striking when the iron is cold: recent reads.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections.

This is now my favorite Delany novel, beating out Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. It might also be my favorite Delany book, beating out the magisterial memoirist critique of city planning and gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It concerns Arnold Hawley, an aging black poet in New York, struggling to survive in penury, incapable of coming to grips with his sexuality. Dark Reflections is the publisher-imposed title of one of his collections, and it seems to me a few weeks after digesting the novel’s piercing misery that Hawley is in a number of ways a dark reflection of Delany himself. Hawley is a black writer, but a poet rather than a novelist; Hawley is a gay cis man, but rather than being sexually exuberant and adventurous as Delany himself has been, Hawley has never in his life had a real partner and only briefly experimented with other men; and, like Delany, Hawley marries a woman for a period of time. Hawley’s literary tastes also bear out a resemblance to Delany’s, encompassing high modernist poets like Hayden and Crane and out of fashion writers (out of fashion in the post-9/11 NYC of the novel) such as Gass and a few others I’ve seen Delany reference in interviews.

I described the novel’s sadness as piercing, and it is. I remember calling Joyce’s own sexually repressed James Duffy of “A Painful Case” “an entirely doomed personality,” and in a number of ways Arnold Hawley is very much that. Unlike Duffy, Hawley has literary endeavor to redeem his existence, which teems so avidly on the surface with failure, but even this redemption is small beer. There are several scenes of Hawley at various ages, doing small acts to cement his reputation and clear the way for future biographers, like notating the backs of old photographs, “The poet Arnold Hawley, Coney Island, 1939.” I was just reading Helene Cixous yesterday, and she talks about Flaubert renouncing life for the “the beautifully written,” and how all of his human relationships were “monstrous.” She wonders if it is necessary for art that the artist renounce their existence. The worst thing of course, about Hawley, is that he essentially renounces his existence but gets no recognition in return, and can only hope for a posthumous revival. Yet the text seems to suggest that Hawley’s near inscrutable works (never excerpted) and their clumsy, abstruse titles are not really ripe or likely for posthumous celebration. They are unfashionable, difficult. Hawley’s fastidious concern for leaving behind documentation of his life is probably in vain.

When faced with any of the diminutive or great tragedies of his life, Hawley often stands in front of his bookshelf, gazing at his collection of first editions of his own works. In the sense that Hawley exteriorizes himself into words, this is Narcissus and his reflection. But in the sense that Hawley lives for his work, it is his reminder of his purpose, and that the grubby, messy things of life, such as sex and companionship, are no more than grist for the monstrous mill of words. The novel is beautiful and almost unbearable, and serves as a reminder, among other things, that the vast majority of lives in human history have had all happiness and sexual satisfaction squashed, thwarted, crushed, diverted, deceived, and destroyed. One thinks of all the charwomen and chimney sweeps in Victorian novels who have never kissed another human being, scrubbing and scraping and inhaling all the dust of the miserable world, their Holy Communion of industrialization. One can’t help but feel poorly about Arnold Hawley, but what is remarkable is not that one life is bereft of human sexual and emotional companionship, but that so few in history have not been bereft. Unlike the red faced and raw handed specters from Victorian works, Hawley makes his own decision to live for his art, but his view of his sexuality (“It’s not worth worrying about something that was already ruined to begin with”) comes from the time and place that shaped him. Yet Delany makes clear, not only by his own memoirs displaying an alternative, but within the text, that Hawley chooses, again and again, to let the social forces that shape him continue to own him.

Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents.

On the subject of industrialization and coal scuttles and crude oil and tar paper, here comes Fritz Leiber attempting to kidnap the horror tale and drag it inside a garbage bag into the city. Other writers had dealt with modernity and it’s waste products and leprous slums before (Dickens with “The Signalman,” Wells with “The Cone,” for starters), but none had been so fetishistically obsessed with coal and refuse and all the pornography of industrial effluvium. “Smoke Ghost” is the classic here, and deserving of the recognition. What I had forgotten about the story since I last read it was that the entity in question demands worship, and that the unfortunate ad-man who becomes haunted by it sees it as the epicenter of the forces of war and totalitarianism. Or perhaps the smoke thing is some kind of excretion of those forces, akin to the cancerous runoff from paper mills. In the parlor game of “What is this textual figure a metaphor for?”, I would suggest it has something of the utterly mad drive of technological progress – the blind striving and groping for increasing mechanization and bureaucratization, regardless of whether this manifests in superfluous electric pepper shakers or in Belsen and Sobibor, in laundry machines that whine jingles while they wash or in the atom bomb. That it demands worship also connotes a traditional criticism of money, which suggests it could also be capital at the same time.

Other stories are of less interest, such as “The Automatic Pistol” which mostly acts as an updating of the “familiar” from witchcraft and demonology, a point Leiber is not afraid to baldly and unnecessarily state in dialogue. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” forgoes the oozing closeups on drainage ditches or the burbling sacks of sentient detergent that demand tribute, and instead opts for a more cosmic route, although Leiber still manages to tie everything into Hitler once again. A brilliant chess player prone to wastreldom and fuckery has a series of dreams where he is playing some kind of interdimensional board game (somewhere between chess and Go) against an unidentified malignant force. The whole narrative is feverish and absorbing, but I think its final culminating image was a little amateurishly written, winding up more silly than anything else. This is rather surprising, as Leiber is a very capable prose writer, but there you go. And the two stories I was most excited about (“Diary in the Snow”, “A Bit of the Dark World”) are excised from my defective Berkeley edition. Cocks and balls.

Alan Garner, The Owl Service.

Garner draws on the Welsh Mabinogion for this young adult novel from 1967. The owl service in question is an old dinner service with floral patterns that, when traced together in a certain way, form the images of owls. This parallels the tale from the Mabinogion of someone enchanting a meadow to turn into a woman, who becomes furious and seeks revenge because all she wanted was to be flowers and not disgusting horrible humans. This flower-spirit has been imprisoned in various forms over the years, in wall-paintings and now in a dinner service, always making the transformation from flowers to owls in order to go “a-hunting.” British class society plays a prominent role in tensions between characters, chiefly in a romance between a working class Welsh boy and an upper class English girl. The names of characters from the Mabinogion are truly unfamiliar (like Bloduwedd, who I call “Bloody Wood”), which makes me wonder why science fiction so often opts for Roman language rather than Welsh when attempting to construct the alien. In any case, it was an enjoyable read but I have very little that’s intelligible or intelligent to say about it.

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the atom bomb its King Pest…

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

While reading Andrew Sinclair’s novel about a man who believes he is the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Facts in the Case of E.A. Poe, I came across an extraordinary passage. A brief explanation: Ernest Albert Pons is a Berlin-born Jew who fled Germany before the Holocaust, and lost much of his family to the camps. For much of his adult life, he has hidden, sublimated, and shoved grave-deep down this trauma, until he views Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog. This is part of his response to the film.

So Pons tried to concentrate on Poe – and failed. The dead poet no longer stalked with quick, erect gait through the halls of Pons’ imagination, which were now hung with images from Night and Fog. What was the bedchamber of Lady Tremaine to the gas-chamber at Belsen? What was Ligeia’s raven hair to the countless tresses shorn off Jewish women and piled as high as the pyramids for stuffing pillows? What were Berenice’s small, white and ivory-looking teeth to the tens of millions pulled from the jaws of the camp victims for the gold in their fillings? What was one man’s sensitivity and suffering to the holocaust or to genocide?

Resnais was the Baudelaire of modern times – and Adolf Hitler was its Edgar Allan Poe – and Joseph Stalin its Red Death – and the atom bomb its King Pest. Horror now lay in the deliberate killing of the millions, not in the ticking of time or the creeping of decay or the scratching of obsession or the stealth of corruption in each one of us. Concentration camps were the maelstrom of our creation – nuclear dust our version of the plague. The gloomy fancies of Poe, like those of Hoffman and Grimm, should only frighten children now – not the creatures capable of a Final Solution to the whole human race.

This hits at the heart of a question that has skulked around in my mind for some time, unanswered (unanswerable?) and forlorn: What is the actual relation of horror fiction to reality? Is its function and duty to provide escapism with a coat of the macabre? Is it a memento mori, to remind us of the pain and suffering in life, a warning (to the curious) of the sort that Denton Welch wrote while wracked with the pains of his debilitating accident: “In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn’t know that it was waiting for them, quietly, patiently.” Or is it some dialectical synthesis in between, or neither at all?

This passage will remind some horror readers of the work of Charles Birkin, a man known for his felicity and ferocity with the conte cruel. Several of his tales, such as the brain-searing “A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” were written about the Holocaust. One of them, I believe called “Waiting for Trains”, was directly drawn from his own experience as a British soldier in WWII dealing with a Nazi POW. What does this mean that a fiction can be spun about the Holocaust, and written not within the elevating folds of literary realism like Tadeusz Borowski or Imre Kertesz, but in the grimy, smoldering context of genre? A field of writing that, like it or not, is associated with pure entertainment? Is this okay, or is it just trivializing?

I have no answer for this question, still. But how horror fiction deals with life’s atrocities, not in the personal sense, but in the specifically political sense is a question of some importance. It would obviously be crude, crass, and even colonialistic for a French writer to set a horror tale in Rwanda circa the genocides, but what if a Rwandan writer did? How in the absolute hell can a form as old, constrained, and limited as horror deal with such a thing? Is there even a point to such a venture? I think this, but then the thought comes to me: This is a false privileging of genres. Literary fiction, realist fiction cannot deal with such hideousness either, and yet you do not interrogate its right to deal with such issues, even though it too is nothing but a wad of scummy tissue fluttering above the dirt of life’s landfill, a spindly dog barking at the slaughter of the highways. Yet I am drawn to the conclusion that horror is defeated by events of that kind of magnitude, rendered irrelevant and obsolete, much like how satire is said to be defeated at the hands of a reality so absurd exaggeration of it is impossible.

Albert Pons attempts to view such grandiose vileness through the lens of horror, but finds it a paltry, incommensurate view. Horror then, for Sinclair, is dwarfed by reality, and can never match its horribleness. Ernest Albert Pons uses the work of Poe in part to cope, but also to flee, to escape, to replace an intolerable suffering with a merely large one…

a review of “darkness, mist and shadow: the collected macabre tales of basil copper.”

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I’ve just gone through the first paperback volume of Drugstore Indian Press’ new edition of Basil Copper’s short fiction, Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper. The impression I get from reading the first volume of this collection of Copper’s work is competence. Nothing more elevating, nothing more damning than that. His fiction seems to be the artisan-like work of a tinkerer – someone sitting in their musty garage, the radio scratchily blaring out the news of the day, while they manipulate old rust-bitten spare parts salvaged from pungent lots and pick n’ pulls.

Many of the stories can be summarized, simply and accurately, as: werewolf tale, vampire tale, haunted house tale, etc. There is something to be said for dusting off an old frame and hanging something new in it, and Copper does this with a quiet, British panache. The tales are sprinkled with restrained sensual description that says: I could give more here, but I live in service of the tale, so I won’t. The sentences wink demurely, drop a suggestive hint about an open bedroom upstairs, and then depart without anything actually happening, leaving you on a staircase with two drinks in your hand, going “Eh?” The problem with this sometimes being that the tales themselves are not that interesting, with or without the fresh coat of polish on them. The reader wants to burrow into the world of the poetic sentences, (held back like a lover trying not to climax too soon) which seem so different from the world those sentences are contained by.

The narrators are all men named Carfax or Carstairs and they are all bachelors who, if you ripped their viscera open with an axe in a moment straight from one of their stories, you would find nothing inside but egg-shells, the smell of smug old leather, sticks and twigs of high-fiber cereal, and a copy of a book entitled The Enthusiast’s Guide to Marginally Interesting Hillocks. They crack and crinkle like dried bits of paper from a wastebasket, they whisper with the husk-like sound of wind through cardboard. They are, in fact, pretty fucking boring for the most part, and can be generally relied upon for sustaining a high level of not interesting you in the slightest throughout. These sorts of bachelor narrators are inherited from M.R. James, but with James they are charming, and with Copper they are something less.

Without any surprise at all, it is the fictions which push against this formula of difficult-to revive-tropes and slightly shit protagonists that are most engaging. “The Janissaries of Emilion” portrays a scientist who finds himself beset by troubling dreams of waking on a foreign shore, caught in the teeth of strong waves, awash in foam, looking out over an expanse of white sand, the hint of a great city in the distance. He is filled with the dread of a sinister event to come and has no idea what it could be, yet every new dreaming brings him farther up the shore, closer to that event. Copper’s handling of the dream’s gradual escalation is sure and steady, and the hallucinatory qualities of the beach just beyond the imaginary city of Emilion are actually given the narcotic glimmer of a dream (not an easy task). He makes a misstep with one effect – the whispering of an ocean breeze telling him “THE JANISSARIES OF EMILION” in all-caps like the script-card from a silent film – but overall the tale is gripping, and Copper demonstrates with the grisly ending that he never does anything by half. This is one of his most admirable qualities as a writer. There are no happy endings with Copper.

Even in a tale that falls in the category of the justified-retribution (a common theme with horror writers who feel like meting out moral justice) the retribution cruelly outstrips the crime. This is his famous “Camera Obscura,” likely the strongest tale in this first volume, and one I originally encountered in Albert Hitchcock’s Stories that Scared Even Me anthology*. In essence it is about the comeuppance of an avaricious moneylender, in the line of William J. Wintle’s Spectre Spiders. But it is the manner of this comeuppance which makes the tale verge on the conte cruel genre, despite the victim being a real, unpasteurized bastard rather than an innocent. The blithe sangfroid of the magical camera obscura’s owner is unsettling, the aura of genteel kindness over his absolute authority skin-crawling.

Gary Gianni's illustration for "Camera Obscura."

Gary Gianni’s illustration for “Camera Obscura.”

The strongest tale after “Camera Obscura” might be “The Cave,” which combines Jamesian elements with the unabashed grue Copper so enjoys. It begins with that tediously venerable frame-tale tradition of a group of wealthy men in a club at evening, sitting in a congealed layer of their own satisfaction, bloviating about a variety of supernatural subjects until one of them hits on a good story. This tedious erection quickly collapses and is forgotten as the actual narrative begins. Even here, the conceit is not far from the boilerplate – a traveler on walking tour through Austrian Tyrol stays at a bed & breakfast, comes upon a mutilated farm animal in the country, hears rumors about some beast slaughtering sheep and goats in the area. The locals, as they tend to be, are reticent to discuss it. The Jamesian device comes in the form of a 14th century church carving:

“Its long neck was disfigured by large nodules of immense size, the teeth were curved and sharp, like a boar, the eyes like a serpent. In its two, claw-like hands, it held the body of a human being. It had just bitten off the head, much as one would eat a stick of celery, and the carver had cleverly managed to suggest that the creature was in the process of spitting out the head before making a start on the meal proper….I cannot tell you what nausea this loathsome creature inspired in me; it seemed almost to move in its frame of dark wood, so brilliantly had the carver, an artist of some genius, depicted his subject.”

This creature, of course, (or creatures?) ends up invading the sanctity of the bed & breakfast and unpleasant things happen. It is the getting there that matters though, and Copper’s rendering of the inn-keeepers’ fatalism, the encounter with what might be the creature behind a massive oaken door with timber latch, the investigation of the cave – these are all done very, very well. The ending, again, is bloody and results in several demises, but is tempered by the apparent vanquishing of the mysterious creatures, as the cave they slink from is sealed by a mob of police and villagers.

There are several other middling pieces. “The Academy of Pain” is a decent conte cruel, but more or less an inferior re-working of H.G. Wells’ hideous “The Cone,” with half the suspense. “The Amber Print,” about a haunted print of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that changes every time one views it, might be the fourth strongest tale. “Doctor Porthos” is without doubt the worst, an execrably written, rushed smear of cliche and nonsense. I haven’t read a worse vampire tale since E.F. Benson’s “Mrs. Amworth,” and this one takes the smelly prize. “The Knocker at the Portico” is a Poe-esque psychological tale and “The House by the Tarn” is a haunted house piece that is much briefer and slightly better than the predictable novella length “The Grey House.”

Brilliant on occasion, the majority of Basil Copper’s output is competent and well put together. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it might be. Copper did what he pleased, but reading this collection I wish he had been more adventurous, less predictable and safe, more inclined to produce stories like “The Janissaries of Emilion” than the respectable and moralizing revenge tale “The Recompensing of Albano Pizar.” One of the reasons I love horror fiction (as well as other restricting forms, like say, the blues or the sonnet) is the challenge of working within a classical, strict, and established confine and nonetheless producing a work of surprising weight and beauty that coheres to every contour necessary in the tradition**. It is a supreme difficulty and when done well, there is nothing more exciting or artistically satisfying than taking the reader down the paneled staircase into their unconscious, and allowing them to find what is there in that warm, frightening, and lovely dark. When it is not done well, when ambition is modest, the plots rehashed, and the delivery not particularly unique….it begs the ungenerous question: “Why was this even done?” A question that Copper deserves somewhat better than.

 

* The Hitchcock anthology was actually ghost edited by Robert Arthur.

** The other reason is pushing against the boundaries when the time calls for it.

 

structureless, tedious.

Nathan Bishop, Paranoiac.

Nathan Bishop, Paranoiac.

The terror of the doppelganger is not that of a shadowy being replacing you and dragging you into the closet with a cloth stuffed in your mouth – it is the realization that the self itself is a doppelganger. That behind the thin scrim of consciousness there is a long dark hallway with a number of rooms, all filled with doppelgangers waiting their turn, and each waking from sleep finds a new replacement, a born again body snatcher yawning into the amniotic sunlight of another impersonation.

Whitman’s song of the self becomes a song to a dead star. It is not a singing really, either, but more of an incantation, structureless, tedious. The flat sound of being dragged into the closet.

Fernando Pessoa’s rejection of “Cogito, ergo sum” led to his horrified thought, “They think, therefore they are.” They being the “many species of people” living inside us, our theater troupe of emotions and temperaments – they are parasitic, they inhabit, possess us; we, the hosts, do not exist, the “I” does not exist but is just an embodied moment continually wrested from control, inhabited by Whitman’s multitudes. The self is then a mirror, with different, unknowable, and alien faces stepping out of the shadows to fill its frame.

* * *

“Capital is a phantasmal body, a monstrous Doppelganger which stalks abroad while its master sleeps, mechanically consuming the pleasures he austerely forgoes. The more the capitalist foreswears his self-delight, devoting his labours instead to the fashioning of his zombie-like alter ego, the more second-hand fulfillments he is able to reap. Both capitalist and capital are images of the living dead, the one inanimate yet anesthetized, the other inanimate yet active.” – Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

* * *

It had been months since I checked on the sink; I had forgotten to uncork the drain stopper when I left over a month ago for Belgium.

I looked in the sink and stood transfixed for long moments, looking in at what was inside. A lush green algae had grown on the surface of the water in thick knots, covered in lily pads and reeds. Tiny shapes flitted about under the film of the water, bulbous little things wriggling like dark sperm looking for an egg.

I looked closer and saw that they were tadpoles.

Dirt had been packed on the porcelain of the bottom and the tendrils of the reeds and plants were stuck there. A swimming insect grabbed a tadpole while I stared, and buried its face into its guts, draining out the fluids while the tadpoles nearby slowly grew legs, unaware.

I stuck my hand into the sink to feel the water, and was surprised by how cold it was.

* * *

“Horror is beyond the reach of psychology.” – Theodor Adorno.