Monday, December 11, 2017

Gorged Upon Books and Glad to be Full

The one drawback of reading self-critically is that I've now trained myself to read everyone else with the same forensic stare; as a result, I rarely find the same pleasure in stories, essays, poems, and plays that I once did. The issue is not always competence; there are times when a writer is not bad at all, but not for me. At other times, a writer does apparently fail to revise with full attention, and I stumble over the speed-bump clauses.

When I do find work that resonates with me, that offers passion and skill that I can appreciate, then I feel as if I were nine years old again, gorged upon books and glad to be full. For all of the critical comments I've posted here, I hope that I've also offered a sense of my joy in reading, because the joy is real, and it keeps me alive.

Precision For the Sake of Reality --

-- Reality for the sake of fantasy.

"Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real -- whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantastic because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic. Graham Greene has said that he can't write, 'I stood over a bottomless pit,' because that couldn't be true, or 'Running down the stairs I jumped into a taxi,' because that couldn't be true either. But Elizabeth Bowen can write about one of her characters that 'she snatched at her hair as if she heard something in it,' because that is eminently possible."

-- From "Writing Short Stories," in Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O'Connor.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1969.

Standard American Garrulous

My guilty confession, my stammering admission of jackassery: I can't read Carson McCullers.

She writes a simplified Standard American Garrulous without kick or wit, in pages that spell out everything in detail while eschewing the sensory input that would make such a flat prose excusable.

I can read the brittle sermons of Flannery O'Connor, the crazed ravings of Eudora Welty, and even the garden-gone-to-seed Gothic of Truman Capote (who can write surprisingly well when he veers away from passages of Lyricke Poesie), but I recall nothing about Reflections In A Golden Eye beyond my own boredom, and I've just now tossed aside "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" with a sense of shameful relief.

I'm sorry, but I just can't find a doorway into her style.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Rigid Calm



M. John Harrison's "The New Rays" became the first story in the first issue of Interzone, and a central part of my favourite collection from the 1980s, The Ice Monkey.

Reading the story again to understand its methods, I found nothing more (and nothing less) than a steadily-built mosaic of impressions, none of which is given more weight than another. The loss of a clock on a train trip, the appearance of silverfish in a hotel bathroom, a sky the colour of zinc, the boneless blue forms that haunt a cancer-treatment hospital, are observed, and noted, and passed by.

This refusal to prioritize impressions gives the reader a sense of rigid calm in the face of illness and looming death. It also reveals more about the psychology of the narrator, a woman treated less like a patient with dignity and human feelings than like a momentarily useful laboratory animal, than it reveals about the supernatural beings that fumble and drift in the background.

A method like this can only work if the viewpoint character is depressed, detached, or battered by life to the point where the needs of psychological survival outweigh our common human tendency to filter perceptions, to enjoy or dismiss the details that crowd around us every day. In this case, the flat acceptance of everything that happens makes the story stand out all the more like a nightmare.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Nothing Creaks, Nothing Reeks of Dust

Reading E. R. Eddison and R. Murray Gilchrist along with Thomas Browne has forced me to think about the readability of prose, and about the effect of archaic styles in modern prose. I now believe that elaborate syntax and old-fashioned vocabularies can enhance readability, as long as the prose has been constructed with skill, self-discipline, rhythmical variety, visual or physical details to reduce abstraction, and (in certain cases) generous heapings of wit.

To clarify these points, I would ask you to read this passage from the revised version of "The Beast of Averoigne," by Clark Ashton Smith, published in 1933.

"As all men know, the advent of the Beast was coeval with the coming of that red comet which rose behind the Dragon in the early summer of 1369. Like Satan's rutilant hair, trailing on the wind of Gehenna as he hastens worldward, the comet streamed nightly above Averoigne, bringing the fear of bale and pestilence in its train. And soon the rumor of a strange evil, a foulness unheard of in any legend, passed among the people.

"To Brother Gerome of the Benedictine Abbey of Perigon it was given to behold this evil ere the horror thereof became manifest to others. Returning late to the monastery from an errand in Ste. Zenobie, Gerome was overtaken by darkness. No moon arose to lantern his way through the forest; but, between the gnarled boughs of antic oaks, he saw the vengefully streaming fire of the comet, which seemed to pursue him as he went. And Gerome felt an eery fear of the pit-deep shadows, and he made haste toward the abbey postern.

"Passing among the ancient trees that towered thickly behind Perigon, he thought that he discerned a light from the windows, and was much cheered thereby. But, going on, he saw that the light was near at hand, beneath a lowering bough. It moved as with the flitting of a fen-fire, and was of changeable color, being pale as a corposant, or ruddy as new-spilled blood, or green as the poisonous distillation that surrounds the moon.

"Then, with terror ineffable, Gerome beheld the thing to which the light clung like a hellish nimbus, moving as it moved, and revealing dimly the black abomination of head and limbs that were not those of any creature wrought by God. The horror stood erect, rising to more than the height of a tall man; and it swayed like a great serpent, and its members undulated, bending like heated wax. The flat black head was thrust forward on a snakish neck. The eyes, small and lidless, glowing like coals from a wizard's brazier, were set low and near together in a noseless face above the serrate gleaming of such teeth as might belong to a giant bat.

"This much, and no more, Gerome saw, ere the thing went past him with its nimbus flaring from venomous green to a wrathful red. Of its actual shape, and the number of its limbs, he could form no just notion. Running and slithering rapidly, it disappeared among the antique oaks, and he saw the hellish light no more."

Smith often wrote of places far away in time, in stories that called for a style beyond the everyday language of our experience. Here we have medieval France, and adjectives that might seem unusual to modern readers, but notice, too, the strength of the verbs, the visual and physical details of the setting, the varied structure and length of the sentences. As archaic as many of the terms might seem, the other words compensate by making the place and the actions vivid.

Now consider this passage from Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969):

"Cyprus was another world.

"The city of Paphos might have been designed and built by a Grecian architect dreamy with the drugs called talaquin or mandragora: in marble yellow as unmixed cream, marble pink as sweetmeats, marble the green of pistuquim nuts, veined marble and grained marble, honey-colored and rose-red, the buildings climbed along the hills and frothed among the hollows. Tier after tier of overtall pillars, capitals of a profusion of carvings to make Corinthian seem ascetic, pediments lush with bas-reliefs, four-fold arches at every corner and crossing, statues so huge that they loomed over the housetops, statues so small that whole troops of them flocked and frolicked under every building's eaves, groves and gardens everywhere, fountains playing, water spouting....

"Paphos."

Once again, we have terms that might seem unfamiliar to modern readers, but we also have a disciplined use of alliteration (dreamy with the drugs), parallel clauses (marble yellow, marble pink, marble green), assonance (veined marble and grained marble) and contrasting visible details to make the description vivid (statues that loom, statues that flock and frolic). The passage is both exuberant and controlled; it says what it needs to say, then stops.

Finally, a paragraph by Murray Gilchrist, from "Dame Inowslad" (1894).

"The would-be musician turned and showed me a long painful face with glistening eyes and a brow ridged upward like a ruined stair. It was a face of intense eagerness: the eagerness of a man experimenting and praying for a result whereon his life depends. Without any prelude he played a dance of ghosts in an old ball-room: ghosts of men and women that moved in lavoltas and sarabands; ghosts that laughed at Susanna in the tapestry; ghosts that loved and hated. When the last chord had sent them crowding to their graves he turned and listened for a footstep. None came. He lifted a leather case from the side of the stool and, unfastening its clasps, took out a necklace which glistened in the candlelight like a fairy shower of rain and snow. 'Twas of table diamonds and margarites, the gems as big as filberts. He spread it across the wires, and after an instant’s reflection began to play. The carcanet rattled and jangled as he went: it was as an advancing host of cymbal-women. When he listened again, great tears oozed from his eyes. He took up the jewel and played a melody vapid at first, but so subtle in its repetitions that none might doubt its meaning: thus and not otherwise would sound a lyke-wake sung in a worn voice after a night of singing. And whilst he played, the door opened silently, and I saw Dinah, there in her nightgown, holding the posts with her hands. She took one swift glance, then disappeared again in the darkness, and came back carrying in her arms a bundle swathed in pure linen and strongly redolent of aromatic herbs. Holding this to her breast, she approached the man. Her shadow fell across the keys, and he lifted his head. From both came a long murmur: his of love and joy and protection, hers of agony. He rose and would have clasped her, but she drew back and placed her burden in his outstretched hands."

Notice here, as in the previous passages, qualities hard to define but easy to feel: energy and flow. For all of their adjectives, for all of their elaborate syntax, these passages move with an economy and clarity that, for me, transcends any sense of old-fashioned style. Nothing creaks, here; nothing reeks of dust. What I find, instead, is a liveliness that keeps me alert and happy.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tumblings of a Knockabout

Let the Jacobean out!
Let the clauses leap or dance
Within a gyre of craft or chance.
Let the motion sweep through doubt
As culminating fervours rout
Our lethargies. Like army ants,
Like thoughts that yearn for life's romance,
Like tumblings of a knockabout,
Let the Jacobean out!

[Saturday, October 21, 2017]

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Smooth Mask

Because I've been critical of Robert E. Howard, I should also point out a story in which he handled his methods well. Here, for example, in a most economical way, he states a theme to foreshadow events:

"He was king of Valusia -- a fading, degenerate Valusia, a Valusia living mostly in dreams of bygone glory, but still a mighty land and the greatest of the Seven Empires. Valusia -- Land of Dreams, the tribesmen named it, and sometimes it seemed to Kull that he moved in a dream. Strange to him were the intrigues of court and palace, army and people. All was like a masquerade, where men and women hid their real thoughts with a smooth mask [...] And now a strange feeling of dim unrest, of unreality, stole over him as of late it had been doing. Who was he, a straightforward man of the seas and the mountain, to rule a race strangely and terribly wise with the mysticisms of antiquity? An ancient race --

"'I am Kull!' said he, flinging back his head as a lion flings back his mane. 'I am Kull!'

"His falcon gaze swept the ancient hall. His self-confidence flowed back…. And in a dim nook of the hall a tapestry moved -- slightly."

-- "The Shadow Kingdom."

I would have cut back on "strange" and "strangely," but still, I have to respect what he does, here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Un-proofed Thing

To my surprise, I've been asked to spell out the technical flaws in Robert E. Howard's "The Hoofed Thing," a story that reads as if it were an early draft. Howard would have most likely corrected these flaws in revision.

1) Failure to set up establishing details to make a narrative credible.

At first, not much is revealed about the protagonist, Michael Strang, but as the story develops, he pulls, out of nowhere, exactly the tools and skills that he needs to solve a supernatural mystery.

We are told, early on, that he has been "deeply interested in the anthropological researches of Professor Hendryk Brooler," which says nothing. For all we know, Strang might be an expert on matrilocal kinship in Siberia. Later in the story, after a series of strange events:

"With a bewildered shake of my head, I dismissed the matter from my mind and, picking up a book, settled myself to read. The volume, selected at random, was not one calculated to rid my mind of haunting shadows. It was the extremely rare Dusseldorf edition of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, called the Black Book, not because of its iron-clasped leather bindings, but because of its dark contents. Opening the volume at random, I began idly to read the chapter on the summoning of daemons out of the Void. More than ever I sensed a deep and sinister wisdom behind the author’s incredible assertions as I read of the unseen worlds of unholy dimensions which Von Junzt maintains press, horrific and dimly guessed, on our universe, and of the blasphemous inhabitants of those Outer Worlds, which he maintains at times burst terribly through the Veil at the bidding of evil sorcerers, to blast the brains and feast on the blood of men."

Nameless Cults, a book so extremely rare that Strang just happens to find a copy in his living room, just happens to solve the mystery.

Most writers would have prepared for a moment like this with substantiating details, by making Strang a collector of extremely rare books, an historian, a student of the occult, or anything that might justify his having such a book at hand. Here, it shows up from out of the blue.

Also from out of the blue:

"My gaze fell upon a great broadsword hanging on the wall. The weapon had been in the family for eight centuries and had let blood on many a battlefield since it first hung at the girdle of a Crusading ancestor."

Again, this could have been justified, if Strang had been a collector of swords, an expert on the Crusades, a man with a weapons fetish. Instead, what we have is an all-too convenient solution pulled out of a hat.

2) Failures of tone and voice.

Until three quarters of the way through the story, Strang appears to be an ordinary modern man, who speaks in the language of his day with an occasional use of slang ("petting party").

"Good morning, Mr. Stark, sorry to have troubled you. I’m Michael Strang. I live in the last house on the other side of the street. I just dropped in to learn if you’d seen anything of a big Maltese cat recently. [...] It’s my fiance’s cat, though, and she’s broken-hearted over losing it. As you’re her closest neighbor on this side, I thought there was a bare chance that you might have seen the animal."

Later in the story, he suddenly turns into Strang the Barbarian:

"A black fury gripped me, bringing with it the craft that extreme passion often brings. I was going into that dark house, and I was going to hew John Stark’s head from his body with the blade that in old times had severed the necks of Saracens and pirates and traitors....

"'This I do know -- that demoniac lust is no stronger than human hate, and that I will match this blade, which in old days slew witches and warlocks and vampires and werewolves, against the foul legions of Hell itself'....

"'Did not Stark say something about the thing breaking out of its prison?'....

"Now as I stood frozen, and out of that shambles the ghastly fiend came lumbering toward me, my fear was swept away by a red blaze of berserker fury. Swinging up my sword I leaped to meet the horror and the whistling blade sheared off half its tentacles which fell to the floor....

"She lay at my feet in a dead faint, and Bozo [the dog] stood faithfully over her. Aye, I doubt not, if I had lost that grim battle, he would have given up his life to save his mistress when the monster came lurching down the stairs."

Aye, indeed.

3) Poorly visualized action.

Strang, in his berserker fury, attacks the monster:

"With an abhorrent high-pitched squeal, the monster bounded high above my head and stamped terribly downward. The impact of those frightful hoofs shattered my upflung arm like matchwood [...] And with my one good hand I gripped the sword that a saint had blessed in old times against the powers of darkness, and the red wave of battle-lust surged over me.

"The monster wheeled unwieldily toward me, and roaring a wordless warcry I leaped, whirling the great sword through the air with every ounce of my powerful frame behind it."

After more unwieldy wheeling, Strang rescues his fiancée:

"At the foot of the stairs I stumbled over a soft heap [...] With a sob of horror I caught up the girl, crushing her limp form to me....

"I ran from that house as I would flee from Hell, but I halted in the old store-room long enough to sweep a hasty hand over the table where I had found the candles. Several burnt matches littered the table, but I found one unstruck. And I struck it hurriedly and tossed it blazing into a heap of dusty papers near the wall."

He does this while carrying a woman and a sword in his one good hand.

(Eventually, the pain of that arm "shattered like matchwood" will have to reach his brain. That's going to hurt!)

4) A ridiculously long-winded monologue for the sake of exposition.

The most jaw-droppingly bizarre technique in the story appears when Strang finds his fiancée chained up in a monster-haunted house, where silence and a speedy escape are the first priorities. But instead of getting the hell out of there, his fiancée reveals every background detail of the plot, while quoting the villain in full (right down to his multiple adjectives).

"I'll tell you quickly -- then we must run!"

This "telling quickly" requires twelve paragraphs:

"'You do not understand. I see in your eyes that you do not understand. But I will try to make you understand. Men think I am deeply cultured; little do they guess how deep my knowledge is. I have gone further than any man in the arts and sciences. They were toys for paltry brains, I found. I went deeper. I experimented with the occult as some men experiment with science. I found that by certain grim and ancient arts a wise man could tear aside the Veil between the universes and bring unholy shapes into this terrestrial plane. I set to work to prove this thing. You might ask me, why? Why does any scientist make experiments? The proving of the theory is reason enough–the acquiring of knowledge is the end that justifies the means. Your brain would wither and crumble away were I to describe to you the incantations and spells and strange propitiations with which I drew a mewling, squalling, naked thing out of the Void.

"'It was not easy. For months I toiled and studied, delving deep into the ungodly lores of blasphemous books and musty manuscripts. Groping in the blind dark Outer chasms into which I had projected my bodiless will, I first felt the existence and presence of unhallowed beings, and I worked to establish contact with them–to draw one, at least, into this material universe. For long I could only feel it touching the dark borderlands of my own consciousness. Then with grim sacrifices and ancient rituals, I drew it across the gulfs. First it was but a vast anthropomorphic shadow cast upon a wall. I saw its progression from nothingness into the mold and being of this material sphere. I saw when its eyes burned in the shadow, and when the atoms of its nonterrestrial substance swirled and changed and clarified and shrank, and in shrinking, crystallized and became matter as we know it.

"'And there on the floor before me lay the mewling, squalling, naked thing from out the Abyss, and when I saw its nature, even I blenched and my resolution almost failed me.'"

On and on and on, while the monster stomps overhead. She must have taken notes in shorthand.

5) Why harp on this? Why?!?

The only reason to examine a work this poorly crafted is to see how technique can fall apart, and to train ourselves to recognize similar failures of craft that might infest our own work. Lapses in technique do not always glare like neon, as they do here; they can be subtle and concealed. We can find them and resolve them, if we learn to recognize the old stench that bubbles up from hasty writing and lack of attention.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Horror Fiction, Lyric Poetry, and Short Stories






Joanna Russ on horror fiction:

"Perhaps the very nature of fiction militates against the use of horror-story material as narrative fiction. Although the horror-story image feels true (at least at the time one feels like that), it's not the whole truth of anybody's situation and so a moment's reflection will qualify the impact of the image. To my mind, even the best examples of pure horror story (like Poe's) are badly weakened by the necessity of keeping the reader from that moment of reflection. Avoiding thought is not a good recipe for art. I suspect that the most aesthetically successful examples of the genre move toward tragedy or social protest or something besides horror-story per se. Probably the ideal place for the raw, undiluted experience-treated-as-the-whole-truth is in lyric poetry, which is not under an obligation to add to the question What does it feel like? the further question Yes, but what is it, really?

[...]

"One very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and the alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest. Orwell to the contrary, there really is a certain subversive force to statements like Big Brother is ungood. Of course if people stay at this level without analysis and without remedies, nothing happens except a constant desire for repetition of the original, elementary validation. That is, you have addiction, a phenomenon well exemplified by the Lovecraft fans, who seem to constitute a perpetual audience for more HPL, more posthumous collaborations with HPL, more biographies of HPL, more imitation HPL, and so on."

-- From
"On the Fascination of Horror Stories," in
To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, by Joanna Russ.
Indiana University Press, 1995.
To her comments, I'd like to add my own perspective:

As H. E. Bates and Seán Ó Faoláin have pointed out, short stories often bear a stronger resemblance to lyric poetry than to any other literary form. In my view, this makes short stories ideally suitable for horror that focuses on "raw, undiluted experience-treated-as-the-whole-truth." (William Sansom, for one, offers pure examples of this.)

Also, it is precisely because horror is not a genre that it can easily encompass tragedy, or social comment, or any other narrative element that writers bring to it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Disciplined Decadence

What fascinates me in the prose of Robert Murray Gilchrist is a quality that I can also find in Clark Ashton Smith and in Ronald Firbank, but rarely elsewhere: disciplined decadence.

The writing has none of the crazed fireworks and cake frosting that we find in M. P. Shiel, none of the languor that weighs down Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde (but only sometimes in the case of Wilde, who could write with a lean style when he chose to).

It has a lightness, a bounce:

"The striking of a tall clock near the hearth awakened me: I had slept till midnight. The candles had been removed from the table to the piano; those in the girandole had guttered out or been extinguished. A young man sat at the piano on the embroidered stool. His back was towards me; I saw nothing but high, narrow shoulders and a dome-shaped head of dishevelled black-hair plentifully besprinkled with grey. From the road outside came a noise of horses whinnying and plunging. I looked out, and there was a lumbering coach drawn by four stallions which, black in daylight, shone now like burnished steel.

"The would-be musician turned and showed me a long painful face with glistening eyes and a brow ridged upward like a ruined stair. It was a face of intense eagerness: the eagerness of a man experimenting and praying for a result whereon his life depends. Without any prelude he played a dance of ghosts in an old ball-room: ghosts of men and women that moved in lavoltas and sarabands; ghosts that laughed at Susanna in the tapestry; ghosts that loved and hated. When the last chord had sent them crowding to their graves he turned and listened for a footstep. None came. He lifted a leather case from the side of the stool and, unfastening its clasps, took out a necklace which glistened in the candlelight like a fairy shower of rain and snow. 'Twas of table diamonds and margarites, the gems as big as filberts. He spread it across the wires, and after an instant’s reflection began to play. The carcanet rattled and jangled as he went: it was as an advancing host of cymbal-women. When he listened again, great tears oozed from his eyes. He took up the jewel and played a melody vapid at first, but so subtle in its repetitions that none might doubt its meaning: thus and not otherwise would sound a lyke-wake sung in a worn voice after a night of singing. And whilst he played, the door opened silently, and I saw Dinah, there in her nightgown, holding the posts with her hands. She took one swift glance, then disappeared again in the darkness, and came back carrying in her arms a bundle swathed in pure linen and strongly redolent of aromatic herbs. Holding this to her breast, she approached the man. Her shadow fell across the keys, and he lifted his head. From both came a long murmur: his of love and joy and protection, hers of agony. He rose and would have clasped her, but she drew back and placed her burden in his outstretched hands."

-- "Dame Inowslad."

Like Clark Ashton Smith, Gilchrist relies on visual details and descriptions that move:

"By now, at the end of a sloping alley, we had reached the shores of a vast marsh. Some unknown quality in the sparkling water had stained its whole bed a bright yellow. Green leaves, of such a sour brightness as almost poisoned to behold, floated on the surface of the rush-girdled pools. Weeds like tempting veils of mossy velvet grew beneath in vivid contrast with the soil. Alders and willows hung over the margin. From where we stood a half-submerged path of rough stones, threaded by deep swift channels, crossed to the very centre. Marina put her foot upon the first step. ‘I must go first,’ she said. ‘Only once before have I gone this way, yet I know its pitfalls better than any living creature.’

"Before I could hinder her she was leaping from stone to stone like a hunted animal. I followed hastily, seeking, but vainly, to lessen the space between us. She was gasping for breath, and her heart-beats sounded like the ticking of a clock. When we reached a great pool, itself almost a lake, that was covered with lavender scum, the path turned abruptly to the right, where stood an isolated grove of wasted elms. As Marina beheld this, her pace slackened, and she paused in momentary indecision; but, at my first word of pleading that she should go no further, she went on, dragging her silken mud-bespattered skirts. We climbed the slippery shores of the island (for island it was, being raised much above the level of the marsh), and Marina led the way over lush grass to an open glade. A great marble tank lay there, supported on two thick pillars. Decayed boughs rested on the crust of stagnancy within, and divers frogs, bloated and almost blue, rolled off at our approach. To the left stood the columns of a temple, a round, domed building, with a closed door of bronze. Wild vines had grown athwart the portal; rank, clinging herbs had sprung from the overteeming soil; astrological figures were enchiselled on the broad stairs.

"Here Marina stopped."

-- "The Basilisk."

As you can see, there is a terseness here that allows Gilchrist to keep his work in motion. This economy gives his terminal paragraphs a punch: without warning, like doors in a windstorm, they slam shut and leave us out in the cold.

Monday, October 23, 2017

My Favourite Horror Stories -- A Few, At Any Rate

I always hesitate to post a list of my favourite horror stories because I tend to overlook too many. At three o'clock in the morning, I will most likely slap myself on the forehead and think, "How the hell could I have missed that one?" Yet all the same, here it is.

Please note that "favourite" does not necessarily imply "best." "Seaton's Aunt" is a much more important story than "The Three Friends"; "The Spook House" and "A Vine on a House" are minor when compared to "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge," but I have reasons of my own for loving these lesser stories. In a similar way, Robert Aickman's work is vastly more important to the field than anything by Charles G. D. Roberts, and yet something about "The Barn in the Marsh" appeals to me. Quite often, too, I can learn more about technique from a certain kind of story than from ones that other people might consider important.

For the sake of simplicity, I've left out novellas, along with stories about fantasy worlds -- otherwise, I'd end up with a sky-high list of titles by Clark Ashton Smith and C. L. Moore. I've also left out stories that might be considered purely fantasy (like E. T. A. Hoffmann's wonderful "Der goldne Topf", or Ludwig Tieck's disturbing "Der blonde Eckbert"), and stories more dreamlike than eerie, like those by Bruno Schulz, or Marcel Brion's "Les Escales de la haute nuit." As much as I love them, I have to draw the line somewhere.

I've also limited myself to stories in languages that I can read (or could read; I haven't studied German in decades). As much as I love stories by Bruno Schulz, I'm painfully aware that I'm not reading Schulz, but a translation.

The Blind Owl

(The Blind Owl is a difficult book to describe after only one reading, and Sadegh Hedayat's reputation would make such an idea seem foolish, but I've never been noted for wisdom.)

I had long considered J. G. Ballard's Crash the most obsessive book I've read, but The Blind Owl sinks even further down its own spiral. Like a gallery of mirrors in an echo chamber, the story presents the same phrases and fears and tableaux in a loop, yet offers each repetition as if it were an unexpected, unprecedented encounter. By referring back endlessly to the same places, actions, and hand gestures, it conveys the sense of one person stuck in his own head without escape. And this person is very much alone: everyone else in the story could almost be, and might very well be, a reflection or projection of his own diseased mind.

Unlike Crash, a relentlessly physical book, The Blind Owl prefers the metaphysical, with long passages of introspection detached from the wind or the rain or the sunlight:

"Idle thoughts! Perhaps. Yet they torment me more savagely than any reality could do. Do not the rest of mankind who look like me, who appear to have the same needs and the same passions as I, exist only in order to cheat me? Are they not a mere handful of shadows which have come into existence only that they may mock and cheat me? Is not everything that I feel, see and think something entirely imaginary, something utterly different from reality?"

Every now and then, the book rises from the fog of generalities to point at specific details, and I latched onto these moments with gratitude:

"Lying in this damp, sweaty bed, as my eyelids grew heavy and I longed to surrender myself to nonbeing and everlasting night, I felt that my lost memories and forgotten fears were all coming to life again: fear lest the feathers in my pillow should turn into dagger blades or the buttons on my coat expand to the size of millstones; fear lest the bread-crumbs that fell to the floor should shatter into fragments like pieces of glass; apprehension lest the oil in the lamp should spill during my sleep and set fire to the whole city; anxiety lest the paws of the dog outside the butcher’s shop should ring like horses’ hoofs as they struck the ground; dread lest the old odds-and-ends man sitting behind his wares should burst into laughter and be unable to stop; fear lest the worms in the footbath by the tank in our courtyard should turn into Indian serpents; fear lest my bedclothes should turn into a hinged gravestone above me and the marble teeth should lock, preventing me from ever escaping; panic fear lest I should suddenly lose the faculty of speech and, however much I might try to call out, nobody should ever come to my aid...."

But then the book retreats again to its metaphysical corner:

"What life I had I have allowed to slip away -- I permitted it, I even wanted it, to go -- and after I have gone what do I care what happens? It is all the same to me whether anyone reads the scraps of paper I leave behind or whether they remain unread forever and a day. The only thing that makes me write is the need, the overmastering need, at this moment more urgent than ever it was in the past, to create a channel between my thoughts and my unsubstantial self, my shadow, that sinister shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the light of the oil lamp in the attitude of one studying attentively and devouring each word I write. This shadow surely understands better than I do. It is only to him that I can talk properly. It is he who compels me to talk. Only he is capable of knowing me. He surely understands.... It is my wish, when I have poured the juice -- rather, the bitter wine -- of my life down the parched throat of my shadow, to say to him, 'This is my life'."

For me, a story like this one thrives or dies on the quality of its prose. In its original Persian, The Blind Owl might be a masterpiece, but in D. P. Costello's translation, reading the book feels like tracing a finger through dust. Drifting and twisting in sunbeams, dust can fascinate, but here, the dust lies as heavy as the earth on a coffin.

For those who ponder dusty coffins, this book might gleam like a cemetery star. For me, it reveals the power and the weakness of repetition. For you, who knows? You have only one way to find out.


-- Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl, translated by D. P. Costello.
John Calder, London, 1957.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Podolo....



"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



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
Mountain-of-Greatness.
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,
drowned."

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."

Friday, September 29, 2017

Borrowed Light

Foaming gall. High disdain. Borrowed light.

When handled with imagination or precision or a touch of the unexpected, adjectives can lose their sting.


MYCETES:
Then hear thy charge, valiant Theridamas,
The chiefest captain of Mycetes' host,
The hope of Persia, and the very legs
Whereon our state doth lean as on a staff,
That holds us up and foils our neighbour foes:
Thou shalt be leader of this thousand horse,
Whose foaming gall with rage and high disdain
Have sworn the death of wicked Tamburlaine.
Go frowning forth; but come thou smiling home,
As did Sir Paris with the Grecian dame:
Return with speed; time passeth swift away;
Our life is frail, and we may die to-day.
THERIDAMAS:
Before the moon renew her borrow'd light,
Doubt not, my lord and gracious sovereign,
But Tamburlaine and that Tartarian rout
Shall either perish by our warlike hands,
Or plead for mercy at your highness' feet.

MYCETES:
Go, stout Theridamas; thy words are swords,
And with thy looks thou conquerest all thy foes.
I long to see thee back return from thence,
That I may view these milk-white steeds of mine
All loaden with the heads of killèd men,
And from their knees e'en to their hoofs below,
Besmear'd with blood that makes a dainty show.

-- Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part the First.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Papillons noirs

How to translate badly, lesson one: Make the translation rhyme.

I've begun to think that any real aesthetic appreciation of a translated poem would have to be found by reading the original, and that all I can do is to give a rough, incomplete idea of what the poem says -- necessarily incomplete, because poems depend more on the skilled use of language than on meaning as we think of it when we talk about other forms of communication. If I were to impose a rhyme scheme, I would cloud this already vague idea.

With all of this in mind, here is my rough translation of another poem by Albert Giraud, from Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels Bergamasques (Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1884).

PAPILLONS NOIRS.

De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire,
Et l'horizon semble un grimoire
Barbouillé d'encre tous les soirs.

Il sort d'occultes encensoirs
Un parfum troublant la mémoire:
De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire.

Des monstres aux gluants suçoirs
Recherchent du sang pour le boire,
Et du ciel, en poussière noire,
Descendent sur nos désespoirs
De sinistres papillons noirs.

- - - - - - - - - -

Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun,
And the horizon resembles a grimoire
Smeared with ink every night.

There issues from occult censers
A perfume troubling to the memory:
Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun.

Monsters with sticky proboscides
Hunt for blood to drink,
And from the sky, in black dust,
Upon our despairs descend
Sinister black butterflies.

How could this go wrong? Easily!

Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies;
Like some grimoire, the horizon lies
Daubed with ink at midnight's rise.

From censers used for auguries,
Fumes coil to pierce forgotten sighs:
Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies.

Slimey beast proboscides
Hunt for blood-atrocities,
While from the clouds like blackened sties
Descend on every dream that dies
Sinister black butterflies.

Perhaps, like a physician, a translator should first do no harm....

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Reviewer's Duty to Damn

John Ciardi, on principles for reviewers at The Saturday Review.


1. The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it give it to him anyhow.
2. No one who offers a book for sale is sacrosanct. By the act of publication and promotion, the citizen-human being forfeits his privileges as a non-competitor. Having willingly subjected himself to judgment he must accept either blame or praise as it follows. If in doubt, assume that the book is signed by Anonymous.

3. Evaluation must be by stated principle. The reviewer's opinion is only as good as his methods.

4. A review without reference to the text is worthless.

5. Quotation without analysis of the material quoted is suspect.

6. If you cannot document a charge, pro or con, do not make it.

7. Poetry is more important than any one poet. Serve poetry.

8. Limitations of space often make it difficult and sometimes impossible to apply these principles as carefully as one would wish. No space limitation, however, is reason enough for forgetting that these principles exist.

-- From
"A Reviewer's Duty to Damn."
The Saturday Review, February 16, 1957.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Smell of Yesterday's Blood



When I say that horror is not a genre, but a mood, a suspicion, a perspective, I assert this not to condemn genre, but to recognize that the qualities I love in one type of story can often be found in unexpected form elsewhere.

To give one example: here is a passage from an Isaac Babel story, "Crossing into Poland."

"The commander of the VI division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.

"Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noon-tide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery. The Volyn's peaceful stream moved away from us in sinuous curves and was lost in the pearly haze of the birch groves; crawling between flowery slopes, it wound weary arms through a wilderness of hops. The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses. The blackened Zbruch roared, twisting itself into foamy knots at the falls. The bridges were down, and we waded across the river. On the waves rested a majestic moon. The horses were in to the cruppers, and the noisy torrent gurgled among hundreds of horses' legs. Somebody sank, loudly defaming the Mother of God. The river was dotted with the square black patches of the wagons, and was full of confused sounds, of whistling and singing, that rose above the gleaming hollows, the serpentine trails of the moon."

[From The Collected Stories, edited and translated by Walter Morison. Meridian Books, 1960.]

Everything I love in horror fiction can be found here: similes that convey unease ("like a lopped-off head"), vividly-evoked settings full of troubling details ("the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses"), metaphors that suggest an uncanny threat or process ("the serpentine trails of the moon").

But do these details (and grimmer ones to come) make this a horror story?

One response would be to say, "Horrific matter, horrific moods, make a story horror." I can understand this, and I'm tempted to agree with it. But I'm also tempted to say that what we normally consider horror fiction is just one small group of stories within a larger framework that acknowledges the power and presence of a mood. Horror is an inescapable aspect of life; it is not limited to a genre.

How you feel about this, and whether you agree or disagree, will depend on your own perspective, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But from my point of view, this ambiguity, this uncertainty, implies a freedom to explore the nuances of a mood without limitations of style or content or expectation. Not only is the road wide open, but there are many roads, and they all veer off towards a storm-cloud horizon without fences and without maps.

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.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Laconicism Cultivated and Applied

The fewest words can take us to the furthest point.
Laconicism, cultivated and applied,
Can lubricate creative will that pain has dried,
Bring purpose to the drifting dust, make yawns aroint.

Many would prefer to let the dull injoint
A lack of passion to a standard calcified,
But reader, let your energy be magnified:
Drag out the lords of tedium to disanoint.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Glider Panic

I would rather do anything else than write this, and so, of course, I'll write.

Early on Wednesday, I felt isolated, insecure, and this prompted me to glance at the Facebook page of my last girlfriend. Because we are no longer friends, most of her page is hidden to me, but I did notice a new collection of photographs devoted to a March blizzard, one severe enough to stop all travelers, except for her "champion," the man she loves.

Then I felt as I once did when I was in a glider, caught in a wild thermal, carried higher and higher as the pilot beside me struggled to bring us back to the ground. Far below us, a plowed field was losing its topsoil to the wind, and the column of its loss rose like a volcanic plume, gone forever into the sky.

I had always known that she would find someone else, because a woman like her had so much to offer to any man with eyes and emotions. I also knew that her happiness mattered to me, that I would never want for her to be alone. I knew these things, but I still felt that glider panic, I still saw that loss to the sky.

Then I realized that Facebook had not brought me to her page, but to a choice of pages from women who shared her name. This woman and her champion of the blizzard live in Québec, while my last girlfriend lives on the other side of the continent.

But for the rest of the day, and for the night that followed, I still felt as if I were caught in that unforgiving sky. Even if she has nobody now, the odds are good that she will again, someday.


And if that is what she wants, then that is what I want for her. The whole point of her leaving was to follow her needs of the heart, and to find what she could never find with me. She gave me the happiest years of my life, and I would never deny her a chance to find similar years of her own.

I only wish the ground were not so far away.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Cause for Cerebration

Late on Sunday night, to celebrate my birthday, I watched "The Inheritors" again, which is my favourite episode from the second season of The Outer Limits. And yes, I did cry at the end.

I finished watching at 4:30 AM, then stepped from my darkened bedroom to the bathroom, where the fluorescent light seem unusually brilliant. When I returned to my computer to write notes on the episode, I found the monitor partially blocked by a dazzling white retinal afterimage. I tried to work around it, but its intensity increased: an effect I had never seen before.

Within a few minutes the afterimage became a white starburst pattern with a violet fringe, and it began to flicker like a strobe lamp. I closed one eye, then the other, and found a similar strobing in each. The flickering intensified.

At this point, I began to worry. In the bathroom, I peered at my eyes in the mirror, raised my arms above my head, stuck out my tongue, spoke aloud. In the hallway, I balanced on one leg, and then on the other: no problem. Then I recalled descriptions my father had told me about migraine auras; they had plagued him, now and then. I had never had migraines in my life, and had no interest in starting. Worry swelled into fear.

I called the Québec emergency health hotline. As I described my symptoms, the starburst drifted leftward until it was nothing more than a flickering rim at the edge of sight. Within less than a minute, the effect was gone. "I've never experienced anything like this."

The man on the other line went to consult with staff; when he came back, he said, "Get to an emergency room, right now."

And so, at five o'clock in the morning, unshaven and frozen, I waited outside in the cold white moonlight for a taxi.

The driver was a friendly bald man with an opaquely slavic accent; he had been driving taxis for 22 years. "I am not rich," he said, "But I am there for my children. One must always be there for one's children."

At the Gatineau hospital, where I go to have my blood tested for its coagulation levels, I arrived at 6:30, still in darkness. I had no idea how to say "afterimage" in French, and so the nurses found my descriptions baffling.

After two hours in the waiting room (where an old man snored like a faulty jet engine), I spoke with a Dr. Bonneville. He took me through the standard procedure to find any symptoms of stroke, but I was able to follow his moving finger, see his moving hands with peripheral vision, touch my nose with both hands at the same time, and so on. No indication of stroke.

When I told him that I was on Coumadin for my blood clot, he gave me a grim look and said, "There's a problem with Coumadin: it makes you bleed." He spoke about one patient who, like me, had never experienced these visual phenomena before. The cause? Bleeding in the brain.

I must have turned pale. "Was he... all right?"

"Yes, he was fine; the bleeding was minor. And the chances of your having this condition are small. But all the same...."

When he left the room to call a neurologist, I stared at the probes and the tubes on the walls and did what I could to assure myself that my bleeding, too, was minor. By now it was 9:00 in the morning, I had not eaten since midnight, and I was also worried about hypoglycaemia.

The doctor came back, and told me that I was going to be transferred to another hospital for a CAT scan and a meeting with the neurologist at 2:00; the only drawback was that I would have to fast until the procedure was completed. I looked at the clock on the wall: four hours to wait without food, but what the hell. "I can handle that."

After blood tests and a long wait to see if the scan could be scheduled, a nurse put a shunt in my arm, and the staff paid a taxi driver to take me to the Hull Hospital, which happens to be less than a half-hour walk from my apartment building.

The driver was friendly, Muslim, and certain that he would no longer visit the United States. "Trump didn't win," he said, "Hillary lost. And I'm glad she lost." We went on to discuss her foreign policy record, and Trump's political pandering. By the time we arrived at the Hull hospital, we were both happy to be Canadians.

I was able to complete the scan half an hour before my appointment with the neurologist. The scan technician was helpful: she took me through each new step of the procedure before she acted. "Now I'm going to cross over to the other side, and inject the iodine." This made my head feel as if I were trapped under a sun lamp. The deep droning whir of the scanner made me think of a magnetic maelstrom.

Afterwards, when I took off the hospital robe to put my shirt back on, the gruff (but not unlikeably gruff), white-haired woman who ran the department said to me, "The changing booth is over there. This is not a changing room, this is my personal workspace."

I smiled and apologized. The old man waiting beside me for a scan said, "Don't worry about me, I'm not offended!"

An hour later, while I waited in the neurologist's office, I noticed a pair of threatening machines that looked like grinding or sharpening tools from a metal shop. I went up for a closer look; as far as I could tell, they were dental equipment.

The neurologist, Dr. Gagnon, came into the room at a rapid pace. A short, round-faced man with a comical moustache, he greeted me in French and began to talk about my symptoms.

"Pardonnez-moi," I said, "mais je manque un vocabulaire quotidien...."

He laughed, rolled his chair up to a computer monitor, and spoke in perfectly fine English with an accent I could not place -- German? Swiss?

"You've had your scan? Let's take a look at it." As he opened images on the monitor, I feared the worst.

"What we have here is -- oh, pardon me, that's my call." He answered the cell phone, stood up, left the room, and left me seated there. I began to fear the worse than worst.

When he came back after several minutes of worst, I said, in my horrible French, "I was here on the edge of panic, and then your phone rang...."

He laughed loudly and happily: "I love that!"

Then he displayed the scanned images in sequence, which made them look like a cartoon trip through a skull. I felt the strangeness that hits you when you peer at your own brain.

"Ah," he said. "I'm not worried for you. Everything here is the way it should be."

"Can this really show if something's wrong?"

"Oh, yes. It would show us tumours, blood clots --"

"And bleeding?"

"Oh, yes, bleeding too. But there's no sign of anything like that. And see this? Your vertebrae, aorta, they all seem fine. I'm not worried for you."

He explained that what I had seen had been a surge through the visual cortex, an aura without migraine. When people who have never experienced one before suddenly see an aura, doctors need to know the cause. And given my father's migraines, I had been wise to have this checked.

"If you go through this again, don't worry. Just let it pass. You should only be concerned if it leads to headaches or any other violent symptoms, or if it lasts for more than sixty minutes."

And so, nine-and-a-half hours after I had been dropped off at the first hospital, feeling weak, now, but not horrendously hypoglycaemic, I walked home on a bright and very cold afternoon. I thought about brains, about what can harm them, and I noticed all the cars around me, all the dangerous intersections, all the spots of ice on the sidewalk. I had been looking forward to biking season, and of course I always wore a helmet, but would a helmet really save me, if...?

Then I breathed in cold air, looked at the clear, cold sky, and reminded myself that Dr. Gagnon had shown me a healthy brain. This had to count for something. This had to be a cause not only for cerebration, but for celebration, too.