Monday, February 21, 2011

The Cleft and Other Odd Tales

People who are more culturally literate than I am will know Gahan Wilson primarily as a cartoonist/illustrator.  However, he also writes the occasional spooky or fantastic short story.  I first noticed his work with the story "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be," which was reprinted in Ellen Datlow's anthology Blood is Not Enough.  A sinister reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll's famous poem from Through the Looking Glass, it was a crisply told, enchantingly nasty story of idle rich people meeting a grim fate.  This, I've discovered, is a recurring feature in Wilson's fiction.  A paragraph from the opening of the story "Sea Gulls" will suggest the narrative voice and social world of many of Wilson's protagonists:
We had been sitting side by side on a large, sun-warmed rock, I in a precise but somewhat Redonesque pose, Geraldine in her usual, space-occupying, sprawl.  I was deep in a poetic revery, reflecting on the almost alchemical transition of sand to water to sky while Geraldine, my wife, was absorbed in completely finishing off the sumptuous but rather overlarge picnic the hotel staff had prepared for our outing, when she abruptly straightened, a half-consumed jar of pate clutched forgotten in her greasy fingers, and suddenly emitted that barking coo of hers which never has failed to simultaneously startle and annoy me throughout all the years of our marriage.
As you might expect, several macabre twists of fate are in store for both Geraldine and her scheming husband.  Like Roald Dahl and John Collier, Wilson delights in cruel humor and reversal of fortune.  In "Traps," rats take revenge on the exterminator who has targeted them; in "Leavings," two police detectives learn more than is good for them about the mysterious ailments of the local homeless population.  In the hands of a lesser stylist, these tales, many of which date from the 1960s and 1970s and were originally published in Playboy or Fantasy and Science Fiction, would feel passe, but Wilson's sharp prose makes for such quick, easy reading (I finished the 330-page book in about three hours) that there's no time to become bored with them.  And his ear for comedy is just great:
Lester fumbled uncertainly over the limited information he had at his disposal concerning the handling of the violently insane.  There was not much, but he did recall it was very important to humor them.  You've got to humor them or they'll go for the ax or the bread knife.
He's particular funny with first-person narrative by "friendly" rich women, as in the cat-themed story "Best Friends" or his mid-twentieth century version of "Hansel and Grettel:"
Well, anyhow, when they were very young, just as young as you are, there was a great financial depression and all those funny people you see when you're out in the streets were losing their jobs in amazing numbers and looking more ragged and dirty by the day.  Of course that was nothing near so bad as what was happening to people like ourselves, darlings, people who had real money to lose.

Hansel and Grettel's parents were starting to notice that there wasn't quite as much to spend as there used to be, and less all the time, and they realized they'd have to do something really serious about it if they wanted to avoid dipping into their capital, so just like that, they decided to kill their children.

Now, now, don't look at me that way, my dears.  It's only that sometimes grownups have to do things they'd really rather not.  It's just the way it is, so stop fretting.
But I don't want to suggest that this collection is all about the travails of the amoral upper class.  There are also stories about mad scientists, sinister ice cream men, small towns with odd habits, disappearing corpses, aggressive Martian vines, impossible giant statues, and a zombie-infested midway.  Wilson is able to make each of these as creepy or funny or downright weird as he wants.  A case in point is "The Marble Boy," a variation on the one of the oldest campfire ghost stories in the book.  But Wilson describes the central scare with enough originality that it becomes unsettling all over again.  Fans of the classical weird or sinister story will find much to admire in The Cleft and Other Odd Tales.

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