Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Post-War American Tales of the Fantastic: Beaumont, Ligotti & Wolfe

The college library that is within walking distance of the dilapidated and spider-infested house the wife and I rent has a copy of Volume II of The Library of America's American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub and published in 2009.  Volume I, which I read three stories from last week, covers the period before 1940; this one presents work from 1940 to 2007.  A few days ago I borrowed the volume, and early this week read three of the stories therein.

"Black Country" by Charles Beaumont (1954)

Beaumont is one of those writers I have often thought I should read, but whom I have not gotten around to.  So here is my chance.

"Black Country" first appeared in Playboy. The story is about jazz.  It's my understanding that Playboy, at least in its early incarnations, was marketed as the magazine for the sophisticated man, and one of the things the Platonic ideal of the sophisticated man of the '50s and '60s cared about and knew about was jazz, and Playboy covered jazz within its pages quite extensively.  (Personally, I know nothing about jazz.)  The cover of the issue in which Beaumont's story appeared is actually adorned not with some hot chick, as has been the norm for decades, but a cartoon depiction of jazz musicians.

"Black Country" is a first person narrative by a member of an African-American jazz band whose talented and charismatic leader, Spoof Collins, plays the trumpet.  The group has a dedicated white fan, Sonny, who takes over for the saxophonist when he is killed in some kind of fracas.  The band later decides to take on a female singer, Rose-Ann.  Rose-Ann falls in love with Spoof, but Spoof loves his trumpet more than anything, and when she gets a little too cloying, Spoof hits her.  Sonny rushes to her aid, staring down Spoof; Sonny is in love with Rose-Ann, and they become an item. Spoof dies soon after (committing suicide because he has cancer) and Sonny becomes leader of the band, shifting from saxophone to trumpet.  The story's climax is when Sonny digs up Spoof's horn from the grave and Spoof's spirit plays through Sonny; the two men, of two different races, who butted heads earlier, are reconciled in their quest to achieve the ultimate, purest jazz.  

This story is just OK.  Maybe I would enjoy it more if I was a jazz aficionado--the numerous scenes describing musical performances ("Spoof lifted his horn and climbed up two-and-a-half and let out his trademark...Jimmy kanoodling the great headwork that only Jimmy knows how to do...Henry did that counterpoint business that you're not supposed to be able to do unless you have two right arms and four extra fingers...." etc.) left me cold.  Maybe others will find the story's racial and sexual politics interesting; presumably Beaumont is arguing for racial harmony here, but some readers might find the way a white man takes over the black band, or even the way Beaumont speaks in the voices of black men, condescending or offensive.

"The Last Feast of Harlequin" by Thomas Ligotti (1990)

A year ago (gadzooks, has it really been that long?) I announced to the world my deep and abiding love for Thomas Ligotti's story "Vastarien."  Can I experience such a love again?  I started this story, which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with hopes that I could.

Ligotti dedicated "The Last Feast of Harlequin" to "the memory of H. P. Lovecraft," and in the introduction to American Fantastic Tales' second volume Straub calls the story "a loving and exacting tribute" to Lovecraft.  Straub's description is perfectly apt; this is a finely crafted Lovecraftian story, carefully emulating the plot structure and themes and tone of Lovecraft's own works.

The story is a memoir or testament, written by an academic anthropologist, describing his investigation of an odd festival in a Midwestern town, a town founded by New Englanders in the nineteenth century.  Like the characters in various Lovecraft stories, our narrator travels around town meeting creepy characters, delves into old newspapers and other old documents for clues, and then learns a horrifying truth before escaping with his life, but not without dreadful psychological scars and the knowledge that something catastrophically terrible awaits him in his future.  In the climactic scene we even get the subterranean ritual of human sacrifice led by an evil wizard or priest which we expect to find in a Weird Tales-style story.

Maybe because I was exposed to so much Marxism in college, and maybe because in my twenties and thirties I spent so much time reading books in which social class is important (like Proust and various 18th-century things like Casanova and Boswell), I am always finding these SF stories to be worthy of some kind of class analysis. "The Last Feast of Harlequin" is perhaps a more appropriate subject of a class-based analysis than most.  The town at the center of the story is split into "desirable sections" of "normal residents" and a darker, uglier, poorer side, "the south end," which the narrator calls a "slum" or "ghetto" and which is home to "lethargic," "gaunt" and "nauseatingly passive" people.  The slum dwellers keep to themselves, and are, in fact, monsters of some type.  Every winter they have a dark, creepy, sinister celebration, and the loud and brightly lit festival in the "normal" part of town is (our narrator theorizes) devised to drown out or distract from the evil celebration of the monstrous freaks.  The narrator, as a professional scientist and college professor, is of course solidly middle-class, but, by putting on a disguise of old shoes, blue jeans and a coat whose pockets he tears and to which he applies stains, he has little trouble infiltrating the dark side of town.

The surprise at the end of the story, which is not really a surprise to careful readers because Ligotti foreshadows it quite clearly, is that the anthropologist is, previously unknown to himself, one of the freaks.  "He is one of us....He has always been one of us" says the wizard/priest, who turns out to be the narrator's mentor back from his days at his New England university.  This kind of class anxiety strikes a chord with me because of similarities to my own life.  My parents are working class, and my mother expresses hostility to white collar workers and complains when she sees me in my J. Crew outfits ("Why don't you wear jeans and sneakers?  Does Joe College think he is better than the rest of us?")  Does my own college degree, my intellectual hobbies and time spent working in universities and offices make me middle-class, or does my blood and the time I've spent working in machine shops, warehouses, and the stock rooms of stores make me working-class?

"The Last Feast of Harlequin" is like a smoothly running clock, each of its glittering gears rotating in harmony with every other.  Every paragraph serves a purpose and serves that purpose well.  I can enthusiastically recommend this story to Lovecraft fans, who may enjoy picking out all the little Lovecraftian elements and themes.   Because it is so good, I would also strongly recommend the story to people curious about Lovecraft's influence on later "weird" writers.  

I didn't like "The Last Feast of Harlequin" as much as "Vastarien," however.  It is so like a finely polished, exquisitely constructed exemplar of a Lovecraft story (dare I use the phrase "Platonic ideal" twice in one blog post?) that it is a little lacking in the surprise and novelty department.  Ligotti here has put together a masterpiece of an homage; it feels like the best possible version of something we've seen before, rather than something original or new.  I thought "Vastarien," while definitely Lovecraftian in feel, had something new to say and was more challenging, more mysterious, making for a more powerful reading experience.

"The Little Stranger" by Gene Wolfe (2004)

I'm one of those people who thinks of Gene Wolfe as his favorite writer and who thinks Wolfe is a strong candidate for "best" or "greatest" or "ultimate" SF writer of all time, so for me reading a Wolfe story that is new to me is always a significant event in my intellectual life.

This is actually the second time I've read "The Little Stranger;" when I checked out the book I thought it was new to me, having forgotten the title, but by the second page I realized I had read it before.  Perhaps I read it in Jonathan Strahan and Karen Haber's Fantasy: The Best of 2004; I used to get those anthologies at the New York Public Library all the time.  I'm sure I didn't read it in its first place of publication, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  

The story begins on a heartbreaking note: the tale is a series of letters written by a terribly lonely old woman, Ivy, to a dead cousin.  "Please forgive me for troubling you with another letter....You are the only family I have, and as you are dead you probably do not mind."  The story quickly becomes light-hearted, however.  The conceit of the story is that everybody thinks Ivy is a witch, and various coincidences, like a black cat joining her household and two little kids named Hank and Greta coming to visit her "gingerbread house," reinforce this idea and provide an opportunity for Wolfe to make jokes (of Hank and Greta our narrator says, "[they] are such sweet little strangers.  I could just eat them up!")  It is strongly suggested that Ivy's house is haunted or somehow alive, and also lonely, and manipulates events to relieve its own loneliness as well as Ivy's.  There are also hints that Ivy is hundreds of years old.

While I have suggested the story is light-hearted, at the same time we are constantly reminded that the world is full of evil.  Ivy often worries about thieves and burglars, and is very concerned that business people will cheat her.  There are gypsies in the story (our narrator doesn't use that word, but I think all the clues point to them being gypsies) and they have a contentious relationship with the authorities: one of the female gypsies opens a fortune telling business and is investigated by the police bunco squad, while the others flee into the woods at the very sight of the police. Readers may recall that I had the same attitude about Wolfe's 1990 novel Pandora by Holly Hollander; that it was outwardly fun, but full of reminders of war, crime, and broken families.

As usual with Wolfe, an economical and dense story worth rereading, with an odd, novel premise.


I'm not the audience for the Beaumont story, but these three stories are all worthwhile reads.  While I, an inveterate cheapo, have borrowed the two volumes of American Fantastic Tales from libraries, I hope other people who care about genre literature have been purchasing them.  We certainly want to encourage The Library of America and other organizations to continue producing books like this, books full of stories about ghosts, witches, and evil cults but composed of fine paper and fine bindings, with attractive and easy-to-read typefaces and no typographical errors.  (Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have volumes of The Library of America dedicated to them--if I eat my broccoli maybe I'll live to see similarly handsome volumes of Gene Wolfe's work.)

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