Here's an uncanny heart-breaker.
The Spindly Man
BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Here's an uncanny heart-breaker.
The Spindly Man
BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
Spectral Press, May 1, 2013
Volk's novella Whitstable is a brilliant conceit. Actor Peter Cushing fights a monster in his own town. It's a poignant story and one I really enjoyed.
Wonderful narrative moments abound and underline the menace:
....“Horror isn’t everywhere,” Cushing said. “But horror is somewhere, every day.”
....He woke to the sound of seagulls snagging and swooping above his roof.
At the best of times, he despaired at their racket. And these were not the best of times. Now the noise was no less than purgatory. As a child in Surrey he’d thought they were angels, but now he
held no illusions about the species. The creatures were the very icon of an English seaside town, but they were relentless and without mercy. He’d once seen a large speckled gull going for a toddler’s bag of chips, almost taking off its fingers, leaving it bawling and terrified in its mother’s embrace. They were motivated by only selfish need and gratification, thought only of their own bellies and their own desires. It seemed almost symbolic that we never ate sea birds, knowing almost instinctively that their insides would be disgusting, inedible, rank, rancid, foul. It seemed to Cushing that their screeching was both a bombastic call to arms and a cry of pain.
....“Then what do you have to fear from me?” Cushing spoke quietly and with precision.
“I don’t know.” Gledhill shrugged. “I don’t know what you think.” And he laughed again. And the laugh had a wrongness.
There was something in it, a grace note, deep down, disingenuous, that the older man detected and didn’t like. If pressed, he couldn’t have explained it any more than he could have explained why, on meeting his wife he knew instantly they were meant to spend the rest of their lives together: it wasn’t even love, it was that he’d met his soul. Similarly, the thing embedded in Les Gledhill’s laugh was inexplicable, and, inexplicably, enough.
....Now he faced another Jekyll and Hyde, another beast hiding under the mask of normality. A clash with evil in which he could only, as ever, feign expertise. Fake it. But at least with the right tools. And in a costume that felt proper for the fight.
....“Carl?” Cushing said. “Sometimes you can hide the hurt and pain, but there’ll be a day you can talk about it with someone and be free. Perhaps a day when you’ll forget what it was you were frightened of, and then you’ll have conquered it, forever.”
Just finished Perfidia. First-rate. And relaxing: no one to sympathize with. Just enjoy the endless historical mayhem.
Excerpts I appreciated:
....Land grabs, plastic surgery, blood libel. Rogue cops, sub attacks, a lynch-mob massacre. Pay phones. A white man in a purple sweater. Secret radios and feigned seppuku. The haughty Left and the bellicose Right. A grand alliance of war profiteers.
He’ll tell it all to Dudley Smith or to William H. Parker. He’ll tell no one if it suits his needs. He has uncovered the real Fifth Column. It is not what anyone thinks.
[After the Dudster randomly shoots a Japanese-American man in a phone booth to honor a whimsical request from his lover Bette Davis…]
“…. The Chief will be meeting J. Edgar Hoover at Union Station this afternoon. Mr. Hoover is here to further implement his plans to abrogate the civil liberties of your people. Japanese radios and firearms will be confiscated. A good many more Japanese businesses will be forcibly closed. There will be a massive seizure of Japanese property and financial assets, and it is likely that your people will be made to wear demeaning armbands. I condemn these actions, even as I attempt to exploit them. I am grateful that my lawless streak allows me the latitude to maneuver, and to offer opportunities and protection to my colleagues and those who serve to further my designs. I feel that you have begun to emerge as a colleague.”
Ashida went dry-mouthed. The kitchen went gas-stove hot.
Dudley said, “A Japanese man was murdered early this morning. His name was Goro Shigeta, and he was shot in a phone booth south of Hollywood. He appears to have been heavily in debt to bookies in Little Tokyo, and Thad Brown thinks he was killed to settle a gambling debt. I would disagree with that hypothesis. I think a white man motivated by misguided patriotism and racial hatred killed Mr. Shigeta, and I think that a good deal more of such hatred will be inflicted upon your people. I would like to spare you and your family the horror of it.”
....Dudley Liam Smith—fate favors you.
He got his K-car. He hooked out to the Valley and east to Burbank. The airport cops let him perch on the runway. He had two hours to kill. He smelled Bette on his shirt cuffs.
He had time to scheme and strategize. He had time to craft a disingenuous report to Bill Parker.
Watanabe/multiple homicide/12-7-41. Second summary—one week in.
He popped three bennies. He padded redundant information. He layered in futile background-check dirt. He heaped on the dead-end leads and stressed the clannish Jap culture that constrained the job.
The bennies kicked in. He shoveled cop officialese and underlined his detective’s frustration.
Record checks were impossible. The war dashed all normal avenues of approach.
Can you read between the lines, Captain? Call-Me-Jack wants this job shitcanned by New Year’s. He will get what he wants—but this damnable case intrigues me.
What makes the stories in Night Shift so good? They were written with a young man's energy and sharpness. And written to sell to a market that had never heard of Stephen King. A market that wasn't crawling after him begging to put his name on the front cover. There were no "specialty" publishers with get-rich-quick schemes for "collectors editions."
That early King, the solid writer with an arresting voice, is also the one John D. MacDonald celebates in his Introduction.
These are stories of high craftsmanship, like the novels I prize from the same period: Road Work and Salem's Lot, and The Stand.
From King's own Foreward:
....Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We're afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in mid-air. We're afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.
....When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and MacDonald write about: hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence. We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There's a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home. The horror-story writer is not so different from the Welsh sin-eater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed's food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in - at least for a time....
"Strawberry Spring" is a personal favorite.
Just finished this, a novel I first read obsessively in early 1984 after seeing the TV movie on PBS's now-vanished American Playhouse.
What better novel for a young man who wanted to be a writer than one about a young writer? I'm surprised to find I remember some early sections of part one by heart.
But I find to my chagrin I totally misunderstood part three. It was Zuckerman's authorial improvisation on overheard snippets of conversation mulched together with his own personal crisis.
The Amy Bellette character thinking she is Anne Frank is just a fictional improvisation Zuckerman tries on for size.
John Leonard in NYRB:
....Nathan fantasizes that Amy is really Anne Frank; that Anne Frank somehow survived and came to the United States and found out she had written a best-selling book turned into a play and realized that if she revealed herself, even to her own father, her witness would be sullied. And he, Nathan, will marry her and introduce her to his relatives, and what will his relatives be able to say about his Jewishness when he is the boy who married Anne Frank?
"Let me straighten this out for you," I interrupted. "We'll disregard whatever honesty I happen to have, sense of loyalty to employers, and so on. You might doubt them, so we'll throw them out. Now I'm a detective because I happen to like the work. It pays me a fair salary, but I could find other jobs that would pay more. Even a hundred dollars more a month would be twelve hundred a year. Say twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars in the years between now and my sixtieth birthday.
"Now I pass up about twenty-five or thirty thousand of honest gain because I like being a detective, like the work. And liking work makes you want to do it as well as you can. Otherwise there'd be no sense to it. That's the fix I am in. I don't know anything else, don't enjoy anything else, don't want to know or enjoy anything else. You can't weigh that against any sum of money. Money is good stuff. I haven't anything against it. But in the past eighteen years I've been getting my fun out of chasing crooks and tackling puzzles, my satisfaction out of catching crooks and solving riddles. It's the only kind of sport I know anything about, and I can't imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of it. I'm not going to blow that up!"
She shook her head slowly, lowering it, so that now her dark eyes looked up at me under the thin arcs of her brows.
"You speak only of money," she said. "I said you may have whatever you ask." That was out. I don't know where these women get their ideas.
"You're still all twisted up," I said brusquely, standing now and adjusting my borrowed crutch.
"You think I'm a man and you're a woman. That's wrong. I'm a manhunter and you're something that has been running in front of me. There's nothing human about it. You might just as well expect a hound to play tiddly-winks with the fox he's caught. We're wasting time anyway. I've been thinking the police or Marines might come up here and save me a walk. You've been waiting for your mob to come back and grab me. I could have told you they were being arrested when I left them."
Dashiell Hammett, The Gutting of Couffignal, 1925
Dennis Wheatley's 1940 novel The Scarlet Impostor is set in the World War II.