Tuesday, February 26, 2013

STL #109: Father and Son, and Some Exercises for Editing

Like last week, I am writing on a strict deadline (I just spent 30 seconds dithering between "strict" and "tight" and then picking the word "dithering"--time to move on). This style might be appropriate because one of the two writers I want to talk about probably writes with minimal editing, letting words pour out without agonizing them. I'm talking about Stephen King, the old man on the mountain of horror fiction (the mountain being made of words he has written). The other writer I think might be a little more judicious (I had "measured," but that doesn't project the quality of character (not character attribute") that  I want--on with it) though I think his novel could be trimmed too. This other writer I is Stephen King's son, Joe Hill.

Both writers are clearly horror genre writers, though of different generations of course. They are both well beyond the raw weirdness of pulp writers, but not a part of the 'cooked' type of mainstream novelists for whom horror is just a trope ("really, aren't the only real monsters of our own making? Another glass of chardonnay?") Both King and Hill I'm sure recognize the metaphorical implications of horror fiction, but they also really want to scare the shit out of their readers. Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, had some of the scariest scenes I read last year--the ghost on the radio, the girlfriend with the pistol... as far as the scare-factor goes, I might only add a scene in John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel The Harbor in which two supernatural rednecks drown a girl in a mop bucket, and scenes with Pennywise the clown from It (see below). HSB  is maybe a little two long, and the explanation of the haunting is disappointing, but for pure scariness it really delivered. It took me longer to read because I had to stop reading it at night before bed. 

As I said I got spooked by It, too. I may have mentioned that I read four King books last year-- my first (and maybe last) four ever: Carrie (sketchy, in the sense of undeveloped), The Shining (good characterization of Jack Torrance, but the fact that King was figuring it out as he goes along really shows), and On Writing (fine) were the others. The Shining and It were both good, but also too long. The worst thing a horror novel can do is explain to much, and late in It the characters travel back in time to see this great evil land on planet earth (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE!!!). Somehow Lovecraft, in his raw state, can get away with something like that, but my point is that even if this scene doesn't detract it certainly doesn't add, and the novel would benefit by losing at least  200 pages. I've heard this verbosity has gotten even worse as King career progress and his editors stopped bothering to tell him to cut (because a)they were too busy counting their money and b) apparently editors don't do that anymore.) I imagined teaching a creative writing class in which It is used for a series of editing exercises. Keeping every sentence, reduce a portion the text by 10, 20, 35 percent. Reduce the novel by 20 percent by selecting sentences to strike. Reduce the novel by 35 percent by deleting chapters. Reduce the novel by 50 percent by deleting chapters, sentences, words. And so on. I think any of these exercises could be done, and the result would be better.  

I'll be moving on from this disquisition into horror next week. While this year I'm planning on delving into fantasy in an organized way, I still plan on reading more horror. So where to next? Though I said I might not read more King, thinking about how his novels would be better if shortened subliminally convinced me to try some of his short stories, like his early collection Night Shift or the novellas in Different Seasons (or Danse Macabre a nonfiction book about horror, for further recommendations). I might also try Hill's short stories in 20th Century Ghosts. In fact, I can easily put together a little list of short stories, from M.R. James to Joyce Carol Oates (Nightside  is the name of one collection, and there's another I can't recall) to a writer named Thomas Ligetti who sounds interesting (Songs to a Dead Dreamer). To that, I would add Shirley Jackson (based on Lethem's recommendation), Peter Straub's Ghost Story and a book by Andrew Vachss, who I know as an ultra-hard boiled crime writer, called Sacrifice

Thursday, February 21, 2013

STL # 108: Cooked (to Death)

I am reaching that time where I will feel that I don't have time to keep up the blog. Since I do believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that the good is the enemy of the is, I am going to force myself to complete a post in 15 minutes. It won't be good, it won't be long, but it will be.

The two books I want to discuss are Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, and I just decided to through in Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. The device I'm using is that these are all "cooked" horror novels, as opposed to the "raw" material of the writers I discussed last week. Lovecraft certainly has a style, but it wouldn't be called accomplished--it is unruly, heavy on adverbs, purple. Levin, Marasco, and Levin all write with a smooth, schooled style. I say "schooled" though I don't think they are of the age to have been through the creative writing schools, but they all write with a professional veneer of a serious midcentury write. All three of these books are clearly supernatural, but they all seem more interested in the psychological development of the characters and in well-wrought scenes or the finely-observed detail. Again, I don't have these novels on hand, but I will take a few moments to put down what I did admire about each.

Burnt Offerings was one of the biggest discoveries of the summer. It isn't a well-known book and the author was not prolific. I believe I learned of it from Stephen King. It is certainly reminiscent of  The Shining in that it examines the terrors of a family breaking down in a haunted house setting. The scene that stands out to me is not supernatural at all, but certainly horrifying. As the young city couple discuss terms of renting an older couple's house, they send their young son out to play. The old man watches from a distance with complete dispassion as he sees the boy fall from some stones and injure himself badly. He turns away from the window without saying anything. Though the old man is later implicated in some witchery, this early scene is a strong portrait of a more banal, domestic evil.

Similarly, The Green Man has the trappings of a ghost story, but is the analysis of a decaying psyche. A fiftyish innkeeper working on a second marriage and a serious drinking problem sees ghosts while he pursues an adulterous conquest. While it isn't heavily indicative one way or another, I am sure it's possible to read the encounters with the ghost (based on local English countryside history) as an artifact of the protagonist's breakdown. While a good ghost story, the genre is an author's decision to further another purpose.

Finally, Rosemary's Baby. The well-constructed plot of the movie version is found here, which means that there weren't any surprises here. That's the problem of reading a genre novel that inspired a well-made movie--if it matches the movie too closely, then you are denied the pleasures of discovery while if it diverges it may be because the movie was compensating for shoddy construction. That is no problem of the latter kind here; like the others Levin created a well-made book that partakes in the generic conventions of horror, but probably more so in the conventions of the midcentury psychological novel.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

STL #107: HPL

Howard Philips Lovecraft. The name sounds fictitious, the kind of name chosen by a pulp writer for a writer of macabre tales, who lived with his aunts in Providence Rhode Island, scribbling manuscripts and complaining of drafts until an early death at the age of 46. Who wrote tales of mathematicians driven mad by the axioms of elder maths (if a is equal to b than b is not equal to a).  A frail autodidact with a purple vocabulary and lugubrious style. His favorite words are
Abnormal, Accursed, Amorphous, Antediluvian, Antiqu(e/arian), Blasphemous,
Cyclopean, Dank, Decadent, Daemoniac, Eldritch, Foetid, Fungoid, Furtive, Gibbous, 
Gibbering, Hideous, Immemorial, Indescribable, Loathsome, Mortal, Nameless, Noisome, Non-Euclidean, 
Disproportionate, Shunned, Singular, Spectral, Squamous, Stygian, Swarthy, Tenebrous, Ululating, Unmentionable, Unnamable, Unutterable.
You don't need to have read him to imagine what kinds of sentences he might fashion out of them.

But of course he did live, though in semi-obscurity, only to come to growing fame in the years since his death. He is known now for his Cthulu mythos (see Eldritch, Non-Euclidean, Unnamebale above), obnoxious  racism (see Loathsome, Noisome, Swarthy above), and most of all his weirdly compelling fiction (see all of the above). His work was known to Robert E. Howard (REH) and others toiling in the pulp game during his life, and to Jorge Luis Borges (JLB) and a wider world of alert readers after he died. Borges wcwn wrote a story "There Are More Things" which he inscribed "In memory of H.P. Lovecraft" in The Book of Sand (1975). In this tribute, he captures many of the delights of HPL's fiction. An effete, bookish protagonist returns to his ancestral land (substituting Argentina for Massachusetts) where he pursues the mystery of what happened to his uncle's house by visiting a succession of elusive sources, unable to articulate the horrors they saw saw within. There's an allusion to a monster asleep and dreaming ("of what, or of whom?") and such Lovecraftian sentiments as  "all those incompatible things that only by reason of their coexistence are called 'the universe.'" (A transfomation, I think of the famous line from "Call of Cthulu," "“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... ")  The protagonist finds his way inside the house to it furnished in a manner of "horror and revulsion," incompatible with the human form. He likely does not find his way out of the house.

An aspect of HPL that JLB alludes to in the title of the story is his fundamental concept of materialist (as opposed to supernatural) horror. That is to say, there are powerful forces that exceed not only human power but human understanding: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Manifestations of the horrific and monstrous are not inexplicable; they are however unknowable by us. Like a Naturalists of preceding generations, human lives are utterly subject to forces (in his case of a cosmic scale) beyond our control.

My original intention was to include in this note Arthur Machen and Robert W. Chambers, two earlier weird fiction writers whose influence Lovecraft admitted (and who I read last year). I think you can see the roots of materialist horror in the older writers From Chambers wonderfully weird The King In Yellow comes the notion of a book who drives anyone who reads it mad--not only does that suggest the Necronomicon, but it anticipates Lovecraft's notion of a secret order to the universe beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Machen's short novel The Great God Pan includes another of what become Lovecraft's tropes, the horrific melding of human and the monstrous, again with human understanding buckling in face of ancient forces.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”  "Call of Cthulu"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

STL #106: The Horror Project Overview

The most sustained reading project I have undertaken in recent memory (since my dissertation, maybe) has the investigation into horror fiction from this past year. This project started just prior to summer break, continued through October, and hasn't officially ended (though has tapered off.) I love the sense of discovery that comes not just from finding out about a writer or musician you hadn't known, but discovery the codes, histories, and networks of associations of a genre you hadn't known about or paid attention to before. Obviously, I have known that horror fiction existed for a long time, but I haven't read much aside from the canonical, which just means Frankenstein in this case. Part of my inspiration was to have a summertime counterpart to my "big book" that I start the year off--but instead of delving into the more scholarly or important, I wanted a place to explore my more ...esoteric?...side. [not the word I'm looking for].

I began by compiling a reading list (based on lists by writers I respected and those of a few anonymous bloggers (like me)), of which the following is a version (though not I think the tiny printout I carried with me to the library:

  • Peter Ackroyd             Hawksmoor (1985)
  • Kingsley Amis             The Green Man (1969)
  • William Peter Blatty   The Exorcist (1971)
  • Robert W. Chambers             The King in Yellow (1895)
  • Shirley Jackson             The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
  • Henry James             The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • M. R. James  Ghost stories
  • Stephen King Carrie
  • Stephen King  The Shining
  • Kathe Koja The Cipher
  • Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
  • Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligetti
  •  Short Fiction by H. P. Lovecraft
  • Arthur Machen             The Great God Pan
  • Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian
  • Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco
  • China Mieville, King Rat*
  • Richard Matheson             I Am Legend (1954)
  • Joyce Carol Oates. Nightside
  • Bram Stoker             Dracula (1897)
  • Peter Straub             Ghost Story (1979)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Sacrifice by Andrew Vachss

  • This list can be sliced up in a few different ways. There's certainly a "classics" subgroup, stretching from Stevenson (or going back to Poe or Shelley--in any case I didn't read anything earlier than The King in Yellow from 1895) to H.P. Lovecraft.  Then there would be a modern-commercial period, of novels that have supernatural/ghostly/monstrous subject but exhibit trappings of the mainstream mid-century novels in character development and plot structure. These writers would include Ira Levin, Robert Marsco, and Kingsley Amis on holiday). These writers are not particularly beholden to genre conventions, so you would need to add another category for Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King (or you could start it with Lovecraft, but that doesn't fit my present purpose). You could then top it off with a postmodern-weird group of writers conscious of genre conventions but also stylistically sophisticated. I think this would cover many of the later writers, though of this lot (including Mieville, and Ligetti) I only got to Kathe Koja. Because I am pressed for time this week, I will cut it short and let this serve as an introduction. Next week I'll start with three writers I classified as classic: Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft.