Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween II

I'm not a big fan of Halloween (mass-produced scary doesn't do it for me, and I eat too much candy year-round anyway), but this year, rather than repeat last year's scrabble for something appropriate to read or watch, I decided to make up a reading and viewing list ahead of time. It seemed like a good opportunity to reread some stories by favorite authors that I'd been thinking about for a while, but hadn't gotten around to because there was also something new to read. I spent a while looking at the catalog of my books on LibraryThing, made a list of authors I admired, and found stories by some of them that I wanted to reread. There was quite a bit of adding and subtracting, but after a while I ended up with a vaguely-appropriate count of thirteen stories, which I read more or less in order of their original publication.

1. H. P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"

I have an odd relationship with Lovecraft these days. Much as I hate to sound like the purveyors of mainstream disdain for his work, more and more I find the style distracting, not because it's baroque or febrile or whatever you want to call it, but because the constant stream of negative superlatives detracts from the intricacy of the narrative structure, at which Lovecraft was a genius. You can't gradually build an atmosphere of weirdness if each individual element is ghastly beyond belief. Sometime in the not-terribly-near future I hope to reread all of Lovecraft and see how true this impression holds. For now, I mostly reread his earlier work, which, even with these qualms, I find satisfying and disturbing in a way the more famous stories aren't. My favorite of these at the moment is "The Music of Erich Zann," but I reread that one pretty recently and it's not, for all its decadent charm, of such substance that I'm eager to go back to it. So I went for "The Festival" instead.
Then beyond the hill’s crest I saw Kingsport outspread frostily in the gloaming; snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.
"The Festival" opens strongly with this evocation of a village out of time and its tilted, twisting architecture, images that have always appealed strongly to me as symbols of the weird and the pessimistic. (One finds similar motifs throughout Lovecraft and in later writers like Ligotti, whose "The Sect of the Idiot" is, I think, an under-appreciated modern classic of the Lovecraftian.) The protagonist, called to his ancient hometown for a ritual observed once a century, finds something more monstrous than he had expected. Well, of course he does; he's a Lovecraft narrator. To be honest, it's not the ritual itself that draws me to this story; that section, though admirably structured, is I think too emphatically about the physically noisome, which doesn't impress me much. What I like is the opening: the description of the village, of the house at which the narrator rests before the ritual begins, and of its elderly inhabitants. I suppose that in many ways what I like about the story is what is least genuinely Lovecraftian about it, a Gothic horror of more nineteenth-century vintage, but I think Lovecraft's prose lends it a sharp, sickening intensity that traditional Gothic language could never convey.

2. M. R. James, "A Vignette"

An odd choice from the James canon, perhaps, as it's one of the minor stories he wrote near the end of his life, in fact the very last; it was published a few months after his death. But I've always been fond of it. It was the final story in the first James collection I read, the oversize hardcover, with appropriately subtle pencil illustrations by Rosalind Caldecott, that appeared under the imaginative title The Ghost Stories of M. R. James. At that time I was very impressed by the story, and though I can no longer see why, it still interests me as something that is evidently autobiographical.  (I recently acquired a tatty but solid copy of the story in that first magazine appearance, and it's become one of the more cherished items in my supernatural fiction collection.) The very lack of complexity and satisfying explanation that make it a minor piece of fiction render it fascinating when considered as a "true ghost story," one that, perhaps, partially explains a devout, hardworking, widely-liked academic's lifelong devotion to frightening fiction.
Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.
Admirers of Lovecraft have sometimes dismissed James by claiming that, while the former wrote deeply philosophical stories that confronted the nature of the universe, the latter wrote cozy entertainments that weren't about anything. James himself perhaps contributed to this impression, by writing about his stories in a dismissive way that is easy to take at face value, but should perhaps be read instead as polite self-deprecation. Shane Leslie reports that M. R. James did believe in ghosts, replying when asked, "Depend upon it! Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules!" Nor do James' characters know the rules, and they are punished, sometimes fatally, for minor transgressions. If one takes these stories seriously, not as literal outlines for things in which James believed, but as fictional elaborations of the sort of capricious forces he understood to exist, then they become genuinely dark in a way that even Lovecraft is not. Cthulhu may be a metaphor for the cosmic, but Count Magnus is both a metaphor and a dangerous sort of thing in and of itself. My point here is not that James is "better" than Lovecraft, only that there is a way of understanding the endurance of James' fiction that goes beyond the notion (however satisfying it may be in and of itself) of "a pleasing terror." In "A Vignette," his last fiction, James may be reaching back to the root of that body of work, describing with hints of the style that had made him famous-- the light social comedy, the simple and elegant evocation of nature, the barely-sensed apparitions-- something that generated in him a far from pleasing terror.

3. T. E. D. Klein, "Petey"

Widely praised yet frustratingly unprolific, Klein has, over the course of a nearly four-decade career, published only a single novel, five novellas (one later incorporated into the novel) and a scattering of brief short stories. His "Children of the Kingdom," which mixes Lovecraftian creatures with the racial tensions of 1980s New York City, is one of my favorite horror novellas, but this year I went instead for "Petey," a novella that has more to do with M. R. James. Set at a housewarming party and rich in dialogue that reflects the affluent materialism and catty envy of the partygoers, it gradually hints at the secret the house's former owner, now bound and gagged in an insane asylum, is desperately trying to reveal to one of his attendants. The slow tightening of the noose, as the wandering guests come across clues that the reader can synthesize but they cannot, is ingenious, and the social anxieties of such an event are conveyed with such ease that the infinitely readable novella barely seems to have a style at all.  The story ends at a point where a writer more concerned with visceral shocks would begin, but there's a delicate terror all the same, one helped along by a device that was, if I recall correctly, a conscious homage to one from James. This time around I found myself analyzing the story more than enjoying it, but either way I recommend the experience.

4. Ramsey Campbell, "The Voice of the Beach"

This Lovecraftian novelette is often described as a high point in its distinguished author's career of high points, and though on rereading it I found the narrator's interjections of nervous foreshadowing intrusive rather than atmospheric, the eventual vision of dissolution that awaits a horror writer who has retreated to a beachside bungalow in the wake of illness does capture the true essence of Lovecraftian terror: the sense of something so impossibly different that it cannot be understood, that it might destroy all of humanity without malevolence simply because we exist on an utterly distinct level of reality. Campbell's talent for writing about psychological instability also makes the depth of the narrator's paranoia, and of his friend's enthusiastic embrace of the presence on the beach, unsettling in a way that the awestruck tone of Lovecraft's own narrators rarely achieved.
A hint of a grimace twitched his cheek; my comment might have been an annoying fly-- certainly as trivial. "You can read the pattern out there if you try," he mumbled. "It takes all day. You begin to get a sense of what might be there. It's alive, though nothing like life as we recognize it."

I could only say whatever came into my head, to detain him until the doctor arrived. "Then how do you?"

He avoided the question, but only to betray the depths of his obsession. "Would an insect recognize us as a kind of life?"
5. Thomas Ligotti, "Conversations in a Dead Language"

Up to this point I hadn't been getting as much out of my evening's reading as I'd hoped; all the stories had had their strong moments, but I wasn't feeling the shiver down the spine I'd been looking forward to. That changed with this Thomas Ligotti story, by coincidence one of two on my reading list actually set at Halloween. Ligotti is, I hardly need to tell most readers of this blog, known for stories that lay out a pessimistic worldview with images of decay, instability, and disorder, the nightmare collapse of things that seemed solid. Though his work is therefore intensely psychological, its psychology is usually of a kind that runs parallel to those concerns; his characters are attuned to problems deeper than run of the mill human misery. "Conversations in a Dead Language" is a little different. Its protagonist's mind still opens onto the abyss, but that mind's workings are twisted in a way more reminiscent of what is typically called "psychological horror." The local mailman enjoys passing out candy on Halloween, but his pleasure in the experience seems less than wholesome. We begin with a description of a common ritual, carefully calculated to emphasize its strangeness:
After changing out of his uniform, he went downstairs to search the kitchen drawers, rattling his way through cutlery and cooking utensils. Finally he found what he wanted. A carving knife, a holiday knife, the traditional blade he'd used over the years. Knifey-wifey.

First he carved out an eye, spearing the triangle with the point of his knife and neatly drawing the pulpy thing from its socket. Pinching the blade, he slid his two fingers along the blunt edge, pushing the eye onto the newspaper he'd carefully placed next to the sink. Another eye, a nose, a howling oval mouth. Done. Except for manually scooping out the seedy and stringy entrails and supplanting them with a squat little candle of the vigil type. Guide them, holy lantern, through darkness and disaster. To me. To meezy-weezy.
There's an intermittent element of stream of (uneasy) consciousness here and throughout that is, alongside language closer to Ligotti's usually style, disquietingly suggestive of the protagonist's bifurcated mental state. The nature and sources of that bifurcation, also horrific in a way less common in Ligotti, I leave for those new to the story to discover.

6. Glen Hirshberg, "Struwwelpeter"

At first I felt I ought to read Hirshberg's "Mr. Dark's Carnival," a story set at Halloween. But it was another one I'd reread pretty recently, so I decided on "Struwwelpeter" instead, and quickly realized that it too was a Halloween story. One of the nice things about rereading is that, knowing the plot in advance, you can focus on other aspects of the story, without being distracted by the question of what's going to happen next. "Struwwelpeter" haunts the first-time reader with a deserted house and a bell that's rumored to raise the dead, but its true genius is the milieu, a lonely, decaying fishing village in the Pacific Northwest, and the title character, a gifted young man, by turns cruel and kind, indifferent and hungry for approval. Like much of Hirshberg's fiction, the story is suffused with tragic melancholy, a sense of impotence that's all the more powerful because it's reflected in the small actions and inactions of the characters rather than projected as a philosophical topic. Rich in classical spookiness and enhanced by an unexpected twist of very modern and human horror, "Struwwelpeter" is one of the finest stories by perhaps the single finest contemporary writer of American ghost stories.
Back then, we still gathered after-school afternoons at the Anderszs' house, because it was close to the locks. If it wasn't raining, we'd drop our books and grab Ho Hos out of the tin Mr. Andersz always left on the table for us and head immediately toward the water. Gulls spun in the sunlight overhead, their cries urgent, taunting, telling us, you're missing it, you're missing it. We'd sprint between the rows of low stone duplexes, the sad little gardens with their flowers battered by the rain until the petals looked bent and forgotten like discarded training wheels, the splintery, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn't stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane. Finally, we'd burst into the park, pour down the avenue of fir trees like a mudslide, scattering people, bugs, and birds before us until we hit the water.
7. Mark Samuels, "The Impasse"

This story comes from Samuels' collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, which I was ambivalent about, but "The Impasse" is, as I said in that review, unquestionably a very fine piece, in the manner of Thomas Ligotti's corporate horror stories but not a mere stylistic pastiche. Its effect is a simple yet potent one, of ordinary corporate eccentricity tilted just a little, then a little further, then further still, until the full insanity is revealed.
For his interview a week previously he had traveled on a deserted mid-morning train. At first he had been alarmed by the state of the Organization's headquarters, with its air of impending abandonment. It did not look to him as though they would be able to offer him a position with any future. But the interview seemed to have gone well and he was promised a better salary than he had expected. The two interviews had been somewhat vague figures, and neither had asked him any particularly probing or awkward questions. He could remember little of them except that they sat in the shadows at the back of the room. They had not elaborated on the exact nature of his duties, but had intimated that they would be concerned with an area with which he was familiar, intellectual property rights, although he was not told in which particular sphere he would be required to operate. Despite being au fait with various publishing and broadcast media in which such rights are usually exploited, Cohen had not heard of the Ulymas Organization. When, before his interview, he had undertaken background research he had been unable to find the company listed in any trade publication.
8. China Miéville, "Reports of Certain Events in London"

Miéville's novels blend horror, fantasy, and science fiction in inventive ways, and the stories in his collection Looking for Jake show a similar range. I suppose you could call "Reports" a fantasy, but to my mind it's reminiscent in an unusual way of Lovecraftian horror. It's concerned with incursions into our reality by large, mysterious forces that come and go as though time has no meaning, forces humans investigate at our great peril. The narrative structure, doling out revelations by means of a carefully-arranged series of evidently disordered pieces of information, is also similar to Lovecraft, though Miéville uses a device Lovecraft didn't: the epistolary format.
On the 27th of November 2000, a package was delivered to my house. This happens all the time-- since becoming a professional writer the amount of mail I get has increased enormously. The flap of the envelope had been torn open a strip, allowing someone to look inside. This also isn't unusual; because, I think, of my political life (I am a varyingly active member of a left-wing group, and once stood in an election for the Socialist Alliance), I regularly find, to my continuing outrage, that my mail has been peered into.

I mention this to explain why it was that I opened something not addressed to me. I, China Miéville, live on ---ley Road. This package was addressed to a Charles Melville, of the same house number ---ford Road. No postcode was given, and it had found its way, slowly, to me. Seeing a large packet torn half-open by some cavalier spy, I simply assumed it was mine and opened it.
What this fictional Miéville finds is a baffling, frustratingly incomplete collection of documents related to an organization studying a rare and inexplicable phenomenon. What that phenomenon is I would not dream of saying, not least because outside the context of the story it might seem laughable. But as revealed in these reports there's nothing funny about it, and by the time "Miéville" himself is caught up in the paranoia and secrecy surrounding the "VF," the eerie sense of a war occurring mostly, but not entirely, outside our perception makes for weird fiction at its absolute best.

9. Reggie Oliver, "The Babe of the Abyss"
 He owned a chalet, high in the mountains of the Haute Savoie to which, in the long summer vacations, he would invite groups of undergraduates on "reading parties." That is to say, the undergraduates would come with their books which during the morning they studied by themselves, either indoors or out on the lawn in front of the chalet with its transcendent views of forest and mountain. In the afternoon they would go for long walks through idyllic Alpine landscapes. The food was plentiful but plain, the beds on the hard side, the only hot water available had to be boiled in kettle or copper; yet many remember their chalet days as a little glimpse of Eden when it was bliss to be alive, and "to be young was very heaven." I went once, in the year 1920, the last year that Panter held one of his chalet reading parties. It was as a result of certain events which occurred during this reading party that Panter was forced to leave the college in ignominy.
I haven't written about "The Babe of the Abyss" before, but much of what I said about the way Oliver's latest collection combines the pleasures of the English ghost story with a keen moral and psychological insight is true of this story as well. Its setting is the early 20th-century academic world of M. R. James, and its supernatural creature has a chilling subtlety and an origin that smack of the antiquarian "warning to the curious." But the novelette is also a reflection on psychological theories of violence and repression, on human nature, and on the bloodiness of the society that produced the two great wars. The unexpressed desires that drive it would have horrified James, although he may not have been as immune to them as his placid exterior has lead many scholars to believe. In many ways "The Babe of the Abyss" is unlike "Struwwelpeter," but both are ghost stories concerned with the nature of human frailty, reminders that that form, when approached in the right spirit, is one of the profoundest tools for the expression of tragedy.

10. R. B. Russell, "Llanfihangel"

I wrote about this story on reviewing Russell's collection Literary Remains a few months ago, and to what I wrote then I can only add that the story's maintenance of its ambiguity is perfect, from an opening conversation that might reflect either the fallibility of memory or the skillful manipulation of a con artist, to a deserted house that might be haunted or might be empty of everything save the protagonist and his guilt, to a final revelation that, in piling yet another possibility onto the multiplicity of readings these events might be given, causes reality to teeter with something verging on nausea. This is one of those stories where I can't quote a tantalizing passage because the story's power is purely cumulative. The protagonist's thoroughly human petty jealousies and fears round out what is not, given the brevity and narrative complexity of the story, a deep character in other senses, and enhance both the reader's sympathy and the sense of psychological precariousness.

11. Stephen King, "N."

Like "The Voice of the Beach," this novella heightens the focus on the protagonist's obsessive psychology; like "Reports of Certain Events in London," it uses the epistolary format. But where those stories were comparable primarily to Lovecraft, "N." is traced by its author to Arthur Machen, specifically "The Great God Pan." I've read woefully little Machen, but I think his influence can be seen in the dual nature-- the beauty and terror-- of the story's central landscape.
The day was fading. The sun was a ball of red gas, flattened at the top and bottom, sitting above the western horizon. The river was a long, bloody snake in its reflected glow, eight or ten miles distant, but the sound of it carrying to me on the still evening air. Blue-gray woods rose behind it in a series of ridges to the far horizon. I couldn't see a single house or road. Not a bird sang. It was as if I'd been tumbled back four hundred years in time. Or four million. The first white streamers of groundmist were rising out of the hay-- which was high. Nobody had been in there to cut it, although that was a big field, and good graze. The mist came out of the darkening green like breath. As if the earth itself was alive.
I think I staggered a little. It wasn't the beauty, although it was beautiful; it was how everything that lay before me seemed thin, almost to the point of hallucination. And then I saw those damned rocks rising out of the uncut hay.
Those damned rocks-- are there seven of them? or eight?-- are the source of the obsession, the obligation or delusion, that drives "N." The title character becomes convinced that something is waiting in Ackerman's Field, a monstrous presence that twists our reality to make a door for itself and, once noticed and granted access, can only be held at bay by a ritual confirmation of the solidity of this world. This terrible knowledge preys on the mind as it often did on Lovecraft's protagonists, but with a new angle: the instability takes the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. After a middle section in which the sense of incursion is described in fine classical style, the climax, in which the compulsion claims a new victim, shifts to a series of journal entries in which the mental decline is foremost. King's gift for lunatic, paranoid prose, in which spelling, grammar, and continuity are disconcertingly shredded, serves him particularly well here, and the result is a story that, like so much else I read on Halloween, pays homage to tradition while respecting the power of the modern.

12. Caitlín R. Kiernan, "Pickman's Other Model (1929)"
I have never been much for the movies, preferring, instead, to take my entertainment in the theater, always favoring living actors over those flickering, garish ghosts magnified and splashed across the walls of dark and smoky rooms at twenty-four frames per second. I've never seemed able to get past the knowledge that the apparent motion is merely an optical illusion, a clever procession of still images streaming past my eye at such a rate of speed that I only perceive motion where none actually exists. But in the months before I finally met Vera Endecott, I found myself drawn with increasing regularity to the Boston movie houses, despite this longstanding reservation.
Endecott, Pickman's other model, has a shadowy past in one of those decayed New England towns so beloved of Lovecraft, but her future lies in Hollywood, and this story extends the forbidden art motif of "Pickman's Model" to the world of early film. As in much of Kiernan's fiction one finds dreams, meditations on art and reality, and Fortean collection of data, but there's much more going on here than I can describe without making this essay far longer than it already is. The lingering impression, however, is of the mercifully unexplained, from the lost film of which only a tantalizing fragment remains, to the scandalous, fatal party that destroyed Endecott's career, to the ultimate fate of a woman the briefest glimpse of whom suggests an extraordinary presence. Kiernan combines many Lovecraftian themes and motifs in a story that is at once a fine sequel and homage, and something distinctive and original.

13. Quentin S. Crisp, "Ynys-Y-Plag"

Another story I first read pretty recently, but I've been wanting to get back to it ever since I called it "a contemporary masterpiece of long weird fiction." By the time I started this very long story it was 1:00 AM, and exhaustion kept threatening to make me put the book aside. But whenever it did, I'd come to a striking or spine-chilling passage and read on, excited and terrified all over again. There were times when I felt that rarity of rarities: a fiction-induced fear that was so profound it went beyond the pleasing, and became genuinely upsetting. After finishing, even though I was still bone-tired, I had to put on a sitcom rerun so I wouldn't be alone with the silence, and with thoughts of the bwg, which sends a little shiver up my spine even twenty-four hours later.

Yes, this account of a photographer's experiences in a remote Welsh village frightens me in a way that not many stories can. But what makes it a new classic is that it also deals with many of Crisp's recurring themes: isolation, victimization, social awkwardness, and the numinous quality of certain places and times. Not a million miles removed, despite major difference in superficial style and genre, from Crisp's novel "Remember You're A One-Ball!", "Ynys-Y-Plag" deserves every single one of my (rather limited) stock of superlatives, but instead of unloading them I'll express my fervent hope that this novella will one day be reprinted somewhere a larger audience can experience and appreciate its scope and brilliance.


In addition to all that reading, I also did a little viewing. This isn't really a TV or film blog, but I can make the occasional exception, I suppose. As I did last year, I watched the Dr. Seuss animated special Halloween is Grinch Night, of which I've always been fond. There's something inherently spooky about a lot of Seuss' images (as a child I was thoroughly terrified of the pants with no one inside them from "What Was I Sacred Of?"), and the bizarre architecture and creatures of this special, while not remotely frightening to an adult, have a Gothic charm. And the opening song is irreparably lodged in my mind.

Then I watched the 1978 Halloween. By coincidence I'd watched the original Friday the 13th a few days before, and it's thoroughly obvious how much the latter film attempts to copy the success of the original, only without the directorial skill, sense of subtlety, and acting talent. (They both have great music, though.) I don't want to overstate the differences-- they're both low-budget horror, they both feature some terrible acting (Annie and Lynda in Halloween, virtually everybody in Friday the 13th), but Halloween, however rough-hewn, has some ambition, where Friday the 13th is plainly a machine for providing audiences with a certain number of dead teenagers. Nothing wrong with that, if it's what you're in the mood for, but most of the time I'd rather watch a movie that can do more.


So that, plus a little time spent checking on the bowl of candy I'd put on the porch for trick-or-treaters, was my Halloween. And with this post, I mark a year since the start of this blog, which began on November 2, 2010 with an introductory post and a discussion of last year's Halloween. A year is hardly a long time in blogging terms, but it's the longest I've maintained a blog that wasn't a whining-about-school, here-are-pictures-of-my-cat deal, and in the past year I've gotten about 20,000 pageviews, so I'm definitely satisfied. Thanks to all of you out there in the readerly ether for making it possible.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.


  4. Found your blog. It is full of really good information. Thank you for sharing. If you ever need service on solar water heater repair please visit us at We would love it if you would have a look at some of our blogs and let us know your thoughts.