Friday, June 16, 2017

Hoarded Life And Beauty

More thoughts on Walter de la Mare, and on the difficulty of expressing how a story works....

In my slice of the world beyond the internet, I am surrounded by readers, but no one else in my life reads horror fiction. I often wonder if people find it foreign, inaccessible.

Both H. E. Bates and Seán Ó Faoláin have argued that modern short stories are closer in impact and scope to lyric poetry than to plays or novels. I concede their point, and I would call it even more true for horror stories, where causes are often unclear, where effects can be vivid but inexplicable, and where consequences are often left to implication.

Because of their kinship with poems, horror stories can be hard to describe, and their impact can be hard to understand. Why do they often work so powerfully? We might as well ask why a poem works. We can examine a poem's techniques, metaphors, and imagery, but by the time the sun has gone down, we are left in the dark with a piece of writing that cannot be paraphrased. The only way to grasp its effect is to read it from beginning to end.

One of the fascinations of Walter de la Mare's short fiction is that it relies even more than most on these elusive "poetic" qualities. Yes, the plots can be taken apart, the prose can be analyzed, but the lingering effect is more akin to the ripples of a dream. This makes it easy to enjoy, but hard to describe and even harder to recommend.

A case in point: again, "The Tree," from 1922.

I have read the story five times, now, and each reading has made it more disturbing. I believe I understand its meaning, or at least one of its meanings; these are for you to find on your own. But the power of the story goes beyond this rational awareness of what (in part) it seems to imply.

If a story like this cannot be paraphrased, then how can it be reviewed? One solution would be to describe the plot:

"A wealthy fruit merchant pays an angry visit to his half-brother, an artist whom he considers a lazy good-for-nothing parasite. But the merchant is uneasy about seeing, once again, the almost-alien tree that has become an obsession for the artist."

What would this tell you? Not much. Would it compel you to read the story? Most likely not, because it fails to give you any sense of how the story might actually feel as you read it.

But if I were to quote from it, at length?

...This old man, shrunken and hideous in his frame of abject poverty, his arms drawn close up to his fallen body, worked sedulously on and on. And behind and around him showed the fruit of his labours. Pinned to the scaling walls, propped on the ramshackle shelf above his fireless hearthstone, and even against the stale remnant of a loaf of bread on the cracked blue dish beside him, was a litter of pictures. And everywhere, lovely and marvellous in all its guises -- the tree. The tree in May’s showering loveliness, in summer’s quiet wonder, in autumn’s decline, in naked slumbering wintry grace. The colours glowed from the fine old rough paper like lamps and gems.

There were drawings of birds too, birds of dazzling plumage, of flowers and butterflies, their crimson and emerald, rose and saffron seemingly shimmering and astir; their every mealy and feathery and pollened boss and petal and plume on fire with hoarded life and beauty. And there a viper with its sinuous molten scales; and there a face and a shape looking out of its nothingness such as would awake even a dreamer in a dream....

And at that moment, as if an angry and helpless thought could make itself audible even above the hungry racketing of mice and the melancholic whistling of a paraffin lamp -- at that moment the corpse-like countenance, almost within finger-touch on the other side of the table, slowly raised itself from the labour of its regard, and appeared to be searching through the shutter’s cranny as if into the Fruit Merchant’s brain. The glance swept through him like an avalanche. No, no. But one instantaneous confrontation, and he had pushed himself back from the impious walls as softly as an immense sack of hay.

These were not eyes -- in that abominable countenance. Speck-pupilled, greenish-grey, unfocused, under their protuberant mat of eyebrow, they remained still as a salt and stagnant sea. And in their uplifted depths, stretching out into endless distances, the Fruit Merchant had seen regions of a country whence neither for love nor money he could ever harvest one fruit, one pip, one cankered bud. And blossoming there beside a glassy stream in the mid-distance of far-mountained sward -- a tree.

We can break a story into pieces, scan it with a microscope, and learn a lot about the craft of writing. What we cannot describe, what we can only experience in privacy, is the effect of a story as a whole, because, again, like a poem, a story can be impossible to paraphrase.

And so, for my part, I would rather avoid many details of plot; I would rather let people see a long and characteristic section of prose, because this, at least, would give people some idea of how reading the story might feel.

If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Limitation of Filming

A counter-argument to my previous post.

One limitation of imagery in film is that it can be comprehensible at first glance.

Of course, camera trickery like fade-ins or blurring can delay comprehension, as in the flashback sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West, or a deeply subjective viewpoint can be used to present initial confusion, as in the David Lynch adaptation of Dune, when Duke Leto, dying, mistakes another person for the Baron Harkonnen. But I suspect most audiences would recognize these tricks as unusual methods of presentation in a medium otherwise more suited to clarity -- even if that clarity shows unusual perspectives or juxtapositions, as in Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera.

In writing, by contrast, a subjective impression can be built clause by clause, and because narratives often rely on subjective points of view, the readers do not feel any need to reject the method as a contrivance.

My favourite example of this gradual build-up by subjective impressions can be found in a story by M. R. James, "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance":

"The main occupation of this evening at any rate was settled. The tracing of the plan for Lady Wardrop and the careful collation of it with the original meant a couple of hours’ work at least. Accordingly, soon after nine Humphreys had his materials put out in the library and began. It was a still, stuffy evening; windows had to stand open, and he had more than one grisly encounter with a bat. These unnerving episodes made him keep the tail of his eye on the window. Once or twice it was a question whether there was -- not a bat, but something more considerable -- that had a mind to join him. How unpleasant it would be if someone had slipped noiselessly over the sill and was crouching on the floor!

"The tracing of the plan was done: it remained to compare it with the original, and to see whether any paths had been wrongly closed or left open. With one finger on each paper, he traced out the course that must be followed from the entrance. There were one or two slight mistakes but here, near the centre, was a bad confusion, probably due to the entry of the Second or Third Bat. Before correcting the copy he followed out carefully the last turnings of the path on the original. These, at least, were right; they led without a hitch to the middle space. Here was a feature which need not be repeated on the copy -- an ugly black spot about the size of a shilling. Ink? No. It resembled a hole, but how should a hole be there? He stared at it with tired eyes: the work of tracing had been very laborious, and he was drowsy and oppressed.... But surely this was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that, down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it, utterly bewildered. Just as, when you were a child, you may have pored over a square inch of counterpane until it became a landscape with wooded hills, and perhaps even churches and houses, and you lost all thought of the true size of yourself and it, so this hole seemed to Humphreys for the moment the only thing in the world. For some reason it was hateful to him from the first, but he had gazed at it for some moments before any feeling of anxiety came upon him; and then it did come, stronger and stronger -- a horror lest something might emerge from it, and a really agonizing conviction that a terror was on its way, from the sight of which he would not be able to escape. Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards -- towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face -- a human face -- a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them."

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Limitation of Writing

In the film Storks, two characters who have spent the entire movie jousting verbally with each other find themselves in happier circumstances. One begins to joust again; the other says nothing, but merely nods -- a beautiful moment, beautifully subtle. The silent image by itself conveys a new emotion.

In Psycho, Norman Bates leans over to stare at the motel's guest ledger, and the unusual angle on his face, the chewing motions of his jaw, the deep shadows, turn him into something unrecognizably strange.

In Zootopia, Nick Wilde wears a shirt that matches the wallpaper of his childhood home; in his pocket, he carries his Ranger Scout kerchief. No one ever points out these hints of lingering sadness, but they become as obvious as old scars.

In a Tony Mitchell article from 1982, "Tarkovsy in Italy," the director talks about, "Examples of a form of thought and how this thought is expressed through film.... In Seven Samurai, in the sequence in which the youngest member of the group is afraid, we see how Kurosawa transmits this sense of fear. The boy is trembling in the grass, but we don't see him trembling, we see the grass and flowers trembling."

Films can reveal such details without comment, but in a story, they must be spelt out; they must be made obvious, which robs them of any magic we might feel in a chance encounter. An aching limitation.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

There Is No Time, There Is No Time

If Arrival were a heist film....

A master criminal, the Boss, wants to crack the safe in the Gorgonzola Bank. The film opens with a planning session.

THE BOSS: All right, you lugs, listen up. As you can see on this diagram, the safe is in a lead-walled room, surrounded by a moat, surrounded by an electric fence, surrounded by a pit of crocodiles, surrounded by laser cannons, surrounded by a troupe of deadly circus mimes.

LUG: Boss, we'll never get in there!

Suddenly, the Boss and his lugs are standing before the safe.

LUG: But Boss, how did we--?

THE BOSS: There is no time, I have to figure out this combination. There is no time, there is no time, there is no time --

LUG: Boss, what are you doing?

THE BOSS: I'm applying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to alter my perception. There is no time, there is no time, there is no time --

Suddenly, the Boss finds himself at a fancy party, in the presence of Lon Gorgonzola, the banker.

GORGONZOLA: Even after all these years, I'm still amazed that you could just walk in there, spin the combination, and get it right on your first try. 7-7-7-4, just like that. How did you guess?

The Boss is back with his lugs before the safe.

THE BOSS: 7-7-7-4. And walla! The safe is opened!

LUG: What?!? How?!?

THE BOSS: It's amazing what language can do for you.

LUG: That's ridiculous!

THE BOSS: I don't perceive it as ridiculous. I perceive it as big-budget science fiction.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

One Bad Sonnet

Please point out any badly-chosen word,
My lapses of technique, my tortured form.
You say you have a knowledge of the norm,
And yet, your silence is the broadside heard.
Your criticism, welcomed for a third
And most emphatic time, would not deform
The growth of my intention. If a storm
Is what you have to offer, then be stirred.

Clay might froth and slide beneath a spate,
But deeper seeds take root, and they survive.
Rolling warps the structure of the skelp,
But bending brings a needed change of state.
Your promises of old remain alive;
A critic who says nothing is no help.

Let's take this dead thing apart to see how it died.

Although it is, in formal terms, a legitimate Petrarchan sonnet, and although its octave does rely on trochees and enjambment to break up the sing-song patterns of iambic pentameter, the sestet does not; as a result, the language on the whole seems rigid, stillborn.

This dead feeling is reinforced by a lack of concrete verbs. "Froth and slide" is not bad, but none of the other verbs brings imagery or texture to mind. For this reason, the sonnet feels less like a poem than a series of abstract statements.

As you can see, I'm no critic, but even I can spell out the flaws in a chunk of bad verse. As you can also see, I welcome criticism. I thrive on it. The one thing I cannot handle is the silence of those who promised to take my work apart, and then said nothing.