I have been an avid reader of David Morrell's novels and short stories (and non-fiction) since the late 1980s.
The thriller genre constantly overflows, brimming with popular slop. For me, the thriller canon itself is far more restricted, consisting of at most half a dozen authors: John Buchan, Geoffrey Household, and Morrell are my top three; other readers might also claim with justice Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley.
Today, after finishing an enjoyable week reading Truman Capote's short fiction, I turned back to Morrell for the first time in half a decade.
Morrell's prose is clear and resonant. Dialogue and narration reinforce and amplify character beautifully, invigorating action.
Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity (1988)
"Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" is on my shortlist of perfect 1980s horror novellas. It has been since I first read it in Douglas Winter's 1988 anthology Prime Evil. The tale is perfectly modulated, completely comfortable within its skin, and delivers a couple of shocks to the reader that are sharp as a slap to the face. It is also no mean raiser of gooseflesh in its quieter moments.
"Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" is about the obsessions of an art historian and his friend, a commercial artist, as they uncover the sense behind the works of famed post-impressionist painter Van Dorn. (Think Van Gogh).
Van Dorn died poor and in obscurity in southern France. Eventually, his work became collectible, then priceless. But a certain percentage of Van Dorn's admirers went beyond appreciation, seeking to imitate the master's work, including his method of suicide.
"Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" shares a certain conceit with "Pickman's Model" by H.P. Lovecraft: that the artist simply painted what he really saw. But Morrell is not satisfied to stop there; his story pushes on into the atelier horror of Robert W. Chambers and the menacing landscape of Bierce's "The Damned Thing."
It is a superb tale.
....Myers phoned me at the office. I don't know how he knew where I was. I remember his breathless voice.
"I found it," he said.
"Myers?" I grinned. "Is it really—How are you? Where have—"
"I'm telling you. I found it!"
"I don't know what you're—"
"Remember? Van Dorn's secret!"
In a rush, I did remember—the excitement Myers could generate, the wonderful, expectant conversations of my youth—the days and especially the nights when ideas and the future beckoned. "Van Dorn? Are you still—"
"Yes! I was right! There was a secret!"
"You crazy bastard, I don't care about Van Dorn. But I care about you! Why did you—I never forgave you for disappearing."
"I had to. Couldn't let you hold me back. Couldn't let you—"
"For your own good!"
"So you thought. But I was right!"
"Where are you?"
"Exactly where you'd expect me to be."
"For the sake of old friendship, Myers, don't piss me off. Where are you?"
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art."
"Will you stay there, Myers? While I catch a cab? I can't wait to see you."
"I can't wait for you to see what I see!"
I postponed a deadline, canceled two appointments, and told my fiancée I couldn't meet her for dinner. She sounded miffed. But Myers was all that mattered.
He stood beyond the pillars at the entrance. His face was haggard, but his eyes were like stars. I hugged him. "Myers, it's so good to—"
"I want you to see something. Hurry."
He tugged at my coat, rushing.
"But where have you been?"
"I'll tell you later."
We entered the Post-Impressionist gallery. Bewildered, I followed Myers and let him anxiously sit me on a bench before Van Dorn's Fir Trees at Sunrise.
I'd never seen the original. Prints couldn't compare. After a year of drawing ads for feminine beauty aids, I was devastated. Van Dorn's power brought me close to tears.
For my visionless skills. For the youth I'd abandoned a year before.
"Look!" Myers said. He raised his arm and gestured toward the painting.
I frowned. I looked.
It took time—an hour, two hours—and the coaxing vision of Myers. I concentrated. And then, at last, I saw.
Profound admiration changed to…
My heart raced. As Myers traced his hand across the painting one final time, as a guard who had been watching us with increasing wariness stalked forward to stop him from touching the canvas, I felt as if a cloud had dispersed and a lens had focused.
"Jesus," I said.
"You see? The bushes, the trees, the branches?"
"Yes! Oh, God, yes! Why didn't I—"
"Notice before? Because it doesn't show up in the prints," Myers said. "Only in the originals. And the effect's so deep, you have to study them—"
"It seems that long. But I knew. I was right."
When I was a boy, my father—how I loved him—took me mushroom hunting. We drove from town, climbed a barbed-wire fence, walked through a forest, and reached a slope of dead elms. My father told me to search the top of the slope while he checked the bottom.
An hour later, he came back with two large paper sacks filled with mushrooms. I hadn't found even one.
"I guess your spot was lucky," I said.
"But they're all around you," my father said.
"All around me? Where?"
"You didn't look hard enough."
"I crossed this slope five times."
"You searched, but you didn't really see," my father said. He picked up a long stick and pointed it toward the ground. "Focus your eyes toward the end of the stick."
And I've never forgotten the hot excitement that surged through my stomach. The mushrooms appeared as if by magic. They'd been there all along, of course, so perfectly adapted to their surroundings, their color so much like dead leaves, their shape so much like bits of wood and chunks of rock that they'd been invisible to ignorant eyes. But once my vision adjusted, once my mind reevaluated the visual impressions it received, I saw mushrooms everywhere, seemingly thousands of them. I'd been standing on them, walking over them, staring at them, and hadn't realized.
I felt an infinitely greater shock when I saw the tiny faces Myers made me recognize in Van Dorn's Fir Trees at Sunrise. Most were smaller than a quarter of an inch, hints and suggestions, dots and curves, blended perfectly with the landscape. They weren't exactly human, although they did have mouths, noses, and eyes. Each mouth was a gaping black maw, each nose a jagged gash, the eyes dark sinkholes of despair. The twisted faces seemed to be screaming in total agony. I could almost hear their anguished shrieks, their tortured wails. I thought of damnation. Of hell.
As soon as I noticed the faces, they emerged from the swirling texture of the painting in such abundance that the landscape became an illusion, the grotesque faces reality. The fir trees turned into an obscene cluster of writhing arms and pain-racked torsos.
I stepped back in shock an instant before the guard would have pulled me away.
"Don't touch the—" the guard said.
Myers had already rushed to point at another Van Dorn, the original Cypresses in a Hollow. I followed, and now that my eyes knew what to look for, I saw small tortured faces in every branch and rock. The canvas swarmed with them.
"They" is a harrowing non-supernatural horror tale taking up the western settlement of North America.
Like Steve Duffy's sublime "The Clay Party" and earlier classics like Track of the Cat (1946) by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, "They" deals relentlessly with what we might call the Matter of North America. Readers of James Michener's novel Centennial will also recognize Morrell's portrait of the remorseless and unforgiving environment that bred defeat and madness far more frequently than wealth.
....Judith died in the night. She kept coughing, and her chest heaved, and she couldn't catch her breath. Her cheeks were scarlet, but she kept fighting to breathe. Then her lips got blue, and her face, and after two hours, she died. Mama held her, sobbing. Daniel kept looking at the floor. I stood at the window and stared at the dark of the shed.
A shadow ran between the cabin and the shed. Another shadow, dark against the snow on the ground. The howls were very close. I heard a shot, but mama didn't react. She just kept sobbing. I'm all right! Papa yelled. They're running away! But just in case, don't open the door!
Then the night was silent, except for a rising wind and mama's sobbing. We need to tell papa, I said. When it's light, Daniel said. It won't help Judith if we bring him in now. Mama started murmuring, In the valley of the shadow. I went over and took her hand. I'm sorry, mama, I said. Her eyes were red. Fear no evil, she murmured, holding Judith.
When papa came in at dawn, he stopped in the doorway and knew immediately what had happened. His face looked heavy. He closed the door and crossed the room. He knelt in front of mama, who was still holding Judith. Lord, give us strength, he said. Through the window, I saw more tracks in the snow. Papa sobbed. I wanted him to know I was brave. I'll do my chores, papa, I said. I'll take care of the cow.
My coat barely kept me warm as I milked the cow, then fed her in the pen. I took a pitchfork to the manure in the shed, throwing it in a pile at the side of the pen. Four brown specks watched from the rim of a hill.
Mama dressed Judith in her best clothes, her "church clothes", mama called them, although we hadn't see a church in two years. Papa set Judith on the kitchen table. We took turns reading from the Bible. About Job and Lazarus and Jesus on Easter morning. Except mama. She sobbed and couldn't bring herself to read. Then papa and Daniel put on their coats and went to the shed, where they got the shovel and the pickaxe. They spent the rest of the day digging. I was reminded of when they buried my other brother and sister when we lived in another valley. This grave was in a nice spot near the apple tree. Judith would like that. Judith loved apples. The ground was frozen hard, and Daniel and papa were soaked with sweat when they came back to the cabin.
Daniel spent the night in the shed with the cow. Papa and I stayed up with mama as she held Judith's hand. We prayed more. Eternal life, papa said. I expected to hear them howling, but there wasn't any sound, not even a wind. Daniel came in at dawn. I've never seen him look so exhausted. I went out and took care of the cow.
Then we said our last prayers. Judith's face was grey now. She seemed a little swollen. Papa carried her outside into the cold. The rest of us followed. Mama sobbed as Daniel and I guided her. When papa set Judith into the ground, mama murmured, Not even a coffin. Don't have the wood, papa said. She'll be so cold, mama said.
Papa and Daniel took turns shoveling dirt. Mama couldn't bear to look. I took her back to the cabin. Papa carried stones from a fence he was making and put them on the grave. Daniel went to the shed. I heard hammering, and Daniel came out with two branches nailed to form a cross. Papa pounded it into the ground.
Papa stayed in the shed that night. At dawn, we heard him wailing. Daniel and I ran to the window. No! papa screamed. He charged toward the apple tree. No! he kept screaming. Daniel and I raced out to see what was wrong. Dirt was scattered over the snow. Rocks were shoved aside. The grave was empty. Papa's voice broke. Fell asleep! No! Didn't mean to fall asleep!
Eternal life, mama said. I didn't hear her come up behind us. She wasn't wearing boots or a coat. Judith has risen, she said. A swath in the snow went across a field and into the woods. Monstrous paw prints were on each side. The sons of bitches dragged her that way, papa said. I never heard him speak that way before. Daniel hurried to the cabin to put on his coat. He and papa followed the tracks. Risen, mama said. I helped her back to the cabin. From the window, I saw papa and Daniel disappear into the woods.
The Architecture of Snow (2009)
"The Architecture of Snow" is a novella of singular power. It is a peroration on changes in the publishing business, but also about how such business allows no space for the outsiders it should champion.
Popularly, it is the story of an editor sent to autumnal Vermont to find a reclusive Salinger-type author. It is about authority, and how the loyalty of fathers and sons to one-another (the archetypal Morrell donnée) cuts across the axis of everyday patriarchy.
Without fear of exaggeration, it is a story of sublime poignancy.
....Wentworth's chores turned out to be raking leaves, putting them in a compost bin, and cleaning his gardens for winter. Surrounded by the calming air, I sat in the gazebo and watched him, reminded of my father. Amid the muted sounds of crows, squirrels, and leaves, I finished my cup of tea, poured another, and started the manuscript, A Cloud of Witnesses.
I read about a slum in Boston, where a five-year-old boy named Eddie lived with his mother, who was seldom at home. The implication was that she haunted bars, prostituting herself in exchange for alcohol. Because Eddie was forbidden to leave the crummy apartment (the even worse hallways were filled with drug dealers and perverts), he didn't have any friends. The television was broken. He resorted to the radio and, by trial and error, found a station with an afternoon call-in program, "You Get It Straight from Jake," hosted by a comedian named Jake Barton. Jake had an irreverent way of relating to the day's events, and even though Eddie didn't understand most of the events referred to, he loved the way Jake talked. In fact, Jake accomplished a rare thing—he made Eddie laugh.
As I turned the pages, the sound of crows, squirrels, and leaves became muffled. I heard Wentworth raking but as if from a great distance, farther and fainter. My vision narrowed until I was conscious only of the page in front of me, Eddie looking forward to each day's broadcast of "You Get It Straight from Jake," Eddie laughing at Jake's tone, Eddie wishing he had a father like Jake, Eddie . . .
A hand nudged my shoulder, the touch so gentle I barely felt it.
"Tom," a voice whispered.
"Tom, wake up."
My eyelids flickered. Wentworth stood before me. It was difficult to see him; everything was so shadowy. I was flat on my back on the bench. I jerked upright.
"My God, I fell asleep," I said.
"You certainly did." Wentworth looked amused.
I glanced around. It was dusk. "All day? I slept all day? I'm so sorry."
"Well, I barge in on you, but you're generous enough to let me read a manuscript, and then I fall asleep reading it, and—"
"You needed the rest. Otherwise, you wouldn't have dozed."
"Dozed? I haven't slept that soundly in years. It had nothing to do with . . . Your book's wonderful. It's moving and painful and yet funny and . . . I just got to the part where Jake announces he's been fired from the radio station and Eddie can't bear losing the only thing in his life he enjoys."
"There's plenty of time. Read more after we eat."
"I made soup and a salad."
"But I can't impose."
9 May 2020