DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Finished long ago: The Pale King.

A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally.  To wit:

Is DFW secretly a horror author?  Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?

Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play).  But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.

Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up.  That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself.  But there are ghosts here.  And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale.  And IRS paranormals.  The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power.  (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.)  (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning.  Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)

Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere.  Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here.  Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance.  The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.

Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression.  Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror.  Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.

American Weirdness

March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place.  It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.

And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely.  I love horror movies, after all.  And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways.  It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films.  It would involve poor people.  And black people.  And cults.  And drug abuse.  And monsters.  And abortion.  And weirdness.

Lots and lots of weirdness.  The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having.  I guess this is what we normally call mythology.

The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways.  One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home.  It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways.  It feels very true, as that kind of story.  Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself.  The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.

And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks.  While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching.  We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet.  We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.”  We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness.  Terrorism and holy war.  Angels and demons.  Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing.  A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 5 and 6

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Numbers 5 and 6 are pivotal: David’s story changes dramatically, a huge number of important new characters are introduced, and Dickens pushes the action forward with the Victorian equivalent of a Hollywood movie’s music montage.  As in previous posts, here are my favorite sentences from each chapter.

Chapter 13:

Sometimes in his rage he would take me for one of them, and come at me, mouthing as if he were going to tear me to pieces; then, remembering me, just in time, would dive into the shop, and lie upon his bed, as I thought from the sound of his voice, yelling in a frantic way, to his own windy tune, the Death of Nelson, with an Oh! before every line, and innumerable Goroos interspersed.

The first half of chapter 13 is one of Dickens’ great waking nightmares of poverty, and the nightmare in this sentence is courtesy the drunken owner of a second-hand store (not the only one in the book; Dickens was warming up for the great Krook of Bleak House).  I imagine the “Goroo” sound to be a kind of throat-clearing howl, “screwed out of him” with his eyes bugging out, as Dickens says.  His earlier ranting “Oh my eyes and limbs… oh, my lungs and liver,” etc., and his cheating of David, are of a piece with the rest of the terrifying journey to Betsey Trotwood’s house.

Chapter 14:

“Mr. Murdstone,” she said, shaking her finger at him, “you were a tyrant to the simple baby, and you broke her heart.  She was a loving baby — I know that; I knew it, years before you ever saw her — and through the best part of her weakness, you gave her the wounds she died of.  There is the truth for your comfort, however you like it.  And you and our instruments may make the most of it.”

“Allow me to inquire, Miss Trotwood,” interposed Miss Murdstone, “whom you are pleased to call, in a choice of words in which I am not experienced, my brother’s instruments?”

Still stone-deaf to the voice, and utterly unmoved by it, Miss Betsey pursued her discourse.

I’m breaking my one-paragraph rule to include part of the fist-pump-worthy verbal beatdown of the Murdstones by Aunt Betsey, in which she implacably tells them the truth as she sees it of their behavior toward David and his mother and utterly ignores Miss Murdstone’s caustically sarcastic remarks.  It’s great.  Dickens gives you these moments of readerly vindication and moral satisfaction; he loves writing comeuppance; and I suppose it is one of the major points that can be held against him from a critical point of view.  Damned if it ain’t fun to read, though.

Chapter 15:

We got out; and leaving him to hold the pony, went into a long low parlor looking towards the street, from the window of which I caught a glimpse, as I went in, of Uriah Heep breathing into the pony’s nostrils, and immediately covering them with his hand, as if he were putting some spell upon him.

An approximation of my immediate reaction, upon reading this: Aaaahhh!!!  What the hell?!  Aaaahhh!!!

As the earlier second-hand shop example already showed, Dickens contains a lot of terrifying details.  He had a real gift for horror.  This is how we meet Uriah Heep: an unsettling physical description, heavy on the color red and the attributes of a corpse, followed by this stunning, unexplained weirdness.  It might as well be David Lynch, this is so creepy and nightmarish.

Chapter 16:

He had a way of writhing when he wanted to express enthusiasm, which was very ugly; and which diverted my attention from the compliment he had paid my relation, to the snaky twistings of his throat and body.

One more courtesy of Uriah Heep.  Two things especially stand out for me in the scene of which this line is representative: first, the pacing and structure, which I cannot convey through one line, but which is really fantastic.  Between the short lines of a seemingly innocuous conversation between Uriah and David, David the narrator inserts comments on the uneasiness Uriah provokes through his appearance, his movements, his clamminess, his obsequious “‘umbleness.”  Second, Dickens’ choice of the word “writhing” to describe Uriah’s movements, which recurs in the scene and then becomes a signature for the character, in Dickens’ typical style.  It’s the perfect word, with its associations with worms and snakes; its connotation of futile struggle and striving, which seems to be Uriah’s basic state; and the echo in writhe of wraith, and the touches of the supernatural, deathly, and satanic that have already been connected to Uriah.  It’s what he is and what he does.  He writhes.

Chapter 17:

“I suppose history never lies, does it?” said Mr. Dick, with a gleam of hope.

“Oh dear, no sir!” I replied, most decisively.  I was ingenuous and young, and I thought so.

Quite a cheeky epigram for the writer of a fictional “personal history” to include.

Chapter 18:

It is a summer evening, down in a green hollow, at the corner of a wall.  I meet the butcher by appointment.  I am attended by a select body of our boys; the butcher, by two other butchers, a young publican, and a sweep.  The preliminaries are adjusted, and the butcher and myself stand face to face.  In a moment the butcher lights ten thousand candles out of my left eyebrow.  In another moment, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is.  I hardly know which is myself and which the butcher, we are always in such a tangle and tussle, knocking about upon the trodden grass.

In this very short chapter, Dickens move David through puberty.  Much of it is standard stuff, and I suppose I like the passage above more for some of the music of language — the staccato rhythm, which persists through the entire chapter, and that lovely first sentence of scene-setting — than for the content of the teenage fight with the town-bully butcher.  I guess Dickens moves through it in this reportorial, perfunctory way because he knows it’s hackneyed.  And yet I like this chapter so much, because the form of the chapter somehow matches the experience of puberty and the way you recollect it.  It all means so much to you, but eventually those fierce crushes get crushed themselves, into just the kinds of paragraph-sized vignettes Dickens shapes here.  You can’t do anything but report; you’re a different person, walking through a fever dream.  Music montages became a cliche for a reason, I guess.

It Takes a Graveyard

February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King.  He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres.  Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot.  (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)

But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly.  I love Stephen King, warts and all.  He and Gaiman are very different writers.  The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established.  With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained.  His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats.  I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense.  It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack.  He’s damned good.

It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range.  Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here.  The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.”  The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning.  Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.

The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead.  The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half.  Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs.   But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power.  Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”

If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes.  The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian).  The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.

The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury.  Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury.  The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression.  Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations.  I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion.  Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:

She came to touch her hand on his face.  “Son,” she said, “we love you.  Remember that.  We all love you.  No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.”  She kissed his cheek.  “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that.  You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”

There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.

Head in a Pot, Heart on a Plate: The Fourth Day

June 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

We’re under the dominion of Filostrato, the tortured lover, on the fourth day, and he’s insistent that the stories told be tragedies: love ending unhappily, the more cruelly the better. It’s the most interesting day so far in the interaction of its ruler to the stories told, and in the interjection of the teller into his or her story.

The day starts off with a surprise: Boccaccio tells a story of his own, addressing himself to “dearest ladies” just as his ten often do in introducing their stories. He’s responding to critics of the earlier stories, and my cheapo edition doesn’t say anything about the dissemination of the text to explain why this step would have been taken in the middle of the work, or if this was likely a preemptive measure by Boccaccio responding to anticipated criticism (which seems plausible, given how raunchy things got on the third day). What’s remarkable is that Boccaccio is responding to the charge that he’s too fond of women (and, by extension, sex), unseemly in a man of his age. He is, he says, “secure in the knowledge that no reasonable person will deny that I and other men who love you are simply doing what is natural.” I’ll hope to find out more about this.

It’s an odd introduction to this day, in that, while Boccaccio remains defiant in his own voice, the stories Filostrato demands are brutal in their punishment of lovers. It is made clear that Filostrato is enamored of one of the women in the group, but feels spurned by them or unable to declare his feelings; through stories of tragic love, he seeks to “feel one or two dewdrops descend on the fire that rages within me.” He scolds Pampinea, the second storyteller, for daring to tell a mostly comic story in an attempt to lighten things up. (She’s defended by Boccaccio, in the introduction to her story: Pampinea, he says, knew that “her own feelings were a better guide than the king’s words to the mood of her companions.”) Everyone else — except Dioneo, of course — falls in line, telling the worst story they can think of. In terms of straightforward plot development, it’s the best use of the framing device so far: we search for clues to the object of Filostrato’s passion in the comments before and after stories, in his reactions to them, in the conclusion (when Filostrato sings a song and one of the ladies is said to blush).

In the tales themselves, things get really bad. These are very earthy, bloody stories, of people screwing around and getting killed for it. There’s a lot of dismemberment, a lot of body parts, culminating in Filostrato’s own story, the final tragedy of the day, in which a husband kills his wife’s lover (his former best friend), cuts out his heart, and serves it to her at supper.

Two of the more mysterious stories, the fifth and six, seem very much like folklore embellished by Boccaccio. Both pivot on dreams. Filomena’s story, the fifth, tells of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. Lisabetta’s brothers secretly kill Lorenzo for bedding her; he appears to her in a dream, telling her how he was killed and where he was buried. She digs up his body, cuts off his head, and puts it in a pot, using it as fertilizer for a basil plant watered by her tears. Her brothers discover this and take her beloved plant away from her. This, we are told, is the story behind a popular song about a villain stealing a pot of herbs. Okaaay.

Panfilo continues the dream motif, in a very strange way. He tells a strangely anticlimactic story in which two lovers both have a dream of impending doom. Andreuola dreams of she and her lover, Gabriotto, having sex in their usual place, a beautiful garden; but then — and I wonder how many different ways this has been translated — “she seemed to see a dark and terrible thing issuing from his body, the form of which she could not make out.” It somehow takes Gabriotto below the ground, never to return. As it turns out, Gabriotto had a dream the same night, in which he captures a doe. As it sleeps with its head upon his chest, “a coal-black greyhound appeared as if from nowhere, starving with hunger and quite terrifying to look upon.” The greyhound starts eating him, gnawing to his heart, “which it appeared to tear out and carry off in its jaws.”

I’m impressed by Boccaccio the horror writer. These are terrific depictions of dreams: I found the strange dark force from Gabriotto’s body, and this starving greyhound, remarkably effective images, things that ring the true tone of nightmare logic. But it’s weird what Panfilo does with them: the next time the lovers meet, Gabriotto dies from a taste of a poisoned sage plant, then Andreuola dies of the same cause in the process of defending herself from an accusation of murder. Turns out there was a giant poisonous toad at the root of this sage plant, poisoning it with his breath. Whaaa? Panfilo said that the dreams in this story would be prophetic, and they are, in the loose way of presaging death: but the sage-plant plot element seems weirdly out of place. There’s something very cryptic, emblematic, and folkloric in this story.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with horror at The Ambiguities.