs.
Given that Margaret is the point-of-view character and generally seems to be more perceptive and stronger than Mimi (she notices earlier that there is something disturbing about Roper, and is the one to devise a solution to their predicament, a point to which we'll return; even the name "Mimi" suggests a trivial flightiness as compared to the solidity of "Margaret"), I would suggest that the perspective of the story is closer to Margaret's than to Mimi's: that the industrial, however regrettable its existence, is not incapable of beauty. In this context we might wish to consider a single sentence from Margaret and Mimi's encounter with the train that I tactically withheld via ellipses:
It was a long tunnel. The train was not of a kind Margaret was used to (she knew little of railways); it was composed neither of passenger coaches nor of small clattering trucks, but of long windowless vans, giving no hint of their contents. A nimbus of oily warm air enveloped [Margaret], almost immediately to be blown away, leaving her again shivering. (emphasis added)
Contrast this with the train Margaret hears (or imagines she hears) while in bed, which is "of an entirely new construction," and one begins to see that what Aickman finds sinister are not the trains of the early 20th century (with which he very probably grew up; those opposed to modernity do tend to give a pass to their own childhood associations) but the trains of the future, computerized, metallic, and impersonal and without the rustic (if polluting) charm of steam and the thundering of wheels.

But why, you might ask, is the house of the Ropers so grim and dangerous, if it is only the trains of the future that are such dark portents? One answer would focus on the fact that Margaret and Mimi are, as noted, largely ignorant of the industrial world; trains may have a certain charm from a distance, but living literally in their shadow is another matter. A second, somewhat richer answer provides a window into Aickman's aesthetics and the psychological aspects of the story.

Not on Solid Ground

In Aickman's worldview, as expressed in both stories and essays, strange and supernatural events are always impinging on the rationalist perception of normality, and it takes a concerted effort of mental will (of which a great many moderns are capable) to ignore this fact, to maintain the sense of order that defines a resolutely natural universe. Recall that the passing trains rattle the heavy dinner table and the heavy plates upon it, even seeming to jostle the walls themselves. What better metaphor for the effect of the paranormal upon staid sensibilities? Then there is the exchange between Margaret and Roper on the late-night movement of trains, of which Margaret had been ignorant.
"I see you're not used to living by a railway," said Roper. "Many classes of traffic are kept off the tracks during ordinary travelling hours. What you hear going by now are the loads you don't see when the stations are open. A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker."...

"But surely only the passenger trains have time tables?"

"My dear Margaret, every single train is in a time-table. Every local goods, every light engine movement. Only not, of course, in the timetable you buy for sixpence at the Enquiry Office. Only a small fraction of all the train movements are in that. Even the man behind the counter knows virtually nothing of the rest."

"Only Wendley knows the whole works," said Mimi from the sofa.
There are more trains in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Trains, then, are like many mystical things in that they bring greater knowledge, but also greater danger, as suggested by the fates of Joseph Roper, Miss Roper, and Beech, by the probable fate of the insane Wendley Roper, and by the narrowly averted fates of Margaret and Mimi. This is a common theme in Aickman's stories, where characters often receive disturbing yet life-altering revelations.

It is in this light that Margaret's psychological development in the story is best examined. She is, as the story begins, a novice at hiking, deferring to Mimi's wisdom much of the time. Their rather uncertain friendship, tracked in seemingly innocuous exchanges with Aickman's usual subtlety and acuity, is particularly strained by Mimi's flirtation with Wendley Roper. Margaret's frustration leads to an epiphany:
Suddenly, looking at Mimi sprawling in her trousers and tight high-necked sweater, Margaret saw the point, clearer than in any book: Mimi was physically attractive; she herself in all probability was not. And nothing else in all life, in all the world, really counted. Nothing, nothing. Being cleverer; on the whole (as she thought) kinder; being more refined; the daughter of a Lord: such things were the dust beneath Mimi's chariot wheels, items in the list of life's innumerable unwantable impedimenta.
Taken by itself, this could be critiqued as rather patronizing male sympathy for an unattractive woman, with more than a hint of class condescension worked in. But as the story evolves, it becomes obvious that there are in fact things beyond attractiveness that "really count." Mimi's attractiveness has brought down on her the baleful attentions of Wendley Roper, and also of the man in the Guest House, with whom Roper is linked by the "inverted echo" of his words, itself explicitly paralleled to the verbal echo by which Margaret begins to realize that Beech is a woman. Recall also Margaret's observation that the man in the Guest House is "one of the many men who classify women into those you talk to and those with whom words merely impede the way."  Mimi's lack of cleverness has also left her unable to see that Roper is quite dangerous. Margaret's cleverness, on the other hand, allows her to recall the existence of Mimi's knife and use it to save herself from Beech, which in turn helps her protect Mimi from Roper's attentions, though not before Mimi has had whatever disturbing experience the train tickets shoved into her pockets are meant to suggest.

The conclusion of the story, with the tickets, the revelation of Beech's cross-dressing, and the abrupt ending so common in Aickman, has a mysterious and surreal quality that is equally common in Aickman, but each of these elements has its logic. The tickets, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically-- personally I find them too absurd to be unsettling, if to unsettle was the intention-- are an extension of "the railway blight," its invasion of the person of the visitor. It may be trite to point out that pockets are yonic, but with Aickman one never feels that the sexual is very far away. Beech's cross-dressing is a consequence of the love that has also trapped her with Wendley Roper. I can't work out whether she is supposed to have been in love with Miss Roper, in which case her cross-dressing, undertaken only after Miss Roper's death, would have an added pathetic irony, or with Wendley; I'm inclined to assume the former. Either way, the perils of attraction and attractiveness are once again involved, as they are in many of Aickman's stories about women. (His stories about men, on the other hand, tend to glamorize and mystify female attractiveness. These are not incompatible approaches, but I'll withhold further discussion of the point for a more appropriate essay.) And the ending, in which Margaret uses Beech's bloodstained blouse to wave to the train, represents the triumph of Margaret's cleverness over Mimi's sex appeal, Mimi having given up and been reduced to near-catatonia. There is also the potency of the approaching train, previously an image of mystery, power, and danger, becoming a symbol of hoped-for rescue.

There is, though, a darker reading of the story's final image. Miss Roper, after all, had been signalling from the same window several times a day for years, and all anyone ever did was wave back. Although the blood on Beech's blouse might be expected to garner more attention, there is no guarantee that Aickman meant to suggest Margaret and Mimi would achieve rescue; one cannot rule out the possibility that they are trapped.  But that would be atypical, as Aickman's stories with female protagonists generally end, if not optimistically, than at least with the sense that their lives have opened out rather than being curtailed: "Bind Your Hair," "The School Friend," "Into the Wood," "The Real Road to the Church," "Growing Boys," "The Next Glade." ("The Inner Room" is an exception, though, to the extent that its protagonist's gender is significant, and "Hand in Glove" is a more pertinent one.) It is that sense of opening out with which "The Trains" begins:
On the moors, as early as this, the air no longer clung about her, impeding her movements, absorbing her energies. Now a warm breeze seemed to lift her up and bear her on: the absorption process was reversed; her blood stream drew impulsion from the zephyrs. Her thoughts raced from her in all directions, unproductive but joyful.
Such "lifting up" is the result of supernatural experience in many of Aickman's tales, whether they end well or ill; even the fatal carries with it certain revelations. "The Trains" is thus the first of many explorations of what one will find if one wanders (forgive the slight muddling of metaphors) off the beaten track.

Out of Oz

In 1995 Gregory Maguire published his first novel for adults, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which reconceived L. Frank Baum's Oz as a country with a realistic history, culture, and geography, using the iconic villain to consider the process by which outsiders, neither good nor bad in any easily defined sense, become thought of as the embodiment of evil. (The novel was, of course the basis for the 2003 musical Wicked.) Then in 2005 came a sequel, Son of a Witch, following the Witch's son Liir as he sought identity, stability, and purpose in an Oz thrown into chaos by the Matter of Dorothy. 2008 saw A Lion Among Men, which examined the lives of the Cowardly Lion and the Maguire-invented character Yackle. It was with that book, which though it told a complete story felt less substantial and more part of an ongoing narrative, that the notion of a series, called The Wicked Years, first appeared. And now we have Out of Oz, the sprawling final volume of that series. With a large cast centering on "Wicked Witch" Elphaba's granddaughter Rain, the new novel explores the consequences of trying to maintain human relationships, especially those between parents and children, in the deprivation and disorder of war. Maguire's wry humor and deeply-felt humanism make for a nuanced and moving conclusion to his saga of a magical society in the midst of political turmoil.

Over the first three books in the series Maguire has built up quite a variety of characters and settings, and in Out of Oz he brings virtually all of them back at least briefly, giving the book at times the feeling of a leisurely farewell tour. (Some of the returns ought to be kept secret, but one at least is mentioned on the cover copy and can be discussed here. Dorothy, unintentional killer of Elphaba and her sister Nessarose, is back from Kansas, and with a more substantial role than in any previous book. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a coherent narrative reason for Dorothy to be in Out of Oz, but like many of Maguire's characters she has such delightful comic eccentricities that I don't feel like complaining.) There's a war on between Loyal Oz and the Free State of Munchkinland, but by and large Maguire's characters are concerned with staying out of it, so they spend large chunks of the book traveling incognito across Oz or in hiding in particular locations. This material is not very eventful, and plot developments mostly arrive in the form of exposition from visiting characters; multiple explanations, both of new storylines and events from previous books, in implausible dialogue are the major downside of the novel. But the witty exchanges that punctuate this exposition make it less of a chore than it might be, and the long interludes allow the characters' relationship to develop. One of the most potent themes in Out of Oz is the cost of protecting oneself and one's loved ones from war. Liir and his wife Candle have separated themselves from their daughter Rain to protect her, but when the time for a reunion comes, will they ever feel like a family again?

Other aspects of life during wartime are also considered. Maguire's Glinda, simultaneously daffy and canny as ever ("I'm not much for correspondence. I could never choose the right stationery, rainbows or butterflies."), is under house arrest as a possible traitor to Loyal Oz, and her mansion is being used by General Cherrystone as a base for some move against Munchkinland. Can she discover and circumvent his plans while protecting herself and her few remaining servants? Oz under Elphaba's brother, the allegedly divine Emperor Shell, is a dangerous place to live, but Munchkinland is no better. The witch Mombey holds power there, and as a comical yet deadly show trial demonstrates, is prepared to be as ruthless as her enemies. The book of magic known as the Grimmerie could bring the conflict to a decisive end, but it's far from clear that either side deserves to win, or that there's any good result on the horizon for the ordinary people of Oz.

These situations evolve in a slow but satisfying manner, leading up to an ending (one aspect of which readers of Baum's other Oz books will see coming) that strikes the right balance between resolution and ambiguity. Tongue-in-cheek references to the original Oz, both book and movie, and other children's classics complement the tart dialogue. ("Sister Apothecaire. As I live and breathe. I thought you'd taken a vow of chastity?" "I accidentally left it behind in the mauntery when you carried me off in that cart six months ago. Oh well. Whoever finds it can keep it; I'm through with it. Anyway, mind your own beeswax.") But it's the characters who make Out of Oz enjoyable: Liir, goodhearted but possibly not strong and wise enough; Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, less cowardly than aware of past mistakes and eager to protect those he loves; Little Daffy, formerly Sister Apothecaire, and her irascible husband, the dwarf in charge of the Clock of the Time Dragon; and of course Rain, a solitary and tough-minded child interested in the natural world but uncertain of the worth of human trust and love. Military pursuit, kidnapping, and death enforce terrible separations and give the bonds of loyalty a pain equal to their pleasure, but Rain and the others learn how to live in a world where nothing is certain, a world very like our own. For readers who have come to love his strange but recognizable milieu and its flawed, ambiguous characters, Maguire's Out of Oz is a delightful lingering farewell.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Madder Mysteries

Why should I review this book? I write reviews for two reasons: to clarify my opinions to myself by putting them in written form, and to offer those opinions to others who might find them helpful in making their own purchasing decisions. In the case of Madder Mysteries, neither reason quite applies. I've read most of the content of this book before, and my opinions on it are reasonably well-established. And the book currently sells for $250 and up in the supernatural fiction market; paying that much money for a book that is no more elaborately designed than many mass-market hardcovers is more a collector's than a reader's decision. Opinions on the content are almost irrelevant. Nonetheless, I'll give mine anyway, on the off chance I'll say something that might be helpful or at least interesting to a future reader.

From the perspective of an admirer of Oliver's fiction who does care more about the content than the collecting, Madder Mysteries is easily his least significant collection. It contains only eight stories, four of which also appear in Centipdede Press' omnibus Dramas from the Depths, which, though expensive, offers better value for money than any other method of assembling Oliver's early fiction, and is (at the moment, anyway) significantly less expensive than Madder Mysteries itself, to say nothing of the three earlier collections the omnibus reprints in their entirety. Of the four stories not included in Dramas from the Depths, "The Game of Bear" (an accomplished completion of an M. R. James fragment) can be found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21, and "The Head" in The Fourth Black Book of Horror. Two remaining pieces have never been printed anywhere else, but "The Wig: A Monologue for an Actor" is a modified version of the story "The Copper Wig," which appeared in the collection The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and therefore also in Dramas from the Depths. The version in Madder Mysteries has, as you might expect, been reworked as a monologue and includes a few notable changes but is not, in my estimation, worth the expense to those who've already read "The Copper Wig." Which leaves us with one purely exclusive story, "Tawny."

The publisher's website describes "Tawny," an all-dialogue story, as a tour de force, but while the limitation to dialogue is well-handled, the story's compressed quality makes its outcome all too obvious; the hints of something unpleasant, which Oliver usually handles with masterful subtlety, inevitably come off rather heavy-handedly when worked into party conversation, and the characters' failure to be even slightly alarmed by what they see makes them seem even stupider than the story intends, to the point of cheap parody. I don't mean to disparage "Tawny" too much-- it's a capable minor story-- only to suggest that, as a reason to buy the collection, it doesn't have much to offer. The final lines, suggestive of a decline into madness, are rather nice, though.

Unsurprisingly given the collection's title, that threat of madness is a recurring theme, and Oliver writes the varieties of insanity, from gentle rambling eccentricity to overpowering delusion to disturbing associative babble, very well and very eerily. But it's not only the characters that are madder here, but the stories themselves. Oliver's early work was very much in the mode of the classic English ghost story, with familiar settings, characters, and devices given new force by Oliver's erudition and eye for detail. As his work evolved, however, new and bizarre elements began creeping in. So in Madder Mysteries we find stories like "Baskerville's Midgets," which is very much a traditional, subtle ghost story in structural terms, but in which the eccentric personalities of the title characters and the theatrical landlady they haunt contribute to a sense of absurdity that is more menacing than comical, making the story something akin to surrealism or the strange stories of Robert Aickman. "The Head" is another case in point. I suppose it too is a ghost story, but the ghost's deranged utterances are hardly what one expects from a specter.

But other stories are more quietly unsettling. "The Game of Bear" makes excellent use of the disturbing qualities of improving children's fiction in the early 20th century, and is an excellent pastiche of James. The highlight of the collection, and one of Oliver's finest works to date, is the novelette "The Devil's Funeral." Composed of letters and diary excerpts from 1882 and concerned with clergymen in an English cathedral city, it may sound like an antiquarian ghost story, but although there are terrifying dreams and visions suggesting a supernatural presence, the darkness that haunts Morchester is all too human. Once understood, the signs and portents that the characters have failed to understand provide a sly, unhappy satisfaction as well as a powerful sense of the numinous. And the story is so rich in subtle psychological and moral insights about, among other things, institutional politics and the perils of unrequited desire, that though I've now read it three or four times I'm still discovering nuances that I've missed in the past.

In addition to the eight stories, Madder Mysteries also includes five essays (one fictional) and ten ironic pastiches of late Victorian and Edwardian magazine articles. All the essays and half the pastiches also appear in Dramas from the Depths. The essays, on the supernatural fiction of Stella Gibbons, Montague Summers, M. R. James, and Henry James, are thoughtful and succinct (in an aside, Oliver aptly summarizes Frankenstein as "that ill-written work of genius") but rather on the rudimentary side; they work better as a capstone to Dramas from the Depths than as a substantial portion of Madder Mysteries. Nonetheless, admirers of Oliver will be interested in his insights into these writers, and what they reveal about his own artistic principles. The fictional essay, on the life and work of the non-existent Decadent writer Jules Charnier, and the newspaper pastiches (two titles, "A Cautionary Tale Concerning Beards" and "A Boiled Egg Called Lowestoft," will give a flavor of them) are amusing, though despite their brevity they wear a bit thin.

The range of content in Madder Mysteries speaks to the range and depth of its author's knowledge and interests: he can write convincingly about Victorian clergymen, ancient Greek religion, Casanova, Henry James, contemporary stage actors, and old newspapers. If Madder Mysteries were available at something close to its cover price, it would be easy to recommend. But it isn't, and the irony of the Dramas from the Depths omnibus is that the one then-available collection it doesn't include in full is the one least worth owning separately. Oliver's most devoted readers will want to have it anyway (which is why I do), but less passionate fans can feel safe in waiting and hoping for a less expensive reprint of some or all the exclusive content.