Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The day is broken," or, Interstices

In the midst of the delightful mess of slovenliness, failed stewardship, ennui, and self-lacerating humor that is Will Wiles’s new novel Care of Wooden Floors come this passage:
I put out the cats’ food while the kettle was boiling for my coffee. What did they do during the night? Whatever it was, it gave them an appetite, and they chugged down their chunks of brown flesh with gusto. What did they do in the sleeping city . . fuck and prowl, no doubt, glory in streets without trams and human feet. They were active, most active, in the dark and cold corners of the night.
Two pages later, Wiles writes,
Noon passed. The day was broken, cracked down the middle like a paperback’s spine.
The passages are unrelated, but together they brought to mind something the idea of the hidden places of day and night, of secret background maneuverings, of scene-setting and stage-managing, of a world assembled and performed by powers beyond our ken--but from which the mask can sometimes, especially in these October evenings, slip just enough to unmoor us.

It's an idea that I haven't been able to shake since seeing an absolutely stunning collection of strange photographs taken by Canadian artist Jon Rafman from what he's found in Google Street View. I've drawn a number of them below from a post at Demilked that introduced me to Rafman's work.

If these images give you the same sort of strange chills they do me, it's worth trekking to Rafman's site and wandering around a bit. He's made some truly amazing finds.

When I look at these, I feel as if I'm seeing things I'm not supposed to see--that I'm being given an inadvertent glimpse behind a curtain, a look into the workings of a machine that ordinarily operates so smoothly as to go unnoticed. They feel like elemental interstices, like the concept of the hinge that Grace Dane Mazur explores in her wonderful Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination. They call to mind the injunction against looking at the face of God, which is suffused here through all of his works--and reveals him, it's hard not to think, to be sinister, perhaps even evil.

It seems right, too, that so many of these photos should feature animals. Animals, we assume from childhood, have their own secrets, knowledge, understandings, agenda. They care not why the world is the way it is, nor are they surprised by its mutability; they move through it as natives, at home in a way that our self-consciousness will not allow. Out of our sight, who knows what they do and see?

All of which also calls to mind one of my very favorite spooky stories, Robert M. Coates's "The Hour After Westerly." I was introduced to it a few years ago by James Hynes, who, in a round-up of scary stories, wrote that it "is like opening a very familiar door and discovering that it leads someplace entirely new--a feeling that's both mysterious and melancholy."

It's a fairly simple story: a commuter on his way home starts to feel "an odd sense of dullness, or pressure," a fogginess that manifests as a feeling of being late--and that, when it lifts, leaves him with an unrecoverable hour. In its place is nothing but
an image as precise and as unrelated [to his drive home] as something one might see through a sudden parting of a fog--a group of small white houses grouped at an intersection, and a clock (was it on a steeple?) with the clock's hands pointing to ten minutes to six. there was a faint suggestion of a dirt road, too, but even as he tried to consider it, it floated off into nothingness.
It is a story more of mysteries than answers, suggestions than scares, but it's as spookily atmospheric and memorable as any October story I know. While we may scoff, reasonably, at ghosts and ghouls, we all, it suggests, should perhaps fear the unfathomability of time and space--we all just might be at risk of inadvertently, invisibly, slipping between the seams, taking a wrong turning, seeing what we're not supposed to see, being who we're not supposed to be. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, the collection in which Hynes found the story, writes,
Every man has had alternate lives, there were a million paths we could have followed when young, but we followed that one which now seems inevitable to us, the one that memory says is the only one. . . . We came so very close so many times, to being fools, to being lost, to being dead, that we marvel that we have somehow blundered through to this day and year.
That story, Rafman's Google Street View photos, and the wan October twilight itself haunt me with that mystery, the world's essential unknowableness, the inescapablity of our own finitude in the midst of the undermining infinity of time and space.

Bradbury writes,
For it is not only what life does in the material world that counts, but how each mind sees what is done that makes the fantasy complete. We are two billion worlds on a world here.
Make that seven, make it October, and the reason spooky stories hold us in their sway becomes evident: the world is a haunted mirror, and while our training is strong enough that most of the we look at it slant, we can't help but let our gaze slip to its shadowy corners, and wonder at the slithering we tell ourselves we don't see there.

1 comment:

  1. A really lovely post! I particularly love the strange animal photos Rafman finds--there's a really haunting one of horses running through a graveyard.

    I really enjoyed 'Care of Wooden Floors', too (weirdly, I just read it this week): my only complaint was the fate of the first cat, since it's such a cliche for pets to be killed in books and movies (see every book/film with a pet in it ever), but it did fit in very well with the escalating chaos of the house-sitting.