Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Psychopomps and Others

In my just-published review of Discovery of Heretics: Unseen Writings by Sarban, I wrote: "When you're dealing with a writer of sufficient stature, even early, incomplete, or unsatisfying work becomes worthwhile."  In the inscription for the copy of The Psychopomps and Others he was kind enough to send to me, Quentin S. Crisp wrote of one of its stories, "Crude, but it still has resonance for me."  Between them, these quotes capture the appeal of this out-of-print chapbook, which includes three of the stories from Crisp's likewise out-of-print debut collection The Nightmare Exhibition.  None of the three quite works, but they demonstrate enough imagination and enough fine prose that, if I had been reading the stories at the time of initial publication, I would have labelled them quite promising.  Read now when the promise has been fulfilled in books like Morbid Tales and All God's Angels, Beware! and the novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", they show a distinctive voice in the process of emerging, testing narrative material and a degree of explicitness that would later be rejected.

The longest of the three is "The Psychopomps," a long novelette with an obvious debt to Lovecraft.  The narrator awakens, amnesiac after a car accident, to discover himself in a mansion populated by faceless attendants.  They claim that his inability to see their faces is a sign of a mental injury, and that with their help he can recover from it.  It won't come as much of a surprise that they're not telling the full truth.  The philosophical direction the story ultimately takes is a fruitful one, and it's easy to imagine the contemporary Crisp using the basic device in a powerful story.  But this early work suffers from an awkward mishmash of styles.  At times the language is clearly recognizable as Crisp's, albeit slightly less refined in manner than it would later become.  The description of the narrator's exploration of the house is a case in point:
I was wearing a thick, beetroot dressing gown.  This fact disturbed me, making me feel helpless and ill.  I wanted to change as soon as possible.  Now apprehensive even of crossing the open space of the room, I rushed to the door, twisted the handle and slipped through a gap so slight that I had to squeeze through on tiptoes.  I seemed to have exited onto a sort of gallery.  I glanced furtively over the banisters to see a mosaic-tiled passage below.  The gallery itself was lined with the same sombre wood panelling as my room.  I passed a number of rooms with brass doorknobs.  There seemed to be no one around.  The silence was surely that hard, ticking silence that speaks of the absence of any other soul.  It was strange quite how relieved I was by this.  If possible I wanted to get away without being seen, and for that reason I didn't dare open any of the doors in case my impression was mistaken and someone was there.
Here we see the same sensitive, solitary narrator and quietly atmospheric environment of many a later story.  But there are also passages that echo the intense, panicked style of Lovecraft, but without the antiquated bombast that makes his prose effective, or at least distinctive.
If this is a demon then it is not from hell, but from some sinister interdimensional bureau, a grey, howling twilight world that the human imagination has never captured, but only guessed by accident, perhaps, in a few obscure and haunted pencil sketches.  If this were a nightmare I would have awoken screaming with the jagged fear long ago.  Nightmare is merciful.  Since that face first turned toward me I have been immersed in the cringing waters of terror.  Terror preys upon and mocks me.  I cannot forget that first shock.  No harm has befallen me.  The faces are civilized, but I look at them and suddenly the perfect white lunacy of that first ambush leers out at me again with devouring and eldritch exaltation.
 There are some interesting turns of phrase there (I particularly like "some sinister interdimensional bureau"), but the total effect is to undermine the mood that the subtler passages have generated.  This clash of styles continues throughout the story, and it's only near the conclusion, when the full psychological dimension is revealed, that the concept becomes powerful enough to compensate for that.

"The Legacy" is, in some ways, even more crudely visceral than "The Psychopomps," though its shocks are derived not from the cosmically alien but from the small and familiar: spiders.  A young man handling his grandmother's estate finds something he didn't expect, and very much did not want to know about.  As far as creepy-crawly horror goes, this is reasonably restrained, though the narrator's reaction again has a certain Lovecraftian excess.  There is also the same disparity between the ruminative descriptions of the household and the narrator's memories, which are as accomplished as later stories at capturing the eccentric or disturbing mentality, and the uncomfortably vivid arachnids, many of which are unpleasantly squished in the course of the story.

"Decay" is less disgusting than "The Legacy," less cosmic than "The Psychopomps," yet still not quite what would might have expected from Crisp.  An ambiguous story of a house possibly haunted by the very incarnation of the title force, its six pages illuminate the appeal of the decayed for the mind consumed by lassitude or melancholy.  Once more the language and imagery verge on the classically Gothic, but whatever its date of composition the story feels like a sign of transition toward the author's more suggestive and traditionally literary stories in other collections.  The things that make those later stories so extraordinary are all present in these earlier works, and make them valuable reading for Crisp's admirers despite their limitations as stories in their own right.

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