Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Algernon Blackwood - Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories

Algernon Blackwood wrote in the earlier years of the 20th century and has since joined the hallowed ranks of Weird Fiction's classic authors. In his study of the field, Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft called Blackwood one of the Modern Masters and wrote that Blackwood was the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere (p. 1091, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction). Here in Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories, premier Weird scholar S.T. Joshi has collected nine of Blackwood's worthiest tales. Needless to say, they do rather more than stand the test of time.

The first thing that one realizes upon reading Blackwood is that, in his writings and perhaps beyond them, the world we know is only a thin veneer over the vast truths beneath. As Blackwood writes in "Sand": One world lay upon another, but this modern layer was a shallow crust that, like the phenomenon of the "desert-film," a mere angle of falling light could instantly obliterate (p. 321). This shallow layer of desert-film, of our modern and natural world, is kept in place by what Blackwood frequently refers to as either a veil or a curtain. That veil is made from our ignorance. But, in "The Man Who Found Out," the protagonist, after suffering a terrible revelation, says that the falsity of our world is so obvious that I can hardly understand why it is not patent to every mind in the world (p. 144); the veil, therefore, is not only our ignorance but our willful ignorance.

In his work, Blackwood continually lash out at not only the falsity of our world but also the scientific close-mindedness that underpins it and denies all else. Though written a century ago, these criticisms of materialism are still biting and, dare I say, not wholly inaccurate by any means. They are most often expressed in "Sand," so we shall return to that story once again to allow Blackwood to state his case: The mind to-day wears blinkers, studies only the details seen directly before it. Had none of us experienced love, we should think the first lover mad. […] If the world were deaf it would stand with mockery before a hearing group swayed by an orchestra, pitying both listeners and performers (pp. 301-2).

Without exception, each of Blackwood's protagonists is subjected to revelation, and its first result is a distrust or even a hatred of what the narrator of "The Insanity of Jones" comes to call the more or less interesting set of sham appearances (p. 63) that make up our world. "The Glamour of the Snow" and "Sand" society comes to look ridiculous besides the vaster world all around it; in the latter, the narrator concludes after a particularly lambasting passage, that against the background of the noble Desert their [the English socialite's] titles seemed the cap and bells of clowns (p. 283). But the veil does not only cover the actions and interactions of men; the very bedrock of the world is is shifted by its pulling aside. As Jones comes to realize, time is nothing but arbitrary nonsense (p. 63).

It is vital to remember that, with a single exception that we will come to shortly, Blackwood is not telling us what precisely lies beyond the veil. He is absolutely convinced that what we see is not all there is, but that leads him to a position of what he calls resignation filled to the brim with wonder (p. 280) rather than a new set of dogmatic beliefs. The core of his views can be most succinctly summed up as the protagonist of "Sand" says it here:  Anything may be true, since knowledge has never yet found final answers to any of the biggest questions (p. 298).

Still, we can see some of what may lie beyond the veil. The first fact of the supernatural in Blackwood's work is reincarnation. In his annotations, S.T. Joshi writes that AB believed that he himself was the reincarnation of an American Indian medicine man (p. 356). Throughout the collection, reincarnation is the main positive claim that Blackwood makes. It is the foundation for the plot of "The Insanity of Jones," but, though that's the only tale to wholly rely on it, it is present as part of the world's framework in many others, such as "Ancient Sorceries" where it is the means by which Dr. Silence explains the strange happenings or in "Sand" where the narrator speaks of the ancient soul in him (p. 327). I should be clear, however, that reincarnation is not in any way regarded as frightening or even particularly weird by Blackwood; it is simply an unacknowledged part of existence, and his protagonists experience no dread at the thought of it.

The same cannot be said for what else lies in the world of causes (p. 63) beyond the veil. It is where dwell the savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men (p. 189). These Potencies are far vaster, more powerful, and more alien than we can imagine. These greater powers are not all behemoths that are blind to us, as in Lovecraft's Weird Fiction, nor do they all possess the malevolence exhibited by Thomas Ligotti's. The powers he writes of are intricately tied to nature and its grandeur. Yet, while they are not evil perhaps in themselves, we must remember that they are yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists (p. 189). If these generally indifferent powers take note of us, as they so often do in these tales, we would have no hope at all. They can kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly (p. 51).

The threat these powers pose us is not purely physical. Blackwood's belief in reincarnation actually serves to open another avenue for horror, for now it is our very souls that can be at risk. As we learn in "The Willows": Death, according to one's belief, mean's either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don’t suddenly alter just because the body's gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substation – far worse than death, and not even annihilation (p. 52). Throughout the collection, the true danger these powers pose is not petty destruction but rather the melting away of what we are, of what makes us human and us.

For an author with such grand themes and skills, Blackwood is not well served by having "Smith: An Episode in a Lodging House" open the collection. Still, for reasons beyond me, not only Joshi but Lovecraft himself consider the tale noteworthy. Lovecraft says that, in it, we behold frightful presences summoned out of black space by a sorcerer (p. 1092, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction). This is all true, but it's not so much an argument for the tale's importance as a bit of tidy plot summary. There is a sorcerer, but our protagonist only encounters him once or twice and not in a particularly significant way either time. Really, it's a competent but slight story that is rather forgettable and nothing at all compared to the greatness to come.

The same can not be said for "The Willows," which is by far the author's most famous piece and which Lovecraft called in a letter to Lieber the greatest weird tale ever written. Our two protagonists are canoeing down the Danube when they stop at an island surrounded by innumerable willows. Even in the tale's early parts, Blackwood's description is stunningly evocative and, at once, veritably coursing with the ethereal: The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it! (p. 28)

The narrator's feelings are, needless to say, not in error. They are indeed interlopers, trespassers in that place; they have indeed touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented (p. 29). To keep his weird majesty from devolving into some weak fright alone, Blackwood leaves danger wholly to interpretation, instead focusing on awe. The tale is made of passages of impossible splendor, nature writing, and the protagonist's increasingly overawed mental state. Though the reader and characters have no doubt of the impossible danger that they are in, the precise avenue of that danger is not clear; instead, we get a glimpse of the vastness of this region beyond our own and so don't have the image of some clawed monster reaching out for us but rather of another world, greater and more powerful than ours, that is simply brushing us off its back.

In the course of the story, the narrator remarks that when common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance (p. 44). By the tale's end, those common things have indeed been truly and inexplicably mauled. All of this building atmosphere and tension is put to excellent use by its ending, which allows the protagonists to shy away from the seemingly inevitable and cataclysmic revelation awaiting them while still giving us a clue with which to reinterpret earlier parts of the tale and, thereby, giving us a glimpse beyond the veil.

Before we move on, we should also turn to the story's characters. Though Blackwood is not a writer primarily focused on character, he is adept at an understated understanding of what makes his protagonists tick, and "The Willows" is a prime example of using the personalities of its characters to both ground us in the story and to suggest greater things. From the beginning, the excitable narrator is contrasted with his partner's unimaginativeness. For a time, this gives the atmosphere the slight boost of affecting even the less gullible, but it's true purpose comes later, when the supposedly unimaginative character says that he has always been strangely vividly conscious of another region – not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind – where great things go on unceasingly (p. 52).

I will admit that, many years ago, I thought the passage a flaw, concluding that Blackwood had simply mixed his two characters up. Looking at it now, a far more meaningful and (for an author of Blackwood's skill) far more likely possibility appears. First off, it indicates that the awareness of this other region is not solely limited to those outwardly imaginative. Furthermore, it makes the narrator's companion into an embodiment of the means of coping that he espouses: The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you're forced to meet it (p. 43). The character's lack of acknowledgment of that other region, despite being aware of it, then becomes a means of survival; the way he keeps the two together and alive through the tale's early parts proof that his method can work; and the way that his firmness collapses at the end indicative of its potential failings.

As one might expect from the vintage Weird, "The Insanity of Jones" deals with the titular Jones' knowledge of the beyond. But unlike a story like "The Willows," that beyond is not a specific or localized event; Jones does not come into contact with the beyond due to some strange ritual, specific threat, or a visit to a distant place. Sensitive souls like him are, instead, aware at all times of a realm that wholly overlaps our own, of a greater world [that] lies ever at their elbow, and that any moment a chance combination of moods and forces may invite them to cross the shifting frontier (p. 63). This awareness means that, though he is capable of functioning in the modern world, Jones' passions lie ever beyond it, and he is aware as few are of the clumsy shell of space and time (p. 74). Furthermore, looking at the mundane life he is living and all the mundane lives he has lived, he realizes that he has been at this weary game for ages (p. 65).

More than any other story in the collection, "The Insanity of Jones" focuses on reincarnation. Jones is aware of his past lives, but, not only that, he is aware that he was horribly tortured in one of them, and he knows who he was tortured by. Centuries ago, his current day boss committed atrocities upon his flesh, and now Jones believes he can finally right that wrong. He learns through supernatural means that he may either use the sword of justice, or rise to the level of a great forgiveness (p. 76). Choosing the former course, Jones purchases a handgun and shoots his employer six times, horrifically wounding and torturing him before finally firing a shell into each of his eyes.

In his annotations for the story, S.T. Joshi points out that Blackwood, who believed in reincarnation, no doubt meant to subvert the insanity mentioned in the story's title. Jones, Joshi argued, is, to Blackwood, an exhibitor of a higher kind of sanity (p. 357). It's here that I have to break from Joshi's interpretation. In Blackwood's eyes, Jones is no doubt indeed showing a higher level of awareness, but, due to the incredible brutality of Jones' killing, I have a hard time believing that Blackwood supports that outcome. By showing the horrific consequences of the murder – specifying how the boss' wrist was shattered, splashing the wall behind with blood (p. 85) and other such vividly sickening details – Blackwood may be, while he acknowledges the wrong done to Jones and its need for redress, nonetheless condemning Jones' method, arguing that forgiveness was truly the only correct track.

The collection's title piece, "Ancient Sorceries," is the only one to feature Blackwood's famous psychic detective Dr. John Silence. Silence is, however, a peripheral character whose main role is listening to the story told by our protagonist, the timid and once thoroughly ordinary Vezin. After stepping off the train in a small French town, Vezin finds himself submerged in the townspeople's almost impossibly smooth and pleasant life. But, of course, all is not as it seems, and Vezin comes to realize that the townspeople's true lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes […]the main stream of their existence lay somewhere beyond my ken, underground in secret places (p. 96).

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how to describe or even account for the power of this tale's first half. Though rich with portent and implication, it is nonetheless quiet in every way, and yet it inexorably relaxes the reader to an extent past the natural or comfortable, as if the narrative itself were casting a spell. Describing the story, Lovecraft wrote that it is almost hypnotically vivid (p. 1092, HP Lovecraft: The Fiction). Describing the town, Vezin says that it is like part of a softly-coloured dream which he did not even realize to be a dream (p. 93), and that description works more than passably well for the experience of reading the story.

To this bewitching brew, Blackwood adds an innkeepers daughter to the mystery's very center, and she pulls the main character towards her as he falls deeply and inescapably in love with her. In his introduction to the collection, Joshi writes that "It appears difficult to deny that Blackwood, like Poe and Lovecraft, was largely asexual, sublimating such tendencies into his work and his Nature-mysticism" (xiv). I have no reason at all to doubt the truth of that, but Blackwood, nonetheless, here shows a felicity with romance that is infinitely beyond that which can be observed in most Weird writing. The daughter, of course, turns out to be the seductive heart of the town's darkness, but that does little to alter the tender feeling with which Vezin speaks of her, the way that the mere knowledge that she was living and sleeping in the same house filled me with an extraordinary sense of delight (pp. 107-8).

Alas, the tale's end does not live up to the rest of it. Its climax, in which the town's subtle atmosphere is revealed to be an homage to Satan, is acceptable if not the equal of the excellence that came before, but its true black mark comes when Silence reenters the story once the telling's done. Silence concludes that the entire affair took place subjectively in the man's own consciousness (p. 128) and justifies that conclusion by mumbling about reincarnation and the lived memories of past lives. To explain away the events of a Weird Tale such as this would be a shame, but to do so and replace them not with reality but with another, equally confused and equally nonsensical but not at all powerful, mess of fantasy is inexcusable. Still, the last few pages can't really damage the greatness of the story as a whole.

 "The Man Who Found Out" is a stunningly pessimistic tale of revelation. It focuses on Professor Ebor, a man of science and a mystic (p. 131), Ebor's colleague, and the awful truth that Ebor finally discovers after so much searching. There isn't a huge amount of action here, and Blackwood wisely keeps the details of the ultimate revelation secret, which leaves this as one of the less striking stories of its own merits. Still, it's a powerful piece on the weight and danger of pessimism and on the threat of failure or worse in the quest for truth. In stark contrast to the inquisitive if risky position of a piece like "Sand," "The Man Who Found Out" ultimately ends with the bliss of ignorance, an escape from the merciless clairvoyance (p. 144) that leaves even a man as driven as Dr. Ebor with nothing: The central fires had gone out. Nothing was worth doing, thinking, working for. There was nothing to work for any longer! (p. 138) The story may, perhaps, be seen as the feared and possible outcome of Blackwood's resignation filled to the brim with wonder (p. 280).

Like "The Willows," the "Wendigo" takes place deep in nature. As our hunter protagonists venture deeper, Blackwood continually ramps up the majesty of the forest, a majesty that is at first simply beautiful and then, as night falls, grows frightening as it becomes clear just how much greater it is than the insignificant humans crawling through between its trunks: Outside the world of crowding trees pressed close about them, marshalling their million shadows, and smothering the little tent that stood there like a wee white shell facing the ocean of tremendous forest (p. 162). Unlike in "The Willows," though, the menace here is a far more specific one, a beast known by the natives as the Wendigo. The Wendigo comes as the night's somber atmosphere reaches its peak, and, just out of the protagonist's sight, his guide is taken by the beast.

The protagonist follows, desperate to reclaim his friend, and so begins one of the greatest triumphs of implication in all of the Weird. We never do catch up to the Wendigo, and the chase yields no clear sight of it. All we have are its footprints, its and those of its captive marching alongside it. And, as we follow that double trail, the footprints begin to change, morphing away from the human, changing to the impossible. Without a single glimpse of the foe, using nothing but shapes in the snow and the reasoning that follows their shift for his fuel, Blackwood is able to kindle an incredible atmosphere of unearthly dread amidst the freezing forest's unsearchable size.

The tale does not end there; no, before it truly closes, we get a final scene in which the shell shocked protagonist not only meets with the rest of the now shrunken hunting party but gets to see the guide one last time. That climactic scene could have been the story's undoing, but it's anything but. Using our prior knowledge and fear, Blackwood imbues ordinary conversation with the incalculable aura of wrongness until a single concrete glimpse of the perversion beneath the world sets our suspicions alight.

It is a mark of the tale's masterful impact and vividness that it can afford to diagnose itself before its completion without ruining its strength. In an attempt to explain away what he's seen, one of the hunters says that The Wendigo is simply the Call of the Wild personified (p. 181). The claim is at once true and hopelessly inadequate. The Wendigo is, of course, an expression of Nature, but both nature and the unexplainable are both so much vaster than the speaker can comprehend that his description only serves to enhance the impossible's power.

"The Glamour of the Snow" is a competent tale served badly by being packed alongside so much greatness. Its protagonist is torn between civilization and the wilderness, and many of its descriptions are effective, but almost all of its elements are utilized stronger elsewhere in the collection. The female personification of the wild is far better in "Ancient Sorceries," the social satire in "Sand," and the natural world's call better described in "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." Ultimately, "The Glamour of the Snow" is only really memorable for two excellent bits of prose, the first of nature (Snow covered all. It smothered sound and distance. It smothered houses, streets, and human beings. It smothered – life. (p. 201)) and the latter of man and his narrow thoughts (the dead conventions that imprison literal minds (p. 205)).

The Weird's essence, its status as both vaster than man but not the kind of cheap evil seen so often in Horror, is exemplified in "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." The consciousness of the forest comes to love a man who takes care of the trees. We see this primarily from the perspective of his highly religious wife, who at first finds any belief in the forest's life absurd and then comes to dread the trees. Before long, however, she comes to realize that in the forest there is no positive evil at work, but only something that usually stands away from humankind, something alien and not commonly recognized (p. 265). That recognition, however, does not bring with it a lessening of danger, for, though not evil as we understand it, the trees are nonetheless hugely powerful, and they take her husband into them and destroy her that stands in their way.

Though the story is about the trees, its heart is the relationship between husband and wife. Initially, this is rather worrying. Mrs. Bittacy seems almost impossibly foolish, and passages such as like many women, she never really thought at all, but merely reflected the images of others' thinking which she had learned to see (pp. 217-8) are, to put it as kindly as I possibly can, not exactly indicative of a man about to write a convincing female protagonist. Thankfully, as the story progresses beyond the woman's foolishness and its long and slow opening (through which, I'll admit, I did not think much of the piece at all), Blackwood evidently forgets his low opinion of womankind and writes a woman that feels real and a love that feels powerful.

This is certainly more a tale of wonder than of terror, but I can't agree with Joshi when he writes that, in it, "fear has no place" (p. 366), for there is fear here and, more importantly still, there is tragedy. In her love, Mrs. Bittacy tries to stand aside for her husband and the trees, but such easy resignation is not possible. She is forced to watch him drawn inexorably away from her, and she is destroyed by the experience and by the forest's malice. By the end, she is utterly alone with this terror of the trees… mid the ruins of her broken and disordered mind (p. 272). She is destroyed in the very manner that so many of Blackwood's protagonists fear, for her very being is undone. As she sees herself passing away, she consoles herself with the thought that the spiritual love that linked her to her husband was safe from all attack (p. 271). But it is not so. When her husband tends to her as she fails, we learn that he just aped the services of love (p. 272). "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" took a very long time to win me over but had me completely when it did.

The collection closes with the monolithic "Sand," a story set in far off Egypt that introduces Blackwood's fascinating idea of a group soul, a fascinating idea of the interplay between the divine and the believer: A wave of spiritual awakening – a descent of spiritual life upon a nation […] forms itself a church, and the body of true believers are its sphere of action. They are literally its bodily expression. Each individual believer is a corpuscle in that Body (p. 308). Here we do not have the God and the believers existing independently, nor the believers having wrought the god; instead, the god, through the believer's faith and belief that his actions are correct, uses them as his concrete expression. Awesome stuff.

Besides that, "Sand" exhibits Blackwood's nature writing abilities to their fullest extent, is the source of much of the criticism of science that I quoted in the introduction, and features the summoning of a Power amidst the desert's sands, one whose splendor could never lodge in minds that conceive Deity perched upon a cloud within telephoning distance of fashionable churches (p. 339). Like "The Man Whom the Trees Loved," "Sand" is a slow building tale, and it is fully capable of having an entire chapter given over to philosophical and symbolic discussions and debates. But the spell of its atmosphere is present from the beginning and, by its climax, its every word is filled with incredible depths and dreads.

By this point, it is no doubt needless for me to say that Algernon Blackwood lives up to his reputation. Nonetheless, I will say it; he does. But it's more than that. Blackwood's work is a brilliant envisioning of the Weird and the incomprehensible, an evoking of what the author calls with immeasurable understatement the peculiar beyond ordinary (p. 164). These stories not only defy time and the reality that gave our conception of it birth but, themselves, are timeless.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beyond the Shrinking World, Published

The newest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies just hit the web, my story "Beyond the Shrinking World" in it. It's by far the best thing I've written and is free to read, besides. If swords, massive monsters, slippery metaphysics, shrinking worlds, sea voyages, apocalypses plural, and otherworldly knights appeal to you, you might want to head on over and give it a read. If not, do so anyway. While over there, don't forget to check out the issue's other piece, Peter Darbyshire's "The Angel Azrael Delivers Small Mercies," a sequel to his "The Angel Azrael Rode into the Town of Burnt Church on a Dead Horse."


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Alma Alexander - 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens

Five friends meet at the Spanish Gardens after decades out of touch. There, they drink Irish Coffees and talk about the past. One by one, they leave the table to go to the bathroom, to take a call, or to snap a photo of their Jaguar tattoo for their friends without disrobing in public. But their trip to the restaurant's backrooms ends up accomplishing rather more than that. Each of them is approached by Ariel, and he, the messenger, shows them a different version of their lives, a different path they might have taken. And they must choose.

The idea of getting to tweak your life is not an uncommon one in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Generally, its pleasure comes from examining key choices and contrasting the new reality with the old. 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens does not succeed in that regard. The main reason why is that we simply don't know enough for such a comparison. The only scenes we see outside of the novel's five alternate realities are the friends' conversations in the restaurant. Those conversations are for more enjoyable to read than dense biographies of each character would have been, and they do reveal a fair bit about each's past, but they do not cover nearly enough to allow us to spot the differences, let alone the moment of divergence, in the alternative stories. Therefore, save the ones that are so dramatically different as to be impossible not to notice (of which there are a fair few), the reader does not really know what specifically is new and what is not and has still less of an idea of how the two realities compare.

Furthermore, while the idea of a choice between realities is central to the novel, it's rather interesting that the realities themselves seem to have little of choice in them. Admittedly, I did wonder going in how a person, brought back to their pivotal decision but not told that this was not the first time, would not simply make the same choice they had previously. The answer is that Ariel does not give them a chance to repeat their choices – or, really, to make new ones. The first alternative reality is accomplished by a woman surviving a car crash she would otherwise not have; another is made by a parent's revelation or the lack thereof. These are not so much choices as they are events, drastic changes that are not so much wrought by the protagonists as wrought upon them.

Then there's how the novel's central choice, that between the old reality or the new, is fatally undercut because these characters do not live in a vacuum. If they take the new reality, the old will be forever shifted, and the people they love shifted with it. Again and again Ariel makes statement like: "Not your responsibility. […] You are only responsible for your own [choices]." (p. 89) But that is obviously ridiculous, especially in the case of parents, to one of whom Ariel admits that, if she changes her reality, her children "Will never have been born." (p. 177) In those circumstances, choosing anything but the established world would be incredibly selfish, and that's one of the reasons why it's not so surprising that four of the novel's five choose to remain.

As the novel progresses, Ariel and his role do come through more strongly. In each of the last two stories, Ariel steps beyond his proscribed role as impartial messenger and interacts with the characters. In both of them, something more of Ariel is seen and an otherworldly feel is definitely conveyed. The first, Ellen's tale, manages this without sacrificing anything of what makes the others work (more on that in a moment) and somehow manages to make the convoluted structure of scenes within a frame story within a frame story not only workable but engaging. The last piece and the Coda didn't work quite as well for me in terms of character (in part because, by the time we get to them, Olivia has been defined and redefined again and again in different incarnations so many times that it's hard to get any sense of the "real" Olivia) but made up for that with more of that ethereal feel and an excellent ending.

Despite the problems in its central conceit, 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens is a powerful read. This is chiefly because Alexander is an excellent character writer. The five alternate realities that we witness may not be gripping because they are alternate realities, but they are gripping because they are stories about people that we quickly come to care about. Alexander throws us into each new life in a few words, convincingly builds relationships between characters, and keeps a strong sense of pace and purpose in what are, essentially, life stories without any strong guiding plot to shape them. The fact that there are five of these life stories, and that they are all talking at once when we begin the book, makes for a slightly difficult opening, but that is made up for by how the table grows in the reader's mind, how the reader gradually comes to know each of the speakers until they, too, are at a gathering of old friends.

All of this is certainly not hindered by Alexander's prose. Though never flashy, it is always comprehensible and good at conveying the emotion of the moment, such as the off-beat way in which a character's first reaction to a disaster is conveyed: The information made no sense, as though he had asked what time of day it was and got a response that it was Wednesday (p. 44).

Alexander also possesses quite a bit of skill at encompassing characters and situations in metaphors, such as one of Simon's girlfriends saying he goes through life watching it through the windows of a train […] You never step off the train. Now and again you allow somebody else to step on, share a compartment for a little while, and then they get put off at the next station and you go on – sitting by the window, looking out at the scenery, knowing always and precisely where you are and what lies around you but never staying long enough to get to know any of it, or to truly love it (p. 70). Reading that for the first time, I was positively reminded of Murakami describing a character's lovers as having come and gone, like vividly colored birds perching momentarily on a branch before flying off somewhere (p. 360) in 1Q84, and a comparison to Murakami, needless to say, is not something that I do lightly.

Essentially, 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens is five life stories wrapped around a conversation. Its Fantasy element and choices did not wholly work for me, but the characters within its pages most certainly did. The experience of reading it is rather like heading over to the Spanish Gardens, getting an Irish Coffee of your own, and meeting some new best friends.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Raymond Chandler - The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye is the sixth of Raymond Chandler's seven classic novels starring Philip Marlowe. In the broad outlines of its plot and genre, it fits neatly into the progression established by the rest, but differences soon become apparent. This is the longest of Chandler's novels by far, and it's also the slowest in pace. Here, Chandler focuses more than ever before on not only Marlowe's voice, but his observations about society, his sketches of characters and flaws, on not only combating the corrupt world but understanding it and coming to terms with it.

Of course, The Long Goodbye is still a crime novel. It's practically the calling card of noir, the very pinnacle of the genre. And yet the actual crime is never the point. Chandler writes about crime because Marlowe's (our) life is made of corruption and pain, but the mystery itself is just the lense with which we see the brutal world. Chandler's Marlowe is worlds away from Doyle's Holmes or Poe's Dupin. These are not puzzles. The goal is not some abstract solution. There are lives at stake here; we have left the realms of impersonal deductions and clues far behind. In the absence of that intellectual game, we're just left with the violence and the pain, but, in marked contrasts to so many that had already come and that would come later, Chandler does not revel in the violence. This is not a novel about odds or gunplay, about fistfights and triumphs, though it does have all of those things. Believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it, one character writes, with the "it" in question being death, or maybe suicide, crime, struggle, flight, sacrifice, or even maybe heroism. It is just plain nasty and sordid and gray and grim. (p. 84)

The Long Goodbye is a novel about why we act and why we don't. About heroism in the modern world and that world itself. The way the competition is nowadays a guy has to save his strength to protect hisself in the clinche, (p. 6) a character says early in the novel. Smart men know to stay out of people's troubles. (p. 280) Nobody cares, and nobody can afford to care. Those that do seem to enforce the law do it for all the wrong reasons, for power, money, or pride. They know that the law "isn't justice" (p. 56) and that they can "always find a way to do what they want." (p. 55)

Philip Marlowe is an exception. He acts for an idea of justice that's not what's found in the law books or on the streets, not encased in popular opinion or built on misery. As we see time and time again, Marlowe will never back down from what he thinks is doing the right thing. But while toughness might be enough to keep you alive, it's not enough to let you prosper. Marlowe can never win, and he is all too aware of that fact. As he learns so many times, there's "no percentage" in being a hero (p. 236), and, if Marlowe manages to survive, he does it by the skin of his teeth and with nothing at all to show for it but justice.

Crucially, The Long Goodbye is not the story of a crusade. This is not a book of the White Knight Marlowe against a world of immoral Black. No, the Los Angeles of the novel is one where culpability is only matched by inevitability and where all is painted shades of struggling gray. The early realization is that crime isn't responsible for all this alone; it's power that's torn us so asunder, and, as Marlowe says, the "only difference" between business and crime is that, "for business you gotta have capital." (p. 188) The world is anything but equal, and the average man seems powerless against the rich giants all about him. He is tired and sacred, we're told, and a tired, scared man can't afford ideals. (p. 234) But the ultimate realization, the novel's killing blow, is that Crime isn't a disease. It's not something that Marlowe can defeat, no matter how hard he hits or how clever he is. No, crime is a symptom. Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack. We're a big rough rich wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We'll have it with us for a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar. (p. 352)

Every step of the way, Chandler writes with a splatter-painting style of figurative language, a barrage of similes that range from hilarious to profound, and all of it's charging forward with the strength of some of the most muscular, powerfully direct prose imaginable. Brute declarative statements meet metaphors, here, and it's all aided by one of the most prevalent and cutting wits I've had the pleasure of reading, every page peppered with delightful phrases like: he looked at me like a horse looking over a fence (p. 250) and they put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. (p. 88) More than that, though, Marlowe's observations cut beyond the realm of double-dealings and rich adulterers and strike into the timeless, both in the already discussed area of morality and in a thousand small facets of life, with the intervening decades between us and him just serving to cement his claims: There is something compulsive about a telephone, he says. The gadget-ridden man of our age loves it. Loathes it, and is afraid of it. But he always treats it with respect, even when he is drunk. The telephone is a fetish. (p. 200) And, of course, you know you can trust the judgments of a man who swears he will never again use an electronic razor. (p. 153)

Despite all that, and despite its first person narration, and despite the fact that Marlowe is one of the most characteristic and opinionated narrators I can think of, the detective's actual thoughts, plans, and emotions are kept far away from us. In fact, the combination of Marlowe's perceptive eye and recalcitrant mind have the odd effect of giving us far more of just about every other character's emotional state than we get of the narrator's. As a result, it can be hard to tell just who Marlowe is. We can primarily know him by what he is not, which is to say by the depravities and corruptions that he turns away from. But exactly why Marlowe is the way that he is is difficult to say. Why is he a hero in this world where heroism is impossible?

On a more grounded level, this also means that The Long Goodbye can come to seem aimless at times. Marlowe himself moves with purpose in everything he does, but, as we're never allowed to see it, it's easy to lose track of the narrative and get lost in the steps along the way. More importantly, the friendship between Terry Lennox and Marlowe, established early in the novel and crucial throughout, is always a distant thing. Some degree of ambiguity in it is understandable, of course, but – save for one powerful exception – that relationship that is such a driving force for the narrator is never felt at all by the reader.

That distance and Marlowe's observations, the latter the novel's greatest strength by far, serve to hamstring the part of it that is actually a crime novel. Throughout, the mystery is buried under Marlowe's wit, attitude, and judgments. While that makes the novel infinitely stronger than it would've been as just another plot boiler, it does leave the reader focusing on things other than the clues and not particularly invested in the ultimate identity of the killer. Up until the novel's three hundredth page (or so), this really isn't such a problem. The mystery's not exceptional, but in a book this strong, it doesn't need to be, and it's adequate.  Unfortunately, the last sixty pages, all taking place after the seeming resolution, are far more plot focused than anything that came before – and also far less successful. Chandler somehow manages to strike a regrettable balance between meandering bloat and a feeling that everything we see is rushed. Scene after scene feels like it could be the novel's last but isn't, the plot still stumbling through another (frankly unnecessary) turn that would've needed a great deal more space to make us really understand it, let alone care about it.

The brilliance of The Long Goodbye is a direct result of its most deadly failings. Judged by the crime genre's standard strictures of plot and climax, this novel is a failure. Yet that does little to diminish its overall power. The Long Goodbye is, despite and also because of all its faults, an insightful and excellently written that deserves its classic status.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poppy Z. Brite - Drawing Blood

So many beautifully drawn dead bodies. (p. 162)

Drawing Blood is Poppy Z. Brite's second novel and my first experience with her full length work, though I had previously read and enjoyed Swamp Foetus/Wormwood and the collaborative Wrong Things. Centered on two young men shaped and horribly wounded by their parents and struggling to come to terms with life and love, Drawing Blood is an exemplary work of character driven Horror.

Brite's approach to Horror is almost the exact opposite of Stephen King. In novels like 'Salem's Lot, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and so many others King places ordinary people into the most extraordinary of situations. Brite, on the other hand, takes the oddest characters and lets them live their lives. Though the novel's events can certainly be arranged into a convincing synopsis that promises thrills and action, Drawing Blood is one of the least plot-driven novels I have ever encountered. 

The two protagonists don't so much have pressing plots as they do backstories. When Trevor was five, his father, a famous artist, slaughtered Trevor's mother and brother and hung himself. Zach, meanwhile, lived a lucrative life as a hacker in New Orleans after leaving home at sixteen to escape his violent father and cruel mother. The ramifications of these pasts are not skin deep, and Brite does not shy away from her characters' darkness. Zach and Trevor have both been hurt awfully in the past, and that pain has twisted each of them in a myriad of ways. They can be jagged to get to know, and their lives can at first seem nothing but a tapestry of scars. But Brite imbues every word of her narration with the contents of their souls. The reader comes to know and understand them, to grasp their strange tastes and habits, and to feel their needs. Scant chapters into the book, Zach and Trevor feel like dear friends or, beyond even that, like alternate lives that we ourselves might have led.

Needless to say, Zach and Trevor meet, though they don't do so as quickly as one might think. On the twentieth anniversary of his father's murders, Trevor returns to his family home in Missing Mile to try and understand why he was spared. Zach, warned by a fellow hacker that the Secret Service is closing in on him, flees his home and city. For him, Missing Mile is just a stop on the road, but stop there he does, and it's then that he meets Trevor.

From that point on, the book's progress is wholly formed by the characters' interactions with one another. Missing Mile is the setting of much of Brite's work, including Lost Souls and one of the pieces in Wrong Things. Filled with all those accumulated stories, the town's roads and sections are vividly described with all the insider familiarity and lived-in distinction of any town you might find on the map. Far more importantly, it is filled with warmly human characters. Townsmen Terry and Kinsey have full and believable lives of their own outside of and beyond the confines of these here three hundred and seventy-three pages, and the depths of their lives and manner is evident from the briefest conversation we see them hold. Seeing two of Brite's characters interact is like watching your fiancé meet your mother; you know every person in the room as well as you could possibly know someone, but they don't know each other, and they are far too real and far too complex to be predictable. Though they will always stay true to their character, you don't know how the conversation will go until it plays out before your eyes.

Zach and Trevor fall in love, and the source of the novel's greatest light is also that of its deepest darkness. Both of them have well learned by this point that love brings pain, that it ends with cutting words and tears, pain and blame and regret, maybe even blood, that all of those things are almost guaranteed (p. 157). They know that safety is best found in emotional solitude. Zach isn't willing to risk the injury to himself that will come if he trusts and loves another. And Trevor isn't willing to take anyone with him (p. 174). When he first fucks Zach, he realizes that sex and violence have the same power, but that isn't the only connection, for death and love dance together as closely in his mind as cause and effect. If you loved someone, he wonders time and time again, really loved them, wouldn't you want to take them with you when you died? (p. 102)

As Trevor explores the house his father lived in and the deaths his father caused, he slips towards becoming his father. And as he falls in love with Zach, he risks killing the boy that he loves in the fulfillment of that love. The danger here is all internal. Drawing Blood boasts no villain, has no ticking bomb at the center of its plot. Its story is Trevor and Zach coming together with who they are and with their pasts and each other, and its dangers are no less real for that. When Trevor does cross the edge, the reader feels it twice over, feels the pain of his blows and also the violation of someone we know so well do something so cruel.

The overall feeling of Drawing Blood can likely best be summed up and felt in a description of Trevor's father's comic, a description that could pass just as well as one for the novel itself. To allow the characters I'm describing to wield the pen for a moment, Trevor describes the comic and the novel as made of: stark, slick, slightly hallucinatory drawings, the distorted reflections in puddles and the dark windows of bars, the constant low-key threat of violence, the feeling that everything in the strip was a little larger than life, and a little louder, and, a little weirder (pp. 100-1). All of this is brought out by Brite's fantastic prose. Brite is capable of bringing characters to life and of standing back while they need quick sentence to act and interact. He is also capable of stunning lines and images that crystallize her world, be they melancholically beautiful (Most of the Hummingbirds [family]were poetic souls tethered to alcoholic bodies. (p. 25)) or brutal in their extremity and futility (The skull always grinned because it knew it would emerge triumphant, that it would comprise the sole identity of the face long after vain baubles like lips and skin and eyes were gone. (p. 225)).

Despite its frequently grotesque imagery, its bouts of extreme violence, and its general no holds barred approach, calling Drawing Blood a Horror novel feels almost wrong. Horror is, certainly, a part of it, but it's not the only or even necessarily the dominant part. This is as much a love story as it is a horror one. In his description of it on his site, Brite says that this is a "very druggy book" and also one with "lots and lots and lots of hot, exhaustively detailed sex." Both are certainly true, and the novel seems about as much about those, and about its characters, and about Missing Mile, and all sorts of other things, as it does about its Horror. Truthfully, some sort of archaic label like Decadent or a modern one like, despite its often pejorative sense, Goth seems to fit the entirety of the novel better than Horror.

Whatever its classification, Drawing Blood is a powerful read. The book is messy in terms of its genre, its plot, and its characters, but that very messiness is part of why it feels like such a richly human book. The pages of Drawing Blood are stuffed with living, breathing people, and it's a pleasure to get to know them.

[Note: all page numbers from the limited James Cahill hardcover edition]