Sunday, September 4, 2016

James and Lovecraft: "The Mezzotint" and "Polaris"

Here's a thing M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft have in common: editors fiddling around with their paragraphing. It happened to Lovecraft in the 1930s, when pulp editors cut down his long paragraphs to fit the expectations of a pulp audience. James was spared until just a few years ago, when the great horror anthologist Stephen Jones chose to muck about with paragraphing and punctuation for his edition of the complete James, Curious Warnings.

Jones justified this meddling in an editor's note that jumps rather wildly among explanations. It starts off by calling James "not much of a stylist," then tries to soften this blow with the patronizing correction, "Well, he was a stylist -- but he wrote in a unique style that was very much all his own." (One can't help wondering what James would have made of being edited posthumously by someone who could put into print a sentence of such thudding redundancy.) Then there's some waffle about changing languages, with the implication that kids these days can't read long paragraphs anymore and chopping James up into the rhythms of an action thriller is the only way to get him read. This would be easier to believe if James weren't still in print in many other editions containing his original versions, a fact to which Jones alludes in an "if you don't like what I've done, go and read them!" aside.

We're also told that because James initially wrote these stories to be read aloud and "more than likely" never edited them for their formal publication, they had probably "never really been properly edited before." Anything is possible, but I think Jones is confusing James' habitual modest and lighthearted self-presentation with actual indifference. Certainly James was involved in editing his first collection; he wrote in a letter to his father about the interesting prospect of correcting proofs of something so different from his academic work.

But to be frank I doubt Jones cares all that much about James' level of editorial involvement or about what modern audiences will put up with. He plainly thinks he is improving James' work. "No longer are his wit, erudition or pleasing terrors lost amongst pages and pages of unbroken print, complicated sentences and protracted paragraphs." I can only reply that I don't think those things were ever lost. Millions of people had been finding them for over a century before Jones entered the picture. Yes, there are some very long paragraphs in James that could be split without much loss. But I don't believe anyone can look at the extent of Jones' changes and feel that they are in line with James' style. Paragraphs of two or three sentences create a rhythm very different from the restrained gradualism of the antiquarian ghost story. Writers use paragraph breaks to control the flow of the narrative; they don't and shouldn't stop every fifty words or so in case someone's attention is flagging.

You may wonder why I'm banging on about this in a blog post that's supposed to be about "The Mezzotint." Well, first of all I had to get it off my chest. Jones is a first-rate editor of contemporary horror fiction, but his approach to Curious Warnings ruined, from the perspective of the fusty James enthusiast, the only mass-market edition to include the fragments and the children's novel The Five Jars. (That Curious Warnings is already out of print and traditional editions of James are not is one of the ironies of the situation.)

And I don't think it's fair to suggest James was indifferent to things like paragraphing. In places, perhaps, but there are other places where he is plainly using paragraph breaks to create specific effects. In "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" you have, following the very long paragraph describing the sacristan's home and the book itself, the one-sentence paragraph  " 'If monsieur will turn on to the end,' he said." A short, sharp hint that something ominous is coming. There's an even better example in (yes, finally) "The Mezzotint." Setting the sentence "Williams had not noticed it before" off as its own paragraph draws the reader up, letting her know that this is no mere inattention but a plot point, a hint of the supernatural, something to send that first delicate shiver up the spine.

So is there anything good about "The Mezzotint" besides those six words? Sure. I'm not quite sure why it used to be my favorite, but the evolution of the engraving is a model of how a James story unfurls its supernatural presence. And the use of the present-day observers to tell the story of the ghostly kidnapping reflect James's careful manipulation of narrative distance. His stories are told at a remove. They happened to a friend of a friend, or were unearthed in old papers. The narrator is not personally implicated, and can describe characters and places with an ironic detachment, and without the profuse descriptions of confusion and terror that a first-person narrator would provide. To place the kidnapping of the Francis heir by Gawdy's ghost in the foreground would be a bit gruesome even for James, who softened the horror of the murdered children in "Lost Hearts" by making them such malevolent spirits. In fact this is a pretty light story all things considered; the nature of the frame narrative means there's no real climax, no "crumpled linen" or "odious writhings of a wasp."

This is the first story to really feature James' gentle satire of academics. It's amusing, especially the bits about golf. I suppose I should mention Mr Filcher, the servant who is, even more than Mrs Bunch, James' first full-on working class character or caricature. James is sometimes called a master of dialect, but I have to say he may over-egging the pudding here. Every quirk of language in isolation is no doubt accurate, but I doubt they often came as thick and fast as they do in Filcher's speech. Yes, this is exaggeration for comic effect, but James can make dons funny in a subtler, less condescending way.

Speaking of transitions, I don't have one to lead us toward "Polaris." According to S. T. Joshi, this is "a quiet little triumph of prose-poetry, its incantatory rhythm and delicate pathos sustaining it in spite of its brevity." I have the greatest respect for Joshi, but, you know, come on. I don't think Lovecraft ever wrote anything that featured "delicate pathos," and the heavy-handed mournfulness of this story is certainly not it.

I can see what Lovecraft was going for with the repetition of names and phrases, but the effect doesn't quite come off, although the last line makes for a pleasingly bleak final image. It doesn't help that he has no gift for fantasy nomenclature. Robert E. Howard and Lord Dunsany (who was not, despite what you might think, an influence on this story; Lovecraft hadn't read him yet) could put together evocative names that suggested an, and were often borrowed or tweaked from the actual, ancient world, but here we have stuff like Zobna and Kadiphonek that sounds silly in its own right and doesn't feel like it comes from any single invented language.

Lovecraft racism watch: the Inutos are "squat, hellish, yellow fiends" who "knew not the scruples of honour." They turn out to be the ancestors of the Inuit, or as Lovecraft calls them, using an old-fashioned spelling I've always loved, the Esquimaux.

I feel like I'm giving James a lot more space than Lovecraft in these posts, but then, as I've said before, James' early stories are his best, most representative work, while Lovecraft's are part of a great casting-about for style and substance. "Polaris," like "Dagon," is a story that could stand to be longer, to show the narrator's discovery and exploration of Olathoe in direct narration, so that the city's wonders are more clear and the loss of it resonates properly. And also like "Dagon," this is a story that's mostly interesting as a foreshadowing of what would come: in that case of the "Cthulhu Mythos," in this case of the "Dream Cycle." Neither of those things really exists as such, hence the scare quotes, but they do reflect certain broad currents in Lovecraft's work. "Polaris" points the way toward a lot of stories that, while not well regarded or widely discussed, are among my favorites in the Lovecraft canon. I hope I'll find more to say about them.

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