22 February 2008

Creepy, eerily modern masterpieces of short 19th century horror

Can Such Things Be? Tales of Horror and the Supernatural
Ambrose Bierce
Citadel Press, 1990 (Originally published 1893)

[H]e can and will be read with interest in an age which is getting ready to renounce compromise, kindness, and Christianity. (p.9)

This is as much of Clifton Fadiman's introduction as anyone needs to read. After Fadiman (the embodiment of 1940s patrician intellectual snobbery) slights Bierce for his lack of a formal education, he then dismisses most of his journalistic work as "writing badly, doubtless writing too much." He opines that Bierce's writing is only considered interesting because of Bierce's legend and describes Bierce's nihilism as "brutal and simple as a blow, and by the same token not too convincing" and, "if taken in overdoses, a trifle tedious." Bierce's prose is "old-fashioned," "flawed with the bad taste of the period," and melodramatic.

Fadiman's extensive criticisms may or may not be true about the larger part of Bierce's oeuvre (I have, for example, seen Bierce described online as
"ponderous Victorian melodrama"), but they definitely do not apply to the unsettling stories in this volume. Bierce's meticulous grammar (meticulous from the perspective of my relatively grammatically-impoverished ass, at least) and sentences (so typical of 19th-century American prose) chock full of prepositional phrases took me a story or two until I got into the rhythm of his language and storytelling. Once I did, though, each story read better than the one before. I find it hard to believe that he was mocked during his life by many critics for his rough writing, poor grammar, and lack of an education. If only today's university students could write this well.

Many of the stories struck me as strikingly contemporary, perhaps because irony is so central to his writing. As well, Bierce loves to mix the comic (the absurd?) and the horrific in a way that doesn't come through in other classic horror writers like Poe or Lovecraft. One commentator has noted that his "style and journalistic background gave his stories of war and strange disappearances such an uneasy realism that many mistook them for being true." That this realism is often tempered with a Dickian uncertainty about what is real and what illusory is perhaps why many of these stories are ahead of their time while also being of a piece with it.
The fact is, that of your own sanity you have no evidence that's any better than some lunatic who thinks he's Ulysses S. Grant or Jesus H. Christ. I certainly have no evidence of mine. For all I know you don't exist. Everything around me may be fictions of my disordered imagination. - Ambrose Bierce

This fusion of realism and radical skepticism has earned him the almost-postmodern accolade of "the master of magical cynicism," and this mastery is definitely on display in many, if not all, of Bierce's work in this collection.
  • "One Summer Night" -- A scant story, merely a page and a half, about a man apparently buried alive, revived by grave diggers, and killed by the black spadesman. Chilling in its ruthless efficiency.
  • "The Moonlit Road" -- Prefiguring Kurosawa's Rashomon, Bierce tells the story of a murdered wife and her ghost from three different perspectives (son, husband/killer, wife/ghost).
  • "A Tough Tussle" -- In this account of the horrors of war and the veil between lucidity and lunacy, a Union officer ends up sitting next to a Confederate corpse. When shots are fired, the two end up in a tussle from which neither emerges alive.
  • "A Jug of Sirup" -- A morality play about how to behave in a store run, even after he's been buried, by a model citizen.
  • "Staley Fleming's Hallucination" -- In which a man is killed by a hallucinatory dog, the phantom of the dog of the man whom he murdered.
  • "A Resumed Identity" -- Think The Sixth Sense, or perhaps a less overwrought version of Lovecraft's "The Outsider," except that it was written in the late 1800s. The ghost discovers his lamentable status much to his sorrow.
  • "A Baby Tramp" -- A genuinely heartbreaking story about an orphaned toddler who makes his way across the country to die on his mother's grave. Where was "Bitter Bierce" in this story, unless he was bitter against a God and Natural Order that would permit such horrors?
  • "The Damned Thing" -- Was he killed by a mountain lion? Or was it something stranger? Shades of HP Lovecraft, "The Colour Out of Space."
  • "The Stranger" -- A classic ghost story with a genuinely hair-rising ending.
Magical cynicism indeed. Lots of pointed satire and yet also such spooky stories. Another phrase I like that describes the voice which runs through these collected stories is "courageous despair" (most explicitly expressed in "The Baby Tramp.")
There are voices from the Past that can help us in our travail, and eloquent among them is that of the courageous despair of Ambrose Bierce. Behind all the bitterness and the thunderous nay-saying, one can detect a profound interest in, and fascination with, the human adventure. One of the surest signs of this is the vigour and precision of Bierce's language; he could not have created such excellences out of despair, no matter how vividly that despair served as his subject, for the language of despair is silence. There is a secret joyousness in such hatred, and it's a part of what appeals to me in all that I've read of Ambrose Bierce. -- Jack Matthews

I like that. The publishers should use that as this book's introduction in the next edition.

"Most haunted" maybe, but by dull ghosts

The Most Haunted House in England
(Time-Life Collector's Library of the Unknown)
Harry Price
Longmans, Green and Co., 1940 (Time-Life Books Reprint)

After watching The World's Scariest Ghosts Caught on Tape one Friday eveninga few weeks ago, my interest in "true ghost stories" was peaked and so I scared up this volume.

Harry Price's The Most Haunted House in England is the book about a classic haunted house, Borley Rectory, which is a staple of many of the ghost and supernatural books I read when I was younger. It is well-written in that competent British school boy fashion, with impeccable grammar, restrained wit, and conservative style.

Price explains how he was invited to explore Borley Rectory, which was built in 1863 by the Rev. Henry Bull and which had allegedly been visited by the ghost of a nun and by a spectral coach drawn by two headless men. Price details the history of the village of Borley and the tales of the haunted rectory; the legend of a nun who was buried alive at the site that would become the rectory for her illicit liaison with a monk; and spooky stories from various sources---those who lived in the house, their guests, and those invited specifically for the task of research into the hauntings.

Sadly, for its status as a classic in the genre of supernatural literature, the book is not really scary. Almost all of the activities described were of the nature of a poltergeist (or Poltergeister, as Price would have it) in the form of mysterious sounds, teleportation of small objects, movement of small objects, and, over a period of several years, the writing of messages and small marks on the walls of the house. There was surprisingly little about the spectral coach and ghostly nun, particularly seeing how these alleged phenomena were what drew Price to the house initially.

The book serves as a documentary history of the alleged haunting, and the author leaves it up to the reader to decide as to the veracity of the stories of Borley Rectory in light of all the documentary "evidence" presented. Many contemporary critics feel that Price and one of the couples who lived in the house (those to whom the mysterious messages were addressed) established this entire story as a hoax. It wouldn't surprise me.

In short, this is a high-quality reprint of a classic, if unconvincing and not very scary, early 20th century monograph on ghosts. The Time-Life Collector's Library of the Unknown is a classy series for those who are interested in the literature of the unexplained, even if only in fun, and this volume is no exception.

21 February 2008

Superb title, uneven stories

How to Save the World

Charles Sheffield, editor
Tor Books, 1995

We have no friendly advisor looking over our shoulder. We will have to make do with the next best thing: humans who are close observers of the actions of our species, but who are not directly involved in trying to run the affairs of humanity.

This of course is exactly what writers are and have been through recorded history.... Even among writers, I argue that the writers of science fiction form a special sub-group. They tend to be interested in global problems, in the impact of science and technology, and in the long-term future of humanity. They are observers of events at the largest scale. (pp. 12-13)

This then is a collection of these observations, examining themes as far ranging as the failure of public education in the US to the breakthrough in space exploration to the cure for patriarchy to an ugly dilemma inherent in the feminist rhetoric of "reproductive choice." For those of us who (often) feel motivated to save the world, this book provides an entertaining meditation on the shadow side of the utopian and of the unknowable consequences of our wholly benevolent intentions.

Sheffield writes, "Some of the stories in this book may offend. I certainly hope so." (p. 14). None of the stories offended this reader, but disappointingly most didn't make much of an impression either way. The unevenness of the stories was a definite let-down, particularly considering the devastatingly understated (or, as Sheffield puts it, "unduly modest") title. After all, what self-respecting Christian anarchist bodhisattva utopian would pass up the manual on how to save the world?

So here are some thoughts on the stories that impressed a little SF wisdom on me, providing visions of possible futures and of some pitfalls that might face us along the way. They also all rocked as stories.
  • "Zap Thy Neighbor" by James P. Hogan. I'd read this one almost a decade ago in an anthology of Hogan's stories and science writing called Rockets, Redheads, and Revolution, and enjoyed rereading it. Hogan has envisioned a world in which everyone has a listing in a big directory, and that anyone with a grudge or grievance, if she can find two willing accomplices, can "call your number." It's a simple system with a twist that ensures that it really works as promised---in creating a more civil society.
  • "Choice" by Lawrence Watt-Evans. In college anthropology I was first introduced to the dilemma faced by many feminists in Asia (and other locales) regarding abortion. It is, in short, that the rhetoric of "reproductive choice" that has dominated liberal discourse on the issue for almost two generations (i.e., that a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy is absolute and absolutely hers) stands in uncomfortable company with third-world cultural realities which lead most women with free access to contemporary reproductive technologies to abort only female fetuses. Watt-Evans presents a "culturally pure" (read: third world) society, presumably in the Middle East, where poverty, disease, overpopulation, etc. have been become things of the past. How? By allowing women to make their free choices, aborting females and keeping males until the ratio of men to women is over 10 to 1. This, as we see in the story, poses its own interesting problems.
  • "The Meetings of the Secret World Masters" by Geoffrey A. Landis. This story reminded me of the film The Last Supper except that instead of serving individuals poisoned meals, a handful of scientists genetically engineer myriad changes to the human race. A pretty chilling story about way too much power being in the wrong hands--or in any hands.
  • "The Invasion of Space" by James Kirkwood. Reminisces about the crucial "Big Bang" moment in deep space exploration and how it was a poet (and an inadvertent martyr), and not a scientist, who was needed to get humanity's mythological juices flowing in the direction of outer space. Because without that, you can only get so far off the earth.
  • "Buyer's Remorse" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg. Why is this story here? I absolutely hated, hated, hated, hated this story. Completely pretentious short story told in the form of letters to an advice columnist about life in the far future and the columnist's responses. Confusing and didn't say much to me, which means I probably need to re-read it a couple of times until I finally get it. (That or simply forget about it).
  • "My Soul to Keep" by Jerry Oltion. In the near-future US, religion is seen as a dangerous, infectious neurological disorder and so free exercise of said infection is therefore no longer enshrined in the US Constitution. When the Pope is injured while on a clandestine trip to the US, and the contagion is released, all hell (ahem) breaks lose. One scientist begins to regain her faith, and so her fellows protect her from the illness. For her own benefit, of course.

07 February 2008

The Lord of the Rings: A masterpiece of myth-making

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 1994

I first received The Lord of the Rings as part of a boxed set, complete with The Hobbit, for Christmas in 1985. I also received a boxed set of the first four Dune books. I was 13 and in 8th grade.

Like many 13-year olds, I loved The Hobbit but I thought The Lord of the Rings was simply awful. For one thing, the plot was not immediately obvious to me. (Keep in mind that at the time my enjoyment reading primarily comprised Doctor Who novelizations and Choose Your Own Adventure books.) Instead of the short chapters of plot and dialogue to which I was accustomed, Tolkien provided page after page of exposition, describing the local color and history with any "action" provided almost as an afterthought. And then there is what may have been the biggest problem of all with The Lord of the Rings, the scores of strangely named characters and places, some of whom are central to the story and others of whom are purely peripheral and which is which is unclear. I mean, sheesh, who names their two main villains Sauron and Saruman, names that differ by only one syllable?

It should be here noted that while I loved reading at age 13, I was also not the best reader. Memories of reading what I managed to of the trilogy consist mainly of reading a single page over and over and over again just to follow the main thread of the story. Somehow I managed to finish The Fellowship of the Ring and made it a few dozen pages into The Two Towers before I threw up my hands and abandoned Tolkien to the realm of "authors I think are overrated." I still have a vague recollection of giving a a pretty worthless presentation on the first book in front of Mrs. Fox's English class, the same class I was in when the Challenger exploded. (I also have an even vaguer memory of reviewing some disposable piece of genre SF called Dushau, but that's another story.) In short, I never thought I would ever read this book again, and considered all those folks who worshiped Tolkien to be little short of fools.

Fast-forward sixteen years. It's Christmas time in Champaign, and I'm attending The Two Towers with my coworkers, mainly because the bosses gave us cinema tickets for the holidays. As the movie begins to unfold, I remember those few dozen pages that I read at 13, and I slowly begin the journey of reappraising Tolkien. While I agree with those who urge reading the book as well as simply seeing the movie, I think that in this case I could not have done the former if I had not done the latter. Peter Jackson's trilogy allowed me to familiarize myself with the overall story arch (something that was hard for me to do from within the perspective of the novel, at least at first) and also helped me to handle the enormous cast of strangely named characters. (Finally Saruman and Sauron were decidedly distinct characters in my mind's eye, and the logic behind their naming, based as it is on Tolkien's invented languages, became more apparent.) So in fall of 2007 I finally decided to give the damned book another chance, mooched the one-volume "trilogy" (apparently Tolkien always considered it one big novel) through BookMooch, chose it over the New Testament for 2008's "big book" (sorry Mom), and devoured it in January, 2008.

In short, I loved it, particularly the exposition and the bizarre names for characters and places. Strange, huh, how the passage of time will do that to one's sensibilities? The very features of the novel that I found off-putting in 1985, I found absolutely ingenious in 2008. The names and locations in The Lord of the Rings all figure into a much-vaster cosmology and narrative history, and this becomes more apparent when the reader peruses the voluminous appendices. All the details that seemed arbitrary and distracting from "the action" were in fact anything but arbitrary, deriving as they did from a comprehensive mythology (of a world that did not exist until Tolkien wrote it into existence!). Take for example the appendix on the "translation" of the text explaining why Tolkien chose English words like "elf" and "dwarf" and "halfling" to "translate" the "original" Elvish words. Apart from the implication that there is really an original manuscript written in Elvish, this appendix also implies that the "elves" in this story aren't really elves, the "dwarves" aren't really dwarves, etc., but that these are the closest analogs that the translator could find in fantastic literature.

That these 1,000+ pages, with all their hyper-detailed exposition, are merely the tip of the iceberg of Tolkien's invented world, makes the novel all the more amazing. This really is a masterpiece of storytelling and myth-making. I can understand now why so many people love this book. I think I'm now one of them.