Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Escape Does Not Work



From "Books," by Joanna Russ, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979:

It isn't the realists who find life dreadful. It's the romancers. After all, which group is trying to escape from life? Reality is horrible and wonderful, disappointing and ecstatic, beautiful and ugly. Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it. But painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide. Bravery, nobility, sublimity, and beauty that have no connection with the real world are simply fake, and once readers realize that escape does not work, the glamor fades, the sublime aristocrats turn silly, the profundities become simplifications, and one enters (if one is lucky) into the dreadful discipline of reality and art, like "The Penal Colony"....
There is no pleasure like finding out the realities of human life, in which joy and misery, effort and release, dread and happiness, walk hand-in-hand.

We had better enjoy it. It's what there is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First-Draft Invocation

Whatever guides the typing, be it Muse,
Or mute subconscious prompter with a sign,
Guide me, now. I swear by every bruise,
By every bump I gained from every pine
That I bashed into head-first in the blues
And greens of hazy dreaming at your news
Of hidden pathways, vague and serpentine,
That I will heed your whispers and your clues,
And (fingers crossed) avoid the asinine.

(And yes, that rhymed couplet in the middle is a deliberate first-draft "mistake." Bumps and bruises!)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Wind Chill Minus Thirty-Five

As Venus dogs the Sun into the dark,
The mercury goes down. Every breath
Becomes a puffing battle with a stark,
Inward-seeping augury of death.

But every season hides a poisoned pill,
Where any day could haul us to the brink.
And so I shrug, and linger in the chill,
Just long enough to watch a planet sink.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Resonance of Horror

More than most other types of fiction, horror depends for much of its impact on "resonance," on the subconscious connection we feel to the prose, the imagery, the setting, the circumstances of the plot. We can talk about craftsmanship, and for good reason. But when the sun goes down, some stories hit us, others pass by, in large part because they touch, or fail to touch, our nerves.

This can make the impact of certain stories difficult to analyse. Why do they work for us? What is it that reaches out and grabs our subconscious attention?

Recently, for example, I've been trying to understand why a brief, simple and (to be honest) minor story by Charles G. D. Roberts, "The Barn on the Marsh," compells me to read it so often.

I can see technical merit in the story: a clean, economical style, and a central event that is never explained to the reader, even though the narrator does everything he can to explain it to himself. But I can think of many good horror stories that have these merits, which do not compel re-reading. Something else is at work, here: something beyond technique.

How much of the impact depends on personal experience and memory?

"This road, on either hand, was bordered by a high rail fence, along which rose, here and there, the bleak spire of a ghostly and perishing Lombardy poplar. This is the tree of all least suited to those wind-beaten regions, but none other will the country people plant. Close up to the road, at one point, curved a massive sweep of red dike, and further to the right stretched the miles on miles of naked marsh, till they lost themselves in the lonely, shifting waters of the Basin."


When I was a child, I lived for a brief time in Ontario, and I saw many of these Lombardy poplars planted as windbreaks, row on row, beside country houses or barns. They seemed like green or yellow flames, fragile candles against the harsh weather: ghost-like, alien.


"One night, as I started homeward upon the verge of twelve, the marsh seemed all alive with flying gleams. The moon was past the full, white and high; the sky was thick with small black clouds, streaming dizzily across the moon's face, and a moist wind piped steadily in from the sea."


Again, this reminds me of my own life, much of it having been spent on long, isolated walks by moonlight.


Those who walk alone at night, far away from any house, will understand how easily the mind can be fooled by a glint of starlight, a swaying tree, a shifting thickness of clouds against the moon. This midnight uncertainty is what the story exploits, and quite well. But again, I have to wonder: why have I read this one minor story so often?


Questions like these trouble my stray thoughts, if only because they might underline some of the reasons why certain popular, critically-regarded stories do nothing for me. They might also explain why my own stories are unpopular -- and for that, I have no solution.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jacobean Strangeness



Nowadays, I write blank verse in my sleep.

The night before last, I dreamt that I and some strange person (whom I never saw, because I was too intent on the pages) were adapting a non-verse play into verse, with page after page after page of revision.

And just a few hours ago, I dreamt that I was poring through a stack of books, all of them paperback editions of The Duchess of Malfi. I came across one with an attractive cover (scrawly green and brown crayon work on a white background), and the Strange Person tried to convince me that I owned this edition in real life. I said, "No, I don't think so," but he or she or it kept placing the book in my hands.

Speaking of which, I think my obsession is getting out of hand.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fast Food Politics

My father was a quiet, socially-conservative but politically liberal American who became just a bit more quietly radical as the years went by, after we moved to Canada.

Late in his life, while visiting family in the States, he was told that he should take a look at a new fast food restaurant that used animatronic figures to entertain kids.

My father's profession and passion was usability testing to match computer systems to human needs, and so he took a look at this restaurant.

He was appalled.

Later, he said to me, "If that's the fate of computer technology under capitalism, then I'll be a communist."

Cursed in Return

"Damn your imprecations and your eyes!
They dare to squint at mine, as if the lights
Of simple virtue that confront you there,
Were more than you could muster.

"Damn your tongue,
Tear it from the root within your skull
That channels venom from your tapster's brain,
Your tavern stocked with poisons and with purges
Fit only to bring foulness to your lips.

"May all the rubied leeches of your brood,
Steeped in the septic fluids of their sire,
Blacken in the hot light, and corrode
Like metals in a mudstorm. Let them rot,
And sprout forth toadstools worthy of their wits,
Pale and rank with pustulence, as fine
And fit as any epitaph deserved
By such a tub of maggots.

"And for you,
In final recognition of your worth,
I pile this monument of honest words
Upon the reeking compost of your days --
That mildew-spotted calendar of clots,
The tainted trailings of your toxic pit."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Monsters of Elegance

I've been revisiting Jacobean drama -- John Webster, John Ford, The Revenger's Tragedy -- and all of this blank verse has coloured my thoughts.

Here's one result. Any criticism would be welcomed!


As dreamers in a Gatineau demesne
Await an autumn sunset, or the frost
That forms in crystal winding-sheets below
The ever-falling moon, they understand
That life's fragility is beautiful,
If only for the poignancy of time
And all things time has taken.

If our dooms
Can lead our thoughts to beauty, then the dreads
And non-existent symbols of our deaths
Can also bear the weight of beauty's charm.
Show me, then, in words or painted guise
The monsters that are beautiful, alive.

Show me fiends with beaks of beaten gold,
With feathers black as mica or the grave.
Line the hills with reptant forms that rise
To possibilities of light and sky.
Women, jeweled with serpent scale and glass,
With eyes of midnight intricacy, burn
At every glance. Let predatory grace
Gleam out from every stalking crouch and leap
Of white-furred nemesis or bodied fear.

Monsters in their elegance, as pure,
As lively as the dancers of the day,
Are heralds of deep happiness, inverted,
As in the mirror's depths, as in our dreams.
Make them beings of beauty, jewelry, silk,
Pendants for the light of idle minds;
Make them signposts on the trails of life
And delectations for the killer, Time.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Intentions Count For Nothing

Intentions count for nothing in the end;
Not even toil and sweat can navigate
A channel through the odds. You hesitate,
You poke the callus where your fingers bend,
And give up digging burdock now, to mend;
But as you heal, the blind clay shall instate
A thousand burrs and hooks to lacerate
The eyes of horses. Now you comprehend.

Intentions count for nothing, yet you wade
Uphill, as if the weeds could be constrained,
As if a sonnet mattered, or a tale.
And so you scoop tomorrow in a spade,
Where future burrs are cut off and contained,
As clear eyes of a horse enclose a vale.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Acephalous

Listen. This will matter in the end.

Stepwise from the hill, the gulley curved,
Serpentine, between the fields and trees.
One step brought it up against a fence;
Shattered sticks collected there like bones.
Water spread behind them in a marsh,
Walled in by the fortress of the spruce,
Cedared on the other slope. Concealed.

Winter afternoons pulled shadows out,
Lay them, blue, upon the snow to fade.
One spot near the bones collected light,
Sprayed it back in spectral powder hues.
Timed correctly, visiting revealed
Galaxies of colour on the snow.

Spring will take the snow and bring the flood.
Water drains away; then you can see,
Buried to the rim beside the creek,
Built with all the care of any house,
Coffin-like, a box of water: clean,
Clear down to the floor where day reveals
White sand smuggled from the mountainside,
Spread upon the clay by piercing rain.
Box of water? Box of sand? A door?

Step aside a pace or two: a tree,
Dead and naked, shorter than a man.
Wedged today between one bough and branch,
Open to the air: a tiny jar,
Grey with greasy foulness. Right above,
Hanging upside down with wings outspread
(Death could not remove its urge to glide),
Strung up by its feet, a heron.

Why
Have I told this tale without a key,
Kept you from catharsis? My regrets.
Be assured, these images from life
Beckon me to think about the past
Sealed up in my skull. When I am dead,
When my head is gone, my past will die.
Here: a glimpse, ephemeral, for you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

She Loved The Night And She Might Love It Still

The stain of evening spreads in shivered light
Outwards from the waning gibbous moon
To Jupiter and Regulus beyond.
Soon the night is tremulous with ice.

She loved the night, and she might love it still,
But she is far from Gatineau: the pines,
The cedar marshes cupped by aspen groves,
The granite fortress hills of ancient birth,
Are far away from her. And where am I?
Not here. Not shaking in my winter coat,
Not kicking at the powder. No.

I run
And I could howl, if howling meant "Alive,
But not right now." The stubbled, crusted fields,
Lined with limits by the leaning fences
But otherwise an infinite expanse
For any howling course below the moon,
Have called me in their silence. Far away.
The broken barns, forgotten toys in hills
Where every human structure falls apart
At the bursting of the frost, if given time,
Echo mindless howling. Far away.
The roads, now routes for culminating weeds,
For dead grey stalks of alien mullein,
For seedpods of milkweed, for Queen Anne's lace
Left over like medieval torture tools,
Are winding sheets for every pointless tread
That carries me to no place. Far away.

And where am I? Not here. Not now. Not I.
She loved the night, and she might love it still;
I wish the night could love her in return.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

This Heritage Of Ice And Autumn Glass

"I see more when I'm with you." So she said
One year before she left me. Ask it, now:
What can I give a woman, that might last?
Money? Social status? These are not mine.
No perks of property, no fame, no heights
To conquer for the public eye, no star
Potential or prerequisite achieved.
I never was a man the people saw;
Instead, I was a fool with staring eyes.

I could show you moonlight in the wind
When cold star crystals leap above the snow.
And even as the autumn leaves reflect
The lava flows of sunset, new leaves burn
Red as marsh lights, for a single noon
Before the green appears. The moon, you see,
That egg within a shattered nest of mist?
The heron striding on its own reflection?
The raisin-scented torches of the sumac
That draw the chickadees in hornet crowds?

This heritage of ice and autumn glass
Is all I have to offer. If you see
These minor joys already as you pass,
Then you will find no further use for me.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Hoarded Life And Beauty

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? One might as well ask why a poem works. We can study their techniques, their metaphors, their imagery, and gain insight into the craft of writing; but by the time the sun has gone down, what we have is a story 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: "The Tree," from 1922.

I have read the story four 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!


Blockes For Their Pillowes

F. L. Lucas on the technique of John Webster.

Really dead metaphors, like really dead nettles, cannot sting; but often the metaphors are only half dead; and these need careful handling. It may, of course, be argued that some mixed metaphors bother none but readers with too vivid imaginations. Yet I doubt if readers can have too vivid imaginations. At all events you will find, I think, that you lose esteem with many readers if they come to feel that you have a less vivid imagination than they have themselves. A main purpose of imagery is to make a style more concrete and definite; and it is interesting to note how much that imagery itself may gain by being made still more concrete and still more definite, as when Webster borrows images from Sidney or Montaigne.

She was like them that could not sleepe, when they were softly layd. -- Sidney, Arcadia.

You are like some, cannot sleepe in feather-beds, But must have blockes for their pillowes. -- Duchess of Malfi.

See whether any cage can please a bird. Or whether a dogge grow not fiercer with tying. -- Sidney, Arcadia.

Like English Mastiffes, that grow fierce with tying.
-- Duchess of Malfi.

The opinion of wisedome is the plague of man. -- Montaigne.

Oh Sir, the opinion of wisedome is a foule tettor, that runs all over a mans body. -- Duchess of Malfi.

Never, it seems to me, was theft better justified -- the plagiarist here is far more praiseworthy than his victims; simply because in each case the picture becomes much more precisely visualized. ‘A dogge’ is vague beside ‘English Mastiffes’; a ‘plague’ is feeble compared to ‘a foule tettor’. Here, as with other kinds of clarity, preferences may indeed differ according to taste and temperament; there are doubtless times when, here too, writing gains by half-lights, mists, and shadows; but I own that I love particularly in prose, keen vision; sharp focus; and clearest air.
From
Style, by F. L. Lucas.
Cassell, London, 1955.
Harriman House Ltd, 2012.