Having seen several lists of “10 Books that Have Stayed with You,” including Greg Gbur’s and Richard Fox’s, I thought I’d compile my own list of resinously resonant books. Some of these are not conventional in the usual sense of books that you have read over and over again, but they all plastered themselves over my consciousness in one way or another.
(1.) Creepy Classics II. Read at 9-11 yrs old. I realize now how much my interest in horror fiction is based in nostalgia for when I read it when I was young, and the feeling I had when it was almost too intense for me, when I could not block out plot twists that were too horrible to let me sleep. This is at the root of the excitement I feel when I see a battered old paperback, a worn out, broken-apart, buttons flying out, pages like gray hair tousled in wind, soldier of lurid, brain gripping fiction. It is not entirely based in nostalgia, but that is a fundamental component – at least of my interest in early 20th century horror, with its names so redolent with mystery, thick and close with some kind of dark magic: A.M. Burrage, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson. These beautiful names of course, remain beautiful only when the authorial creatures behind them are not investigated. The endless march of initials when casting one’s eye down the hallowed, penultimate page – the table of contents – bring their own rhythm, a steady, ominous and beautiful rhythm. They even sound like the rapping of feet on stairs just outside the room. R-H-Mal-den. A-C-Ben-son. And the antiquated first names, when given, have the glamor of burnished pottery and old coins, achieving their alien nature from disuse.
The contexts and signifiers of these names (the conservative and colonial Edwardian era, inheritance and class, spiritualism) were unknown to me. They were the names of beings who were no more alive than they were stuffed into graves or fermenting inside barrels or turning into wax or growing as lichen on red brick. They never went to the bank or had racist thoughts or ate cereal. It was a matter of sophistry whether they even had faces or hands, or if maybe they had written their stories electrically, with long ghostly horns of wire jutting from their wrists because they had lost their hands in beet-processing accidents as children. Were they ever children? Surely not.
In a way, I wished for them to exist only as text, as beings animated only by the opening of the page but also hidden behind it; summoners veiled in incense and smoke. Here were haunted leather funnels, valleys bare except for mounds of animal bone and ash, ectoplasms conjured by séance and pouring across the house. Once I read this collection, the beautiful names faded from the brilliancy of a lantern to a match-stick, but the stories stayed behind. One of the odder sensations I’ve had related to fiction was during my prodigal return to genre fiction when I realized that I’d read the author of the wonderfully fucked up “Caterpillars” over a full decade earlier!
(2). Dubliners, James Joyce. Read at 19. Although I couldn’t reconstruct Dublin from Joyce’s fiction if I even bothered, a jumbled, lacerated, and dreamily and drearily voluptuous version of it exists in some side alley of my mind. Joyce’s Dublin is a place of bustling thoroughfares and squares smeared with equine and avian shit, political offices raining with lint, public houses smelling of indigestion and dregs of bitter, sexual desires repressed and expressed furtively, a ghostly city with fiddling in the daytime and fogged over rivers at night. Sometimes, thinking back on this collection, I wished that Joyce had written a straight forward ghost tale set in Dublin – a young choir boy returning from vespers meets a figure on a bridge, that sort of thing. But I realize now that this whole collection is filled with ghosts. The people are ghosts, sticks and broom-ends covered with human clothes and given provisional mouths to speak with only in order to shrug off their existence. The young boys playing hooky in “An Encounter” more or less have a numinous experience with a moralizing and masturbating old man in a field. The specter of adult sexuality hangs over the encounter and acts as the typical numinous ‘other,’ the something beyond which they have just enough comprehension of to feel unsettled by, but not enough to perceive in any way more detailed than a hand darting behind a curtain. “The Dead” is a justified classic, although I would rank “A Painful Case” just as high, if not higher. Its ending is one of the most lonely and brutal I’ve ever read in fiction. Mr. Duffy, the pretentious and sad man who reads Nietzsche without understanding him, who is “outcast from life’s feast,” is (in my non-traditional interpretation) a gay man in the closet and an entirely doomed personality. A truly desolate tale.
(3). Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs. Read at 17 yrs. This next book is a novel I never even finished, yet it has stuck to me with dogged persistence. Plots slowly form and, just when they’ve drawn your interest, cleave themselves in two and wander off into the distance. There is an anarchist pirate colony led by a figure, Captain James Mission, who may have been real or who may have been an invention of Daniel Defoe’s. This is a nonsensical novel of ritualistic anal sex, hanged men with tumefied erections, a mythos of gods including one whose face is a mass of squirming entrails, hard-boiled detective spoofs, and a virus that causes spontaneous, painful orgasms. One of my favorite SF authors, Thomas Disch, wrote a scathing review denouncing the book as little more than Burrough’s “curious id capering” mingled with a smattering of “sci-fi of the more brain damaged variety.” This is true to an extent, although dismissive and reductive in my opinion. At the time when I read it, I could hardly believe it was possible to get a book like this published. Burroughs’ id capers, yes, and the novel is filled with attractive, slim young men having sex all over each other, but it’s also filled with harrowing imagery, brilliant ideas which are never elaborated, and biting satire. I never finished the damn thing because its incompleteness and fragmentation irritated me, but it changed what I thought was possible or acceptable to write about – the same thing, I suppose, that Naked Lunch did for many others.
(4). Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson. Read at 22. A picaresque novel about American slavery and Buddhism, partly based off the famous Ten Bulls pictures by Kakuan Shien (!). A fantastical neo-slave narrative wherein the hero, young Andrew Hawkins, is under the boot of a liberal, waffling slaver of a master. He is given a “John Stuart Mills education” (i.e. all the classics by age seven or so) by a hired tutor who is also a continental philosopher. This tutor is visited by Karl Marx in one chapter, who is drawn in broad and deft strokes as a jolly old man more interested in tippling beer and checking out servant girls than in discussing political economy. Hawkins expands beyond the intellectual confines of his small town and is sold to a widow in a neighboring city, thus beginning the first stages of his adventure (and it can rightly be called adventure, situated as it is in the Spanish picaresque tradition, and seasoned with bawdiness and ribaldry.) This being a neo-slave narrative, Hawkins eventually escapes and moves North, where he manages to pass due to his light skin. At this point, one of the great novel villains I’ve ever read, the slave-hunter Reb Bannon, hits the road to take Hawkins back. Their confrontation is a marvel of menacing fantasy. Bannon rivals another great novel villain – McCarthy’s Judge Holden – while maintaining a number of similarities with him, in that he is an impersonal force, as monstrous as Schopenhauer’s Will, and one also inclined to philosophize, though with less verbosity than Holden: “Ah approves everythin’. Ah approves nothin’.” It should be noted here, also, that Oxherding Tale was published in 1982 to Blood Meridian‘s 1985. One of the more delightful novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most skillfully written. That it is not better known, and does not even have a Wikipedia entry to its name, is truly one hell of a goddamned shame.
(5). The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien. Read at 22. I have never read another novel with quite the same atmosphere as this one, save for perhaps some of the Alice books by Lewis Caroll. It’s a pungent troll’s brew of dread and droll, where the non-sequiturs and marvelous understatements only reinforce the pervasive unease rising up from the page like steam. The narrator is never named. He may have killed somebody. He wanders in a landscape of corpulent policemen quasi-sexually obsessed with bicycles, ditches now and then filled with a corpse, and entirely inscrutable machinery. He is guided by the works of a crank scientist and philosopher, De Selby, who for instance, believes that night is nothing more than a phenomenon caused by the accretion of “black air.” O’Brien’s fake writer is more ridiculous than those of Borges, and is slotted messily but importantly into the novel’s structure, which as a long and senseless joke, only increases the precarity of the unnamed narrator caught inside its punchline. If I were to illustrate the novel’s structure, it would be (in an appropriate, unconventional manner; screw a graph) a ceiling slowly winding its way downward to crush the protagonist. A sampling of its humor:
The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.