Monday, October 16, 2017


"Transparent darkness covered the lagoon save for one shadow that stained the horizon black. Podolo...."

In 1981, thanks to a Charles M. Collins anthology, Harvest of Fear, "Podolo" was my introduction to L. P. Hartley.

This introduction had no impact, at first. I read the story in late autumn, wondered if I had missed the point, shrugged, and then moved on. Yet for some reason, "Podolo" nagged at me.

Just after sunset a few days later, as I stepped around the frozen puddles beside a long-abandoned, blackened farm house, and stared at the Gatineau Hills that loomed above me like black thunderheads, I thought about "Podolo" once again, and suddenly, for the first time, I felt the chill of that story. I suddenly realized just how frightening it was.

Reading it again tonight, thanks to the Valancourt ebook of The Travelling Grave, I was fascinated by how much foreshadowing appears in the first four paragraphs. Hartley gives away more than most writers would dare to -- certainly more than I would -- but this only testifies to his confidence. He knows that he has a great story, here, one that will nag at readers for decades to come, and catch them off guard when they poke through their own forsaken landscapes.

[Cover art by Helmut Wenske, 1975.]

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Past Is A Foreign Country

Many writers understand that horror is not a genre, but a mood, a perspective, a state of mind. L. P. Hartley is one example, and his novel, The Go-Between, shows what this understanding can achieve.

What begins as an understated, everyday story of one man's attempt to recapture his memories becomes, almost imperceptibly, a sinister tale of people with concealed motives, of implications half-glimpsed and completely underestimated. As the plot develops, Hartley brings to this matter-of-fact account those elements that give his Travelling Grave stories their mood of unease: conversations that seem innocent or beside the point at first hearing, ordinary settings that begin to glow with dreamlike textures and shadows, a swelling intensity of awareness about some event looming just out of sight. The result is a story that twists and coils around itself until it reveals unexpected claws.

Like the Count in Walter de la Mare's "The Almond Tree," Leo Colston of The Go-Between immerses himself in childhood memories to the point where he perceives them as a child might, without understanding the adult context behind them, but unlike de la Mare, who uses that perspective to keep his readers in the dark, Hartley relies on the discrepancy between what Leo fails to understand, and what the readers understand all too well, for both dramatic irony and for sudden shocks of revelation. These build up to a climax that remains, for me, one of the more nightmarish I've read in a "down to earth" story, followed by an epilogue that combines bitter irony and moving sorrow in one beautifully dissonant final chord.

A mood, a perspective, a state of mind: Hartley knows the region, he knows where the swamps and pitfalls lie, he knows how to lead us quietly to the edge -- and how to push us over.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Packing Kernels

I've never been paid enough to do his editing for him....

In his books that I've read, he buried every passage that seemed evocative or funny within a crate of styrofoam packing kernels, and had I been given post office wages to sort through all of that squeaking and sliding, I might have considered the chore worthwhile. Selection is half the task of writing, and I leave that job to the writers.

-- My comments, elsewhere, on William S. Burroughs.

J. G. Ballard praised his work, and I respect Ballard's opinion. But as much as I love to read Ballard, I've never been able to work up anything more than a partial interest in Burroughs.

Friday, October 6, 2017


Ordet. What to make of this film?

Despite what I had read before I saw it, I never found Ordet slow -- certainly not when compared with late Tarkovsky, or even with Dreyer's earlier film, Day of Wrath.

Nor did I find the film especially "strange" in its technique. Theatrical, yes; much of it seemed like a filmed stage play, but not to the detriment of the story.

Instead, I found the film easily watchable, compelling, often funny. As the story went on, I began to care about the people, and by the midpoint, I found myself concerned for them.

But that ending, as beautifully directed as it was, felt unreal to me. While I had been moved earlier in the film, I suddenly found myself detached. While I had been drawn in before, I suddenly felt myself pushed away.

By any standards I can apply, from the experience of my own life to the methods used by other dramas, the final moments of Ordet are a lie, a deliberate lie, and a lie with cruel implications.

I can accept a film in which a sympathetic person dooms herself with a confession of witchcraft, because people in totalitarian societies often have internalized the accusations made against them. I can also accept a film that wants me to believe, while the story moves along, in vampires, because I have neither hope nor emotional investment in the reality of vampires.

But having watched my father die, having lost people I love, having known exactly how it feels to confront the reality and finality of death despite all of my hopes, I have to reject the final sequence of Ordet.

Or should I say, perhaps, that it rejected me?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Alchemy In Reverse

Garry Kilworth loves nouns and names. He can show you fifteen terms for wind, various words for ships and boats, the songlike titles for the peals of church-bells, and yet, like the Spanish in his poem, "Cerro Gordo," he remains at heart a plain speaker:

"They call it like it is.
Not for them those fancy names:
Home-of-the-Gods or
A fat hill is called Fat Hill."

He also loves the world. Animals and peoples, deserts and seas, the bustling smells of towns, the sweetness and acidities of foods, the cometary gleams of the Oort Cloud: these are all, for him, variations of home, and he writes as if he belonged in all such places and with all such people.

His memories call for attention, as in "Aden, 1953":

"Steamer Point with its liners
like sleek racehorses, waiting for the off,
and Khormaksar's black volcanic sands
with its dromedaries, simply waiting."

Or in "Singapore," during its days of rainforests and kampongs on stilts:

"I passed girls with oranges on their breath.
Girls in cheongsams with twilight eyes.
Girls with midnight hair and morning smiles.
Girls who looked back
at a young man."

Yet he also knows that places and people change with time, often in ways that defy understanding. He accepts all of this with clear eyes and wry humour, as in "Bathsheba":

"If you were caught bathing,
seen from a rooftop
in this century, in this decade,
soaping your breasts
in the moonlight
(though innocent of eyes)
there would be dozens, nay
thousands of Davids --
and Johns and Toms and Seans --
you'd be on YouTube
before the morning sun
dried your dripping towel...."

Objects and materials fascinate him, and so do living forms. He can show you the difference between a bolt-action 0.303 Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk 2 rifle, and an AK47. He sees the "feral" beauty in Suffolk flint, the "willow-sprung" energy of hares, the "bladed shape" of a windhover that "shaves the sky." He can stand in the middle of the Southwold Sailor's Reading Room, "scarred and shabby... one part stillness, two parts time," and not only pick up the details around him, but perceive beyond them to a way of life:

"Days of fire and freezing rain,
nights when winds drove sharp and deep.
They brawled with squalls and screaming gales,
battled with unyielding seas,

What he offers, then, is a quiet, accepting book from a man at war neither with himself nor with life; a gentle book of observations and memories from someone lost in the world yet happy to be lost:

"Do not look for me:
I do not want to be found."