Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stephen King, CREEPSHOW--a Retro-review



Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.



Creepshow (1982)

In retrospect, 1982’s Creepshow seems little more than a jeu d’esprit, a game of wit in reproducing a long-dead sub-genre of horror. Certainly it is the only comic-book format collection King [had yet] published, and in his choice of stories and treatments, he is clearly attempting to recapture the feel of the 1950’s EC comic books—specifically, the level of horror that he refers to in Danse Macabre as the “gross-out.” Each of the five stories in Creepshow might ultimately reach the higher level, what King refers to as a “dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive levels.” But even if they do not attain to that refinement, they nevertheless concretely define the essence of contemporary horror.
As illustrated by Berni Wrightson, King’s tales of terror take on the period sense of the EC comics—stark outlines that emphasize rather than mute the visceral effects of horror…and that simultaneously assert the fundamental moralism of such stories. In the world of EC comics and of Creepshow, good and evil are distinctly different, and evil merits its just and immediate rewards. In the first tale, “Father’s Day,” the revenant Nathan Grantham takes an appropriate revenge on the woman who killed him. Every element of the tale, from setting to characterization to final overstated and unsubtle irony, contributes to the comic-book effect King is trying for.
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and “The Crate” are the only reprints in the collection, the first appearing as “Weeds” in Cavalier (May 1976) and Nugget (April 1979), and the second initially published in Gallery (July 1979).  “Jordy Verrill” is most memorable for King’s performance in the title role for the film version of Creepshow, and in both versions owes much to the atmospheric tale of the unnamable thing from outer space perfected by H. P. Lovecraft in The Colour out of Space and other tales. “The Crate” is equally archetypal in its story of a horror hidden away for decades that, when released, begins its pre-ordained task of consuming human flesh. While there are touches of the Tasmanian devil in King’s descriptions and Wrightson’s illustrations for the monster, “The Crate” actually focuses more on fear of the unknown—an eminently justifiable fear.
Revenge without any supernatural paraphernalia is the initial theme of “Something to Tide You Over,” which hinges on the punning title as a clue to how to deal with an adulterous wife and her lover. But when the two victims return, the story turns a wicked 180° and becomes a classic permutation on the “biter bit” motif. More bluntly, “They’re Creeping Up on You” incorporates one of King’s top-ten horrors—fear of insects—and orchestrates an even more neatly realized story of revenge, this time on an ecological level.
Interesting, predictable, and fun, Creepshow simply does not attempt the seriousness of the novels produced within the next few years: The Talisman, It, and others. High seriousness, high art, even the elevated states of horror (as opposed to the “gross-out”) are not its goals. Instead, King attempts to re-create a long-lost tone, a well-remembered atmosphere, and revive it through his own words and Wrightson’s meticulous artwork.
As a film, Creepshow did well enough to inspire and justify a second (and ultimately more) anthology-film, appropriately entitled Creepshow II—with one episode based on “The Raft,” one of King’s most frightening short stories, and two original episodes written for the film. It inspired no comic-book version, however—a form King has not yet returned to this extensively.

In retrospect, 1982’s Creepshow seems little more than a jeu d’esprit, a game of wit in reproducing a long-dead sub-genre of horror. Certainly it is the only comic-book format collection King [had yet] published, and in his choice of stories and treatments, he is clearly attempting to recapture the feel of the 1950’s EC comic books—specifically, the level of horror that he refers to in Danse Macabre as the “gross-out.” Each of the five stories in Creepshow might ultimately reach the higher level, what King refers to as a “dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive levels.” But even if they do not attain to that refinement, they nevertheless concretely define the essence of contemporary horror.
As illustrated by Berni Wrightson, King’s tales of terror take on the period sense of the EC comics—stark outlines that emphasize rather than mute the visceral effects of horror…and that simultaneously assert the fundamental moralism of such stories. In the world of EC comics and of Creepshow, good and evil are distinctly different, and evil merits its just and immediate rewards. In the first tale, “Father’s Day,” the revenant Nathan Grantham takes an appropriate revenge on the woman who killed him. Every element of the tale, from setting to characterization to final overstated and unsubtle irony, contributes to the comic-book effect King is trying for.
“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and “The Crate” are the only reprints in the collection, the first appearing as “Weeds” in Cavalier (May 1976) and Nugget (April 1979), and the second initially published in Gallery (July 1979).  “Jordy Verrill” is most memorable for King’s performance in the title role for the film version of Creepshow, and in both versions owes much to the atmospheric tale of the unnamable thing from outer space perfected by H. P. Lovecraft in The Colour out of Space and other tales. “The Crate” is equally archetypal in its story of a horror hidden away for decades that, when released, begins its pre-ordained task of consuming human flesh. While there are touches of the Tasmanian devil in King’s descriptions and Wrightson’s illustrations for the monster, “The Crate” actually focuses more on fear of the unknown—an eminently justifiable fear.
Revenge without any supernatural paraphernalia is the initial theme of “Something to Tide You Over,” which hinges on the punning title as a clue to how to deal with an adulterous wife and her lover. But when the two victims return, the story turns a wicked 180° and becomes a classic permutation on the “biter bit” motif. More bluntly, “They’re Creeping Up on You” incorporates one of King’s top-ten horrors—fear of insects—and orchestrates an even more neatly realized story of revenge, this time on an ecological level.
Interesting, predictable, and fun, Creepshow simply does not attempt the seriousness of the novels produced within the next few years: The Talisman, It, and others. High seriousness, high art, even the elevated states of horror (as opposed to the “gross-out”) are not its goals. Instead, King attempts to re-create a long-lost tone, a well-remembered atmosphere, and revive it through his own words and Wrightson’s meticulous artwork.
As a film, Creepshow did well enough to inspire and justify a second (and ultimately more) anthology-film, appropriately entitled Creepshow II—with one episode based on “The Raft,” one of King’s most frightening short stories, and two original episodes written for the film. It inspired no comic-book version, however—a form King has not yet returned to this extensively.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

F. Paul Wilson’s THE KEEP—One Approach to Understanding


[Reading The Keep when it first came out (I still treasure my hardcover first edition) was one of the reasons I began to take horror/dark fantasy seriously and to write about it from an academic direction. I have since re-read the novel many times, watched the film version--and wished again and again that it were better--and wondered what it was that so captured my attention nearly 35 years ago. I recently re-read the novel again, this time on Kindle, and was impressed anew with its ability to surprise, even when I knew what was coming; its ability to maintain suspense through language and dialogue; and its ability to seem fresh after three-plus decades. The following essay attempts to examine one reason I find the novel compelling.]  

We live in a world in which words and their meanings are increasingly vulnerable. Whether through the carelessness, ignorance, or willful intent of speakers and writers, words are shifting meanings, perhaps more rapidly than ever before. Within a few years, for example, literal has completed a complex transformation and now means both literal (i.e., ‘true to fact, not figurative or metaphorical’) and its diametrical opposite, figurative (‘metaphorical and not literal). Privilege has been reversed, so that what once identified ‘opportunities or benefits available exclusively to a few’ now denotes ‘opportunities or benefits available exclusively to the majority.’ Equality has become touchstone term that often is forced to link essentially and inherently unequal persons, institutions, or ideas. Recently, the venerable term melting pot has been re-defined as a racist code-phrase.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with words changing meanings. It has been an organic attribute of languages since…well, since languages began. English in particular has welcomed shifts in meanings to reflect shifts in society and culture, resulting in an enormous number of simple-seeming words with multiple meanings—polysemous words. A word as basic as set has, according to the Oxford English Dictionary¸ over 450 possible meanings, making the possibilities for misunderstanding even this unassuming Anglo-Saxon carry-over ever present.
Given these characteristic of English in contemporary society, it requires care and alertness on the part of speakers and writers to ensure that listeners and readers understand precisely what crucial words mean. For that reason—and because I find great pleasure in exploring words, their histories, and their permutations over time—I frequently begin essays by talking about what key words mean before discussing them.

The key word for this essay is occult—and a key issue is whether, how, and to what degrees, occultism might influence horror. On the surface, there would seem to be little difficulty with the word—most readers immediately recognize it as referring to alchemy, astrology, and magic, especially as such ‘sciences’ relate to understanding and controlling the natural and the supernatural. This has been the primary meaning of the word since the mid-seventeenth-century, when such studies began separating from what we now understand as science and, really for the first time, became almost universally condemned by rationalists. As the need arose for a fairly neutral word to apply to those branches of human knowledge that did not fit into the burgeoning scientific era, the word that fit best was occult.
But occult in English goes further back by a century or so, and its meanings during that hundred-year span are as interesting as its more recent one, particularly in relation to a book I would like to examine, a classic of modern horror that is essentially (‘by its very nature’) and fundamentally (‘acting as a foundation’) occult: F. Paul Wilson’s extraordinary 1981 novel of fear and terror, The Keep.

Upon first reading The Keep, there seems to be little overt occultism in the novel, the story of the systematic but inexplicable destruction of German soldiers occupying a mysterious castle in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania—formerly Transylvania—in 1941. One by one, initially at least, they die hideously at the hands of an unseen assailant, causing the original officer in charge to send for reinforcements because, as he puts it, “something is killing my men.” Not someone. Something.
The sole reference to magic occurs as a negative. When Professor Cuza suggests to the German commandant that one of his incantations the previous night had forestalled further killings, Captain Woermann realizes that “He would have laughed at this conversation last Monday. It smacked of a belief in spells and black magic.” The subject of magic is raised as a means of denying it, particularly since readers know that Cuza had uttered no incantations at all; he had been talking with the vampiric Molesar.
Yet suggestion of magic of a deeper, more contemporary sort, have already entered the novel. When the Cuzas first enter their chamber in the Keep, Magda picks up a book from the table: The Book of Eibon. By itself, that title might mean little to most readers, but when she reads the titles of others, the implications become clearer. The stack includes Ludwig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes de Goules, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, and von Juntz’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Later, one more is added to the hoard: the Al Azif by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, more frequently known by its alternate title, The Necronomicon.
One and all, Lovecraftian titles…or at least titles associated with Lovecraft’s dark visions of cosmic Great Old Ones by subsequent contributors to the Cthulhu mythos.
The ancient tomes are definitively books of the occult, containing secret means of contacting—of invoking—vast, unknowable, and inimical powers in the misguided belief that such powers might be controlled. Merely reading their titles is sufficient to invoke a shudder among the “searchers after horror” to whom Lovecraft addresses his tales; the presence of such horrifying specimens of human thought in a foreboding stone Keep overseen by half-mad Nazis in the middle of a bloody world war (which, to that point, the Germans seem to be winning), fairly screams occult. And, readers are told, the volumes have been hidden away, in a hollow spot in the walls.
But, as with the entire vampire motif so intricately developed by Molesar and accepted by Professor Cuza, this suggestion of overt occultism is little more than a spot of misdirection, a literary red herring. Yes, the novel speaks of a god-like race that preceded humanity, but that race shares few characteristics with Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Shoggoths, or various other things fungoid, tentacled, and eldritch. Eventually, as Wilson develops his own mythology, he reveals that the ancient books of forbidden knowledge serve no function in the narrative, except as they present opportunities for Cuza to deceive the Germans. While they might contain formulae or incantations that would meet the common definition of occult, they cannot explain the deaths, the increasing sense of darkness and despair, the essential mysteries of the Keep.

If one traces the meanings of occult backward, however, toward less common definitions, one discovers that on an etymological level, occult simply means ‘secret’ or ‘covered.’ It is in fact a fairly common astronomical term for what happens when one celestial body—usually the moon or an asteroid—hides a more distant one from sight—the moon, for example, might occult Saturn. There is nothing inherently magical or paranormal about such events, although occultists might read meaning into them.
Using occult in this sense, The Keep gradually reveals itself as an intensively occult novel. Almost everything in the novel is hidden—and in most cases, concealment is intentional on the part of the characters and structural on the part of the author.
To take the most obvious example: the Keep is enigmatic, cryptic. Nothing is known about it; its builder, its history, its purpose are hidden. Its size is anomalous; its condition, misleading. The 16,807 crosses embedded into its stones must have a meaning, that seems apparent to all of the characters; yet no one knows what it is or even what the crosses actually represent. In one sense, the forward thrust of the narrative is determined by the Keep; only as the Germans begin dismantling it, beginning with a stone bearing a single atypical cross—made of gold and silver rather than brass and nickel—do the murders begin. Demolishing the walls dis-covers the cache of ancient books Cuza uses to trick the Germans and advance his personal, secret agenda…and allows the darkness hidden within the Keep to spread.
Nearly every character hides something, and those deceptions become crucial to the story. One of the earliest examples is Private Lutz, who (rather unsuccessfully) tries to hide a streak of venality that, when discovered by Woerrman, makes the private the first victim. His initial failed attempt to pry a cross from a stone earns him night guard duty, which places him in the lower levels of the Keep and allows him to see the gleam of gold that in turn convinces him that he is on the track of a long-hidden Vatican treasure-hoard. In seeking to uncover that secret, he causes his own death.
Other secrets are more central. Captain Woermann is public but guarded about his disdain for the Nazi Party but does not dare reveal his growing fear of the Keep, a fear symbolized and made visual by his failure to discern the hanged man hidden within his sadly prophetic painting. The ironically named Major Kaempffer (‘fighter, battler’) has a deeper, more incapacitating secret: he is a coward, and only the Captain knows it. The tension between the two escalates to the point that neither can function as befits a military officer, and as a result the darkness grows.
Theodore and Magda Cuza are more complex. Professor Cuza is at first motivated by an academic’s interest in discovery but later becomes entrapped in his plans to—quite literally—overthrow the Third Reich and bring redemption to his people. He hides his increasing knowledge of who and what (he thinks) Molesar is; he hides his plans to destroy the Keep and release the monster; he hides his new-found relief from the scleroderma that has made is life a torture; he hides his loss of faith from all except Magda, then funnels his bitterness and frustration into overarching desires: for vengeance and for death to the bringers of death…the Germans. Magda, in turn, hides everything she knows about the red-haired stranger, Glaeken, most particularly his intrusion into her life and her growing estrangement from her father…and from the person she used to be. Between the two of them, father and daughter orchestrate much of the novel’s action by withholding key information from each other and from the Germans.      
Molasar and Glaeken are, of course, masters of the occult. Molasar presents himself as an occult figure, a creature of magic and supernatural powers, of almost infinite longevity (from a human perspective at least) and infinite power. He is all of these, of course, but not in the manner he suggests to Cuza. The truth about him is stranger—yet more rational, more easily explicable given an extended historical span—than the pseudo-history he weaves. Glaeken hides truth in the opposite direction; he presents a façade of normality, slightly tinged with superheroism in his unusual strength and agility. He fully reveals himself to none until the concluding events of the story, when he and Molesar meet. The final revelation of who and what they are, coinciding with Glaeken’s ‘unveiling’—of his sword and of his identity—leads to an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, with the souls of both Cuzas at stake. (Apocalyptic, by the way, is an appropriate word here; it comes from the Greek apokalýpt (ein), meaning ‘to uncover, disclose,’ a perfect opposite to occult.)

The Keep, then, is a novel of the occult. That it bears little resemblance to contemporary tales of voodoo, demon worship and demonic possession, quasi- or pseudo-religious cults and rituals, magic black or white is at this point irrelevant. While clearly aware of the more common meaning of the word, and incorporating suggestions of traditional occultism deftly and aptly, the novel invariably turns the resulting expectations on their heads, subverting and denying them, subordinating them to explanations presented as logical, factual, and historical (within the novel’s frame of reference). Instead the novel carefully remains true to an older sense of occult, one that provides Wilson with narrative options that would otherwise have been impossible had he committed himself to authentic vampires, for example, with all of the appurtenances that would have required. Instead, by emphasizing things that are hidden, he offers moment after moment of dis-covery, of reveal-ation, constantly inverting conclusions readers have reached about events, about characters, about meanings…and about the Keep.
 


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stephen King, THE RUNNING MAN--A Retro-review



Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.


The Running Man (1982)

With the words “Minus 100 and Counting,” King opens a novel that follows an inexorable countdown to the cataclysmic scene in the final chapter, “Minus Zero and Counting.” The countdown motif provides continuity and structure to a novel that might otherwise fragment into separate episodes loosely linked by the presence of Ben Richards, King’s protagonist. But the ever-present chapter titles, with their metronomic countdown, constantly remind us that the novel is a game show, that the hero is a contestant, and that the time on the clock is running out. And as with any successful game show, the task to be completed is designed to elicit maximum suspense as clock and participant move closer and closer to the final seconds.

King’s story is, like those in the other ‘Bachman’ novels, relatively uncomplicated. Ben Richards lives in a near-future America controlled by the Network. Public opinion is shaped by Free-Vee, now mandatory in every home (but it is still legal to turn it off occasionally). The dividing line between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is both economic and physical, with the lowest classes living in squalor in huge tracts of antiquated, disintegrating, filthy apartments, killed by the very air they breathe and the hazards of the few jobs available to them. They have no hope of decent jobs, decent conditions, decent lives, even decent deaths.

Except the Games.

In order to buy medicine for his dying child and to save his wife from a lifetime of prostitution that earns barely enough for black market food and ineffective medications, Richards volunteers for the Games and is selected as a contestant on “The Running Man.” His task—to survive for as long as he can. If he is spotted before a month is up, he can be killed, and his killer will receive a cash prize from the Network. Worse, he is subjected to the humiliation of seeing his life and loves distorted on the Free-Vee until he becomes not simply a contestant but a despised public enemy to be hunted down and destroyed like a beast. He must film himself twice a day, both as evidence he is still alive and as fodder for the masses who seem to live only to watch the routine degradation of fellow human beings.[i]

Richards runs. Through four key episodes, he runs: first, mindlessly holing up in a Boston YMCA before realizing that the hunters are already on his trail; then more cannily linking with an underground of fellow sufferers dedicated to breaking the Network’s monopoly on information; then desperately taking a wealthy woman hostage, introducing her to the grim realities of life; and finally, aggressively taking the hunt back to the Network itself, hoping to destroy the entity that has so off-handedly manipulated and destroyed himself, his family, and his world.

The Running Man is King’s major foray into strict science-fiction, complete with an assumed jargon to indicate that as close as Ben Richards’ world might be to ours, the two are nevertheless fundamentally different (the SF overlay in The Long Walk becomes less and less critical once the novel begins, and the SF elements in The Dark Tower saga are so intertwined with other genre-patterns that Roland’s quest really ceases to be science fiction in any precise sense). The genre allows him to develop a focused sequence of images, motifs, and themes while continuing the underlying pattern of Rage, The Long Walk, and Roadwork. Charlie Dekker balks at the oppression of parents, friends, and society, and decides to “get it on”; Ben Richards stands up to the pressures of the media, never accepting their attempts to humiliate him, increasingly able to counter their attempts at manipulating him. Ray Garraty walks; Ben Richards runs—but the results are virtually identical. Barton Dawes has lost his child and is in the process of losing his wife; in a very real sense, Ben Richards has already lost his family psychologically the moment he enters the Games building, and as a direct, tragic, and ironic result of his becoming the Running Man, he loses them physically as well.

King has noted that The Running Man was written in 72 hours over one weekend and later published with essentially no changes. The speed of composition might have led to some moments of excessive melodrama (the description of Richard’s escape in the tunnel beneath the YMCA, for example) and some largely stereotypic characters (hip, rebellious, dialect-ridden, street-wise young blacks; overweight, nerdy, white technical genius out of touch with realities of life; monstrous mother whose life is her child and who destroys him as a consequence[ii]). But it also adds a sense of compression to the action itself. As in The Long Walk, the reader is never allowed to rest until the game is finished; the movement propels, impels, and compels without a break. The tensions might be physical or psychological or emotional, but from “Minus 100 and Counting” the novel shows King’s ability to control pacing, character, and story.

To date The Running Man is the only ‘Bachman’ novel to be released as a film—and perhaps may remain so, especially in the case of Thinner, for which the weight-loss special effects would be so demanding as to verge on the impossible.[iii] In spite of what seems on the surface an obvious miscasting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, and the happy-ever-after ending required by film audiences, it is surprising how much of the tone and feel of King’s story remain. The massive re-writes that transformed surface events into essentially a new story altogether still do not destroy the sense of desperate motion that King works to portray in the novel. And for many readers coming to the novel after seeing the film, the persistent image of dingy backgrounds and high-tech, slick, running costumes superimposed over King’s words and story may lead to heightened involvement with The Running Man. 


[i] From the perspective of several decades, this description sounds uncannily like what happens to anyone holding a minority opinion on FaceBook in 2015.
[ii] This latter image will provide a constant touchstone in King’s works, surfacing in such stories as “The Mist” and elsewhere.
[iii] Ah, the dangers of foretelling the future. Thinner was in fact the next ‘Bachman’ novel released as a film.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Erin A. Thomas, AN INKLING HOPE: Moments of Calmness and Grandeur

  
an inkling hope: select poems
Erin A. Thomas
Formless Press (Verdi NV), 2014
Trade paperback, 190 pp.

Erin A. Thomas’s collection of something like two hundred poems is a model of how a poetry book should be put together.
To begin with least things first, it is a well-constructed, sturdy volume—thick enough to have that certain heft that makes it feel comfortable to the hand, thin enough to fit in a pack and handily take out for a few minutes enjoyment.
It is well presented, from Cedar Lee’s intriguing cover design, “Grounded,” to the clear, easily readable typeface (which at my age I appreciate).
It employs useful and infrequently seen critical apparatus. The “Notes” provide information about the genesis and evolution of individual poems, ranging from short sentences to considerations of longer historical, personal, literary, and philosophical points. Sometimes these notes merely indicate a direction, an intention, a hope on the poet’s part; other times, they help unfold intricacies of structure, content, and language that—when one returns to the poem—increase its depth and resonance. By separating them into a separate section, Thomas ensures the flow of what is most important—the poetry—while allowing himself to speak directly to readers…if they are interested in listening.
That is followed by “Index of First Lines,” a now generally ignored convention of earlier collections. It helps readers who, intrigued by a powerful opening line, wish to find the poem again. In a book such as this, which is not overtly organized thematically, such an Index is useful. (There is also an Index to titles at the front, in case one wants to search that way.)
The final section is the “Index of Forms.” This one is quite important. Thomas is something between a free-verse and a formalist poet. In one poem, he may create the illusion of free verse while subtly employing an undercurrent of stresses and rhythms; in another, a glance will immediately identify the piece as a sonnet—fourteen lines, octave and sestet, etc.—but reading it might point to an underlying relaxation of metrics, the frequent use of half- and slant-rhymes, creative permutations upon the “rules” so that the poem reflects both past and present. In this section, he speaks to his general poetics, defining the forms classically and as he might use them, identifying points at which he shifts expectations, and discussing poems in which he has explored with form and arrived at his own conclusions. For anyone interested in how poems come to be, this section is informative and entertaining.
So much for the last 37 pages of an inkling hope.
That leaves the first 153.
And here is where the book shines.

The first major poem, following a quatrain suggesting what poetry means to Thomas, is the eponymous “an inkling hope.” It is crucial to what follows, since it introduces themes, images, motifs, and metaphors that will echo throughout, while talking-about-without-talking-about the art of poetry itself. Its five stanzas are firmly embedded in the natural world: in seed and leaves and trees and flowers, metaphors for growth and dis-covery that form the core of many subsequent pieces. At the end, here as elsewhere, Thomas joins tenor and vehicle in a moment of particular insight as the unnamed character

reached and plucked one ripe idea
and nursed the tangs of inspiration

Sometimes the poems consist of a single instant of awareness, of the natural world suddenly clarifying something for the poet, as in “Monday at St. Rose”:

the pale ghosts of saints
peer in on empty wooden
pews and out across
vacant parking lots where crows
search the cracks for seeds and crumbs

or in the aptly titled “what is haiku”:

silent stone waters
wimpled light reflections
golden flashes of fins

His subjects range from the abstract “prayer”—which, rather like George Herbert’s seventeenth-century meditation on the subject, couples form and discipline to image and observation in arriving at meaning—to the concrete, as in “Aftermath,” in which the speechlessness and grief of the survivors of a tsunami are compressed into a tautly structured Shakespearean sonnet.
“Wordplay” approaches the knotty contradictions of form and freedom in verse, of structure (which implies premeditation and external control) and spontaneity (which implies direct expression of emotion). Unsurprisingly, Thomas speaks for the former in his sestet:

          If all it takes to make a poem
is just to write what thoughts may roam
     with no consideration for the flow of words,
          then poetry is not an art,
but just a means for ailing hearts
     to air undisciplined emotions to the world.

Emotions there are aplenty in an inkling hope—but also discipline, form, structure, control…and art.

If I have a quibble about the collection, it is that often poems are presented without initial capitals or internal/terminal punctuations. The result is that sometimes it becomes difficult to tell if a line is intended to stand alone or if it should be connected to lines above or below. In a lovely trio of haiku, “birch,” for example, the last line of the first poem contains a metaphorical appositive and needs to be broken from the first two:

     one by four the breeze
loosens wings from tall white limbs
     butterflies in flight

The final line of the second, however, seems to continue the middle line to create a single syntactical, more literal unit:

     five by ten the winds
scatter yellow shades of brown
     silent through the air
 
The lack of punctuation and shift of direction might lead to momentary ambiguity.
On the whole, though, an inkling hope offers up page upon page of gentle delights, images both nostalgic and breathtaking, insight subtle and direct. It is well worth reading.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Steven L. Peck, A SHORT STAY IN HELL--"I Saw Eternity the Other Night...."


A Short Stay in Hell
Steven L. Peck
Strange Violins Editions, 2012
Hardcover, trade paperback, ebook

Not long ago, I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology-in-progress, tentatively titled Windows into Hell, edited by James Wymore. Each story was to reflect—or refract, or possibly diffract—Steven L. Peck’s marvelously ironically titled novella, A Short Stay in Hell. Briefly put, the submission guidelines required that a character find himself or herself in an unexpected version of Hell and through the ensuing experiences discover something elemental about self, others, and/or humanity. Not the least of the enjoyment that came from working on the project was being able to read and think about Peck’s original story.
Peck’s seminal version is easy to summarize. Soren Johansson—recently departed husband, father, and faithful Mormon—confronts a “proficient demon,” who condemns him to search library shelves in a Zoroastrian Hell until he discovers a book that details his entire life.
This one-sentence digest of a long story of course fails to reveal the essence of the book or the shocks awaiting Johannson as he sets out on his quest. For one thing, the story is not about Zoroastrianism on any specific level, other than that the revelation that a religion practiced by small groups of people, most of them some thousands of years dead, is the only true Religion adds a delicious sense of obliqueness to the disparity between what Johannson expects and what he experiences.
For another, the library consists of every book that could possibly be written, which means that nearly all of them contain nothing but gibberish—random, meaningless strings of print. But that fact dwindles in importance next to the unimaginable number of books involved. Each book is 410 pages long, no more, no less; with forty lines per page and eighty characters per line, for a total of 1,312,000 characters per book. Given some 95 characters in English, including common typographical marks, the total of books would be 95 raised to the 1,312,000th power—or 95 followed by a considerable number of zeroes, more by orders of magnitude than the estimated sum of electrons in the known universe.
One implication of this is that the library containing all of these volumes must itself be multiple times larger than the universe as we know it. And in a Hell in which discovery of three recognizable words forming a meaningful phrase is cause for celebration, the prospects of Johannson finding the book he searches for are vanishingly small. And the time it will take him to find it cosmically long. 
If A Short Stay in Hell were only about one man in a disconcerting place looking for a certain book, it might be interesting for the sheer ingenuity of the conceit. But there is far more involved, and here is where the story demonstrates the powers of its teller. 
Perhaps the first important theme deals with love and relationships. Johannson had been happily married before his death and fully expected to meet his wife in a Mormon version of Heaven…but does not. Instead, as he explores the unending corridors of the library, he encounters others to love, for friendship, for companionship, for intimacy. And discovers that what seemed fulfilling over the stretch of years cannot be sustained for eternities, and that what can be found—even amid the strangenesses of the library—can easily be lost. As he notes with casual understatement: “After a billion years there is nothing left to say, and you wander apart, uncaring in the end.” Ultimately, even memories fade, and Johannson must stand alone.  
Humanity comes under scrutiny as well. Everyone Johannson meets in his particular Hell is white—there appear to be no Asians, Hispanics, or Blacks. No children or old people. And they all speak English…with an American accent. As he moves up and down through the library, and across the eons, he discovers that being surrounded by a sameness becomes itself a kind of punishment. Everyone and everything becomes, to use his word, “bland.” Perfect homogeneity becomes its own curse. That does not keep groups from forming, shifting memberships with time, some intent upon finding the books that will release them, others determined to gain power and control, even when it means torturing and killing fellow sufferers day after day after day…because in this Hell, one may die one day but be alive and well and healed the next, just in time for greater evils and pains.    
Ideas such as these are important to A Short Stay in Hell, as well as others considered more fleetingly. They fade in importance, however, in the face of what seems to me the great, overriding theme of this thought-experiment (to borrow a phrase from Ursula K. Le Guin): to attempt the contradictory, the paradoxical, and the impossible and create eternity in prose.
Though the probabilities of finding a book whose contents make sense from beginning to end are ridiculously low, such books do exist. A library capable of holding the astronomical number of volumes suggested would require a structure larger than the universe, but it would ultimately have concrete limits, even though rising or falling for 30,000 years might fail to bring those boundaries into view.
But the time….
The hundreds, the thousands, the millions, the billions of years Johannson devotes to specific goals—all are treated as though they were but the passing of seconds. There are individual days, counted off by gigantic clocks everywhere visible, but they lead only to eons upon eons, to light-years upon light-years, to light-years of light-years—passed in searching for a single, meaningful book.
There is nothing new about an author positing vast expanses of time. It happens frequently enough in traditional science fiction. What is different here is that Peck makes the unimaginable incalculability of time-without-end, of Eternity itself, seem a possibility. By the end of A Short Stay in Hell, Johannson is exhausted—emptied out, drained of everything—except a single, fragile hope. After enduring that stay vicariously through him, I too began—in a minute, fumbling, finite way—to understood the facileness and the futility of attempting to, or claiming to, understand God, Time, and Eternity.
     

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Not–So-Good Horror: Why Little Things Count


Some years back, following my introduction to the magical darkness of Stephen King, I spent a summer binge-reading horror. Among the dozens I devoured, one comes readily to mind.
It was a first novel by a then-newcomer to the genre. I vividly remember working through it, reading the final page, staring at the mass-market paperback for a moment, then—in a fit of pique—ripping it in half along the spine and throwing it across the room. (Anyone who knows me and my respect for all books will understand how unlike me that would be.) And, immediately repenting both the pique and the tearing, going to the bookstore and buying a copy to keep on my shelf.
I did so for two reasons. First, to chastise myself for mistreating a book. And second, to remind me what truly Not-So-Good horror looked like.
I mentioned the book occasionally over the years, during classes on creative writing and on con panels emphasizing writing skills, because the book, as I remembered it, represented an extreme in manipulative, exploitative content and inadequate characterizations, particularly for the many characters that were brought on stage only in order to be cruelly and violently slaughtered.
When I decided to write this essay, I took the book from my shelf and re-read it.
Yes, its content was still manipulative and exploitative; and, yes, its characters seemed flat and often unsympathetic. And, indeed, all but a few were introduced then, in a page or few, destroyed.
But what struck me this time through, after three decades of reading, teaching, writing, editing, and writing about horror, was that the book was, in addition to what I remembered, simply weakly written. With the advent and rise of indie authors and POD publication and the proliferation of small presses, a number of readers, writers, and reviewers have begun decrying the fact that many books—even books published by big-name presses—are at best workmanlike, at worst unreadable. Several have concentrated on first-time offerings, bemoaning the disappearance of potentially strong stories and characters under an overflow of basic mistakes.
Using my favorite Not-So-Good horror first-novel as a guide I would like to look at several of these…most within the first four pages.

A first-time novelist—indeed, any novelist, any writer—needs to start strongly. Readers may give a story only a few lines, at most a few pages, before deciding whether or not to continue. The writing should be controlled, paced, appropriate to the story, and focused on hooking readers and keeping them.
It should never be repetitive and boring.
Yet on the first two pages of this N-S-G novel, two sentences break both conventions.
The setting is a cellar, dank, dark, foreboding, and well-enough introduced, albeit a bit heavy-handedly. The creatures de jour, we are told, had “tired of hunting and concentrated, instead, on the raw meat which was tossed down into the rank, fetid darkness.”  The final clause is unnecessarily passive—“was thrown down”—particularly since the novel never quite explains why meat was tossed into the cellar; but more telling is the redundancy of down. A cellar is, by definition, ‘down’; the sentence would be made more sprightly by deleting the unneeded preposition, leaving “raw meat thrown into the rank, fetid darkness.” Or “tossed,” “dropped,” or any number of other verbs that would specify an action…always assuming that we are eventually told by whom and why.
This quibble over a passive and a preposition might seem little more than that, a quibble, except that shortly thereafter comes this: “Only a single shaft of weak light broke through the darkness, forcing its way in by way of a small hole in the cellar bulkhead.” “Forcing its way in by way of” is repetitive and wordy, with five weak words in a row: two vague, repeated nouns—“way”—and three prepositions. Replacing the three with through results in “forcing its way through a small hole,” tightening the sentence.
Noticing that wobble, however, and concentrating on the sentence for a moment, suggests other, more subtle problems. “Only a single shaft” has two delimiters, only and single, and they mean essentially the same thing. In this case, both could be deleted and the remaining phrase—the already singular “a shaft”—would carry the necessary  meaning.
Next, the light is “weak,” not in itself problematical but overtly contradicted by two subsequent verbals: broke, which implies a certain amount of strength; and the even more emphatic forcing. In attempting to build the sense of horror, the sentence undercuts its own beginning. The light enters through “a small hole in the cellar bulkhead.” “Small hole” gives few explicit indications of kind or extent; perhaps crack would be more descriptive. And, given the setting, bulkhead, which normally refers to ships and aircraft, automatically defines the slanting exterior door leading into a cellar.
If one were to take all of this into account, the result might be: “A shaft of weak light penetrated the darkness through a crack in the bulkhead.” No more is actually needed, and, taken in its context of simply establishing an eerie landscape, it would be more powerful.
On the next page, the world is described as “spinning round so fast.” Same problem: redundancy. To spin is to ‘revolve’ or ‘rotate’—that is, to move rapidly around. And, since things rarely spin slowly (most would fall if they tried to), “so fast” isn’t needed. The world is spinning; in the established context of a drunk vomiting then leaning against a gatepost, that would be sufficient.
Six lines on, the character’s “stomach continued to somersault.” Two points. First, although he has vomited, there is no previous reference to somersaulting; thus the stomach cannot continue to do so. More directly, however, the sentence takes a nicely imagistic word, somersault, and replaces it with a flat, non-active verb, continued, which is about as useful as is, are, was, were, seems,and becomes in creating interest. The true sentence verb is hidden as a nominal phrase (a verb/infinitive functioning as an object). “His stomach somersaulted.” Enough said.
A few words further in the same paragraph, the character “stumbled down the path towards the front of the house, stumbling once over one of the chipped granite slabs.” Note the sequences of “preposition + the” following an otherwise fine verb; the short, rhythmical syntactic repetitions effectively defuse the aimless sense of stumble. Almost as if the author were aware of the inconsistence between verb and rhythm, he then repeats the verb as stumbling, followed immediately by the more overt repetition of once and one. Unless he stumbled twice over the same slab—which would indicate severe drunkenness—or once over two slabs, only one of the two words is needed is needed, or, since slab is singular, both might be deleted. Stripped, the sentence might read, “He stumbled over a chipped granite slab leading to the house,” with the option of adding other specific descriptors to make his inebriation more visual, if desired.
Two short sentences farther, he “fell forward” (a weak, two-part verb that might as well be fell, tripped, or tumbled) and dropped a bottle of whiskey, which landed “in the thick grass on one side of the path” (note the parade of prepositions) and there “remained unbroken.” Although Douglas Adams once wrote a similar phrase, he used it consciously and to comic effect. Here, the flatness of remained as a verb and unbroken as an adjective form of break seems unconscious, and the context speaks against comedy.

It would be unnecessary—and probably unseemly—to dissect the book page by page. But when this many wobbles occur in four pages, it makes it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the story, on the characters, the creatures, and the overriding sense of horror the author intends. But reading the novel cover to cover reveals that the problems never decrease; they continue throughout and include not only repetition, wordiness, weak substitute verbs, and prepositional strings, but also

·        Frequent run-together sentences, that make readers stop midway through to determine which parts belong together;
·        Cryptic, unnecessary adverbs, including “He smiled cryptically” and “She smiled inanely”;
·        Redundancies such as “small portable TV set,” “at that precise minute in time,” “collapsed in on itself,” and “and also”;
·        Repetition of identical phrases, including “all manner of…,” “obscene black monstrosities” (perhaps a dozen times); “sickle shaped teeth” (without the necessary hyphen to make them “sickle-shaped” rather than “shaped by sickles”—or better, sickled, which means shaped like a sickle)
·        Syntactical oddities like “The three men got to their feet, a wave of pain so powerful that it staggered him, causing the rep to support himself against the wall for a second,” in which him could refer to any of the three men and rep is ambiguous, since all three represent companies;
·        Throw-away phrases such as “needless to say”; and
·        Logical inconsistencies, including having a naked man “fumble for the key,” while standing at the door—the text makes it clear that he knows that the key is elsewhere in the room.

Taken individually, none of the problems might seriously damage a strong story; taken in such numbers and such varieties, however, the story gradually becomes submerged beneath the weakness of the writing.
This essay is not intended to character-assassinate a particular story, certainly not to suggest that the writer did not polish and hone his craft through subsequent novels. It is, however, to argue that far too many horror novels—especially first novels—seem more intent on creating tone and atmosphere than on presenting a story clearly told and immediately accessible. Trying to create dark, eerie, threatening, and frightening landscapes and creatures, authors often concentrate on asserting words rather than creating structures, much as do would-be Lovecraftians who insist on using eldritch, unutterable, gibbering, or rugose in every other paragraph, deflating the effect of the words. In the case of this N-S-G horror novel, hideous and monstrosities occur more often than eldritch does in the entirety of Lovecraft’s works.

I will keep the novel on my shelf. And I will probably refer to it from time to time. But at least now I understand more completely my reasons for ripping it in half after the first reading. Back then, at the beginning of my teaching career, I thought that what had distressed me most was the failure of content, substance. Re-reading it this time, I realized that the problem was more complex—and paradoxically much simpler—than that: at ground, it was the deficiency of the writing itself.

  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Stephen King, ROADWORK--A Retro-review



Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.


Roadwork (1981)

Perhaps the best introduction to Roadwork, the third published 'Richard Bachman' novel, is King’s own tag-quotation: "'I don’t know why. You don’t know why. Most likely God don’t know why, either. It’s just Government business, that’s all'—Man-in-the-street interview concerning Viet Nam circa 1967." 
King’s Barton George Dawes is trapped in the same conundrum as the man-in-the-street. Dawes does not know why—why his son Charlie died of a brain tumor; why he and his wife had no more children; why the government decided to build a freeway extension that would destroy the home where Charlie died; why the roadwork would also destroy the Blue Ribbon Laundry where Dawes has worked his entire adult life; why he finds it impossible to look for a new home, even when the government has offered him more than fair market value for the old one; why his ties with his wife and to his marriage are slowly disintegrating; why his whole life, in fact, is disintegrating; why he is disintegrating.
There are no true answers to any of these questions, but Dawes’ search for at least some illusion of understanding comprises most of Roadwork, arguably the closest to a strictly mainstream novel King would write until well into the 1990’s, with Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne. Here, however, King does not allow one specific social or political agenda to distort the coloring of his tale, as he will in Gerald’s Game; instead he uses a complex of public issues central to the mid-1970s as periphery to his primary story of a man driven to obsession, insanity, and death by his inordinate need for answers. While there are horrors in Roadwork, they are the ‘real’ horrors of gas shortages (whether genuine or artificially induced is irrelevant), small businesses being gobbled up by conglomerates for whom the “bottom line” is indeed the bottom line, increasing suburban isolation and alienation, disruption of social and family ties by devastating economic pressures, and—always—the specter of death by cancer, by accident, by suicide.
In Roadwork, King follows the same basic pattern as the other Bachman novels. His central character is thrust onto a road to obsession from which there is no deviating and no turning back. He understands that death or madness waits at the end but has no choice but to continue. The countdown to the final chapter, “January 20, 1974,” continues as inexorably as Charlie Dekker’s confrontation with the cops, as Ray Garraty’s eternal Long Walk, as Ben Richard’s rigged run, and as Billy Halleck’s implacable weight loss (to say nothing of Roland of Gilead’s quest for the Dark Tower, or the gravitation of seven children/adults to a hidden den in the sewers beneath the streets of Derry).
At the same time, there is a strong sense of King moving beyond the limits of his straight-line narrative.  Literary allusions to Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories surface at oddly disquieting moments and demonstrate King’s awareness of and attempts to incorporate mainstream literature into his text. Roadwork also breaks with King’s frequently transparent narrative voice as King suggests the tensions building in Dawes not only through the character’s words and actions, but also through the narrative style itself. Virtually every sign, every written word noted by Dawes in the novel (and there are quite a few, from construction signs to digital clocks) is introduced with a minor variation on the static phrase “And it said:”—as if the acts of saying and of meaning are somehow alienated from each other, and the fact that signs “say” must constantly be underscored in order to have some control over meaning and reality. The phrase becomes a mantra for Dawes, who seems to keep his tenuous hold on sanity by repeating habitual actions as frequently as King’s narrator repeats “And it said: ….” Style moves into symbol, and allusion concentrates characterization.
The sense of tension building to an explosion point in a novel with the prosaic title Roadwork emphasizes King’s achievement in creating his own unique sense of terror and horror without any fantastic or overtly supernatural elements. His consistent awareness of larger social and political themes that can be woven throughout his story and transformed into vehicles for modern horror is here highlighted, as are several of his equally consistent characters. We see the Italian-American mobster who, while not having anything approaching a heart of gold is nevertheless oddly attractive to and attracted by a wholly unlikely protagonist—a figure increasingly important in Thinner and transformed to threat in The Drawing of the Three. We also have the father-figure/son-figure relationship of Ben Mears and Mark Petrie in “Salem’s Lot’, and Roland and Jake in The Dark Tower, but here developed in the connections between Dawes alter-ego George and the shadowy memory of his dead child, which transforms what should be a healthy exchange into one fraught with peril. We have the husband and wife divorced by insanity long before the courts can legally separate them, as in The Shining. And worse, at least from Dawes’ point of view, we see the wife blooming in unexpected ways after she separates her identity from that of merely being her husband’s wife. Finally, we have a wash of minor characters whose sole purpose is to expose and heighten our awareness of Dawes’ instability, yet who take on a vigor and individuality that is one of the hallmarks of King’s prose.

In the final analysis, Roadwork is weakened by being a one-note novel…and the pitch of that single note is undeviatingly hysterical. Dawes’ inability to adapt to new contexts remains consistent throughout, and each of his incrementally more devastating confrontations with co-workers, employers, wife, friends, and finally civil authorities is essentially the same scene, emotionally and psychologically. Even so, however, Roadwork maintains a solidity of pacing and development, a sense of inevitability that even Dawes’ in his greatest extremity would have recognized…and perhaps admired.