Monday, October 31, 2011

To close out this month of haints and scares, here's a link to a piece I edited for my friend John Williams's lit site, The Second Pass. I asked a number of writers, critics, and bloggers with whom I've discussed scary stories before--Ed Park, John Crowley, James Hynes, Jenny Davidson, Joseph G. Peterson, James Morrison, Andrea Janes, John Eklund, and Will Schofield--to write a couple hundred words about a favorite. The selections vary nicely, from the Victorian golden age of the ghost story to the present, Mars to Maine, psychic visions to psychological trauma. I hope you're as pleased as I am by the recommendations; I also find myself quite cheered by the realization that the Internet made this whole article possible: of the nine contributors, six are people I met first or know solely because of the world of online writing about books.

I picked "Desideratus," a story by Penelope Fitzgerald in which she turns her love of ambiguity and keen eye for strangeness to an incident that, while wholly natural, feels as chillingly strange as any good ghost story. Fitzgerald's too often lumped casually with influences like Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, but she loved M. R. James--to the extent of including a great James pastiche in her novel The Gate of Angels, and the collection from which "Desideratus" is taken, The Means of Escape, actually includes one story, "The Ax," that's constructed with all the precision and chills of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents sort of ghost story. Like all of Fitzgerald's work, it's well worth seeking out.

WIth Halloween upon us, you could do worse than to light your jack-o-lantern, set the bowl of candy on the porch, bar the door, and settle in with this collection of recommendations. Make sure your cat is on your lap when you start: you know how they love to jump out at exactly the heart-stoppingly wrong moment--I do, after all, want you with us, in non-ghostly form, for next year's stories.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dickens the disbeliever

In honor of Claire Tomalin's new biography of Dickens, which hits stores this week, our October travels turn to Boz on this blustery autumnal night. Casting my memory back through the biographies of Dickens that I've read, I don't recall any incidents of Dickens encountering any ghost more substantial than the memory of the blacking factory, but as Scrooge is always there to remind us, the idea of spirits was one that interested him. In The Victorian Supernatural, Louise Henson notes that John Forster, in his 1874 biography of Dickens,
recalled that Dickens "had something of a hankering" after ghosts, and "such was his interest generally in things supernatural that, but for the strong restraining power of his common sense, he might have fallen into the follies of Spiritualism." Forster, however, also recognised that "no man was readier to apply sharp tests to a ghost story or a haunted house though there was just as much tendency to believe in any 'well-authenticated' [sic] as made perfect his manner of telling one."
For all his creativity and imaginative sympathy, the sense one gets of Dickens from biographical writing is that he was so consistently busy and engaged with the things of this world--and, to put it bluntly, so self-involved and self-distracting--that the world of ghosts would hold little allure for him. His world is our world, absolutely bursting with physicality and--even in its most far-fetched coincidences--ultimately comprehensible almost solely as a manifestation, not of the spirit, but of the ever-growing and bustling new industrial city. Henson quotes what seems reasonable to think of as Dickens's basic position on the question from an 1848 review for the Examiner of a collection of ghost stories, Catherine Crowe's The Night-Side of Nature:
Dickens protested against this common fault of "seeking to prove too much," when the independent existence of ghosts rested on "independent grounds of proof [and] in vast numbers of cases [spectres] are known to be delusions superinduced by a well-understood, and by no means uncommon, disease. . . . [I]n a multitude of others, they are often asserted to be seen, even on Mrs. Crowe's own showing, in that imperfect state between sleeping and waking, than which there is hardly any less reliable incident to our nature."
His position on the ghost as it shades into fiction, meanwhile, Henson locates in his rejection of a set of ghost stories submitted by Francis Elliot to All the Year Round in 1867:
He recognized among them "an old one, perfectly well known as a story. You cannot tell it on the first hand testimony of an eye-witness." Dickens explained that were he to print them with her claims to authenticity, "I would deservedly be pounced upon. If I were to put them in without your claim, I would be merely republishing a stereotyped set of tales."
Originality above all, in other words. So for all his inventiveness in the genre, we can't count on Dickens for a personal ghost story. But his friend Wilkie Collins . . . well, the stories of Collins's belief that he was stalked by a doppelganger are numerous, but William M. Clarke's account in The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is the most satisfyingly garish:
[H]e spoke openly to his friends of ghosts standing behind him, and of a green woman with teeth like tusks who appeared on the stairs, along with other ghosts "trying to push him down." He also spoke of "another Wilkie Collins" appearing before him if and when he worked into the night. As the story goes, "the second Wilkie Collins sat at the same table with him and tried to monopolise the writing pad. Then there was a struggle, and the inkstand was upset; anyhow, when the true Wilkie awoke, the inkstand had been upset and the ink was running over the writing table. After that Wilkie gave up writing of nights."
You can always count on an opium addict for a nicely blood-curdling story of apparitions.

Monday, October 24, 2011

“The era of the haunted house has long been on the wane.”

{Photo by rocketlass.}

“There is too much intellectual priggishness prevalent nowadays for the fine old crusted tales of the Moated Grange and its spectral inhabitants to attract more than an amused tolerance, as things only fitting for children.” So wrote Charles George Harper in 1907, in the “Introductory” to his book Haunted Houses--though certainly didn’t let that stop him from retailing story after story of visitations and haunting. Had he been able to look ahead, to the slaughter of the Great War and the swell of emotionally raw spiritualism that came in its wake; the atomization of contemporary society and its resulting isolation and psychological strain; and the slowly growing suspicion that, whatever science explains, we’ll only find that more needs explaining, perhaps he would have been more sanguine about the possibilities facing haunter and hauntee alike. Perhaps he would even have anticipated those of us who, a century on, still enjoy the prospect of a good fright.

One interesting tidbit from the introduction is that as of Harper’s day as in Scrooge’s, ghost stories were still considered Christmas entertainment. He writes of the “ideal haunted house, or Christmas scene of ghost-stories,” and frets that
In times such as these, when the traditional robin on his snow-clad spray of holly has been banished from the Christmas card, and such un-Christmassy things as roses and tropical flowers are pictured instead, the time-honoured tales of Christmas parties are outworn and disregarded, and hair-raising stories of ghosts, told by the flickering fire before the lights are lit, no longer form a delightfully appetizing prelude to the Christmas dinner; nor, later, send the guests to bed with raw nerves that jump at every shadow.
Halloween rates nary a mention.

Harper also laments the encroachment of modernity, and the destruction—which would pick up pace because of and following the wars—of ancient houses. Ghosts, he points out,
do not very appropriately haunt houses less than a hundred years old. Ghosts and newly completed—even newly furnished—houses are antipathic things.
There are requirements:
[F]or a moderately complete installation, a manor house, with wine-cellars, a butler, old family portraits (not necessarily those of your own family), and if you can manage old oak paneling and tapestry hangings, (let them, if possible, be “arras”) so much the better.
That, however, is the bare minimum—a list that grudgingly takes into account the limits of the contemporary. In the ideal haunted house,
the guest, primed with ancestral horrors, went to bed with apprehension, leaving the warm dining-room for some vast woebegone chamber, with a bed like a catafalque and hangings of a bygone age; with mysterious cupboards in which a dozen family skeletons might reside, and with a floor whose every board had a separate and distinctive squeak. It would nowadays be difficult to secure a house-party on such terms.
In the Ikea century, perhaps the best we can do is to hope for the opposite of that: spareness that verges on asperity; an open, untouched white space so well-lit that it leaves no place to hide secrets—but also nothing to absorb them, leaving them to ricochet and echo and feed back in an inescapable din of psychic vibrations; a soullessness that denies the very existence of a soul . . . with all the psychological repercussions inevitably generated by denial. Come on in and have a seat on the sterile white expanse of the bleached-wood daybed. I’ve got a story or two for you . . .

Friday, October 21, 2011

I realize that a haunting can vex, creating situations for which one has no experience to draw on, no codes of behavior to fall back on, no axioms to call up. A ghost by its very nature upends all our certainties, so it’s no surprise that encountering one can lead to a lapse of manners.

Nonetheless, I do have to find fault with the homeowners in the following account found in Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres through Time, taken from John H. Ingram’s late-Victorian Notes and Queries. A Mr. T. Westwood tells of a visit to a country house inhabited by two elderly maiden sisters. He opens his tale with a bit of proper English mood-setting:
I well remember my walk thither. It led me up a steep ascent of oak avenue, opening out at the top on what was called the “ridge road’ of the Chase. It was the close of a splendid afternoon. On reaching my destination the sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the eastern front projected a black shadow at its foot.
Greeted by a servant, he’s taken to a quiet room and left to spruce up for dinner, then:
No sooner was he gone than I became conscious of a peculiar sound in the room—a sort of shuddering sound in the room, as of suppressed dread. It seemed close to me. I gave little heed to it at first, setting it down for the wind in the chimney, or a draught from the half-open door; but moving about the room I perceived that the sound moved with me. Whichever way I turned it followed me. I went to the furthest extremity of the chamber—it was there also.
The sound accompanies Westwood “on the landing, on the stair,” even to the dinner table, where, “when conversation flagged [he] heard it unmistakably several times,” so near as to seem as if he were likely sharing his chair with the source. No one else, however, seems to notice the sound at all. When the party breaks up and he heads for home, he is grateful beyond belief to be able to leave the noise and its presumably ghostly source behind.

Now we get to the breach of manners. When next Westwood meets the maiden ladies who had been his hosts, they’re at someone else’s house, and he feels free to mention his experience:
On my telling them what had occurred to me, they smiled and said it was perfectly true, but added that they were so used to the sound that it had ceased to perturb them. Sometimes, they said, it would be quiet for weeks, at others it followed them from room to room, from floor to floor, pertinaciously, as it had followed me. They could give me no explanation of the phenomenon. It was a sound, no more, and quite harmless.
I could imagine a situation in which it is the proper response of a host to pretend not to notice a spirit—when, for example, a spirit arrives with a guest and hovers malevolently about, hurling imprecations or oozing ectoplasm, it is the better part of manners to ignore it. But when the spirit is local to one’s home, and familiar enough to be disregarded, it’s no less than one’s duty to afford one’s guests a warning at the same time that they are extended an invitation. Delicate guests should always have the chance to opt out of a possible haunting. Then, when the haunting itself is occurring, I can’t imagine Miss Manners or Ann Landers wouldn’t advise a host to politely acknowledge the problem, apologize for the distraction and discomfort, and reassure the guest that no harm is likely to befall them. Then offer to pour them another, perhaps stiffer, drink.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The English Ghost

{Photo by rocketlass. A wee bit The Turn of the Screw, no?}

When I picked up Peter Ackroyd's The English Ghost (2010), I expected the usual sort of magpie archive mouse approach* we're accustomed to from Ackroyd: all the famous English ghosts we've known since the Scholastic Book Fair sold us a slim volume on Anne Boleyn's severed head back in second grade, plus a healthy dose of obscure historical notes, lost stories from East London, and little-known specters.

There is some of that in the introduction, where Ackroyd reveals, for example, that "The word [ghost] is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, yet, curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts." And that
Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, remarks upon "the spook, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, Tom Thombe, Tom Tumbler Boneless and such other BUGS."
And that
In south-western England ghosts were known as "hobs." They often performed the role of nightwatchmen, and under cover of night and darkness their footsteps could be heard. One Somersetshire woman became so accustomed to the tread that she would call out "Hello there, I'm quite all right, thank you." Then the hob would depart.
The hobs, Ackroyd goes on to note, were known in Yorkshire and the North Midlands as hobbits.

But the bulk of the book is something else entirely--and, much as I enjoy Ackroyd's style of history, it was a pleasant surprise:The English Ghost is truly a book of ghost stories, from the sixteenth century on, reprinted from old books and periodicals and presented in their original words. Though the styles vary, for the most part the accounts share a satisfying matter-of-factness, a plainspoken evidentiary tone that generates a sense of reasonable indifference: this is what happened, these tellers seem to be saying, and if you choose not to believe it, I'm not going to press you on it.

So we get the following account, from a 1774 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine, about a haunting in the village of Beamish. Some boys who were playing outside their school were startled by the sound of preaching, then of a choir. On entering the school to retrieve a pen, one boy spotted a coffin lying across the benches, and, on returning with his playmates, saw the figure of a recently deceased schoolmate, John Daniel.
The first who knew it to be the apparition of their deceased school-fellow was Daniel's half-brother; and he, on seeing it, cried out "There sits our John, with such a coat on as I have!" (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike) "with a pen in his hand and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I'll throw a stone at him."
Which would of course be your reaction on seeing the ghost of your six-weeks-dead half-brother? I was once a ten-year-old boy, I suppose. It worked, at least--the boy shouted, "Take it," as he threw, and the ghost disappeared.

I was also charmed (if not wholly convinced) by this account, quoted from a newspaper (whose name has been lost) in the Reverend Frederick George Lee's Glimpses in the Twilight, from 1884, the height--at least until World War I--of ghost mania. In the course of telling of a poltergeist that broke dishes, threw saucepans, and even set clothes on fire at a farmhouse near Ellesmere, the Reverend relates,
Mr. Lea decided to get some of the things outside, as they were being damaged, and accordingly he took hold of a barometer and carried it out. He returned, and was in the act of reaching for the gun, when he was struck by a loaf of bread, and at the request of his wife he left the house.
Mr. Lea returned to the house later, and,
with assistance, succeeded in getting a number of articles out of the house; and once, when he was coming out, a large kitchen table which stood under the window followed him to the door, and it probably would have gone further if the width of the door would have allowed it.
The image of the table banging fruitlessly against the door frame conjures up one of my favorite Onion headlines: Haunted Tape Dispenser Unsure How to Demonstrate Hauntedness. Oh, and no knowledgeable follower of poltergeists will be surprised to learn that a fourteen-year-old girl is involved. Such, it seems, has always been the way with that sort of spirit.

I'll probably draw on this book more before the month is over, but for now I'll leave you with these lines, emblematic of the position in which a well-told ghost story should leave us, from a late nineteenth-century account of a haunting that appears in a memoir of Sir John Sherbroke:
The reader of the above story is left in the difficult dilemma of either admitting the uncertainty of the facts or of doubting the veracity of those whose word it were impossible even for a moment to suspect.
Quoth the raven, "Indeed."

Monday, October 17, 2011

"The Haunters and the Haunted," by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame) tells a variation on the classic ghost story form of the haunted house dare: a person (almost always a young man) tries to be the first to last out the night in a haunted house that has sent all previous residents screaming out the door within hours. In Bulwer-Lytton's version, the house is definitely of that caliber, but the decision to stay the night is less the usual dare--there's no counterparty and no prize--than a bit of ordinary Victorian English derring-do.

And its oh-so-late Victorian aspect is what brings out the story's best moment, as the narrator, having secured from the landlord the right to make the attempt, heads home:
Impatient for the experiment, as soon as I reached home I summoned my confidential servant--a young man of gay spirits, fearless temper, and as free from superstitious prejudice as anyone I could think of.

"F-----," said I, "you remember in Germany how disappointed we were at not finding a ghost in that old castle which was said to be haunted by a headless apparition? Well, I have heard of a house in London which, I have reason to hope, is decidedly haunted. I mean to sleep there to-night. From what I hear, there is no doubt that something will allow itself to be seen or to be heard--something perhaps excessively horrible. Do you think, if I take you with me, I may rely on your presence of mind, whatever may happen?"

"Oh, sir; pray trust me!" said he, grinning with delight.

"Very well then, here are the keys of the house; this is the address. Go now, select for me any bedroom you please; and since the house has not been inhabited for weeks, make up a good fire, air the bed well; see, of course, that there are candles as well as fuel. Take with you my revolver and my dagger--so much for my weapons--arm yourself equally well; and if we are not a match for a dozen ghosts, we shall be but a sorry couple of Englishmen."
Ah, for such a confidential servant! I know that life in service was not all ghost-hunts and Wooster-wrangling, that the power relations between master and servant could get ugly (and as a side note: if you've not read Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, you should seek it out immediately; it's one of the most impressive, insightful, and even moving works of social history and biography I know), but admit it: isn't that combination of decisiveness and enthusiasm alluring? When you add in that the narrator also takes his favorite dog--"an exceedingly sharp, bold, and vigilant bull-terrier, a dog fond of prowling about strange ghostly corners and passages at night in search of rats, a dog of dogs for a ghost"--and that of course he keeps his revolver and dagger close to hand . . . well, I at least find myself wishing I had a haunted house to explore and a gentleman's gentleman to lead the way.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The gods always keep their bargains, or, Orpheus and Eurydice

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I hadn't intended to read Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination this week. It's October, after all: I'm supposed to be reading of ghosts and ghouls.

But the book drew me in--and, unexpectedly, offered some areas of thought suitable for October. I wrote about two earlier in the week, and here's another: Orpheus's descent into Hades.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has long bothered me for one simple reason: Orpheus's lack of discipline. Discipline--in its complicated interactions with habit, routine, and commitment--is the foundation of my understanding, and living, of day-to-day life. Discipline is difficult when its rewards are vague, the punishment for lapses uncertain or manifest only over a longer term, or when it is forced to wrestle with strong competing imperatives. But when it takes the form of a singular requirement--do not look back at your wife, or you will lose her--discipline should simply take over; it should, ultimately, not be hard. Yet Orpheus, with everything in the balance, couldn't follow a single command. As Mazur writes, setting Orpheus in contrast with Virgil's agricultural concerns in the Georgics:
But never has there been someone more unlikely to follow instructions than Orpheus. He is a genius, a poet, a musician, not a farmer, and his instruments are the imagination, language, and the lyre, never the plough. Descended from and inspired by the Muses, he is not one for prudent behavior or stolid obedience.
And that's how I understood the story of Orpheus . . . until about a year ago, when I was struck, wildly, by the realization that Orpheus didn't turn back because of a failure of discipline, but because he had no choice:
Orpheus pulls himself up one more step. It feels as if he's been climbing forever, with no memory but of this hunched-over, claw-fingered, back-straining scrabble up the mountain, wreathed in sulfurous smoke that has left his lungs ragged, nostrils streaming, and his beard smelling of foul fire. The endless razors of the rough rock have turned his hands and feet into burning ribbons of bloody flesh; his knees, too, are lacerated almost to the bone.

When they started their climb--the last time he was able to gaze on Eurydice--the summit of the blackened mountain way above them, which would lead to the remote cave that would eventually spill them out once more into the land of the living, was wreathed in smoke, invisible. And in the hours (days? weeks?) of climbing since, it has not once appeared; if anything, the darkness has closed in even more tightly. Aside from the occasional, brutally tantalizing glimpse of a few feet further up offered by the occasional break in the clouds, Orpheus might as well be wearing a hood.

And why not wear a hood? For the one thing he wants to see, lives to see, descended--good gods--into Hades to see, he cannot see. In the early stages of the climb, Orpheus could at least hear Eurydice behind him, picking her way carefully up and over the rocks. Once, early, he even felt a puff of her breath against his neck, deliciously cool in Hades's hot toxicity, shivering him with an emotion that felt utterly foreign to this place: joy.

But now he has not heard her for he doesn't know how long. Not a word, not a breath, not a step. It is impossible to climb this mountain without sending a clatter of rocks sliding to the bottom with every step. But from Eurydice, for lo these many hours, there has been no sound.

The gods always keep their bargains. The gods always keep their bargains. Orpheus continues to climb, up and on. Up, and on.

Then Eurydice cries out. Orpheus. He stops. Help me. I'm so tired. I don't know if I can keep going. I'm afraid I'm going to fall all the way back down. Lifting a hand, a foot, continuing to climb, Orpheus throws words of reassurance over his shoulder. But they don't reassure; rather, they seem to inflame. Orpheus!

He tries singing. It has always worked. It has always been the answer to any situation in which he's found himself. But it does nothing, and for the first time--remarkably, insanely, for the first time in this entire journey into the land of the dead--Orpheus feels fear.

The gods always keep their bargains. Eurydice cries out again. This time it is a cry of pain. And Orpheus begins to feel his control of his mind slip, begins to wonder. When they get to the cave, and on to the world of the living--and they will, he has no doubt; the gods always keep their bargains--will he find himself, not the brave husband who descended into Hades to retrieve his lost love, but, rather, the cruel husband who callously ignored all his wife's entreaties, hardened his heart to her pleas when she was in utmost despair? Will Eurydice--while in her rational mind knowing, or at least telling herself, that he had no choice--hate him in her secret heart, nurse, year after year, a cancerous canker that will slowly poison their marriage, blanch then poison their love? Doubt is a worm that never stops eating. Burrowing. Orpheus falls to his knees, trembling, racked by uncertainty.

Eurydice is screaming. The gods always keep their bargains. But do they keep the spirit along with the letter? They promise to return your wife, but do they promise to return her whole, sane, unbrutalized, unflayed? What commitments do they honor? What commitments ought Orpheus honor, to himself, his love, his wife?

Eurydice screams. Orpheus turns.

The gods always keep their bargains.
This is why the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a horror story at heart, suitable for October: it is about being left with only impossible choices, only evil outcomes, yet still feeling responsible. Having been thinking about Orpheus in this new (to me) way for a while, I was pleased to find Mazur working along similar lines, but with an additional, interesting twist:
In the end Orpheus may prove to be wiser than most heroes. Even when he looks back, I think he knows what he is doing. . . .

Orpheus is fully aware of the relative time--momentary versus infinite--spent above and below. In fact, it may be the opposite of greed and impetuousness to do what he does, for by looking Orpheus is ensuring an infinite joy with his beloved, rather than the short-sighted not-looking that would have gained her momentarily, but always, during life as well as for the infinite afterlife, with the marital strife and blame of inconstancy: "You never once looked at me."
If there's one thing that October stories teach us, it's that, while the gods always keep their bargains, we mortals should avoid those deals if we have any choice at all. Chance and fate may be implacable, but they also offer fewer cruel illusions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Forbidden things

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Reading Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination the other day, I encountered an object well worthy of a ghostly tale or two:
But some mirrors must never be looked at, not ever, at least by humans. This is the case with the sacred regalia mirror, Yata no Kagami, kept at the Ise Shrine in Japan. This is presumed to be an octagonal mirror, ritual in nature, similar to other known octagonal mirrors.

This forbidden mirror is kept in a box within a box within a box, hidden from outsiders in a ritually restricted area of the shrine. The outermost box is made of Japanese cypress wood (Hinoki). The middle box is also of cypress wood. The innermost box, containing the mirror, is made of gold, and thus is incorruptible.

This Shinto sacred mirror is not, in fact, a looking glass, but rather an emblem of imperial nobility in ancient Japan, and, at least in ancient times, possibly a device for reflecting light, thus connected with life and fertility.

No one may look at this mirror, not even the Emperor, though some say the Emperor may have seen it during his pilgrimage to the shrines in 1869; and there is the possibility that Shinto priests may have glimpsed it during a ritual in 1901, when the innermost container was permanently sealed.
I'm enchanted with the idea of a mirror that has never reflected any image that can be aware of its reflection, never had a chance to steal a soul. Surely the story of the Emperor and the priests are but rumors, right? No punishment is spoken of, but it's hard to imagine a forbidden mirror that wouldn't exact a vicious punishment for a transgressive glance. I like to think that, rather than your soul, it would steal your sight, so that as it sat, solitary, in its box of gold in its box of cypress in its box of cypress, it could see, while you, the whole world all before you, are lost in blackest night.

All I know for sure is that, should I ever happen to get to see this mirror, it would be the one mirror in the world into which I would stare while saying, "Bloody Mary Bloody Mary Bloody Mary."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Through gates of horn and ivory, or, Entering the realm of the Oneiroi

{Photos by rocketlass.}

October brings longer nights, and, in the upper Midwest, with its clouds and storms, darker nights. More time for dreaming; more time for nightmares.

In The Terrors of the Night (1594), Thomas Nashe writes of dreams:
There is no man put to any torment, but quaketh & trembleth a great while after the executioner hath withdrawn his hand from him. In the daye time wee torment our thoughts and imaginations with sundry cares and devices; all the night time they quake and tremble after the terror of their late suffering, and still continue thinking of the perplexities they have endured.
I am a light sleeper. When my brother recently mentioned being woken by the ticking of his wife's watch as it lay on a table a floor below, I nodded in recognition. So while I am fortunate enough to dream extravagantly, my dreams tend not to take me over completely, not to disorient me on waking. I don't know the terror expressed in the passage below, which begins Charles Baxter's novel The Feast of Love (2000):
The man--me, this pale being, no one else, it seems--wakes in fright, tangled up in the sheets.

The darkened room, the half-closed doors of the closet and the slender pine-slatted lamp on the bedside table: I don't recognize them. On the opposite side of the room, the streetlight's distant luminance coating the window shade has an eerie unwelcome glow. None of these previously familiar objects have any familiarity now. What's worse, I cannot remember or recognize myself. I sit up in bed--actually, I lurch in mild sleepy terror toward the vertical. There's a demon here, one of the unnamed ones, the demon of erasure and forgetting. I can't manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn't working, and because it, the flesh in which I'm housed, hasn't yet become me.
I was led to the Baxter passage by Grace Dane Mazur's remarkable short book on the concept of the hinge, Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination (2010), where she writes, about it and other works:
The openings of some contemporary American masterpieces show the same sort of liminality and entrancement [as Proust] and also an intricate imbalance leading to a sort of structural instability--that state where things are so precarious that something has got to happen. This structural instability can come from being on the edge, or simply being on edge, and is often accompanied by uneasiness, excitement, fear.
In one of the wonderful echoes that reading multiple books at once can generate, I had just that morning been reading Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States (2007), which links Proust and Kafka in a chapter that begins,
At this point, it is also important to rethink the idea of real life.
Describing an early draft of the opening of The Trial, Thirlwell writes, of the moment after the two officials enter Joseph K.'s room:
Joseph K., however, is quick to set things straight. He establishes friendly terms. "The strange thing is," says Joseph K., chattily, "that when one wakes up in the morning, one generally finds things in the same places they were the previous evening. And yet in sleep and in dreams one finds oneself, at least apparently, in a state fundamentally different from wakefulness*, and upon opening one's eyes an infinite presence of mind is required, or rather quickness of wit, in order to catch everything, so to speak, in the same place on left it the evening before."
But, as Thirlwell explains, Kafka deleted that portion of the scene:
This conversation between Joseph K. and the guardes who have come to take him away, in which K. reports what someone once told him, that waking up is the "riskiest moment," because after all, "if you can manage to get through it without being dragged out of place, you can relax for the rest of the day"--this conversation disappeared.
The omission, Thirlwell argues, is key: what separates Kafka's reflections on the disorientations of sleep from Proust's contemporaneous ones ("How then, searching for one's thoughts, one's personality, as one searches for a lost object, does one recover one's own self rather than any other? . . . One fails to see what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings one might be, it is on the being one was the day before that unerringly one lays one's hand.") is that Kafka never cues us to look to sleep's dislocations:
Ratehr than speculating on the fact that falling asleep might be ontologically dangerous, Joseph K. now wakes up in a world which is exactly like a dream. Like a dream, it does not feel like a dream at all.
And, as a lived dream in the world, it is, inescapably and inevitably, a nightmare.

In Hinges, Mazur writes,
All these temporal and psyhic perversities combine to put us in an unstable situation in which something, everything, is bound to happen. We, and the characters, have entered into the world of the story, which is clearly a different world from our own.
The same could be said for the world of the dream. Anything could happen--at least up to that moment when, as Paul Bowles put it ins Without Stopping: An Autobiography (1972), "a dream ceases to be a neutral experience and declares itself a nightmare." If we're lucky, at that moment we wake up, or at least begin to receive some intimations that this reality is not reality, and there will be an end to it. A way out.

Which brings me back to the opening, and the sense, on waking, that we have to quickly set the world to rights or risk being permanently unmoored. John Aubrey, in his endlessly diverting and useful Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696), has an entry that suits, under the heading of "Of One's being divided into a Two-fold person":
In dreams it is a sign of death, because out of one are then made two, when the soul is separated from the body.
Sleep is a prefiguring of death,  a dream a hope for countering it, a nightmare a marker of our fears of it. There is a way out, a gate made neither or horn nor of ivory but of bleached bone, through which one day we'll all pass.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Live, forever!

{Photo by rocketlass.} As I've explained before, October country for me, like for countless other readers, is Ray Bradbury country. Rather than a sci-fi writer, for me Bradbury is much more a writer of small-town ghostliness, of shadows made animate, of the inherent creepiness of quiet isolation. I hope--if I can just tame the beast that is, right now, my day job--to put together a post later this month about how Bradbury at times employs a unique nostalgia for a specific kind of lost, small town terror. But for now I'll just offer the following, from Sam Weller's fascinating book of interviews with Bradbury that was published last year by Stop Smiling and Melville House, Listen to the Echoes:
WELLER: Circuses and carnivals were central to your childhood growing up in Illinois. What are your memories of these traveling shows, and why do you suppose they were so important to your development?

BRADBURY: Again, it's all passion. I was in love with circuses and their mystery. I suppose the most important memory is of Mr. Electrico. On Labor Day weekend, 1932, when I was twelve years old, he came to my hometown with the Dill Brothers Combined Shows--combined out of what, I wondered? He was a performer sitting in an electric chair and a stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end. I sat below, in the front row, and he reached down with a flaming sword full of electricity and he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose and he cried, "Live, forever!" And I thought, "God, that's wonderful. How do you do that?"
Anyone who's read Something Wicked This Way Comes--especially anyone who read it as many times as I did in my teens--will perk up at that story. And, believe it or not, it gets wilder from there; the Mr. Electrico story on its own is worth seeking out Listen to the Echoes for.
I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. And so I went home and within days I began to write.
As October draws in, it seems worth noting that Bradbury, 91 and counting, is still with us. Live, forever.

Monday, October 03, 2011

{Photos by rocketlass.} It's that time again . . . And where better to start our October journey than with Stephen King, a passage from Pet Sematary (1983):
It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience. On the contrary, it seems that some exponential effect begins to obtain as deeper and deeper darkness falls--as little as one may like to admit it, human experience tends, in a good many ways, to support the idea that when the nightmare grows black enough, horror spawns horror, until finally blackness seems to cover everything. And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity That such events have their own Rube Goldberg absurdity goes almost without saying. That may be the point at which sanity begins either to save itself or to buckle and break down; that point at which one's sense of humor begins to reassert itself.
When King is at his best--as he is for large parts of the frequently terrifying Pet Sematary--he is remarkably convincing on that point, putting his characters under more and more pressure, stripping away one by one the defenses of disbelief and rationality, leaving them to confront the horror plain. Like no other writer I can think of except Dorothy Dunnett, he makes us believe in--and understand--just how far a person can keep going, keep pushing, keep fighting despite exhaustion, pain, injury, and loss. As Ambrose Bierce put it in "The Boarded Window,"
There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness incites to action.
When the choice is to surrender to death or to keep fighting the impossible battle, King's characters choose to fight--a reminder that even as his books are about death and destruction and fear, he ultimately believes more in what's in the human than what's in the darkness.