"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, June 1, 2019

13 stories from The Dark Descent: Reading notes

Edited by David G. Hartwell
(Tor 1987)

Introduction by David G. Hartwell
....fans of horror fiction most often restrict their reading to books and stories given the imprimatur of a horror category label, thus missing some of the finest pleasures of this century in
that fictional mode.
....intent of clearing the air and broadening future considerations of horror.
....its own aesthetic
....its own propriety
....should inspire, when it impacts on our own, not so much revulsion or shock as a sort of awe.
....excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers.

II The Evolution of Horror Fiction

....Until the last decade, the dominant literary form of horror fiction was the short story and novella.
....The most useful and provocative view we can take on the horror novel in recent years is that it constitutes an avant-garde and experimental literary form which attempts to translate the horrific effects previously thought to be the nearly exclusive domain of the short forms into newly conceived long forms that maintain the proper atmosphere and effects
....developing the horror novel into a sophisticated and effective form.
....The Dark Descent, which represents the context from which the literature springs and attempts to elucidate the whole surround of horror today.
....compilation of the horror story, organized according to new principles, is needed to manifest the broadened nature of the literature.
....there has been a renewed fashion for horror in every decade since the First World War, but this is the first such "revival" that has produced numerous novels.
....the frisson of horror, among the many oddities of our emotional life, is one of the oddest.
....terror, which is extreme and sudden fear in the face of a material threat
....Horror, on the other hand, is fascinated dread in the presence of an immaterial cause. The frights of nightmares cannot be dissipated by a round of buckshot; to flee them is to run into them at every turn.

III What It Is

....problems of definition and terminology
....We choose "horror" as our term,
....it points toward a transaction between the reader and the text that is the essence of the experience of reading horror fiction, and not anything contained within that text (such as a ghost, literal or implied).
....keystone upon which any architecture of horror must be built: atmosphere.
....you can experience true horror in, potentially, any work of fiction, be it a western, a contemporary gothic, science fiction, mystery, whatever category of content the writer may choose. A work may be a horror story (and indeed included in this anthology) no matter what, as long as the atmosphere allows. This means that horror is set free from the supernatural, that it is unnecessary for the story to contain any overt or implied device or manifestation whatsoever. The emotional transaction is paramount and definitive, and we recognize its presence even when it doesn't work as it is supposed to.
....manifest itself in periods of social confusion, when political progress is blocked
....injections of imagery horror, which soothe us with the momentary illusion that the forces of madness and murder may be tamed and compelled to provide us with a mere dramatic entertainment.

IV The Death of Horror

....He sees the literature as evolving in a linear fashion into fantasies of the psyche removed entirely from supernatural trappings. Any audience interested in these trappings is regressive. He sees no value to a modern reader in obsolete fiction.
....a "revived" taste for an obsolete form it appears that as horror has evolved in this century it has grown significantly in the areas of "the morbidities of the psyche" and fantasies of "a world in which, prosaic though it is, we can find no firm foothold in reality."

V The Three Streams

....1. moral allegorical 2. psychological metaphor 3. fantastic
....not mutually exclusive, but usually a matter of emphasis along a spectrum from the overtly moral at one extreme to the nearly totally ambiguous at the other, with human psychology always a significant factor but only sometimes the principal focus.
....three currents in the same ocean.
....first pole
....intrusion of supernatural evil into consensus reality, most often about the horrid and colorful special effects of evil.
....possessed by demons
....lapsed Christians, who have lost their firm belief in good but still have a discomforting belief in evil.
....appeal of such fiction, it seems to me, is to jump-start the readers' deadened emotional sensitivities.
....audience that desires the attribution of a moral calculus (usually teleological) deriving from ultimate and metaphysical forms of good and evil behind events in an everyday reality.
....center of category horror publishing.
....second group of horror stories, stories of aberrant human psychology embodied metaphorically
....the monster at the center, from the monster of Frankenstein, to Carmilla, to the chain-saw murderer—an overtly abnormal human or creature, from whose acts and on account of whose being the horror arises.
....1939 John W. Campbell, the famous science fiction editor, founded the revolutionary pulp fantasy magazine, Unknown.
....Unknown was an aesthetic break with traditional horror fiction. Campbell demanded stories with contemporary, particularly urban, settings, told in clear, unornamented prose style.
....Psychology was often quite overtly the underpinning for horror
....possibilities of psychological horror seem in the end to blur distinctions, and there is no question that horror is becoming ever more inclusive.
....third stream
....supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence
....only by allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed
....third stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality—we don't know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us.
....blends indistinguishably with magic realism, the surreal, the absurd, all the fictions that confront reality through paradoxical distance. It is the fiction of radical doubt
....this stream develops from the beginnings of horror fiction in the short story. In the contemporary field it is a major current.
....do not use the conventional supernatural as a distancing device.
....use as a principal device what Sartre has called the language of the fantastic.

E. Nesbit - John Charrington's Wedding
    "Alive or dead I mean to be married!"

Charles L. Grant - If Damon Comes
    ....You've been a bad boy, daddy.
     An emotionally devastating story. The theme is the realization that a child may find a parent morally wanting, and that the child's actions flowing from this might no be deflected by death. Like Nesbit's John Charrington, the child returns no matter what.

Thomas M. Disch - The Roaches
    ....She could always tell: there would be husks of dead roaches scattered about in the dust beneath the sink, stuck to the greasy backside of the stove, lining the out-of-reach cupboard shelves like the rice on the church steps after a wedding.
     Here we have Disch in full Saki/Firbank/Perelman mode: complete command of language at the service of a story wonderfully giddy and outre.

Theodore Sturgeon - Bright Segment
....He looked back and forward along the dark, echoing corridor of his years, stretching so far and drearily, and he looked at this short bright segment slipping away from him . . .
     It's tough to say something pertinent in trying to discriminate and define the majesty and authority of "Bright Segment."  It is a powerful short story, the horror flowing from individual social atomization and the struggle to break out of it. "Bright Segment" stays with you.

Michael Bishop - Within the Walls of Tyre
    Marilyn Odau has surrounded herself with unbeatable defenses: career, home, aloneness, independence. The past is the past, and she labors every day to keep it at bay. Until the past organizes an assault worthy of Alexander himself.
    Readers of Fritz Leiber's great story "Dark Wings" will find many resonances here.

Joanna Russ - My Dear Emily
    With Stoker vampirism retained its folkloric role as parasitic pestilence. Today it is more a funhouse version of bourgeois narcissism and sociopathic individualism of the Ayn Rand variety.
    Russ gives the reader the transformation into vampirism as a variety of Hell's harrowing-up of the soul. The woman hungering for autonomy finds in it another set of shackles.
    It is a pleasure, though, to read this particular treatment of the vampire subject; in 1971 she wrote the essay "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials." "My Dear Emily" shows how she solved that problem for herself as a writer circa 1962.

Flannery O'Connor - Good Country People
    ....Her face was almost purple. "You're a Christian!" she hissed. "You're a fine Christian! You're just like them all—say one thing and do another. You're a perfect Christian, you're . . ."
     I cannot recall a more whimsically grotesque and flamboyantly skillful story. O'Connor's confident in her craft and mastery of content is Napoleonic.

Gene Wolfe - Seven American Nights
    An alien/visitor/stranger story about a wealthy Iranian tourist visiting a future North American that has suffered genetic disaster through overuse of agricultural chemicals. The former U.S. is reduced to a primitive level of pre-combustion engine existence.
    He is told: "This is a republic of hideousness, as you have no doubt already seen. Our national symbol is supposed to be an extinct eagle; it is in fact the nightmare."
    As readers, we should keep in mind the admonitory advice of critic Peter Wright: "....as the majority of critics and reviewers who have approached
his oeuvre would admit, Gene Wolfe is a complex and wily writer, ambiguous, subtle and playful. His fiction is intricately wrought, densely allusive, and conceptually elusive; it encourages misreadings, demands thoughtful
reflection, and is able to involve the reader in labyrinthine possibilities for
interpretation." [Attending Daedalus, 2003].

Ivan Turgenev - Clara Militch
    Turgenev as a serious reader of Nathaniel Hawthorne is on display in "Clara Militch." The fine-featured Aratov cannot take Clara seriously until she kills herself in the wake of his rejection.  Her fit of pique captures him like nothing else, and he fades out insisting he has never felt better.
    "Clara Militch" gives us Aratov from birth to death. For all his curiosities and hobbies, he is a youth sheltered to the point of social handicap. He is only "woke" when a woman dies of his rejection.
    Supernatural elements are minimal, and until the ending's "lock of hair," can all be ascribed to Aratov's psychological state.

Robert W. Chambers - The Repairer of Reputations
    Do the readers of The King in Yellow all go mad via the same delusions? Do they, like Hildred Castaigne, imagine they are the rightful heir to the Dynasty in Carcosa? That they must rule under the Yellow Sign? Or is Hildred the only sufferer from this delusion, as his mantle is crowded with Napoleon biographies.
    The world of "The Repairer of Reputations" is a richly imagined fiction. We cannot see the scaffolding behind the narrative plaster; our narrator Hildred is only given a few chances to show his rhetorical unreliability.
    The story repays immediate and repeated rereading. It is a beauty.

Shirley Jackson - The Beautiful Stranger
    A fine-grained and perfectly modulated story of dislocations and atomization. Harold Bloom calls Jackson's style "artfully affectless," and for the brief space of this tale, the reader holds his breath.
    ...."We need things together. Things we like, both of us. Small delicate pretty things. Ivory."
    With John she would have felt it necessary to remark at once that they could not afford such delicate pretty things, and put a cold finish to the idea,
but with the stranger she said, "We'd have to look for them; not everything would be right."
    "I saw a little creature once," he said. "Like a tiny little man, only colored all purple and blue and gold."

Edith Wharton - Afterward
    Can a house draw spectres of a certain type? Spectres whom the experiencers take for real people? And whose spectral existence is not realized until later? It would be an unusual house that "permitted" only this type of haunting.
    ....No, she would never know what had become of him spent her long lonely evenings knew. For it was here that the last scene had been enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused Boyne to rise and follow him. The floor she trod had felt his tread; the books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the intense consciousness of the old dusky walls seemed about to break out into some audible revelation of their secret. But the revelation never came, and she knew it would never come. Lyng was not one of the garrulous old houses that betray the secrets entrusted to them. Its very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian, of the mysteries it had surprised.

Thomas M. Disch - The Asian Shore
    John Benedict Harris, art critic and published author, is in Istanbul to write his book on architecture. He is mistaken, repeatedly, for a local man. By that man's wife and child.  This being Thomas M. Disch, I doubt he will complete that book.
    Disch is an undervalued writer, a stylist and plotter of talent and confidence, which quickly revs-up his readers.

1 June 2019

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