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

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

Monday, November 28, 2022

Edmund Wilson's 1943 essay "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed"

Wilson was the first writer who made the study of literature understandable to me as an activity. "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed" (in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties) is his 1943 look back at a quarter century as a literary journalist engaged in that task. 

The paragraphs underlined below seem useful, reflecting Wilson's approach to the vicissitudes of literary business for U.S. petty-bourgeois intellectuals in the period 1919-1943.

I have omitted the paragraphs on Marxist politics, where Wilson is no more clear-headed than he ever was. Like Hook, Eastman, Burnham, and a million other valuable allies of independent working class militancy, he dropped his pseudo-radical socialism in August 1939 and never looked back.

*   *   *

[....] somniferously [soporific]

[....] a kind of fancy-dress party of frantic self-advertisement.

[....] when the problems of historical action seemed to have been removed in Europe to a less intellectual plane, they could only take sanctuary in learned research. The scholarship of Marxism in some cases shaded easily into the scholarship of the English Department; and the inquest on literary culture from the social-economic point of view was contracted to a simple ambition to get the whole thing under glass.

[....] nauseating puerilia [boyish, youthful ; immature, childish]

[....] I have made my living mainly by writing in periodicals. There is a serious profession of journalism, and it involves its own special problems. To write what you are interested in writing and to succeed in getting editors to pay for it, is a feat that may require pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity. You have to learn to load solid matter into notices of ephemeral happenings; you have to develop a resourcefulness at pursuing a line of thought through pieces on miscellaneous and more or less fortuitous subjects; and you have to acquire a technique of slipping over on the routine of editors the deeper independent work which their over-anxious intentness on the fashions of the month or the week have conditioned them automatically to reject, as the machines that make motor parts automatically reject outsizes. 

[....] Poe in particular-though at the cost of an effort which was one of the pressures that shattered him -succeeded in selling almost all he wrote to the insipid periodicals of his day, studying the forms that were effective with the public, passing off his most anguished visions in the guise of mystery stories, and, be getting the editors, in some cases, to print pieces that had been published before but of which he had prepared new versions, scoring the triumph of thus making them pay him for the gratuitous labor of rewriting demanded by his artistic conscience. The masterpieces excreted like precious stones by the subterranean chemistry of his mind were sprinkled into a rapid stream of news letters and daily reviewing that was itself made to feed his interests and contribute to his higher aims.

[....] My own strategy – to make an anti-climax – has usually been, first to get books for review or reporting assignments to cover on subjects in which I happened to be interested; then, later, to use the scattered articles for writing general studies of these subjects; then, finally, to bring out a book in which groups of these essays were revised and combined.

[....] This method of working out in print one's treatment of something one is studying involves a certain amount of extra writing and consequently of energy wasted; but it does have the advantage of allowing one's ideas first to appear in a tentative form, so that they are exposed to correction and criticism. My non-critical and non-reportorial productions I have also to some extent smuggled in, and their forms may have been sometimes affected by the importunate consideration of the usefulness of detachable units of the right size for magazines.

[....] in the literary field, it does look as if the movements for which people have been fighting had, if not actually run their courses, at least completed certain phases of their development. Two of the tendencies that have stimulated most controversy, both vis-a-vis traditional methods and in conflict with one another: naturalism and symbolism-culminated and fused in the work of Joyce at the time that he wrote Ulysses. And there was also embodied in Ulysses an exploitation or a parallel exploration of the Freudian tendencies in psychology which had themselves had to fight for their lives and which could still seem sensational in fiction. The Waste Land came out the same year as Ulysses: 1922; and the result was one of those blood-heating crises that have been occurring periodically in literature since the first night of Hernani in 1830: howls of denunciation, defiant applause and defense, final vindication and triumph. But when the successor to Ulysses arrived, even more daring and equally great though it was, its reception was completely different; and the difference is significant and perhaps marks the drop of a trajectory in modern literature. Such occasions had never been deprived in the past either of evening clothes to hiss from the boxes or of young men to wear the red vest of Gautier; but the appearance of Finnegans Wake, instead of detonating a battle, was received with incurious calm. No exalted young journalists defended it; no old fogeys attacked it with fury. The reviewers spoke respectfully of Joyce while deprecating an aberration, and detoured around the book without giving it the smallest attention; and among the older writers who had been interested in Ulysses, now comfortably ensconced in their niches, a few read it, but most ignored. The only group of intellectuals that gave a serious hearing to this work turned out, by a curious reversal of the traditional situation, to be made up, precisely, of members of the profession which had become proverbial as the enemies of anything new. Finnegans Wake went straight from the hands of Joyce into the hands of the college professors, and is today not a literary issue but a subject of academic research. Nor is this, in my opinion, entirely due to the complex erudition of the book itself or to the abstruseness of some of its meanings: Finnegans Wake gives a scope to Joyce's lyric gift in a way that Ulysses did not, and it makes a new departure in the merging of the techniques of the novel and verse that ought to be of special interest to poets and fiction-writers both. The fate of Finnegans Wake is partly, I believe, the result of the process which I have mentioned above: the inevitable gravitation toward teaching jobs of able young literary men who can find no decent work outside them. In the twenties, Mr. Harry Levin, who has written so brilliantly on Joyce, would undoubtedly have been editing the Dial and going to bat for Ulysses in its pages: today he teaches English at Harvard, while an old-red-waistcoat-wearer like me who made a move to get the garment out of moth-balls at the time Finnegans Wake was published, is being treated to a quiet bibliography under the auspices of the Princeton Library, where, as I remember, in 1912, Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde were the latest sensational writers who had got in past the stained-glass windows.

[My emphasis]

[....] what, from the artistic point of view, have Kafka and his emulators done-though they reflect a different moral atmosphere-that had not already been done in the nightmares of Gogol and Melville and Poe?

*   *   *

Wilson is at pains above to note a change with long-range implications for the study of new literature: a shift from initial reception in popular journals and newspapers to college literature departments. The period after 1950 would speed this process exponentially. 


28 November 2022

Six stories from The Hastur Cycle (2006, Second Revised Edition), edited by Robert M. Price

Readers unfamiliar with The Hastur Cycle may prefer to read these notes only after reading the anthology.

*   *   *

The anthology The Hastur Cycle (2006, Second Revised Edition), edited by Robert M. Price, displays the strengths and weaknesses of books attempting retroactively to  create a new horror mythos by grave-robbing the old stuff and appending some inspired new stuff.  

It begins with two Bierce stories, "Haïta the Shepherd," and "An Inhabitant of Carcosa." These two tales must rank among Bierce's most abstract and distanced pieces.

*   *   *

"The Repairer of Reputations" (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, however, strikes the reader as ever-new. Surprising turns and dramatic immediacy abound on every page, and there are always new levels of unreliability to be uncovered as we come to grips with the narrator. It is a richly imagined story, seemingly retconned from a megalomaniac's LARPing fantasies.

"The Yellow Sign" (1895), also by Chambers, is more modest than "The Repairer of Reputations" in its scope. An atelier horror story, it depicts an intensifying folie à deux between an artist and his model. Their conscious determination never to read Act Two of the play "The King in Yellow" is thwarted at every step; the story's atmosphere of thickening inevitability echoes Le Fanu's 1839 masterpiece "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" and Dorothy L. Sayers' 1928 story "The Man with Copper Fingers."

"The Yellow Sign" ends with its narrator halfway through a sentence, just before receiving the last rites. Between this ending and Karl Edward Wagner's phantasmagoria "The River of Night's Dreaming," no beat is skipped.

*   *   *

My approach to James Blish has been through his two superb novels of apocalyptic black magic, Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgement (1971). His novella "More Light" (1970) is energized with the same elan. It is a finely articulated frame narrative: Blish and fellow writer Atheling discuss Atheling's possession of a play script of "The King in Yellow," which came to him in the 1930s via correspondent H. P. Lovecraft.

Blish seems here to be anticipating the opening gambits of Fritz Leiber's "The Terror from the Depths" (1976) and Bloch's Strange Eons (1978). But instead of the punchline being "it's all true" regarding the Cthulhu fleuve, here it's all true that the play script exists, Chambers having created it himself after The King in Yellow short story collection was published.

The Blish character, after a long night wrestling to get to the end of the manuscript, concludes mirthlessly: "It's not the most memorable thing I ever read, that's for sure."  A wonderfully deflationary comment -- which could apply to a galaxy of Lovecraft/Derleth pastiches. Happily, Blish rose to the occasion with this pendant to Chambers.

*   *   *

One of editor Price's ambitions in The Hastur Cycle was shoe-horning Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" and Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" into an ex-post-facto Hastur canon. This even though Machen makes no mention of Hastur that might justify such editorial dragooning. Lovecraft uses the name in "Whisperer" twice: once in a word-salad amalgamation with other alien names, and once as part of a bodyguard of lies the aliens use in their typewritten letter of Thursday, Sept. 6, 1928, as they try to overcome Wilmarth's suspicions.

In his introduction to The Hastur Cycle, Price explains his scope this way:

[....] the conception of the present Chaosium series was in large measure inspired by Lin's Ballantine Adult Fantasy volume The Spawn of Cthulhu, which even contained many of the same stories which appear between these covers. It was Lin's idea to take each major Lovecraft story and reprint it along with all the major stories to which HPL had made allusions, as well as some inspired by it.

*   *   *

One benefit of having "The Whisperer in Darkness" in The Hastur Cycle is that it underscores the excellence of the novella "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" (1982) by Richard A. Lupoff.

Lupoff has written a handful of stories superior to pastiches by Derleth, Lin Carter, and Joseph Payne Brennan. His style is always alert for the mirthful ironies inherent in the material. As readers we sense Lupoff is having a great time, and that mood is contagious.

"Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" is a found-paperwork narrative: a COINTELPRO file of secret recordings, undercover agent reports, and photos. They tell the story of California cult guru Elizabeth Akeley, recalled to the wilds of Vermont for a reunion with a long lost ancestor who has just returned from a long trip abroad.

*   *   *

"The Mine on Yuggoth" (1964) by Ramsey Campbell is a carefully plotted novella about Edward Wingate Armitage, a young man too clever at the "piecing together of dissociated knowledge" for his own good. Unlike Charles Dexter Ward, his predicament elicits little sympathy. Even his school administrators spy on his doings:

     It is only believed by one or two of the watching professors that these invocations, in languages meant for no human tongue, elicited any response. Undoubtedly it was a disturbing sight, those seven students yelling sinister syllables at that slab of stone and moving further from it on each chorused reply from the encircling watchers. This being so, the impressions of the hidden tutors may be understood. Probably it was simply an atmospheric effect which made the vast slab appear to rise, slowly and painfully; and it must merely have been nervous tension which brought one savant to hint at a huge scaly claw which reached from beneath, and a pale bloated head which pushed up the slab. It must certainly have been the marks of something natural which were found by the next day's daylight party, for such marks would lead one to believe that the reaching claw had seven fingers. At a chorused shriek from all the participants, a cloud passed over the moon, and the clearing was plunged into abysmal darkness. When the place was again illuminated, it was totally empty; the slab again was in position; and the watchers stole away, disturbed and changed by this vague glimpse of nether spheres.

Armitage later discovers geological formations resembling "titan stair-treads" in the woods "toward Dunwich." This intensifies his paper-chase. 

But while "The Mine on Yuggoth" is a rare satisfying weird pastiche of Lovecraft, it contributes nothing to a schema to mythosize  Chambers' Yellow King.

*   *   *

"Planetfall on Yuggoth"  (1972)  by James Wade is a short-short story in which space program complacency fifty years after Apollo 11 meets its nemesis.

     This is how the broadcast ended:   

     "Mists are clearing—something big towering up dead ahead—is it a mountain range? No, the shapes are too regular. My God! It can't be! It's a city! Great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone—rivers of pitch that flow under cyclopean bridges, a dark world of fungoid gardens and windowless cities—an unknown world of fungous life—forbidden Yuggoth! 

     "Is that something moving over the ice? How is it possible in this cold? But there are many of them, heading this way. The Outer Ones, the Outer Ones! Living fungi, like great clumsy crabs with membranous wings and squirming knots of tentacles for heads! "They're coming. They're getting close! I—"

I have not had the pleasure of reading James Wade before. But "Planetfall on Yuggoth" is a droll genre in-joke reminiscent of Fredric Brown. The final line will resonate with me for some time.

*   *   *

In addition to his introduction, which clearly predates modern Lovecraft scholarship and indulges Derlethian god-building, Robert M. Price has peppered The Hastur Cycle with some prose and poetry by Lin Carter, about which I skip commenting.

"The Return of Hastur"  (1939) by August Derleth and "The Feaster from Afar" (1976) by Joseph Payne Brennan are of very poor quality. I see no reason to say more.

*   *   *

Several stories in The Hastur Cycle are worth reading. Trying to follow Price's editorial lead to work out how each tale fits into an overall canonical jigsaw puzzle, however, is at best a waste of time. The brilliance of stories by Chambers, Campbell, Blish and Lupoff leave enough excitement and unspoken hints -- and by now surely we don't need everything spelled-out?


28 November 2022

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Three strange stories by Dorothy L. Sayers

Readers may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) excelled her peers in creating outré landscapes and moments of uncanny frisson. The bog-mired climax of Clouds of Witness and the opening thirty pages of The Nine Tailors might be pigeon-holed today as "cozy," but the marketer's coup is a discouragement for readers hunting weird moments pushing into popular fiction.

For me, there is no better example than this scene from "The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention." Lord Peter's mount, Polly Flinders, comes up lame on a lonely stretch of road at night:

     As he passed the fork, he hesitated for a moment. Should he take the path over the common or stick to the road? On consideration, he decided to give the common a miss — not because of its sinister reputation, but because of ruts and rabbit-holes. He shook the reins, bestowed a word of encouragement on his mount, and continued by the road, having the common on his right hand, and, on the left, fields bounded by high hedges, which gave some shelter from the driving rain.

     He had topped the rise, and passed the spot where the bridle-path again joined the high-road, when a slight start and stumble drew his attention unpleasantly to Polly Flinders.

     'Hold up, mare,' he said disapprovingly.

     Polly shook her head, moved forward, tried to pick up her easy pace again. 'Hullo!' said Wimsey, alarmed. He pulled her to a standstill.

     'Lame in the near fore,' he said, dismounting. 'If you've been and gone and strained anything, my girl, four miles from home, father will be pleased.' It occurred to him for the first time how curiously lonely the road was. He had not seen a single car. They might have been in the wilds of Africa.

     He ran an exploratory hand down the near foreleg. The mare stood quietly enough, without shrinking or wincing. Wimsey was puzzled.

     'If these had been the good old days,' he said, 'I'd have thought she'd picked up a stone. But what —'

     He lifted the mare's foot, and explored it carefully with fingers and pocket-torch. His diagnosis had been right, after all. A steel nut, evidently dropped from a passing car, had wedged itself firmly between the shoe and the frog. He grunted and felt for his knife. Happily, it was one of that excellent old-fashioned kind which includes, besides blades and corkscrews, an ingenious apparatus for removing foreign bodies from horses' feet.

     The mare nuzzled him gently as he stooped over his task. It was a little awkward getting to work; he had to wedge the torch under his arm, so as to leave one hand free for the tool and the other to hold the hoof. He was swearing gently at these difficulties when, happening to glance down the road ahead, he fancied he caught the gleam of something moving. It was not easy to see, for at this point the tall trees stood up on both sides of the road, which dipped abruptly from the edge of the common. It was not a car, the light was too faint. A waggon, probably, with a dim lantern. Yet it seemed to move fast. He puzzled for a moment, then bent to work again.

     The nut resisted his efforts, and the mare, touched in a tender spot, pulled away, trying to get her foot down. He soothed her with his voice and patted her neck. The torch slipped from his arm. He cursed it impatiently, set down the hoof, and picked up the torch from the edge of the grass, into which it had rolled. As he straightened himself again, he looked along the road and saw.

     Up from under the dripping dark of the trees it came, shining with a thin, moony radiance. There was no clatter of hoofs, no rumble of wheels, no ringing of bit or bridle. He saw the white, sleek, shining shoulders with the collar that lay on each, like a faint fiery ring, enclosing nothing. He saw the gleaming reins, their cut ends slipping back and forward unsupported through the ring of the hames. The feet, that never touched the earth ran swiftly — four times four noiseless hoofs, bearing the pale bodies by like smoke. The driver leaned forward, brandishing his whip. He was faceless and headless, but his whole attitude bespoke desperate haste. The coach was barely visible through the driving rain, but Wimsey saw the dimly spinning wheels and a faint whiteness, still and stiff, at the window. It went past at a gallop — headless driver and headless horses and silent coach. Its passing left a stir, a sound that was less a sound than a vibration — and the wind roared suddenly after it, with a great sheet of water blown up out of the south.

     'Good God!' said Wimsey. And then: 'How many whiskies did we have?'

     He turned and looked back along the road, straining his eyes. Then suddenly he remembered the mare, and, without troubling further about the torch, picked up her foot and went to work by touch. The nut gave no more trouble, but dropped out into his hand almost immediately. Polly Flinders sighed gratefully and blew into his ear.

     Wimsey led her forward a few steps. She put her feet down firmly and strongly. The nut, removed without delay, had left no tenderness. Wimsey mounted, let her go — then pulled her head round suddenly.

     'I'm going to see,' he said resolutely. 'Come up, mare! We won't let any headless horses get the better of us. Perfectly indecent, goin' about without heads. Get on, old lady. Over the common with you. We'll catch 'em at the cross-roads.'

     Without the slightest consideration for his host or his host's property, he put the mare to the bridle-path again, and urged her into a gallop….

*   *   *

The three stories below display Sayers' abiding interest in the weird motif.

Scrawns (1932)

"Scrawns" is a beautifully executed story of rural menace.

Arriving in a dark and stormy dusk, Susan Tabbit has been hired to serve as House-parlormaid for the Wispells at Scrawns, Roman Way, Dedcaster. She meets the husband and wife already in service: 

.....her first overwhelming impression was of enormous height and size. The flat, white, wide face, the billowing breasts, the enormous girth of white-aproned haunch seemed to fill the room and swim above her. Then she forgot everything else in the shock of realizing that the huge woman was cross-eyed.

     It was no mere cast; not even an ordinary squint. The left eye was swivelled so horribly far inward that half the iris was invisible, giving to that side of the face a look of blind and cunning malignity. The other eye was bright and dark and small, and fixed itself acutely on Susan's face.

Mrs. Jarrock is unsettling:  "Susan could not rid herself of the notion that the left eye was still squinting at her from its ambush behind the cook's flat nose."

Mr. Jarrock is another matter: something out of and old dark house movie not starring The Ritz Brothers:

     "Oh, there you are, Jarrock. Come and take your tea."

     The man moved then, skirting the wall with a curious, crablike movement, and so coming by reluctant degrees to the opposite side of the fire, where he stood, his head averted, shooting a glance at Susan from the corner of his eye.

     "This here's Susan," said Mrs. Jarrock. "It's to be hoped she'll settle down and be comfortable with us. I'll be glad to have her to help with the work, as you know, with one thing and another."

     "We'll do our betht to make things eathy for her," said the man. He lisped oddly and, though he held out his hand, he still kept his head half averted, like a cat that refuses to take notice. He retreated into an armchair, drawn rather far back from the hearth, and sat gazing into the fire. The dog which had barked when Susan knocked had followed him into the room, and now came over and sniffed at the girl's legs, uttering a menacing growl.

     "Be quiet, Crippen," said the man. "Friends."

     The dog, a large brindled bull-terrier, was apparently not reassured. He continued to growl, till Jarrock, hauling him back by the collar, gave him a smart cuff on the head and ordered him under the table, where he went, sullenly. In bending to beat the dog, Jarrock for the first time turned his full face upon Susan, and she saw, with horror, that the left side of it, from the cheekbone downwards, could scarcely be called a face, for it was seamed and puckered by a horrible scar, which had dragged the mouth upwards into the appearance of a ghastly grin, while the lefthand side of the jaw seemed shapeless and boneless, a mere bag of wrinkled flesh.

Susan must have nerves of steel, and the macabre man and woman of the house have still not been introduced!

I can imagine the mirth Sayers must have felt as she added each ingredient to the story's opening, then crowned her work by naming the dog "Crippen."

*   *   *

The Cyprian Cat (1933)

What queer wives our friends select!

     Merridew and I were always the best of friends; school and college and all that sort of thing. We didn't see very much of each other after the war, because we were living at opposite ends of the country; but we met in Town from time to time and wrote occasionally and each of us knew that the other was there in the background, so to speak. Two years ago, he wrote and told me he was getting married. He was just turned forty and the girl was fifteen years younger, and he was tremendously in love. It gave me a bit of a jolt — you know how it is when your friends marry. You feel they will never be quite the same again; and I'd got used to the idea that Merridew and I were cut out to be old bachelors. But of course I congratulated him and sent him a wedding present, and I did sincerely hope he'd be happy. He was obviously over head and ears; almost dangerously so, I thought, considering all things. Though except for the difference of age it seemed suitable enough. He told me he had met her at — of all places — a rectory garden-party down in Norfolk, and that she had actually never been out of her native village. I mean, literally — not so much as a trip to the nearest town. I'm not trying to convey that she wasn't pukka, or anything like that. Her father was some queer sort of recluse — a medievalist, or something — desperately poor. He died shortly after their marriage.

Mr and Mrs. Merridew are staying in an old inn in Little Hexham, Somerset, when our narrator goes to stay with them.

     Merridew and I had a drink and went for a stroll round the village. It's a tiny hamlet quite at the other end of nowhere; lights out at ten, little thatched houses with pinched-up attic windows like furry ears — the place purred in its sleep....

[....]  later in the night I woke up. I was too hot, so took off some of the blankets and then strolled across to the window to get a breath of air. The garden was bathed in moonshine and on the lawn I could see something twisting and turning oddly. I stared a bit before I made it out to be two cats. They didn't worry me at that distance, and I watched them for a bit before I turned in again. They were rolling over one another and jumping away again and chasing their own shadows on the grass, intent on their own mysterious business — taking themselves seriously, the way cats always do. It looked like a kind of ritual dance. Then something seemed to startle them, and they scampered away.

     I went back to bed, but I couldn't get to sleep again. My nerves seemed to be all on edge. I lay watching the window and listening to a kind of soft rustling noise that seemed to be going on in the big wistaria that ran along my side of the house. And then something landed with a soft thud on the sill — a great Cyprian cat. What did you say? What did you say? Well, one of those striped gray and black cats. Tabby, that's right. In my part of the country they call them Cyprus cats, or Cyprian cats. I'd never seen such a monster. It stood with its head cocked sideways, staring into the room and rubbing its ears very softly against the upright bar of the casement.

Readers of the story "The Late Mrs. Fowke" in In Ghostly Company by Amyas Northcote, as well as Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries," will soundly conclude that Merridew has selected the wrong spouse. 

It is left to Sayers' narrator to find out how correct his suspicions turn out to be.

*   *   *

Nebuchadnezzar (1939)

     You choose a name — and unless your audience is very patient, it had better be a short one — of some well-known character. Say, Job. Then you act in dumb show a character beginning with J, then one beginning with O, then one beginning with B. Then you act Job, and the spectators guess that Job is what you mean, and applaud kindly. That is all. Lighthearted people, with imagination, can get a lot of fun out of it.

Surrounded by a group of imaginative, lighthearted people come together for a birthday party,

Cyril Markham felt slightly out of it, though they were all exceedingly nice to him and tried to cheer him up. It was nearly six months since Jane had died, and though they all sympathized terribly with him for her loss (they had all loved Jane), he felt that he and they were, and ever would be, strangers and aliens to one another. Dear Jane. They had found it hard to forgive him for marrying her and taking her away to Cornwall. It was terrible that she should have died — only two years later — of gastroenteritis.

But as the arcana of Nebuchadnezzar proceeds, with Markham as the only spectator, an understory of suspicion is detected in game tableau and wordplay.

[....]  The lights were on again now. Queer, how white and unnatural all their faces looked. Like masks.

[....]  But it was really horrible, the way these people pretended not to know that it was J, A, N, Jane. They did know, really, all the time and were wondering how long he would stick it. Let them wonder! All the same, he must think out what to do when it came to the complete word. J, A, N. Of course, if the last letter wasn't E . . . but it was bound to be E. Well, it would be a relief in a way, because then he would know that they knew.

[....]  He had never known such silence. He could not even hear the wolfpack breathing. He was alone in the room with the girl who lay on the bed. And now she was moving. The sheet slipped from her shoulders to her breast, from her breast to her waist. She was rising to her knees, lifting herself up to face him over the footboard of the bed — gold hair, sweat-streaked forehead, eyes dark with fear and pain, black hollow of the mouth, and the glittering line of white teeth in the fallen jaw. 


The level of nerve-shredding hysteria Sayers creates by the end of "Nebuchadnezzar" is inspiring. Her control over material, of comings and goings, entrances and exits of characters, rivals Bowen's "The Cat Jumps."

*   *   *


26 November 2022

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Three essays from On Writing Horror: A Handbook by The Horror Writers Association (2006) Edited by Mort Castle

When you consider what a slight part the weird plays in our moods, feelings, and lives, you can easily see how basically minor the weird tale must necessarily be. It can be art, since the sense of the uncanny is an authentic human emotion, but it is obviously a narrow and restricted form of art …. 

—H.P. Lovecraft

On Writing Horror: A Handbook by The Horror Writers Association 

Edited by Mort Castle

(Writer's Digest Books: 2006, Revised edition)

Like many Writer's Digest publications, On Writing Horror has many contributors who, as fiction writers, amounted to also-rans. Still, there are enough real contributions in the anthology to make the book valuable. My edition seems to straddle pieces from the late 1980s and late 1990s. References to the Meese Commission and Dr. Ruth, I am sure, will quicken the pulse of very few readers today.

The horror field has certainly come a long way in the right direction since On Writing Horror first appeared. It is, I think, a stronger and more varied field. 

Excerpts below are, it seemed to me, worth preserving

*   *   *

The Madness of Art —Joyce Carol Oates (1994)

[....]  In literature, the canonization of "classics" has resulted in the relative demotion of other writers and other kinds of writing; the elevation of "mainstream" and predominantly "realistic" writing has created a false topology in which numerous genres are perceived as inferior to, or at least significantly different from, the mainstream. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive and writing today, he would very likely not be accorded the acclaim given the putative "serious literary writer," but would be taxonomized as a "horror writer." Yet talent, not excluding genius, may flourish in any genre, provided it is not stigmatized by that deadly label "genre."

[....] this so-called genre fascinates me because it is so powerful a vehicle of truth-telling, and because there is no wilder region for the exercise of the pure imagination.

[....]  The Gothic work resembles the tragic in that it is willing to confront mankind's—and nature's—darkest secrets. Its metaphysics is Plato's, and not Aristotle's. There is a profound difference between what appears to be, and what is; and if you believe otherwise, the Gothicist has a surprise for you. The strained, sunny smile of the Enlightenment—"All that is, is holy;" "Man is a rational being"—is confronted by the Gothicist, who, quite frankly, considering the history and prehistory of our species, knows better.

[....]  the homogenization of culture, in which a single vision—democratic, Christian, liberal, "good"—has come to be identified with America generally.

[....]  If there is any problem with the Gothic as an art, it is likely to lie in the quality of execution.

[....]  To Lovecraft, too, "phenomena" rather than "persons" are the logical heroes of stories, one consequence of which is two-dimensional, stereotypical characters about whom it is difficult to care.

[....]  Gothic fiction is the freedom of the imagination, the triumph of the unconscious. Its radical premise is that, out of utterly plausible and psychologically realistic situations, profound and intransigent truths will emerge. And it is entertaining; it is unashamed to be entertaining.

[....]  We write in order not just to be read, but to read—texts not yet written, which only we can bring into being. Is this quest quixotic, perverse, or utterly natural? Normal? Do we have any choice? Henry James, one of our exemplary beings who understood the lure of the grotesque, the skull beneath the smiling face, as well as any writer, has characterized us all in these words: "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

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What You Are Meant to Know: Twenty-One Horror Classics —Robert Weinberg (1996)

[....]  The biggest problem faced by many new writers is not lack of skills.... There is one area of their education that has been sorely neglected. They don't know much about their subject. It's difficult—nearly impossible, actually—to be original if you do not know what else has been written.

[....]  1. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

[....]  2. Dracula by Bram Stoker

[....]  3. The Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson

[....]  The Ghost Pirates.... tells in straightforward, almost journalistic manner how a ship is overwhelmed by ghostly invaders. Hodgson makes no effort to identify the menacing figures—they could be the ghosts of dead pirates or beings from another dimension. All that

counts is their gradual capture of the boat. It is one of the finest examples of the "tightly written" novel ever published.

[....]  4. The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

[....]  5. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt

[....]  Merritt wrote several novels that crossed over into the horror field. Of these, Burn, Witch, Burn! was the most successful and important. It deals with an evil crone who turns people into demonic dolls to commit crimes for her. What raises the book above standard pulp fare is that the witch's nemesis is a crime kingpin, a typical gangster of the 1930s, and his band of hoodlums. In an interesting reversal, a lesser evil battles a greater evil as the modern world fights a menace from ancient times....

[....]  6. To Walk the Night by William Sloane

[....]  In the 1930s, genre fiction was not so clearly defined and writers were more willing to bend the rules for the sake of a good story.

[....] Sloane's To Walk the Night....  combines horror, science fiction, and mystery into one of the smoothest presentations ever set on paper.

[....]  7. The Dunwich Horror and Others by H.P. Lovecraft

[....]  Lovecraft had his weaknesses (lack of characterization and dialogue are the worst), but his talent at hinting at the monstrous horrors lurking in the dark corners of our world remains unmatched more than a half century after his death.

[....]  9. Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson

[....]  remains the definitive werewolf novel.

[....]  10. Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

[....]  11. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

[....]  12. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

[....]  13. Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Vols. I, II, III

[....]  14. Hell House by Richard Matheson

[....]15. The October Country by Ray Bradbury

[....]  16. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

[....]  17. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

[....]  18. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

[....]  19. Salem's Lot by Stephen King

[....]  20. The Stand by Stephen King

[....]  21. Watchers by Dean Koontz

[....]  Tough, competent heroes and heroines engage in life-or-death struggles with sinister forces—from secret government agencies to science gone berserk—in a mad scramble....

*   *   *

Avoiding What's Been Done to Death —Ramsey Campbell (1987)

[....]  You can't avoid anything unless you know what it is.

[....]  The finest single introduction to it is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural , ed­ited by Wise and Fraser....

[....]  many of the themes we're dealing with are so large and pow­erful as to be essentially timeless.

[....]  one way to avoid what has already been done is to be true to yourself.

[....]  No writer has orchestrated terror in prose more carefully than Lovecraft, but you certainly won't learn how to write dialogue or deal with character from him. Such skills are best learned by reading writers outside the field (in my case, Nabokov and Graham Greene, among others).

[....]  It's no bad thing to follow the example of writers you admire, then, but only as a means to finding your own voice. You won't find that, of course, un­less you have something of your own to say.

[....]  I tried (and still do try) to take nothing on trust to describe things as they really are or would be.

[....]  the horror field is riddled with clichés.

[....]  I think there are more fundamental clichés in the field, and I think today's writers may be the ones to overturn them.

[....] evil.... Writing about evil is a moral act, and it won't do to recycle definitions of evil—to take them on trust.

[....]  If we're going to write about evil, then let's define it and how it relates to our­selves.

[....]  good fiction consists of looking at things afresh, but horror fiction seems to have a built-in tendency to do the opposite.

[....]  it's the job of writers to imagine how it would feel to be all their characters, however painful that may sometimes be.

[....]  if you feel the need to write about the stock figures of the horror story, that's all the more reason to imagine them anew.

[....]  many readers and publishers would rather see imita­tions of whatever they liked last year than give new ideas a chance.

[....]  tradition is a pretty poor excuse for perpetuating stereotypes

[....]  time-honored it may be, but that certainly doesn't make it honorable. In fact, these days, so many horror stories (and es­pecially films) gloat over the suffering of women that it seems clear the authors are getting their own back, consciously or not, on aspects of real life that they can't cope with.

[....]  I have my suspicions, too, about the argument that horror fiction defines what is normal by showing us what isn't.

[....]  it's time for more of the field to acknowledge that, when we come face-to-face with the monsters, we may find ourselves looking not at a mask but at a mirror.

*   *   *

Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things That Scare You —Michael Marano (2005)

[....]  Giving a strategic glimpse of what frightens you can lessen the effect of writing about that thing 's impact on you, and it can, at the same time, increase the impact of that thing (whatever it is) on your readers.

[....]  It's a given in horror that the unknown is a great source of fear. But what's known, in the right context, can be much worse.

*   *   *

Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction —Douglas E. Winter (1987)

[....]  What makes great horror fiction?

[....]  What follows....  is a series of principles intended to offer general guidelines to the developing writer. As generalizations, they are subject to inevitable exceptions, and they must not, under any circumstances, be considered hard-and-fast rules.

[....]  Originality

[....]  most horror writers are, first and foremost, horror fans. Their stories naturally tend to emulate, in style and subject, the film or fiction that they like best. There are, then, hundreds of published and unpublished books that read like rote imitations of best-selling novels or popular films, replete with such well-worn icons as Indian burial grounds, small towns besieged by evil, and ghastly presences that are revealed. 

[....]  Imitation is a time-honored method of learning the fundamentals of writing

[....]  you will risk learning your craft at the feet of mediocrity.

[....]  the task of finding your own voice will be eased if you stop reading what the marketplace calls horror fiction and join me in an important bit of heresy: Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.

[....]  Characterization

[....]  horror, as an emotion, is measured by its context—its time, its place, its characters.

[....]we care about the outcome of a story only if we have some emotional stake in its context.

[....]  "You have got to love the [characters]"

[....]  stories do not proceed from events, but from the perception of events.

[....]  acts and words of its characters should.... be colored by their personalities.

[....]  Reality

[....]  no effective horror without a context of normality.

[....]  best horror fiction effectively counterfeits reality, placing the reader firmly within the worldly, even as it invokes the otherworldly.

[....]  For this reason, Richard Matheson is the most influential horror writer of this generation.

[....]  Embrace the ordinary so that the extraordinary events depicted will be heightened when played out against its context.

[....]  Eschew exotic locales and the lifestyles of the rich and famous.... in favor of all that is mundane in your world.

[....] Mystery

[....]  The workaday world is indeed mundane.... But it is a world whose ultimate meaning is shrouded by unanswered and unanswerable questions. Where did we come from? Where are we going when we die? Does evil exist beyond the mind of man?

[....]  today, explanation, whether supernatural or rational, is simply not the business of horror fiction.

[....]  One source of horror's popularity is that its questions are unanswerable. At its heart is a single certainty—that, in Hamlet's words, "all that live must die"—and a single question: What then?

[....]  What we are looking for is a way to confess our doubts, our disbeliefs, our fears.

[....]  Bad Taste

[....]  most conventional horror stories proceed from the archetype of Pandora's box: the tense conflict between pleasure and fear that is latent when we face the forbidden and the unknown. In horror's pages, we open "the box," exposing what is taboo in our ordinary lives and witnessing both its dangers and its possibilities.

[....]  A horror writer should be prepared not only to indulge in bad taste, but also to grapple with the taboo, dragging our terrors from the shadows and forcing readers to look upon them and despair—or laugh with relief.

[....]  The writer must know when the boundary has been reached, and when he is stepping over the line into the no-man's land of taboo.


[....]  few writers seem to recognize that such explicitness is often anathema to horror.

[....]  there is a more fundamental objection to explicitness. Too many purveyors of the "gross-out" are working from the proposition that the purpose of horror fiction is to shock the reader into submission.

[....]  Great horror fiction is rarely about shock, but rather more lasting emotions. It digs beneath our skin and stays with us. It is proof that an image is only as powerful as its context.

[....]  not only to scare, but also to disturb a reader, to invoke a memory that will linger long after the pages of the book are closed—is the true goal of every writer of horror fiction.

[....]  Subtext

[....]  D. H. Lawrence wrote of Edgar Allan Poe's horror fiction: "It is lurid and melodramatic, but it is true." Great horror fiction provides the shocks, the scares, all the entertainments of the carnival funhouse; but it also offers something more: a lasting impression, one both disturbing and oddly uplifting.

[....]  is also the means by which the traditional imagery of horror may be reenacted, updated, elevated.

[....]  Subversion

[....]  The best horror fiction is intrinsically subversive, striking against the pasteboard masks of fantasy to seek the true face of reality.

[....] great horror fiction being written today runs consistently against the grain of conventional horror, as if intent on forging something that might well be called the antihorror story.

[....]  The bogeymen of the Halloween and Friday the 13th films are the hitmen of homogeneity. Don't do it, they tell us, or you will pay an awful price. Don't talk to strangers.... Don't party. Don't make love. Don't dare to be different.

[....]  it is proper behavior, not crucifixes or silver bullets, that tends to ward off the monsters of our times.

[....]  antihorror story tells us that conformity is the ultimate horror—and that monsters are, perhaps, passé.

[....]  Monsters

[....]  the great horror fiction being written today is rarely about monsters.

[....]  The vampire is an anachronism in the wake of the sexual revolution. The bite of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), sharpened in the repression of Victorian times, has been blunted by the likes of Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

[....]  The werewolf will live so long as we struggle with the beast within, but its modern incarnations, from Whitley Strieber's The Wolfen (1979) and Thomas Tessier's The Nightwalker (1979), suggest that the savage has already won and is loose on the streets of the urban jungle.

[....]  Endgame

[....] Ending a horror story, particularly one of novel length, is probably the writer's greatest challenge.

[....]  We know, if only implicitly, that consummate evil cannot be overcome, cast out of our world completely.

[....]  We also know that the good in this world is not free—that there must be payout as well as payback .

*   *   *


25 November 2022