Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fire Pattern by Bob Shaw

"Secrecy has always been a big thing with you people," Jerome said, voicing a minor criticism as a camouflage for the deep revulsion the Dorrinian's words had inspired in him.

I guess like a lot of people my age, when I was in my teens in the 1980s my family had a copy of Reader's Digest's Mysteries of the Unexplained, a book about paranormal phenomenon.  One of the things which really got to me in the book was the section on spontaneous human combustion.  I wasn't a sailor, I didn't believe in God, and I lived in the suburbs, so sea serpents, demonic possession, and sasquatch didn't scare me, but spontaneous human combustion seemed like something that might be real and could happen to anybody, anywhere.  Around the same time this phenomenon was scaring a young MPorcius, Bob Shaw wrote and published a science fiction novel based on spontaneous human combustion, Fire Pattern.

Published in 1984 and set in 1996, Fire Pattern has the words "science fiction" on the back cover but starts out much like a conventional thriller, one of those books about an ordinary middle-class person facing quotidian life challenges who starts a new love relationship while doing detective stuff and uncovering a conspiracy. Fifty-year-old Ray Jerome is still recovering from the death of his wife and the loss of his job as an engineer.  His current job is as a reporter at a small New England newspaper (British subject Shaw set this novel in the United States, apparently an alternate universe USA in which Americans measure distances in "kilometres" instead of "miles" and call their summer homes "chalets.")  Jerome, who is older than everybody in the office and worked at a trade journal, is always correcting everybody's grammar and writing style and ridiculing people's beliefs in goofy nonsense like spontaneous human combustion.  Circumstances force him to change his tune about fortean phenomena when a case of "SHC" occurs in his little New England town, and the editor of the paper (a forty-year-old woman our hero has a crush on) assigns Jerome to investigate.

Like in any detective story, Jerome talks to the witness, reads background material, visits the morgue, looks for clues in photos, blah blah blah.  You can bet I was relieved when, 75 or 80 pages into the 208-page paperback, we plunge into Van Vogt territory!  Cases of SHC are revealed to Jerome to be botched mind transfer operations originating from Mercury!  For centuries the telepathic Mercurians (who call themselves "Dorrinians"), by the hundreds, have been colonizing Earth by switching bodies with Earth people (and in the process building up a colony on Mercury of Earthlings in Mercurian bodies!)  Jerome finds himself in the middle of a secret war between factions of telepathic Mercurians on Earth, and then, in classic wish-fulfillment fiction style, is transferred to a young healthy body on Mercury!  In the first part of the book Shaw kept reminding us of Jerome's arthritis and poor eyesight, making the move to the Mercury body cathartic.  Even better, the Terran colony on Mercury has a culture of sexual promiscuity--I mean free love!

Despite his improved physical health and active sex life, life on Mercury is no picnic for our hero!  He misses Earth and finds that he doesn't really get along with the natives, who can be arrogant, dismissive, and selfish.  But the wish-fulfillment fantasy continues when it is Jerome (earning the title "Dances with Dorrinians") who saves the Mercurian civilization and then helps the Mercurians secretly conquer the Earth with their telepathic powers! Like in so many anti-human/anti-Western science fiction stories (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Killer Thing, Hero's Walk, Childhood's End, The Forever WarThe Cosmic Rape, etc) we are expected to cheer on the aliens as human free will is extinguished and the Earth becomes some kind of utopia under the imperialism of the extraterrestrials.  If these Mercurian psykers hadn't hypnotized all of us, we'd all have died in a nuclear war caused by humanity's failings!  (Like my college professors, these SF stories never want to blame the Soviet Union for the Cold War, but instead blame the West or some abstraction like "tribalism" that places equal blame on the corrupt and racist bourgeois democracies and poor Uncle Joe's misunderstood, well-intentioned and hard-pressed worker's paradise.)  Jerome's reward for putting the Mercurians in charge of his fellow Earthlings is getting his memory of all he has learned about SHC and Mercury erased, getting his mind put back in (a healthier version of) his old body, and getting married to that sexy newspaper editor.          

Even if the ending disappointed me, there is a lot to like about Fire Pattern; it is a very entertaining read.  Shaw is a skilled writer, and the plot is good.  Because the cover illo and blurbs make no reference to outer space, I was truly surprised when the whole Mercurian telepath angle was sprung on me, and surprised again when Jerome ended up on Mercury in an alien body.  I had expected Shaw to explain spontaneous human combustion to be the work of callous big business or wealthy predatory physicians or something like that (sort of like what Pohl did in Drunkard's Walk.)  And because Shaw shows how self-important the Mercurians are, and has them keep bragging about how ethical they are (the Mercurian doth protest too much, I thunk), in the last few pages, when Jerome has to make his big decision, I thought there was a real chance he would side with the people of Earth over the invaders.

A curious element of the novel was its anti-computer, anti-technology attitude.  Computers put Jerome out of work, a computer that checks grammar is to blame for Jerome's fellow journalists' poor grasp of the English language, and Jerome thinks recording interviews via shorthand is more effective than using a tape recorder.  Mercurian engineering is inferior to that of the Earth, but the Dorrinians' superior mental abilities mean it is they who conquer us, without us even knowing what is happening!

Maybe I've got Van Vogt on the brain, but another thing about Fire Pattern I found interesting was possible links or similarities to that wild Canadian's work.  Besides all the telepathy stuff, the hidden secret aliens, and the secret conspiracies, I found Fire Pattern's explanation for spontaneous human combustion to be very similar to a striking scene in one of Van Vogt's better stories, "Secret Unattainable."  I also wondered if the ways Jerome was always criticizing other journalists' grammar and word usage was some kind of oblique reference to how Van Vogt's writing is famously confusing and clumsy.

Do I wish Fire Pattern was a ringing endorsement of human independence and loyalty to the Earth? Of course I do.  But since it is a well-written, well-constructed, and surprising novel, I still enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the other Shaw books I own.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Iron Lords by Andrew J. Offutt

"I could want for more, and do.  I have need of a place to be and to belong!  I who have been called Orrikson and Strodeson and yet am son of neither.  I need more, Lords of Iron!  It's people, people I can be calling my own I have need of...and vengeance, the vengeance I've dreamed of."  

I purchased Andrew J. Offutt's The Iron Lords on the same trip to the Des Moines Salvation Army that yielded Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses.  How could I resist Rowena Morrill's cover painting, which shows a coldly beautiful woman's helmeted face and a big slab of beefcake fighting improbably silly monsters (is that a crab with a human face?), as well as Poul Anderson's enthusiastic blurb ("Great entertainment of epic scope!")?  The Iron Lords is the first volume of a trilogy, and was first published by Jove in 1979.  My edition includes interior illustrations signed "rw."

Seven-year-old Jarik and his eight-year-old sister Torsy witness, from the safety of the woods, their seaside village raided Viking-style, all their friends and family raped and murdered.  Jarik vows revenge on these "Hawkers," and has a vision of himself wielding a black sword, and of a cruel, taunting, silver goddess.  After a sea voyage in a little boat the kids are taken in by people from another village, one inland.  Jarik grows up to be a skilled warrior with a hugely muscled body who performs prodigious feats, but most of the villagers never really accept the two foundlings.  Jarik has rivalries and feuds, and after killing one of his tormentors, Jarik, accompanied by Torsy, now around 18 years old, is exiled from this second village.

After some violent and rapey adventures Jarik and Torsy are taken in at a third village.  In the center of this village is an iron meteorite with a black sword embedded in it.  When Torsy is murdered by yet another bunch of raiders (the villages in this world are constantly raiding each other), Jarik draws the sword from the stone Arthur-style and becomes a virtually invincible fighting machine.  The three black armored gods who put the sword in the meteorite appear, and spirit Jarik away to their mountaintop fortress where they are tended to by beautiful maidens.

The three black clad gods are the Iron Lords.  These powerful beings turn out to be refugees from another planet, among the last survivors of a high-tech society that was destroyed in a cataclysmic collision between planets.  The three Iron Lords are at war with one of their fellow refugees, the silver goddess Jarik saw in a vision a decade ago, who is known as the Lady of the Snowmist.  The Hawkers who massacred Jarik's community back in that first village worship the Lady, so when the Iron Lords ask Jarik to pursue the quest of killing the Lady of the Snowmist, he is eager to do so.  The Iron Lords transport him to the Hawker village, where he confronts both the Hawkers and the Lady!  

This confrontation does not go as planned, and at the end of this first volume of Jarik's saga he has been enslaved by the Lady of the Snowmist and sent on a mission by her, a voyage to the other side of the world in the company of the Hawkers' leader!

While much of the plot and its components feel derivative, Offutt includes some interesting and unusual elements in The Iron Lords.  One of the novel's main themes is that of the outsider who does not belong, wherever he may go.  The alien gods are outsiders, as is Jarik himself.  It turns out that Torsy is not really his sister, that Jarik was adopted by the people of that first seaside village.  (When Torsy realizes this she falls in love with him and contrives to have sex with Jarik--Jarik resists because of the incest taboo and because Torsy is too skinny for his taste.)  When Jarik is made an ally of the Iron Lords he finally feels like he has found a group to which he belongs; the Lady tells him they were just using him, as she will now use him.

The later Ace edition with a cover
by Tom Kidd
The origin of the "gods" and their relationship with the common people is also interesting; to renew their physical bodies, the gods occasionally appear to their worshippers and take away with them the community's healthiest young men.  Another unusual element is how Jarik is two people--usually he is the angry and violent Jarik who feels estranged and seeks revenge, but when he comes upon a wounded loved one (like Torsy after she has been gang raped) his mind leaves his body and another consciousness, perhaps his unborn adoptive brother Oak (killed in the womb during the attack of the Hawkers), takes over his body and expertly administers first aid.  While Oak has possession of Jarik's body Jarik has visions that foreshadow his fate and hint at the realities of his world.

I'm OK with The Iron Lord's plot, but the style and execution have some problems--Offutt is trying to accomplish something "mythic" and "epic," and does not quite get there.  He employs poetic devices like repetition and lots of metaphors; page 23 contains a good example, a paragraph in which variations of the couplet "he was strong, he could row" appears three times, and bloody wounds are described as mouths crying out for vengeance (compare the Old Testament's "What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.")


Most of the time Offutt writes in the voice of an omniscient narrator who knows Jarik's every feeling and thought, but sometimes he acts like a chronicler working from contradictory oral and written sources.  This sloppy lack of consistency was kind of disconcerting.

A bigger problem is that Offutt can be long-winded.  There are long dream sequences, long descriptions of people's houses and clothes, a long blow by blow fight scene that gets a little tedious, and a long scene that details a religious ritual that doesn't add anything to the story.  There are also many characters, and while Jarik, Torsy, the gods and the leader of the Hawkers are interesting enough, each village is populated by a multitude of vaguely drawn and essentially interchangeable people.

The Iron Lords is no masterpiece, but the odd elements kept my interest and I was genuinely curious about what would happen next,  If I see the rest of the trilogy on the shelves of a used bookstore I will probably pick them up to find out what happens to Jarik and the alien gods who are manipulating him.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Vampiric tales by Tanith Lee and Harlan Ellison

If isfdb is to be believed, in 1984 SF Chronicle presented awards (based on reader voting) for "Most Attractive Writer."  Winning the Female category was Tanith Lee. Walking away with the award for the Male category (well, it looks like he tied with Thomas F. Monteleone) was Harlan Ellison,

These two lookers would be reunited in 2009's The Vampire Archives, edited by Otto Penzler and billed as "The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published;" it includes two stories by Lee as well as a tale by Ellison, and features their names prominently on its covers. The book is even dedicated to Ellison, whom Penzler declares is "the antithesis" of a vampire!

"Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" by Harlan Ellison (1976)

This story first appeared in the program book of the 1976 34th Annual World SF Convention, held in Kansas City, Missouri, the cover of which appears to depict an idealized image of Missouri native Robert Heinlein in a space navy uniform accompanied by a hot babe! This image (by George Barr) sums up so many of the conventional reasons that people give for why classic SF is great and why it is terrible that I am loving it sincerely and ironically with all my heart!

Ellison's story:  A man, Mitch (didn't we just deal with an unsympathetic Mitch?), goes to one of his regular singles' bars after attending the funeral of one of his girlfriends, Anne, a suicide.  Mitch is promiscuous, moving quickly from one woman to the next, and he didn't love Anne. Anne, however, fell in love with him, and perhaps killed herself over him.

We learn a little about Mitch and the singles dating scene as he recollects insulting a feminist (telling her in colorful language that if she didn't like "the system" she should go have a sex change operation!) to the cheers of the rest of the people in the bar. Then a pale girl approaches him, seduces him.  Back at her place the pale woman (Mitch never learns her name), I guess via the sex act, fills Mitch with the terrible loneliness felt by the women he has seduced and abandoned.  

This is a good enough story, apparently a criticism of men who seduce women and use them for sex, and perhaps of the whole culture of promiscuity we associate with the 1970s.  When last we read a story by Ellison ("Shattered Like a Glass Goblin") he was attacking the drug culture, and here it seems he is pointing out a possible dark side to the sexual liberation that came to the West in the 1960s and 1970s.  Since we always hear people celebrating the '60s and free love and all that, it is certainly interesting to encounter stories by somebody with unimpeachable counterculture bona fides like Ellison expressing skepticism about these social changes.  It is like encountering the cultural conservatism of counterculture hero Robert Crumb: surprising, exciting, and thought-provoking, and fun for all those reasons.  

Speaking of "thought-provoking," "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" is the kind of story that could serve as the impetus for one of those fascinating "What is feminism?" discussions.  (You know you love them!)  Is "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" feminist because it is about a woman getting revenge on a man who has used women for his own sexual pleasure and hurt their feelings, because it portrays a man forced to walk in women's shoes?  (Remember that time Fred had to put on Wilma's apron and do all the housework?  Groundbreaking social commentary!)  Or is "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time" patronizing and patriarchal because it suggests women don't enjoy casual sex like men do and can't survive the 1970s' liberated dating scene, because it implies men and women are very different and perhaps women need some kind of protection?  Either way, a story which makes you consider such issues is worth reading in my book.

"Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur" by Tanith Lee (1984)

This one first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.  Talk about a lifeless, uninspired cover...zzzzzzz.

For some seventeen years the castle has been under siege by black-feathered blood-sucking bird people! Every night the Duke, whose wife and daughter were among the very first victims of the weird flying fiends, and the other aristos have loud parties or stuff their ears so they don't have to hear the avian vampires' flapping wings and eerie singing!  As our story begins, the leader of the vampire people, who are savages with no technology or literature, only their beautiful singing voices and their love for blood ("a perfect food"), named Feroluce, finds a narrow broken window and squeezes through it to enter the castle.  After being wounded in a fight with a lion from the Duke's menagerie, Feroluce is captured.

Rohise the simple-minded teenaged scullery maid has lived her entire life in the castle during this vampire siege.  When she sees Feroluce in his cage, she immediately falls in love with his beauty.  She contrives to liberate the monster, and flies off with him. Feroluce is rejected by his people, and he and Rohise become lovers, then die in the snowy mountains.  (Shades of Romeo and Juliet!)  In the final paragraphs we learn the dreadful secret of Rohise's birth and the horrible fate suffered by the Duke and his people.

This story is very good, full of striking images, great metaphors, various surprises. And of course as I have said on this blog before, I love Lee's somewhat old-fashioned, romantic and decadent writing style.  With economical strokes Lee also creates alien but believable cultures within the castle (hinting at the psychological and sociological effects of being shut up in a fortress, harried by vampiric raptor-people, for seventeen years) and among the vampires, who have little or no language but still have traditions and mores.

As we expect with Lee, "Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur" is full of outre sex references. The fact that the vampires have been hanging around the castle for seventeen years before getting inside is compared to foreplay, and Lee tells us the castle's fortifications inspire desire the way a woman excites the lust of a man by saying "No."  When Feroluce wrestles with the Duke's lion and drinks its blood their grappling is explicitly compared to sexual congress.  The image of the vampires flying around the castle, trying to get inside, made me think of sperm wriggling around an ovum, and the way Feroluce penetrates the castle and then finds himself captured within it reminded me of the prototypical male experience of pursuing a woman and then finding one's self ensnared by her, domesticated and severed from one's old life of freedom and friends.

Another triumph for Lee!

"Winter Flowers" by Tanith Lee (1993)

"Winter Flowers" first was published in Asimov's.  The cover of this issue resides on the borders of the "loving it ironically" and "rolling my eyes and groaning" camps.

Our narrator for this tale is Maurs, the captain of a small mercenary company in a fantasy version of medieval Europe.  He is a vampire, as are all of his soldiers--in this story vampires don't mind sunlight or garlic and can get killed by being stabbed or shot full of arrows like the rest of us. They do live for centuries (our narrator is like 300 years old) and have superior eyesight and that sort of thing.  And they love to drink blood.

At the start of the story Maurs and his men are in the service of a Duke, as part of his army, which is sacking a town which has just fallen to their siege.  This is a Christian region, in which witches and vampires are exterminated when discovered, so Maur and his subordinates have to try to hide their nature.  One of Maur's soldiers lets his lust for blood get away with him, and is caught drinking a boy's blood, and so is executed by being burned at the stake!  In order to keep their secret, Maur and his crew have to pretend they didn't know their comrade was a vampire and even help out at the burning!

After this dreadful episode, Maur and company leave the Duke's employ and march off into the countryside.  They discover a beautiful abandoned castle full of fine art, old books, and delicious food.  All this finery is an illusion--an even more powerful vampire, a gorgeous woman, employs the castle as a spider does a web, and she begins cunningly killing the mercenaries and drinking their blood.  Maur she desires to take as a lover, and uses hypnotic powers to excite his love and lust--will he succumb to slavery or kill her with his sword?

This is a good sword and sorcery story; fans of Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and Elric and Kane might like it.  I'm not quite certain what exactly "grimdark" is, but this story may qualify; atrocities are the norm and there are no characters whose ethics or morals would be considered admirable according to conventional late 20th century standards.  The vampire woman is an interesting and original monster because of her subordinate monsters, who are too weird and complicated for me to briefly describe; suffice to say they feel new and Lee does a good job of bringing them to life for the reader.  Those of us who pay any attention to speculative fiction and RPGs see lots and lots of monsters, and a monster that feels fresh is exciting; these minions of the villain are my favorite part of "Winter Flowers."

While I have compared it to a classic sword and sorcery tale by the titans of the genre, Howard, Leiber, Moorcock and Wagner, "Winter Flowers" still bears the characteristic marks of a tale by Lee.  Besides her writing style, there is the sex angle, of course; as in "Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Fur," we have a castle that, like a woman, seduces a man and separates him from his male friends and his society.  Rape is a prominent topic in the story.  The vampire mercenaries enjoy sex with women, but also apparently have sex with each other, and, when the opportunity arises, with young boys.  You can argue that the whole basis and point of the story is love and its relationship to sex, and that the decisions and choices Maur and the other mercenaries have to make over the course of the plot are all guided by their love for each other.

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Three good stories, horror stories with vampires that also address the timeless human issue of sexual love and the catastrophic mess it can make of people's lives. Well worth checking out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Vampiric stories by M. R. James

Some readers may recall that back in March I read the short story "A Serious Call" by George Hay, a story which referred to and was some sort of homage to M. R. James, the British intellectual and writer of ghost stories.  As I have so many times, at that time I resolved to read some work by a writer--this time James, whom wikipedia is telling me was admired by many writers I am familiar with, like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Ramsey Campbell, and was a "reactionary" who opposed "modernity and progress" and hated the literature of his time--but I did not follow through on this resolution.

Until this week!  Last week I was flipping through Otto Penzler's huge 2009 anthology The Vampire Archives and saw James's name in the Table of Contents, and was reminded of my resolution.  So this week, I read the three James stories included in Penzler's book.

"An Episode of Cathedral History" (1914)

Through multiple layers of framing devices concerning scholars investigating the history of an English cathedral, we learn a story which took place in the early 1840s. The cathedral in question (in 1840) is being renovated to align it with the currently popular Gothic Revival style, thanks to a new young Dean who is swept up in the fad. It is perhaps evidence of James's purported conservatism that all the sympathetic characters oppose this radical alteration of the church's architecture, that much beautiful woodwork is destroyed in the process, and that the renovation unleashes a menace to society.

The removal of a pulpit reveals an unmarked tomb.  There is no evidence of who is interred there, but various episodes indicate to the reader that a monster of some type was imprisoned in the tomb, and is now preying upon the populace.  People have horrible dreams, at night dreadful cries are heard, a child looks out a window and sees two dim red eyes in the shadows, and numerous people fall mysteriously ill and some even die.  In the end the wiser elements of the community drive off the dimly perceived monster despite the objections of the reforming Dean.

"Count Magnus" (1904)

For this story our narrator is a scholar, who has examined a bunch of old documents about a Mr. Wraxall.  Wraxall, in 1863, went to a seventeenth-century manor house in Sweden in order to examine a bunch of old documents there.

The noble who built the manor house and is infamous for mercilessly crushing a peasant uprising, a Count Magnus, is buried in an elaborate mausoleum nearby. Wraxall visits the mausoleum, where he finds the tomb has three padlocks on it!  He feels drawn to visit the Count's tomb again and again, and with each visit one fewer padlock is secure!  When he realizes some supernatural agency must be hypnotizing him into freeing the undead Count, it is too late!  Wraxall flees to England, but the Count is on his tail, and Wraxall dies in a remote village of unknown causes; unknown, that is, until our narrator finds his hidden papers, years later.

"Wailing Well" (1928)

To my surprise, this is a humor piece, full of deadpan jokes about life at an English boarding school.  Did I borrow a book of vampire stories from the library in hopes of reading a bunch of jokes?  No, I did not.

Arthur Wilcox is a student admired and beloved by all.  One of the story's many gags is the list of wacky good conduct medals and merit badges he receives. Stanley Judkins, in contrast, is a troublemaker whom the school authorities have no use for. The story's most extravagant joke is the revelation that, to provide opportunities to earn a "Life-saving Badge," younger boys are tied up and thrown in a body of water. When it is his turn to earn the badge Judkins simply lets the young boy drown, creating a hassle for the school administration.

Near the school is a field avoided by all the locals.  In the center of the field is a clump of trees and a well; Judkins is told to avoid the well, as it is home to sinister monsters. He goes to investigate it anyway, and students and faculty watch from a hilltop as he fights, unsuccessfully, for his life against a crew of weird skeletal beings.  Judkins' body, drained of blood, is retrieved, but his spectre joins that of his murderers in haunting the evil clump of trees.  There is a strange discontinuity of tone between this gruesome material and the broad jokes of the first part of the story.

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These stories are all entertaining, if not spectacular.  The monsters (James never uses the word "vampire") all have an interesting look to them, and interesting abilities, and each story has scenes designed to "chill" or "creep out" the reader, which are effective.

It is perhaps remarkable how many layers James puts between the reader and the characters who actually suffer fear and death at the hands of the monsters in the stories.  In "An Episode of Cathedral History" we learn about the monster from the narrator, who has the papers of another guy, which describe the conversations he had with a third guy.  This third guy was present during the monster's campaign of terror, but never saw the monster; his descriptions of it come from others.  The narrator of "Count Magnus" is describing to us documents he found in an old house, and in "Wailing Well" we never see the well or its evil inhabitants at close quarters, only from a distance.  I'm not sure how I feel about this storytelling strategy; is the fact that we witness the humans' interactions with the monsters from a distance make them more or less believable, or more or less horrifying?  Or is the distance significant because it instills in the reader a different type of horror; instead of the horror of pain and imminent death, the reader experiences the horror of uncovering new knowledge, knowledge that the universe is more complicated and irrational than previously thought, as well as more dangerous.

In our next episode we'll check out stories included in Otto Penzeler's The Vampire Archives from celebrated post-World War II writers of short stories whose work I already have some degree of familiarity with.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

1980s & '90s horror stories by Edward Bryant, Poppy Z. Brite and Gene Wolfe

The Halloween celebration at MPorcius Fiction Log continues with three more late-Twentieth Century horror stories selected by Ellen Datlow for her 2010 anthology Darkness, these by Edward Bryant, Poppy Z. Brite, and Gene Wolfe.

Click to read a census of Ellen Datlow's pets and library.
"Dancing Chickens" by Edward Bryant (1984)

I've devoted two posts to Edward Bryant in the past, liking some stories and disliking others.  Let's see what Bryant has in store for us this time.  I have to admit that "Dancing Chickens" is not an inspiring title--I don't want to read any dumb jokes! "Dancing Chickens" first appeared in the anthology Light Years and Dark.

Like Koja's "Teratisms," which I talked about in my last blog post and also appears in Darkness, this story realistically describes a lifestyle which is disturbing and disgusting.  Our narrator, Rick or "Ricky," is the product of a broken home, a street kid who loves dancing.  He was lifted out of the gutter by a man he calls "Hawk." Hawk and Rick have a pederastic relationship:
He had taken me home, cleaned, fed, and warmed me.  He used me, sometimes well.  Sometimes he only used me.
We are even informed that Rick has suffered anal damage which he tries to pass off to doctors as hemorrhoids.  Yuck!

Alien spaceships have been hovering over the Earth for months; they have yet to communicate with the human race, and everybody is constantly wondering why the aliens are here and what they will do.

At a party where cocaine is available and all of the attendees appear to be gay men, one partier uses a raw chicken, dressed in doll clothes, as a puppet, making it dance to a recording of  "Tea For Two"and "If You Knew Susie."  (Not "Sledgehammer," however, which would not be released until early 1986.)   This performance sickens Rick, who flees the apartment and runs in front of a bus.  As he lays dying, the space aliens use a tractor beam to make him dance around, their first interaction with the human race.  The point of the story is, no doubt, that the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.

This story is well-written, and certainly horrible, but it is hard not to see the resolution of the plot as sort of ridiculous.  It is like those EC comics in which a guy who enjoys pulling off flies' wings is captured by giant alien flies who delight in tearing people's arms off--a little too obvious.  "Dancing Chickens" is a borderline case that I hesitate to say is bad, but don't feel I can endorse.

"Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" by Poppy Z. Brite (1992)

Poppy Z. Brite is one of those names that I see in anthologies all the time, but I had never read any of her work.  I decided to give her a shot this week.  When I read editor Datlow's intro and learned "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," which first appeared in the anthology Still Dead, was a zombie apocalypse story I was discouraged, as I am sick of that kind of thing, but having committed myself I went through with reading it. Luckily its main focus is not the kind of zombie stuff we've read and seen a billion times already.  (Maybe I shouldn't read these introductions until after I've read the stories they are affixed to.)

You might call this story transgressive.  How often do you read a story in which the smell of the vagina(!) takes a starring role in a metaphor:
The world squats and spreads its legs, and Calcutta is the dank sex you see revealed there, wet and fragrant with a thousand odors both delicious and foul.  A source of lushest pleasure, a breeding ground for every conceivable disease. 
This story is also a real gorefest--among other things, we hear how zombies will claw the breasts of a new mother so the milk spurts out of the wounds!  Yuck again!

The plot: Our narrator was born in Calcutta to a local woman and an American man. Mom died in childbirth, and Dad took him back to the US.  Dad was a drunk, and died when our hero was 18; soon after the narrator moved to Calcutta.  While he was living there the zombie apocalypse broke out.

Because the zombies move slowly, they can only catch cripples and children, so life in Calcutta goes on more or less as usual: the buses run, shops open and do business, etc. The story consists primarily of our narrator, who apparently has no need to work, spending a day strolling around the town. The picture he paints of Calcutta would not be appreciated by the Department of Tourism of the West Bengal government (whose official English website is full of adorable typos.)  We are told that the people smell bad, and shit and piss wherever they feel like.  Five million of the inhabitants "look as if they are already dead--might as well be dead--and another five million wish they were...."  I'm not feeling encouraged to book a flight to this center of art and culture!    
In the morning our Indian-born, American-educated hero visits the temple of Kali, the four-armed and three-eyed Mother and eater of souls, where he offers her statue a handful of flowers and spices.  In the evening he returns to the temple, and finds a gaggle of zombies there, also making an offering.  The living dead offer Kali severed heads, hunks of human flesh, and piles of bones!  Our hero hallucinates that the statue of Kali begins to move, exposing her gaping sex and gesturing him to come inside. Our narrator flees.

This is a pretty crazy story.  Like the Koja and Bryant stories in Darkness it relies for much of its power on realistic descriptions of the desperate lives of poor people.  I'm even considering the possibility that the "point" of "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" is that life is a horror story already for many people, that a zombie holocaust would be superfluous.

I would recommend the story as an experience: Brite's writing style is good, I learned a little about Calcutta (Brite does a good job of creating a sense of place), and the bizarre sexual elements (as in "Dancing Chickens") are striking and memorable.  Plot and character are lackluster, however.  In a conventional story a character faces a challenge or pursues a goal, and/or changes in some way.  I didn't get that from "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves;" the story is more like a "slice of life" or "tour of the city" kind of thing, meant to say something about Calcutta, that happens to be set during a zombie apocalypse.  There was also no real tension or emotional attachment, just the simple shock moments caused by the gore and cringe-and-laughter inducing sexual references; I didn't care what happened to the narrator, who in turn seemed detached and aloof himself (maybe that is part of Brite's point, that people from First World countries don't care about Third Worlders, or that the middle and upper classes don't care about the lower orders.)

I'll read more Brite in the future.

"The Tree is My Hat" by Gene Wolfe (1999)

I read this years ago, and didn't remember the details all that well, so decided to give it another read.  "The Tree is My Hat" first appeared in 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, and is also in the 2009 collection The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction.

Like Brite's "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," "The Tree is My Hat" is a first-person narrative by an American in the Third World, and has at its center an ancient non-Western religion and the narrator's relationship with one of its dangerous deities.  Wolfe's story is more complicated, though, told in the form of a diary and not quite in chronological order, and our main character is not at all aloof--the story is about his intimate human (and inhuman!) relationships.  It also has a conventional man versus nature, man versus society, and man versus himself plot.

It is sad to see a cover that is so lazy
Our narrator's name is Baden, and, appropriately enough, because like numerous other Wolfe first-person narrators, he is an immoral person and an unreliable narrator, everybody calls him "Bad" for short.  Bad, for example, admits to being a vicious liar.

Bad works for a US government agency whose (ostensible?) mission is to provide assistance to other countries. After a trip to Africa, where he caught a chronic disease (like malaria, I suppose) he has been sent to some little Polynesian island.  Bad wants to get back with his estranged wife Mary, and even while he is in the process of doing so via e-mail he has a sexual relationship with a local woman.

Besides the native woman, Bad becomes friendly with the native king of the island, a Christian missionary named Rob, and an ancient shark god named Hanga.  (And exchanges e-mails with a psychic, who gives him warnings of danger--Wolfe crams lots of characters into this 24-page story!)  The missionary, who has been on the island for years, gives us the lowdown on the shark god and the island's history.  In ancient times, Rob claims, a great civilization in an unspecified location was ruled by a tyrannical and bloodthirsty aristocracy, who waged war and sacrificed peasants in order to appease a bloodthirsty god.  Finally, the commoners rose up and threw the aristocrats out--the aristocrats resettled on the island in which this story takes place, bringing their god with them.

Hanga appears in human form to Bad, and sees in Bad a kindred spirit--in an unsettling ritual they become blood brothers!  In a line that will thrill libertarian and conservative readers, Bad equates the U.S. government with the murderous Polynesian aristocrats:
...I had to wonder about people like me, who work for the federal government.  Would we be driven out someday, like the people Rob talked about?  A lot of us do not care any more about ordinary people than they did.
When Mary gets to the island all hell breaks loose, and in some effectively creepy and then horrifying scenes, Bad, Mary, and their children are tormented and then attacked by the shark god--there are numerous horrendous casualties!

Perhaps my favorite scene comes a little before the catastrophic ending sections, and I think it exemplifies the feel of the story.  Late at night Bad sees what he calls in his diary a UFO, but we readers can tell from Bad's description that it must be his buddy Hanga, in flying shark form!

Like a lot of Wolfe stories, this one is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, in that you get all the pieces, but you don't pull them out of the box in the order in which they fit together.  It can take a second read to slot them all together and see the big picture. Also, as usual with Wolfe, it makes sense to pay close attention to every sentence; there is no fat or filler in this story.  Besides airing some of his political views, Wolfe also talks about God and His relationship with man, and about World War II, which, as with a lot of history buffs, apparently fascinates Wolfe.  There is also a surprising little joke which I didn't notice until looking through the story the fourth or fifth time--Mary's maiden name seems to be have been "Mary Christmas!"

Another gem from the master which gets better and yields more pleasure to the reader the harder he or she works at it.  Bravo!

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Worthwhile horror stories.  In our next episode it's back to the pre-war era for some horror stories by M. R. James, whom Otto Penzler suggests was "arguably the greatest writer of supernatural stories who ever lived!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late 20th-century Horror Stories by Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja & Dennis Etchison

I'm no Dinosaur Dracula, but, getting into the spirit of the season, I checked out 2010's Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, an anthology full of illustrations of snakes, edited by Ellen Datlow.  Early this week I read three widely-admired and widely-anthologized horror stories from its pages.  Maybe these "modern" horror stories will provide a contrast to the Victorian and Edwardian horror stories I have been reading?

"The Greater Festival of Masks" by Thomas Ligotti (1985)

Written in the present tense and full of rich descriptions, but with its plot and point not all that easily discerned, "The Greater Festival of Masks" has the qualities of a dream or nightmare.  I had to read it twice to feel that I had much of an idea of what was really going on.  It first appeared in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Noss lives in a sort of neverland, an odd city with no connection to our own real world, in which a festival is taking place.  A prime component of the festival is the wearing of masks, and Noss walks through town, to a shop which sells masks.  He has been delaying participating in the festivities, but has resolved to now acquire masks for himself.

We come to realize Noss is not a native of the town but an immigrant, and along with him we learn the truth of the festival at the mask shop.  The people of this town, during the rare mask festivals, put on two masks, one after the other.  The first erases their features, leaving their faces egg smooth, and the second mask creates for them a new face--Ligotti compares the slow process of a new face forming to being like that of a garden growing.  After some initial reluctance, Noss joins in this practice.

Any fiction in which masks feature prominently is going to make you think about identity and about the difference between what we show of ourselves to the world and the true character of our souls.  ("Every day you've got to wake up/disappear behind your makeup.")  On the second page of the story we get a description of how deceptive and fake are the facades of many of the city's buildings, incorporating false doors which do not open, stairways which lead nowhere, and balconies that cannot be accessed, decorative features which mimic practical ones, but lack any utility themselves.  This is a city characterized by false faces.  Perhaps ironically, during the festival of masks people in the city are more open and aboveboard: "He also observes numerous indications of the festival season.....For instance, not a few doors have been kept ajar, even throughout the night, and dim lights are left burning in empty rooms."

This city is also one characterized by change; it is implied that buildings come and go, and change places, like the plants of a curated garden.  (The garden is a metaphor Ligotti uses more than once in the story.)  And I think the story is primarily about change, the way change can be scary, the way that moving to a new city can change you, and also social change--everybody in the city, after all, changes at the same time, not each citizen individually and of his own volition.  The device of the masks seems to suggest that changes in the character of individuals come from without, not within, and Ligotti hints that social change comes from the periphery, not from society's recognized rulers ("...the delirium of this rare celebration does not radiate out from the center of things, but seeps inward from remote margins.")  He also suggests that after a major change the past is buried, forgotten ("of the old time nothing will be said, because nothing will be known.")

This reminded me of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, and of recent changes in the conventional wisdom about homosexuality in the United States--such changes seem to bubble up from the the culture and the people, instead of being lead by politicians, who follow trends in an effort to appeal to the masses and seem to be lying half the time about how they really feel.  As Ligotti suggests, once the change has taken place everybody acts like the new fashion is the obvious norm, and claims to be shocked and disgusted by the way people thought and behaved in the past.

Well-written, full of good images and phrases, and thought-provoking--"The Greater Festival of Masks" is a quite good story.    

"Teratisms" by Kathe Koja (1991)

This story is sort of opaque, or at least difficult (editor Datlow appropriately uses the word "oblique" to describe Koja's style.)  As with the Ligotti story, I had to read this one twice to satisfy myself that I knew what the hell was going on plotwise.  The tone and feeling of the story is no mystery, however; Koja generates an atmosphere of disgust and despair, of helplessness in the face of challenges and guilt, partly by including realistic little details about the depressing lives of her degenerate lower class characters, partly with all the bizarre descriptions of blood.

Mitch and his sister, who changes her name periodically and is currently going by the name of Randle, are young adults.  Their mother, before dying, made them promise to look after their illiterate kid brother Alex, and so the three stick together even though Mitch and Randle openly detest and are sickened by Alex and by each other.  This soul-crushingly antagonistic family can't settle down anyplace, but instead moves across the country in a beat up old car because, unless I am totally misinterpreting Koja's clues, Alex is a cannibal, perhaps even a vampire or ghoul, who kills and eats children when he gets a chance.

("Teratisms" first was published in the anthology Whispers of Blood, which has the subtitle "18 Stories of Vampirism," but in the story Koja never uses the word "vampire" and Alex seems to walk around in the sunlight all the time.  The story works without any supernatural content, as far as I can see.)

Koja is a little cagey when describing the cannibal stuff, but open with other examples of this trio's insanity and abnormality.  Alex obsessively recites the list of towns they have been to, and obsessively plays with little scraps of paper.  Randle is always coming on to her older brother, exposing her breasts to him and so forth, and I thought Koja was hinting that the three of them form a love triangle or maybe sometimes have group sex:
They [Randle and Alex] were almost to the counter, holding hands. When Randle saw him [Mitch] enter, she looked away; he saw her fingers squeeze Alex's, twice and slow. What was it like for her? Middleman.   
In the final lines of the story (remember our spoiler policy here at MPorcius Fiction Log) Mitch, exhausted by this horrible life, intentionally runs over Alex as Randle sits beside him in the passenger seat, and then drives the car into some trees in hopes of exterminating his entire insane and predacious family.

"Teratisms" is a skilled performance, and is twisted, disgusting and disturbing.  Read at your own risk!

"The Dog Park" by Dennis Etchison (1993)

I read Etchison's story "The Dead Line" in the summer and thought it was pretty good. Dinosaur Dracula praised, and then illustrated, Etchison's novelization of Halloween III just recently.  (Illustration is the sincerest form of flattery.)  So I thought "The Dog Park" worth a look.  

"The Dog Park" is about Hollywood people.  I guess it is about the way Hollywood chews up and spits out so many ambitious people without the talent or luck to achieve their dreams ("success walks hand in hand with failure," you know), and maybe about how the people in Hollywood who have already made it feel contempt for and even prey upon those who have yet to make it.

The story takes place in a dog park alongside an overgrown canyon.  People come to the dog park to network, giving their business cards to the other dog walkers and discussing scripts and that sort of jazz.  In the canyon, apparently, live coyotes and mountain lions who, it seems, kill any dogs who stray into the canyon.  On the other side of the canyon are the houses of rich people.

The plot follows a novelist who has produced only one novel and is leaving Los Angeles soon, defeated.  His dog vanished into the canyon a few weeks ago.  In the dog park one last time, in hopes of finding his lost dog, he meets a young woman who works for the Fox Network on a TV show about police dogs; she aspires to write a movie-of-the-week about Elvis Presley and his relationship with dogs.  Her dog is also stupid enough to end up in canyon.  As the story ends the rich people above the canyon are having a party, and seem to be applauding the wild beasts in the canyon as they devour the TV writer woman's canine.  Etchison directly compares the canyon to the Roman arena.

Maybe this story would do something for me if I had lived in Hollywood or ever owned a dog.  As it is, I am just sort of shrugging it off as OK.  Despite my lukewarm reaction it won a British Fantasy Award in 1994, and is apparently the favorite horror story of Richard Matheson's son!  "The Dog Park" first appeared in Dark Voices 5: The Pan Book of Horror.

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Datlow seems to have put together a collection of solid stories of importance to the horror fiction community; maybe I'll read more tales from Darkness later this week.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pessimistic Science Fiction Stories from 1949-50 by John D. MacDonald and Damon Knight

There is this idea that science fiction as a genre is optimistic, or was optimistic before some particular date.  For example, we often hear Barry Malzberg described as an outlier or rebel because his work is so pessimistic, and hear that the SF "establishment" was upset when Malzberg won the first Campbell award.  So it is fun to discover old stories, stories from before events like the Kennedy assassination or the Vietnam War, which we are sometimes told "signalled the loss of America's innocence" or whatever, which are pessimistic.  Here are three voyages aboard the S. S. Pessimismo with blast off dates in 1949 or 1950, which I read in Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction Sixth Series, published in 1988, an omnibus edition of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, Volumes 11 and 12, which appeared in 1984.


"Flaw" by John D. MacDonald (1949)

We've experienced some of famous detective novelist MacDonald's pessimistic science fiction before, in the novel Wine of the Dreamers and in some 1948 short stories.  "Flaw" first unleashed its negative vibes in Startling Stories.

You've probably heard of the phenomenon of "red shift," and how the fact that light from other stars is red shifted is strong evidence that the universe is expanding. (But have you heard the great Peter Hammill's song "Red Shift," in which he uses the fact that the universe is expanding as a kind of metaphor of the expanding psychological distance between people in the modern age?)  In "Flaw" MacDonald suggests an alternate, and quite wacky, theory to explain the red shift phenomenon.

"Flaw" is the brief memoir of Carol Adlar, a woman in the "future" of ten years after MacDonald wrote this story.  An atomic rocket motor has been developed, and Carol, who is a clerk at a space agency rocket station, and her colleagues were initially eager to explore the universe!  Our narrator's fiance Johnny was one of the first handful of astronauts to fly in an atomic rocket ship, but a disaster occurred, killing him and all hope that man can travel beyond the solar system, something our narrator figured out long before the eggheads did!

You see, over a month before Johnny's rocket was expected to return, a colossal meteor crashed near the space base.  Our narrator watched the excavations of the crater with binoculars, and something she saw proved her premonitions of her fiance's death to have been accurate--from the crater was hoisted a jeweled ring, a ring the size of a house!  Carol recognizes the ring as one she gave Johnny!  She realizes that the red shift phenomenon is caused by the fact that our solar system is shrinking, that the rocket ceased shrinking when it got far enough from the Sun!  ""If Johnny had landed safely, I would be able to walk about on the palm of his hand....It is a good thing that he died."

This story is drenched in pessimism.  Carol describes her own physical ("My fingernails are cracked and broken...") and psychological ("I rather imagine I am quite mad") deterioration since Johnny's death and the death of the human race's dreams of visiting the stars, and hopes she will die soon.  She repeatedly refers to how mankind has trashed the Earth, and points out that the ring she gave Johnny was that of her father, who was killed in the Pacific theater during World War II.  "We have made a mess of this planet, and it is something that we cannot leave behind us."

However silly the story's gimmick is, MacDonald is a good writer and there is a measure of human feeling to the tale, so I'd judge it moderately enjoyable.

"Spectator Sport" by John D. MacDonald (1950)

In the introduction to this story Martin H. Greenberg claims that MacDonald "still has great affection for sf and the people who write and read it."  Somehow I seem to recall MacDonald singing a different tune in the afterword to my edition of Wine of the Dreamers, but since my copy of Wine of the Dreamers is in storage I will just have to take Greenberg's word for it.

This cautionary tale about advances in entertainment technology first threatened the livelihood of Hollywood TV producers and electronics manufacturers in Thrilling Wonder Stories.

"Spectator Sport" is about a time traveller from 1950 who projects himself 400 years into the future.  He is astonished to find that there has been very little societal progress or change--there are no new buildings, and in fact things look unmaintained, decrepit.  A park bench the scientist recognizes from the 20th century is in place but decayed, as if nobody ever visits the park and the government never services it.

What has happened?  Everybody in the world is so addicted to what we would now call "virtual reality" (MacDonald references Huxley and "the feelies" by name) that few people have sex (population has diminished significantly) or even leave the house unnecessarily, and other forms of entertainment, like books and periodicals, are extinct.

There are two forms of virtual reality, "temps" and "perms."  Temps are like TV sets that have a knob you touch; through the knob is transmitted the emotional content of the show.  Wealthy people opt for more immersive (and expensive) perm treatment--they have their eyes removed and a feeding tube implanted, wires connected to their nerve endings and brain stem, and then live out the rest of their lives in fantasy worlds devised by the 24th century equivalent of TV executives and producers.

With its omniscient narrator, flat characters, and a central gimmick that doesn't feel fresh anymore (though MacDonald did use it five years before it appeared in Kuttner and Moore's "Two-Handed Engine"), I didn't enjoy "Spectator Sport" as much as "Flaw."  I'm more interested in drama and literary virtues than heavy-handed polemics, and "Spectator Sport" seems to rely for its impact on the reader's supposed anti-television prejudice and on its gore scene, in which we observe a person's body being mutilated in preparation for receiving "perm" service.  This story is merely OK.

"Not With a Bang" by Damon Knight (1950)

In his intro Asimov suggests the title of this story may refer not only to T. S. Eliot, but also to the sex act.  Asimov does not worry about spoiling the audience of his anthologies!  This condemnation of our species and civilization first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

"Not With a Bang" is an exercise in misanthropy.  Nuclear and biological warfare has destroyed civilization.  Only two people survive, one man and one woman. The man is desperate to have sex with the woman, willing to employ any means, but he is too weak to rape her, because he suffers from a wasting disease.  The woman is addle-brained from the shock of something she saw during the brief war, and, as a devoted Christian, refuses to have sex outside of marriage.  The man is so angry at her that he often feels like murdering her, but he needs her to give him life-saving shots when his disease causes him paralysis attacks.

Finally, he convinces the shell-shocked woman to agree to marry him.  He imagines not only the pleasure of having sex with her, but with a daughter they may have(!) Before the wedding he goes to a public restroom, and, as the door closes behind him, he has an attack of paralysis.  He will die of thirst standing there, and with him the human race, a race of murderers and rapists.

Knight is famous for the pun in his 1950 story "To Serve Man," and in the last paragraph of this story he gives us some misanthropic word play, declaring that the word on the door of the lavatory, "MEN," is a warning!

The audacity of the story, the way Knight goes to the limit, makes it fun, regardless of how seriously you might take his attitude.  Moderately enjoyable.

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I hope you've enjoyed these trips to classic SF's dark side.  Don't do anything rash!          

Sunday, October 11, 2015

More American Fantastic Tales by Women: Spofford, Jewett, Gilman and Wynne

In my last blogpost I wrote about stories written by major female American authors that are included in The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales Volume I, edited by Peter Straub. For this post I read stories from the book by women whom I don't think are quite as famous as Chopin, Wharton and Cather: Harriet Prescott Spofford, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Madeline Yale Wynne.  I decided to read these four stories largely because of their evocative titles.  Could this be a good strategy for sniffing out good fiction?  Let's see.

"The Moonstone Mass" by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1868)

One of the ideas I had when I decided to blog about stories from this anthology, an idea I haven't follow through on, was to assess if and how the stories were peculiarly American.  Could these stories have been written by someone from another English-speaking country?  Did the distinctive culture or attitudes of the people of the United States shine through each story?  If we look at the stories this way I think it may be significant that many of them have something to do with business and money; perhaps this makes sense, if we think of the society of the United States as a peculiarly individualistic, democratic and bourgeois one, a place where everybody thinks of himself as middle-class and people are often defined by their work and their income.

Harriet Prescott Spofford's story fits into this mold.  Our narrator has a "certain weakness" in common with his ancestors, "the fear of dying in poverty."  And so he goes on a dangerous adventure: sailing into the Arctic in hopes of discovering, or disproving the existence of, the Northwest Passage.  His uncle, a man very interested in this topic, promises to pay him a pile of money for participating in the voyage.

"The Moonstone Mass" reminded me of Poe's 1841 story "Into the Maelstrom," which I admit I read like ten years ago and do not remember well.  Spofford's narrator's voyage is a disaster, with our hero the only survivor.  Alone he rides a chunk of ice along some current, witnessing odd meteorological, electrical and magnetic phenomena.  Spofford's speculations as to what is going on in the unexplored areas around the North Pole reminded me of 20th century science fiction writers' speculations about conditions on the moon or Mars, but also reminded me of the Romantic Movement: our hero doesn't do anything, he just lies on a moving ice floe and is alternately awed and horrified by what he sees (like "a lance of piercing light" that shoots up into the heavens) and feels (like a magnetic force that holds him in place on his ice floe.)  Finally he sees the "Mass" of the title, a huge hunk of moonstone, which he realizes is very valuable.  The current carries him past this treasure, and the memory of it haunts the rest of his days.

The plot of this story is good, but the passages about the natural wonders are too long and boring; the long sentences made my eyes glaze over.  Spofford doesn't develop any human relationships between the narrator and anybody on the doomed ship, and the north where much of the story takes pace is desolate of all life.  I have to give "The Moonstone Mass" a marginal thumbs down, and admit I thought the "Mass" of the title was going to be a ritual attended by witches or Satanists.

The most memorable thing about the story may be that Spofford employs some words we don't hear very much in the 21st century, like "pelf," "niggard" and "diablerie."  If things are a little boring at the office tomorrow, sprinkle your vocal contributions to a meeting or your section of a report with these fine words--there's a good chance you will generate an excitement your colleagues will appreciate.

 "In Dark New England Days" by Sarah Orne Jewett (1890)

The two unmarried Knowles sisters, who are both over sixty years old, have just lost their father, a former sea captain, to a stroke.  Now they can finally open his sea chest, the chest into which he has been putting all the profits of their farm as well as his voyages.  The chest is full of gold coins!  Good news!  But that night a burglar sneaks in and steals the treasure! Bad news!  Why don't you old bags own a dog!?

The sisters accuse Enoch Holt, a business associate of the dead sea captain's, of the theft.  Holt and Captain Knowles had been on bad terms for years after the old sailor had accused Holt of cheating him out of his fair share of the profits of a business partnership.  There is no evidence Holt is the burglar, and so he is acquitted.  Enraged, in front of half the town one of the sisters curses Holt and his descendents.
"You stole it, you thief!  You know it in your heart!" 
"I swear by my right hand I never touched it."
"Curse your right hand then!" cried Hannah Knowles...."Curse your right hand and all your folks' that follow you!"
The rest of the story flashes forward some decades, and consists mostly of dialogue between gossipy women, in which it is related that Enoch Holt and his descendents all broke or lost their right hands in accidents and wars, while the Knowles sisters lived as wretched recluses, perhaps accompanied by the ghost of their father, Captain Knowles.  I think you can say the story has a subtle feminist spin: Captain Knowles, instead of allowing his daughters to "grow up" and pursue their own lives, dominated them psychologically in such a way that they remained children into their sixties, so that they could not lead happy lives nor contribute to the community.

This story is OK, no big deal.  It feels a little long.  Worse, it is afflicted by one of my pet peeves: the dialogue of many of the characters, for long stretches, is written phonetically, with lots of apostrophes, to indicate their accent and/or dialect:
"Why on airth don't ye git somebody to git some o' your own wood an' season it well so 't won't warp, same 's mine done, an' build ye a new one?"
I realize this is a device employed by the author to build character and a sense of time and place, but I find it obstructive and annoying.

"The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

After the labored and archaic Spofford and Jewett stories this one was like a breath of fresh air!  In its clarity and directness, use of an unreliable narrator, and feminist ramifications, it feels very modern, and I mean that in a good way.

Our narrator is an educated woman, married to a physician.  Her brother is also a physician.  These doctors think she is mentally ill in some way and requires rest, and so forbid her from working, even from simply writing--the husband actually has a schedule for her to follow, covering every hour of the day!  The narrator repeatedly admits that he does this out of love for her, but to the reader it is obvious she is treated like a child or a prisoner!

The couple has rented a big old estate for three months.  The husband decides they shall use a top floor as a bedroom, a room once used as a sort of nursery and as a gymnasium when the estate was a school.  There are bars on the windows, and a hideous yellow wall paper on the walls of this room.

The narrator, who spends most of her time in the bedroom, becomes obsessed with the wall paper, and her interpretation of its design evolves over time.  Eventually she comes to think that the wall paper depicts a woman, or women, creeping about, trapped behind bars, and she endeavours to aid the prisoner in her escape.  At the end of the story she identifies with the liberated wall paper woman, thinking she herself has escaped from the wall paper.  Her husband faints when he sees her creeping around the room and hears her bizarre repetitive speech.

The story is open to several interpretations.  Perhaps the woman is a nut, maybe suffering from postpartum depression (she gave birth shortly before they moved into the rented estate but never sees her child) and the wall paper has a negative effect on her mind.  Maybe the woman is normal, and the estate is haunted--there is some physical evidence that the yellow wall paper has driven other people insane, and the couple was able to get the estate cheap, as if the place has a bad reputation.  Maybe a ghost woman has even escaped the wall paper and invaded the narrator's mind! Obviously many elements of the story--women as prisoners, a woman kept from doing productive or interesting work, a woman treated as a child, a woman separated from her own baby--can be interpreted as symbolism of the way women are treated by men and by society.

A very good psychological story, thought-provoking, clear when it should be (lots of sharp images of the sinister room and estate) and mysterious when it should be (is the woman crazy? is there a ghost? should we trust this woman's descriptions?)  Thumbs up!

"The Little Room" by Madeline Yale Wynne (1895)

I like fictional descriptions of rooms, Proust's description of the seaside hotel room in In Search of Lost Time, for example, or the rooms in Ballard's "Billenium."  I have lived a more or less sedentary life, and spent lots of time in rooms, and having moved every two or three years since leaving New Jersey for New York in the '90s, I've lived and worked in many different rooms.  I've spent a lot of time tracing with my eyes the grain of woods, cracks in plaster, and wallpaper patterns, and thinking about the relationships between bookshelves and doors and windows and moldings and pictures.  Like a city street, where the buildings are all put up by different people but live in a relationship with each other, a room is a collective work of art--somebody designed and built the room, placing windows and doors, but generally somebody else decides where the furniture goes, what kind of pictures and curtains to hang.  A room builds up a character, a personality, in the minds of the people who spend time in it, because of how it looks and because of the good or evil things that have happened in it.

I was totally into the descriptions of the room in Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper," and started Wynne's "The Little Room" with hopes of a similar experience.  And I was not disappointed!  This is a great little uncanny story which includes a vivid description of a room, a room with great emotional resonance.

In Vermont live two wealthy old ladies, sisters, in a large house.  Sometimes relatives come for brief visits, or to stay for a season.  On the north side of the house, between the front and back rooms, is a door.  Some visitors to the old house vividly recall a little room being behind the door, while others remember a china closet being there. Both schools of opinion can describe the room and its furniture or the closet and the china in great detail, and people who saw a room think the closet viewers must be putting on an elaborate hoax or suffering some delusion, and vice versa.  Most shockingly, some individuals who saw a room as children are distressed to find the room gone when they visit as adults.

Two young people who recently visited the house separately, one who saw a room and one who saw a closet, set off together to solve the mystery once and for all, only to find the house has just burned down.

I love the plot, and the style; Wynne writes economically, something I strongly appreciate, and really paints an image in the reader's mind of the little room which may or may not be there.  She also does a good job conveying the reactions of the characters to this weird phenomenon.  Thumbs up!

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I can strongly recommend "The Yellow Wall Paper" and "The Little Room" to readers of horror and weird fiction, and to those interested in women writers of speculative fiction.  American Fantastic Tales is shaping up to be a quite good anthology.

Friday, October 9, 2015

American Fantastic Tales by Major Women Authors: Chopin, Wharton & Cather

While it is true I have been effusive in my praise of Tanith Lee and Thomas M. Disch on this website, I don't think anybody would mistake MPorcius Fiction Log as the go-to place for celebrating diversity in SF and promoting the publication of more SF by members of marginalized populations.  But maybe today is the day I will get a little absolution from the powers that zhe for my harsh criticism of The Tomorrow People and The Killer ThingBecause today is the day I read three "tales of the fantastic" by women, women who are iconic members of the American literary canon: Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.

It is fair to see this post as a companion piece to my late September post about stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James, because I have also drawn these three stories from The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps.  As was the case with Henry James, I know just about zero about Chopin, Wharton and Cather, not having been required to read them in school and not having sought them out since I bid farewell to the classroom. This will be my first experience of these big name American authors.  I know we're all crossing our fingers hoping I love these things!

"Ma'ame Pelagie" by Kate Chopin (1893)

Fifty-year-old Ma'ame Pelagie and her sister Pauline, thirty-five, live in a cabin on their Louisiana plantation, saving their pennies in hopes of rebuilding the mansion they lived in as children, which has been a ruin since it was wrecked by Union soldiers during the Civil War, some three decades ago.  Maybe in twenty or thirty years they will have amassed enough funds to rebuild the place.

A niece, whom they call "La Petite," comes to stay with the childless unmarried sisters.  La Petite quickly becomes the light of Pauline's life: "...she seems like a saviour; like one who had come and taken me by the hand and was leading me somewhere--somewhere I want to go."  La Petite, who has lived in big cities, tires of life in the little cabin far from her piano and any excitement, and declares she will leave.  Pauline tells Ma'ame Pelagie that "if La Petite goes away I shall die."

In her youth her father impressed upon Ma'ame Pelagie that she must look after her little sister.  So Ma'ame Pelagie abandons her dream of rebuilding the mansion, and instead uses the accumulated money to build a smaller but still fine house.  The house becomes a meeting place for local society, and La Petite and her father are happy to move in permanently.

This is a reasonably good mainstream story about self-sacrifice, moving forward in life, and women's relationships, but what is "fantastic" about it?  I guess the scene in which the title character looks into the ruin and "sees" the big party she attended right before the war.  Or how the ruin seems to brood "like a huge monster."

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton (1910)

The Boynes, engineer Ned and wife Mary, left New York City for Ned’s work and have “endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of a Middle Western town.” Ay carumba, this is a horror story!  Thank heavens they finally struck it rich and moved to a country estate in Dorsetshire, England.

Life is good for the Boynes at their English estate, with the garden and the library and the servants and walks in the countryside and all that, but then supernatural disaster strikes! A mysterious man appears, and Ned leaves with him, leaving no word with Mary or the servants as to who the man is, where they are going, and when he will return.  In the event, Ned does not return!  Weeks later, with the arrival in England of an acquaintance of Ned’s, all the clues fall into place and Mary learns the terrible truth.  In the course of striking it rich back in what we now call flyover country, Ned screwed over some business associate (in a way Wharton does not specify) and this joker lost all his money and committed suicide.  It was the ghost of this suicide who came to take away Ned, presumably to some final, fatal, punishment.

One assumes this story is an attack on business or capitalism or the free market or whatever you want to call it.  Wharton portrays businesspeople as unscrupulous and business as a lawless realm beyond concepts of honor and dishonor or good and evil. Mary asks the American visitor, “you accuse my husband of doing something dishonourable?”  His reply is “I don’t say it wasn’t straight, and yet I don’t say it was straight.  It was business.”  Wharton includes his line twice in the story, to make sure we get the message.  Another clue that this story is about economics as much or more than it is about ghosts is that Ned was spending his retirement in England writing a book with the working title of Economic Basis of Culture.

“Afterward” is alright, I suppose, but it is no big deal.  It kind of just sits there.  It feels a little long for what it tries to accomplish, and doesn’t generate much feeling; Wharton doesn’t give the reader much reason to like or dislike Mary or Ned or the suicide, or to care what happens to any of them. And of course its politics are hardly interesting or novel; every day we hear broad emotional denunciations of businesspeople and the business world from those who think society would be better off if there was more power in the hands of aristocrats, commissars, or government bureaucrats.

"Consequences" by Willa Cather (1915)

Eastman, an industrious and successful lawyer (sometimes he argues before the Supreme Court in Washington!), and Cavenaugh, a playboy (sometimes he parties til dawn with showgirls!) are bachelors living in the same building in midtown Manhattan.  Oh yes, this is one of those stories which makes me wax nostalgic about "the good old days" when I stalked the streets of New York City, lounging in parks, on street corners, in museums, and at esplanades, stuffing my face with the world's finest pizzas and bagels, watching the girls, the trains, and the ships going by.

Eastman and Cavenaugh exchange stories about suicides they have known. Cavenaugh eventually unburdens himself about his own dark secret: an old man haunts him, appearing at random intervals when he is alone.  This mysterious figure, who wears worn out evening clothes, knows everything about Cavenaugh and his life and puts a bad color on everything:
"...he knows me like a book; everything I've ever done or thought.  But when he recalls them, he throws a bad light on them, somehow.  Things that weren't much off color, look rotten.  He doesn't leave one a shred of self-respect...."     
Is this phantom a cautionary vision of the future Cavenaugh, who regrets his wasted life?  Is it the ghost of Cavenaugh's athletic and ambitious brother Brian, who died young, of who Brian might have become?  Is it a materialization of Cavenaugh's conscience?  

Eastman advises Cavenaugh to quit his idle ways and become a businessman or an engineer or something.  He even helps the playboy get in touch with a ranch in Montana where he can ride horses and shoot guns and do real physical work, far from the decadence of New York.  But it is too late--after a final visit from the old man, Cavenaugh shoots himself.

Even accounting for my New York prejudice, this is easily the best of the three stories I'm talking about today.  Cather's style is more modern: it is clear, smooth, and alive. Eastman and Cavenaugh seem like real people, Cather discusses issues of universal interest, like "how should you live your life?" and "why do people take their own lives?" and exhibits the kind of cynical wisdom I am a sucker for:
"It reminds me of what Dr. Johnson said, that the most discouraging thing about life is the number of fads and hobbies and fake religions it takes to put people through a few years of it."  
"People never really change; they just go on being themselves."   
Perhaps most importantly, for stories in a collection of "fantastic tales," the supernatural element of "Consequences" actually works: it is prominent, interesting, and genuinely creepy.

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I'm sure there are legions of college professors and mountains of books that could explain to me why Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather are the queen bee's knees.  But instead of consulting them I went right to the source material and came up with my own almost totally uneducated assessment.  My brief reconnaissance into the distaff side of the American literary canon has left me with a good impression of Willa Cather and the feeling Edith Wharton is not for me.

In our next episode, more American Fantastic Tales, this time by women whom I don't think are as famous as Chopin, Wharton and Cather--at least I've never heard of them.