No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

Winter Travels

Every now and again you read a book that drops you into a world of wonder.  That’s how I’d describe Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  What’s it about?  It’s difficult to say.  It’s a novel about reading, and more specifically, interrupted reading.  You might call it Post-Modern, but in a good way.  I came across the book in a manner that, like the story itself, emerged from different narrative structures.  First of all a colleague sent around a quote from the book that grabbed my attention.  I decided that if I ever found a copy in a bookstore I’d buy it, based on that quote alone.  A second stream was the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  One of this year’s categories was a book in translation, which this is.  And yet a third factor was that I found the book on the shelf of a used book vendor in Ithaca.  And so I read.

Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and having nothing to do with the fact that it was the most recent novel I’d read—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a nested story, a story within a story.  Breaking the “fourth wall” Calvino addresses his readers in the second person and makes them characters in the plot.  The reader buys a defectively printed book and when he tries to return it to the seller, a fantastical world opens up.  I’m not sure that there’s a particular genre here—literary fiction constitutes a genre of its own—but there are a few speculative elements that keep the story pulling you along without really giving any conclusions (that the po-mo aspect to which I referred).

Apart from being merely fun, the story is thought-provoking.  What goes on when we read?  Do we not get absorbed into the mind of the writer?  And not only of the author but also of others who’ve read the book with whom we might discuss it?  Writing is an endlessly addictive activity.  One of my observations about careers without sabbaticals is that those who wish to practice the art must carve time out from days interrupted by work to be writers.  For me that means awaking early, for this blog is only one of many writing projects I have going.  To write well, however, means reading much.  And if you’re casting about for a story that’s hard to classify and difficult to put down, I would gladly recommend If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.

Chilly Fluids

I’m not sure why I did it.  Read In Cold Blood.  I’d known of Truman Capote’s main claim to fame for years, but an accidental recent mention, a cheap copy in a used bookstore, and a week of grabbing time to read did it.  I’m not a fan of true crime, and despite my fixation on horror movies, I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a hint of the speculative about it.  There’s a difference between horror and terror.  I’d happily lived a half-century without ever hearing about the Clutter murders and kind of wish that were still the case.  Yes, there are doubts about the veracity of Capote’s account at points and novelists are often convincing liars, but still, at the heart of the matter more than just four people are senselessly murdered in the course of the tale.

A few elements stood out in the reading of the book.  One was that given the naiveté of the 1950s I wonder how anyone could ever really want to go back to that decade.  We’re run by a government full of doddering old men who seem to idealize the falsity and utter conformity of an age that was really a pressure cooker in which cases such as this would explode.  I was born in the much idealized 1960s but I don’t think we should go back to them.  We learn, we change, we grow.  Knowing what we now do, it was kind of painful reading how blissfully ignorant so many people were.  We may be more afraid these days, but at least we’re more realistic.

Another factor, very much at home in this world older but no wiser, is how the Bible is cited at the trial in support of capital punishment.  Although it may not have been intentional on Capote’s part, he demonstrates a deep truth about Scripture.  It can be read in more than one way.  In conservative Kansas in 1960 it could sway jurors to seek the death of other human beings.  The murders were indeed savage and pointless.  Capote’s account of them is difficult to read.  Perhaps more difficult is the way the Bible is used to unleash the basest instincts of people against other human beings.  Yes, parts of the Good Book require the bad thing, but if we’re over fifty years beyond Holcomb we’re over fifty score beyond a time when just one interpretation stands for all.  If it ever did.  There’s a difference between horror and terror, but the Bible can participate in both.  I prefer to stick to the former.

Patchwork

I don’t wear clothing with advertisements.  Perhaps it’s my Quaker-like sensibilities, or maybe it’s just that I hate being a shill.  What has any corporation done for me that I should give it free advertising?  Actually, not free—advertising that I have to pay to give?  I do have a few college sweatshirts, though.  Always a booster for education, I don’t mind wearing that brand.  Otherwise, I sit back and marvel how marketers get people to think it’s cool to strut their (the marketers’) stuff.  Brand names declare one’s tribe, one’s level of affluence.  I used to rip any exterior labels off my clothes but it became clear it was a losing battle, especially when brands are incorporated (note the word) into the very design.  And we play along.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, corporations are people too.  At least in the cataract-infested eyes of the law.  They have rights just like, or even more than, individuals do.  We live this fiction and watch the wealthy grow loftier, and we wear their brands so that others will sense where we belong.  Long ago I began to object to this.  Maybe it was because I grew up poor and wearing cheap knock-offs of brand names was embarrassing.  The cut of your trousers said something about what your folks could afford.  I actually began buying all my own clothes at the age of fourteen and, consequently, habitually wear things until not even Goodwill will consider them appropriate for resale.  And I still tend to buy generic.  Thoreau, in a patched quote from Walden and Civil Disobedience can be made to say it well:

As for clothing, […] perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. […] No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

The fact is we despise the patch-wearer for not playing the capitalist game.  You’ve got to pay good money for jeans with tears already in them and the world of the facile has no room for posers who actually wear through the knees.  If we ever meet you’ll know me by the frayed edges of my sleeves and cuffs.  I’ll likely be the guy sitting on a bench without a Starbucks cup in my hand, cradling Henry David and nodding vigorously.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.