December 1: Anne Sexton – “The Ghost”: ghostly comparisons

I recently posted on the Joyce Carol Oats’ ghost story “the Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly”. It was unusual, because it was a ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost as both she and her ghostly boyfriend watched the living go on. Well, never think that your idea is original. It really ALL has been done and if you don’t think so, ask around and someone will supply you with a source as an example of it having been done (even if done terribly – yes, I’m certain someone has done groundhog’s day on the moon). For example, Anne Sexton, has also done a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost. But she exceeded her predecessor in quality and ghastliness.

Sexton’s “The Ghost” is the story of a spinster who lived out her entire life in purity never having allowed a man to touch her and always following the rules. She even states that ghosts have rules about who or where they are to haunt, but are prohibited from telling the living how or why and this ghost will never break those rules either. She is drawn to her niece, because she was named after her. She follows this rule to nth degree watching her obsessively and picking at her faults constantly. She put bugs into her food if it’s the wrong food causing the niece to go ill, she puts songs into her head when the niece has extra marital sex (only with her husband which she must soon get). Eventually, she drives the niece insane and ends up being institutionalized. And the last few sentences – “She is at this point enduring a great fear [Ed. I wonder why], but I am with her, I am holding her hand and she senses this despite her conviction that each needle is filled with Novocain, for that is the effect on her limbs and parts. Still, the slight pressure of my hand, the sound of the song of the mistletoe must comfort her. Right now they scream to her and fill her with an extraordinary terror. But somehow, I know full well she is indubitably pleased that I have not left. And nor do I plan to.” – leave you haunted.

Sexton was trying for a very personal angle, drawing from life. I read her intro biography before the story and it became obvious as I read the story (which actually took me out of the story a bit) that the niece was actually her (they wrote: “She was hospitalized a number of times…some [of the diseases were] described as bipolar…Sexton lost the battle against the voices…and ended her life”), and, therefore, the aunt had to be someone who once harangued her in life.

It’s easy when comparing stories to say which you prefer, but it’s more difficult to say which is actually better. Both have their strengths. The former did a masterful job of speaking from different perspectives, even while staying in third person. It was easy to know who we were viewing the world through. The author just introduced that section with that person’s name and started describing his or her actions and we knew where we were. There were even points in the narrative where the point of view shifted to someone else, someone who was seeing what the ghosts wanted him or her to see, and, even if there were some clunky moments where it was unclear who was seeing what (there definitely were moments when I had to stop and re-read) it was mostly seamless and I was able to follow along. And perhaps there was a point to the clunkiness – who’s to say. But definite choices were made in how to tell this story.

Whereas the latter, Sextons [story title] with its strict, rule following aunt, answered every question quite thoroughly – and for good reason (if every question isn’t answered, then our aunt isn’t as strict as we thought). Sexton’s story was written first person and does a wonderful job at working within its limited view. We only see what the aunt wants us to see, even if a comment here or there lets slip that she might not be as sturdy as we thought she was (every once in a while she references how she is working for the devil). Yet we never get any hint as to what that influence might have been, plus, knowing a bit about the poet’s own tragic life and having it hinted at takes you out of the fictional construct of the story (so much so I almost gave up on it). So, as to which story is the better quality it’s a draw.

But I think that that better point to make is that we have here two stories that are the same exact idea, two ghost stories told from the ghost’s point of view, but it isn’t the subject matter that is important, but the manner in which they are executed. One was made to be a story that highlighted the author’s point of view on how society views her as a woman (showing how the women in the story are treated poorly, the more they deviated from the accepted norm of womanhood). The other was Sexton’s way of exploring her own personal emotional turmoil. This proves that even though every story has been told, it can still be told again from a different point of view. It will never be old or stale, because each story teller will claim it as her own (so long as the story is very personal for her, or told from her own emotional narrative).

In ancient times, when stories weren’t written, they were told, all of the stories were well known. If you were in ancient Greece, you listened to the Iliad over and over again, but each story teller made it his own story. There isn’t one version of the Iliad, there are thousands upon thousands. There are official versions to be told in each ancient Greek city and even those varied among tellers. It’s also why you will find very different versions of the Grimm’s fairy tales, because each village had their own, and some stories overlapped one another, and some swapped out details based on what values that particular village wanted to highlight (in some perhaps Red Riding Hood temped the wolf showing their value of women being persuasive, where in others she ran away, showing the value of a woman being modest).

But never shy away from a story just because that story has been already told. All the old ideas are taken, never mind that. Just make it your own, tell it as if it were your story and it will be unique enough.

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November 19 Dorothy Salisbury Davis: “The Purple is Everything”: Reversing Expectations

There’s a book on my shelf that I’ve had there all of my life. Okay, let me clarify, it was on my father’s bookshelf when I was a child. When my mother dismantled the shelf, I asked if I could have it and to my shelf it went.

It’s an anthology of mysteries, A Treasury of Modern Mysteries (Doubleday, 1973) so nothing earth shattering. Most of the authors are people that you have heard of: Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Truman Capote. There are some you haven’t, but should have like Ira Levin. He wrote Rosemary’s Baby. “Oh! That guy,” you say. Yep, that guy.

Anyhow, Dorothy Salisbury Davis is probably a writer you haven’t heard of, but that’s okay. Not every voice rises to great and long lasting prominence. Her story in this anthology, though, does deserve more of a spotlight.

Davis was a crime writer who knew her genre really well and this story shows it. She’d won many awards and had many publications. Her hay day was the 1960s about time of the publication of this book.

I picked this story because the title caught me right away. “The Purple Is Everything” I wondered what it could possibly mean and how it could be crime related. The word “purple” made the title more visceral. I could imagine purple, so I was able to connect with it.

But the thing that makes the story itself so curious is that it’s a crime story without a crime. In fact, in many ways, it’s a crime story that examines the nature of crime itself, as in it asks the question “what does it mean to commit a crime? Where do we draw the line? And how do we as a society participate in that crime?” Pretty deep, huh? Told you this was a good one.

The thing I liked the most was that it was an inversion of the typical mystery story. Mysteries assume that we are all in agreement of what a crime is and that it is wrong, the only thing left to answer is, how do we out clever the clever criminal? To quote the introduction of the anthology, people like to read mystery because, “there comes a time when a reader simply wants a good story with a beginning, a middle, an end, set in an orderly world where reason and virtue and a little bit of luck almost always guarantee the triumph of the good guys.” (Marie R. Reno, Editor, The Mystery Guild, 1966-73) So, to present a mystery that has no well defined good guys (or bad guys) or even criminal act is the reverse of the mystery readers’ expectations.

The story of “Purple” is of about Mary Gardner, an illustrator for a wallpaper company. The cliché about someone who blends in with the wallpaper is pretty apt for Mary, who lives a quiet and unmarried life (although for a 30 year old woman in the ’60s though that is fairly radical). She hangs with “other women all of whom have an aura, not of sameness, but of mutuality.” Mary is an artist, but not an artiste. She likes to sketch and collect art and go to the exhibits in the museum. She’s happy with her lot in life and has no need to be famous or to make a statement, so it comes as a surprise when she becomes the inheritor of a rare painting by Monet. This happens by chance. She’s at the museum admiring the painting on the wall (though she thinks the real picture should be seen upside down) when a fire breaks out. Other patrons are doing their civic duty by taking down the paintings and rushing them out of the building, out of harm’s way, at least that’s what Mary suspects they’re doing. Mary has a hard time deciding what to do. She doesn’t want to see the painting burn, but knows she isn’t allowed to just take a painting off the wall. Unfortunately time is ticking, the smoke is filling the hall and the painting is at risk, so because of her love of it, she takes it down. The only problem is that due to the chaos on the street, she can’t find anyone to give the painting to and she doesn’t know anyone on the museum staff. She’s not the most assertive person, her asking about has police officials shoving her off to the side and away from the museum. The painting is hidden in her coat to protect it from the smoke inside the building and the rain outside of it, so no one sees it. What’s Mary to do? Where can it go? She can’t go back inside the building and she can’t just leave it on the side of the street – someone will take it, or at the very least the rain will destroy it. She takes it home.

The question, of course, is did she commit a crime? She ponders going to the police, but after their rough treatment of her during the fire, she’s certain that all that is going to do is get her jail time. She knows that they won’t appreciate the nuance of her situation. They’re police, they just charge you and don’t listen to explanations. Mary feels, and rightfully so, that she shouldn’t have to be charged with a crime just because she wanted to save a painting. As guilty as she feels for taking it home, she knows that she’s innocent, or at least believes it very strongly. Despite the fact, that most criminals protest their innocence when apprehended, in the end they have to admit what they had done was wrong, but Mary feels no such burden.

Here is another inversion of the mystery genre. Even though in many mysteries the investigator is outside of the police profession (or at the very least, someone contracting with them), the police are always assumed to be executing justice fairly, because it has been mutually agreed upon by the populace. But here the author is hinting that this Justice isn’t necessarily the perspective of everyone within Society, that it might be a point of contention for those who fall outside its perimeters and into a grey area. She’s also hinting that the Police instead of being arbiters of justice (deciding what is truly fair within regard of the law, and what is prosecutable) are simply blunt instruments meant to shove those in the grey area into the black – blacken their name and make them guilty once and for all. Mysteries assume that Justice is simple.

Davis only takes one sentence to say this, but the fact that Mary understands that her predicament won’t be understood, that the police are not an option, shows that the law here is not the ideal of “an orderly world where reason and virtue and a little bit of luck almost always guarantee the triumph of the good guys.” Because once again, who are the good guys in this scenario and who are the bad guys?

I think that the outcome of this scenario is even more telling. Mary decides to tell the museum that she has their painting, despite the fact that the newspaper is listing it as one of the paintings destroyed in the fire. No one believes her. Mary isn’t important enough to be believed. They can’t conceive that anyone would have the audacity to take the painting home. I wondered if perhaps they also thought that it was inconceivable that anyone who would do that, couldn’t possibly be moral enough to return it. Now, she is guilty of not only taking the painting, but daring to presume that she isn’t that type of person. How is that a crime in the eyes of society? Good question.

All she wants to do is give it back, so she continues to contact people (various important people running the museum) and only has luck when she contacts their publicity department – threatening to go to the paper – and, yes, asking the paper to bring a photographer. This is another reversal as usually a criminal taunting the victim is trying to be more evil. But Mary is taunting her victim (committing a terrible act) to be more good. She wants to return the painting and they won’t let her.

The scene that caps it all for me is that the museum sends one of their experts to authenticate the piece. The museum doesn’t want to sully their reputation by stating publicly that the painting was destroyed and then end up hanging a fraudulent version of it, because of course Mary couldn’t possibly have the original. But the expert doesn’t recognize the painting, because Mary hung it upside down (like she believed it ought to hang). He tells her that it can’t even be a Monet, because it lacks sufficient purple. “The purple is everything,” he tells her and won’t be swayed no matter how much she implores him.

She gathers her reputation by telling her story to anybody who will listen, then her boss, a wealthy art collector himself, does. He brings in his expert who turns the painting around, because he knows what it is. The museum, which has lost face, quietly sends an insurance agent to pick up the painting and drop off a large check of $20,000. This is quite a lot for the ’60s (probably more around $100,000 in today’s world), but this only makes Mary dubious of their motives. She burns the check.

Now, I would have taken the money. Maybe treated it like a finder’s fee. Then used it to create a publicity campaign to show how the museum actually treats its patrons, but who would believe me? I took their hush money.

Perhaps that’s why Mary burns it. It seemed to me to be an act of individual morality, in other words, she’s deciding what’s right and what’s wrong for herself. Why else burn it? I’m guessing that she wants to not be treated like someone who is underclass, a criminal, that if she takes the money she is implicit in the crime and has to admit it. But what crime? She was saving the painting, not stealing it and the museum refused the painting that’s all, so as readers we have to assume that this is being interpreted as a crime by Mary alone. This is unlike most mysteries where we are collectively assuming the laws of the land are immutable, innate and understood by all as if they are the underlying moral factor for all of humanity for all time. But I can remember reading older books like Pride and Prejudice where I stood outside of that collective assumption – a man goes to jail because he spends the night with a single and consenting women who has no chaperone and they aren’t married – and been uncertain as to what the crime was exactly.

I walked away from this story uncertain as to what had happened. Who had committed the crime? And what, if any crime, was committed? The one thing for certain was that it was interesting to see a crime story that actually questioned the nature of Justice and got me to not only understand the “criminal’s” perspective, but to feel sympathy for her. That perhaps the act of reading a mystery causes us to take for granted that which we see and judge every day without questioning for ourselves what that means. Perhaps where we see a crime we’re only seeing a criminal and not understanding the vast and complicated circumstances that caused the crime in the first place, and the perpetrator is simply the person who got caught up in it.


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November 13 Joyce Carol Oats: Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly – An Essay on Rotating Perspectives

I’ve continued my Halloween reading despite it being a week into November (for some every day is Christmas, but not for this reader). I’ve been reading out of an anthology called Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves and Ghosts. It’s edited by Barbara H Solomon and Eileen Panetta.

The one they chose by Joyce Carol Oats is a lovely tale and well-spun, even a little sad, but I think that most ghost stories should be. Ghosts are those trapped between realms, stuck in their state of death forced to watch their loved ones move on without them as they become irrelevant and ignored. Ghosts become creatures of longing.

I think that “longing for love” would be a good title for this story. When one of the main characters – a governess only known as Jessel, she can claim no other – enters the House of Bly she is a plain girl, the daughter of a pastor and has no hope of ever becoming the matron of a household (even if she thinks that somehow Jane Eyre can apply to her as the Master of the house jokes and flirts with her).

But here is where Point Of View becomes useful. When we start the story Jessel is already dead and her ghost is watching the remembrance of her past self with disgust at her naiveté. (We go from innocene to experience, youth to death.) The language makes it clear that the Master of the house never had any real interest in her. “…for the truth, too can be flattery, uttered with design. And not only he, her lover, Master’s valet, but Master himself had flattered her so craftily…” Master in hindsight is highly transparent. The tragedy is that she did not see it sooner.

This is a tale that could have been written during the Romantic or Victorian era. It’s meant to mimick the style and the language of the time. But Oats is still with us and the story was first published in 1994, so contemporary (though the amount of overt sexuality and classism also gives it away). It’s the story of a governess who comes to an aristocrat’s home to take care of his two wards, a boy and a girl named Miles and Flora (and, yeah, I also thought that this might be a take on The Turn of the Screw), but mostly the girl as the boy is sent off to school. Despite Jessel’s view of the Master as a passionate, but mysterious man (read: absent), he turns out to be a bit of a cold fish preferring to be in his London flat rather than his country home. He has no interest in Jessel or the children or his estate just that his lineage be up-kept. Jessel then turns to the Master’s valet who fancies himself an upwardly mobile type, figures he’ll one day have an estate of his own somehow, he just has to kiss the right boots to get it. He’s a bit of a rogue and dallies with the ladies, then gets Jessel pregnant and she is excused from service. Shell-shocked and humiliated she takes her own life. (How could the Master not want her? How could she go back home?) The valet soon joins her in the afterlife when he drunkenly falls off of a cliff – never admitting that he may or may not love Jessel.

The ghosts are forced to watch the estate morn them, then gossip about them, then replace them. The Master makes certain that the next valet lives no where near the estate and is to only visit on business. Both ghosts feel the sadness in the way they are replaced. The valet is to stay in his lowly position and not even consider upward mobility and the governess is pretty much the same person, except more dowdy and more religious. There is nothing of the ghosts’ romantic fantasies made real in these boring people.

The ghosts start revealing themselves (corporealizing their form) to the children in the hopes that they can stay relevant. They can hear their thoughts and how much they miss their caretakers. They are able to keep their fragile ties to the world through them, but the new governess finds ways to break them.

It is a bit of a reversal, this story, instead of telling the story of humans discovering ghosts, it’s from the POV of the ghosts trying to stay connected with the humans.

All of the tale is told in third person limited, though it is interesting to use that POV with ghosts that can read people’s minds and therefore we, the readers, get a little bit extra out of our point of view.  The POV shifts are done mechanically, just a line space between segments, but it is the placement of the POVs that makes the shifts significant.

We start with Jessel, the usual heroine for this type of story, then to the valet, Peter Quint, then Miles gets a turn and then Flora. We see at first how Jessel came to her lamentable state and then switch point of view to hear Peter’s tale who seems a bit confused as to how he wound up here, then their stories merge as they experience the afterlife together and we can see very little of their earthbound neighbors. But as they start to show themselves to the children the segments start showing the actions, thoughts and feelings through the children’s eyes as if the ghosts are partially living their lives too.

When the new governess starts to figure out how to block the ghosts from the children’s sight, the children’s stories disappear…then the stories of the ghosts themselves start to disappear as they lose their earthbound ties.

The last segment to be told is about Miles. He’s devastated to lose his attachment to Peter, the only one that really understood him, the only one that really loved and accepted him for who he was. The last segment feels the least invested in the character’s inner world. It could be best described as third person objective. The character is in the world acting his way through it. We hear very little of his interior thoughts. It’s a signal that the ghosts and their multiple view points are gone, Miles is alone. It is also a signal of something worse than that, even Miles is disappearing. Hear how even he is absent from the prose.

“Into the balmy-humid night the child Miles runs, runs for his life, damp hair damp hair sticking to his forehead…” He calls out to Peter, but the next line reveals nothing. “The wind in the high trees, a night sky pierced with stars.” The rest is a muddy pond in a forest and the sound of bullfrogs.

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November 1: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “Lot No. 249” – switching genres can be tricky

I think that Conan Doyle was talented at a lot of things. His scene descriptions are second to none. They’re evocative and accurate without being too wordy. Eerily accurate. He described the mountain in Salt Lake City, Utah in his “Study in Scarlet” so well that I could see it vividly in my mind’s eye. (By the way, Mark Gaitiss, we in the U.S. abbreviate postal codes with TWO capital letters. Therefore, if Sherlock is searching for a hound in Indiana it’s going to be in “Liberty, IN” not “Liberty, In”. Just sayin’.) But when I was standing in the Utah Salt Lake airport on a layover staring at the very mountain itself and I knew that that had to be it, for it was the very image I saw in my head – exactly as Doyle had described it! Kind of humbling to think that it had been written about two hundred years before I had witnessed it (some things stand the test of time).

Doyle also does a wonderful job at creating tension in a careful measured stride toward the exciting, climactic conclusion and he constructs a hell of a puzzle. But, as good as he is with logic, he’s not so good with the metaphysical.

“Lot No. 249” isn’t a mystery, it’s a horror tale about a mummy and his weird owner. And where I got excited about Sherlock’s tales of discovery, this left me a little disappointed, especially since there wasn’t much to discover. As soon as the mummy appeared in the story, right after a mysterious death (and there was the mummy out of its sarcophagus in an awkward position still but grabbing for a table instead of lying there all mummy-like) it wasn’t hard to guess where the story was going or what shocking thing the unbelieving main character was going to uncover.

The irony of Doyle is well known. He created an enduring character who never subscribed to superstition, only logical deduction, but Doyle himself was an avid believer. He was certain that there was something more than just this life. He participated in the Spiritualist movement which often consulted with mediums to connect with the other-worldly.

During his writing career, he wanted to disconnect with Sherlock – tried to kill him off – but like the mummy in this tale, he just kept coming back to haunt him.

In “Lot” Doyle tried to forget about the logical, but seemed to be tongue-tied when it came to trying to find the language to describe the mysteries of nature that are ineffable. I don’t blame him. He was trained in science and medicine, trained to describe things as they are and in painful detail – not as they seem or as they feel to be which is what the metaphysical would demand. He probably worked hours to get his Great Detective to sound as precise as possible and to leave the emotional out of it. To try to switch out of that mode must have felt awkward.

Alongside this, the horror tale really isn’t very like the mystery or detective story. In the mystery we have a perpetrator striving to manifest and cover up his devious deeds, and so we have someone like Moriarty who robs and deceives and manipulates. In “Lot” we have a guy named Bellingham who controls the mummy to enact his various revenge schemes. But in horror whoever is enacting whatever scheme is not necessarily ever revealed, or at least, his motives are terribly clear. Part of horror is not understanding what is going on. Why would a madman build a man from dead body parts? Why does the werewolf kill? How does such a thing exist? And how can this mysterious man-made creature defy death? That is the true horror, trying to conceive what in the end isn’t conceivable. Whereas mysteries reveal that the inconceivable is just an illusion and we, the audience, just needed to see it from a different perspective – and voila, all is known.

Perhaps the big error for “Lot” is that Doyle treated it as if it was a supernatural detective story, but without clues or a list of suspects. I think that if he were to switch from a detective story, he would have had to sit with a horror stories for a bit and get a better feel for them. What makes them tick? What makes them different? What makes them the same?

If I were to re-write “Lot” I’d have the character see the mummy in a picture in a magazine, or in a sedate setting. It’s only an object. I’d never have her or him meet the owner. Maybe she learns something she shouldn’t without even knowing that she’d learned it. Went down a passage she shouldn’t have, opened a forbidden book. Maybe she’s the only one that could read the inscription on the sarcophagus and makes the mistake of reading it aloud. Maybe she just ignores the wrong man. Then late at night, she’s all alone in a giant, dark parking lot where every one else had gone home. She taps her key fob and her car beeps twice in the distance. It seems lower than usual. She doesn’t realize that the tires have been knifed and sag uselessly in the wheel wells. She walks slowly, she’s tired and has had a long day. Her head is swimming, a bit light. She shouldn’t have skipped lunch. Something slips behind her. It could be a step, or just a wrapper being dragged through the lot by the wind. Then another step. And another. The steps keep coming. Her heart beat increases, someone is there, but with a step that drags a step that follows her step. She breathes in to quicken her step. Something moans just behind her, the rotted breath chokes her. She turns and there before her is a thing with black, cracked leather skin and cold, golden eyes. She runs, but it’s too late. The wrapped hand grabs her throat and closes with the solidness of eternity.

That’s horror.

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October 28 The Brood by Ramsey Campbell – turning a well-known character sideways, the art cliché tipping

This was an interesting one for me. “The Brood” is a short story by Ramsey Campbell, the best in the field Horror author you’ve never heard of, and it’s about vampires. Or is it? They don’t stalk the night in silken capes or rent a castle and speak of the glorious and bloody, old days. They don’t lure young women to remote areas and seduce them with a stare. They don’t even sparkle – in fact, they do the opposite, they blend in with the night (a stain, he calls them). So, how, you ask yourself, are they vampires? That’s simple, he tipped the cliché.

The art of cliché tipping is a bit like cow tipping. You sneak up to the cliché carefully, look it over up and down, inspect its anatomy to see the best place to make your push – where is the creature at its weakest (in the case of the cliché, the area we are most familiar with and expectant of), then we tweak it and make our push to topple it over onto its side. The audience gets something that they think they’re familiar with, but surprise! it’s something else.

In Ramsey Campbell’s short story he takes the overly familiar (even when it was written in 1980) creature, the vampire and does something very different. He takes the human-like creature and does something that no one has done before, or since (okay, as far as I’ve seen), he made it inhuman. He tipped the cliché.

These vampires aren’t born human, bitten and re-born as vampires, no, they’re born vampires and eat people. They more resemble the alien from the movie Alien than the Count Dracula from the book (and many movies) Dracula. Yes, it is scary to watch your friend turn into an alien, otherworldly and dangerous creature, but it is also scary to discover humanoid monsters born out of cocoons, living in their larval stage (where they look formless, jelly-like blobs) buried in the dirt and which rise up and grab you when you stand on that patch of ground. Oh, yeah! It’s damn scary!

The nice part about this story is that it sneaks up on you. “The Brood” you think, “what does that mean?” You read to discover. He also tips the cliché by letting you discover them through his Main POV character. In the world of Dracula, vampires are well known and discussed in folklore, so you’d know what they were if you listened and you were open minded enough to believe that the tales might have some credence. In “the Brood”, nobody knows these creatures exist – they’re that good at hiding among us. They hide in the places that are falling apart and disregarded by most of humanity. They eat those humans that humanity has thrown away (I sense a theme here), those that humanity no longer cares about.

The Main Character, who remains nameless throughout the story (clever touch? he too disappears to society) is a veterinarian. The story, in third person limited, only sees the world through his eyes and thoughts. He prefers to remain apart from society disgusted by the way he sees how pet owners treat their poor, innocent pets while remaining “innocent” of their mistreatment. He works, goes home, locks himself in his apartment and watches the streets and taking note of those that the passing cars going home ignore. The marginalized. But he starts to notice that certain people have stopped appearing and then he notices something moving in the night, something that frightens him, but he can’t explain why.

I admit that halfway through the story I didn’t get why Campbell won all of those horror awards. All this is is just some weird, bored guy who doesn’t like people, doesn’t do anything with his life, complaining about how stupid everyone is and watching homeless people be weird.

It’s a twenty page story that, for ten pages, does nothing. But I think that that is the point. The story slowly sneaks up on you. You don’t realize until later – until it’s too late – that the creature in the night was there all along…waiting…hunting…breeding…feeding…and someday the brood will overtake….

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October 19 The Song of Rig (and various Norse Tales) – the lost art of Form

I like folk tales and have never really out-grown fairy tales. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a good grown-up retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. (Ever seen Angela Carter’s bizarre 1980 film A Company of Wolves where the wolf was actually a werewolf and the main metaphor was first sexual awakening in a young girl? Good stuff, weird stuff. No, really, very, very weird. Also, if you’re jonesing for a good adult retelling of the old tales check out Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, very good stuff!)

But the old tales were more than just a fun, little diversion for young children. We’ve turned them into that in the same way that Jazz when it was first introduced was scandalous and infuriated moral outrage in the Moral Majority and now it’s considered quaint. The tales were sacred, but were a connection to Ethnic identity and also a source of common knowledge. They had a deeper meaning to the ancient world.

I started reading the Norse tales when I was a kid out of a sense of curiosity. Many of the books I read referenced them and I wanted to know what the source said. (Turned out not much because most of the original tales are actually lost to time. What we have now are really copies of copies.) They were engaging enough and I found them as fun as any folk tales, but when I returned to them as an adult I saw them in a new light.

I already knew, as I’d learned in school, that these stories worked on many levels and provided many services to ancient listeners. Yes, they were entertainment, but they were also morality tales, stories of how not to be (what not to value), or how to be (what you should value). I like to think of the Raven tales and the other tales of tricksters doing things that society sees as wrong and getting hurt doing it. Or the opposite, tales of Thor, being, well, Thor and showing great strength and bravery – the perfect Viking – someone that everyone admires and wants to emulate. The modern version of Thor (other than the comic book hero) could be Captain America or Superman. A trickster could be comic characters from sitcoms like Al Bundy from Married with Children, or Homer Simpson from the Simpsons.

And I also knew that these tales were also instructions on how to live life and do basic daily tasks. The Iliad gives a detailed account of soldiers polishing shields, sharpening swords and putting on armor. This extreme detail was the ancient world’s instruction manual on how to do these things. Useful, given that they didn’t have writing and therefore needed some useful way of transmitting these essential instructions to the next generation. (I can’t imagine what the ancient world’s Ikea manuals would be like.)

What I started to figure out on my latest re-read was that the value of the tale was in the prestige that the tale granted the listener. Each tale basically said, “this is the story of our people.” (And, yes, in certain way the Old Testament can also be seen as folk tale.) This is our heritage and our sacred link to the past and to the gods or the heavens or whatever they defined as divine. The tales gave them a definition of who they were as a people, their culture, and what values they were to hold dear, so basically a picture of identity. They spoke of where the people who told them came from, why the world is the way it is and how they fit into it.

The Song of Rig, one of the tales of the Edda (basically the tale of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang) starts with one of the lesser known gods, Heimdall, and follows him through his journey of Middle Earth, the place between the world of the gods and the world of the giants (heaven and hell, basically). It shows how he started all of the races of humans: the serfs, peasants and the warriors, and the line of kings, in other words, how he created the peoples of Scandinavia. It also follows one of his sons who becomes the first in the line of kings and how this son embodies all of the best attributes of not only his father but also of humankind. How like a king to claim this, but okay, this guy was somehow perfect.

This is from the book The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland who claims in the index that there are better sources of myths (there are several books on that translate and tell the myths), but his seems pretty well researched. I’ve been reading the author’s notes in the back that serve as a companion to the various Norse tales. He talks about how they were collected, that he draws from Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic poet who was born many centuries after the poems were created, who drew from two sources: the Prose Edda and Voluspa. He also mentions several other sources but sided with Sturluson for most of his accounts. But it’s obvious from the author’s notes that much of the tales that are being re-told are pieced together from sources that are second hand. The Song of Rig isn’t even complete. It just trails off and Crossley-Holland left a footnote stating that this is all the manuscript they could find (though it does feel pretty much finished).

It reminded me of how difficult it is to preserve the past and also how malleable the stories are, because they were oral tales, but told in different ways over the many years. Each village had their own version of the same age old tale. So there were several versions of the Story of Rig all throughout Norway and perhaps other parts of the world. Tales crossed over from region to region. The god Tyr, mentioned in the Tale of Loki’s Children (where we learn about the inception of his scary son Fenir the wolf) was actually a Germanic god of war who wandered into Norse tales and there is a version of him in Irish tales and East Indian tales. That guy really got around.

But they never made up any new tales, because in the ancient world originality wasn’t a thing instead they depended on new and more original ways of telling the same old story over and over again – that was the beauty of the thing. Oh, and one more thing, they weren’t stories.

Well, I mean stories as you and I define them. Remember this is the ancient world and they did things very differently from us. Like for instance they didn’t write anything down. That didn’t happen until long after the tales were old. None were written around the time they originated (with the exception of the ancient Chinese tales, but they were way ahead of everybody writing-wise).

But if they weren’t stories, what were they? They were poems.

“Wait, what? Poems?” Yep!

Yes, they have a narrative structure and characters, but they’re all poems. Really long poems and most of the poems are grouped together. For instance, La Morte D’Arthur, the Arthurian tales are really a bunch of vignettes, or short stories, about the different people and events that surrounded Arthur and the Arthurian Court, the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one. They all come together to form a bigger picture of the legend of Arthur, his rise and his fall. But, yeah, every single story you can possibly think of as a tale, myth or folk tale was written as a poem. In fact, the prose version of storytelling (any kind of writing that isn’t a poem) is actually a really recent invention. The Iliad and the Odyssey? Yes. The Arthurian tales? Yup. The Arabian Nights? Those too. Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Probably (difficult to tell – they were only oral tales and the Grimms only collected from one source, but it’s very likely they were). But the story of Robin Hood, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, even everything Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) wrote all poetry.

The Song of Rig is also an example of one smaller tale fitted within the larger epic. It is a story within the Eddas which basically the story of Odin, Thor, Freya and the gang. We often read them as prose pieces, but that’s not how the reader (or rather back then, the listener) would hear them. They would be in verse. But the other thing that the tale would have is Form, because a poem requires structure that most prose stories do not (though I think that it is the best way to elevate one’s writing).

But what is Form and what is it about form that elevates a tale?

Let’s start with the first part of that question. According to X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, Form “as a general idea, is the design of a thing as a whole, the configuration of all its parts. No poem can escape having some kind of form, whether its lines area as various in length as broomstraws, or all in hexameter.” So, Form is the design of the thing, or rather, the physical structure of it. You could even call form the architecture or the structure of the poem, patterns within a story, repetitions and reflections of images and bookends – some type of action is started and then ended in a similar way.

In the Song of Rig we have those patterns on a couple levels, plot and language. Plot-wise Rig, or Heimdall, his actual name, repeats the same action over and over. He wanders the countryside, finds a couple in a hall, eats and sleeps with them (particularly the wife) and leaves after three days. Each time this creates a new society of people and this happens three times. The Norse really dug the number three. If this sounds a bit like a fairy tale, well, same continent different section.

Language-wise the repetitions happen when the teller makes the same pronouncements again and again. “Who can hear the sound of grass growing? The sound of wool on a sheep’s back? Who needs less sleep than a bird?” Lots of “who” questions, then the answer “Heimdall, Heimdall, Heimdall.” Then at the end of the story another character, Heimdall’s son who is given the title Rig by Heimdall is asked a series of “who” questions and the answer is “Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp, Dan the Danp.” Hmm, seems like the chorus to a song. Yes, songs repeat certain phrases.

In fact, between Heimdall’s departure and the birth of his children are the same exact interludes: “Every day the two stallions dragged the sun across the sky, and Day himself rode at ease round the world. But then Night tightened the reins of her mount, and each morning the face of the earth was dewy with foam from his bit.” Time passes with the exact same interlude. And then we get a list of the god’s children’s children.

Sure, they’re not sophisticated patterns, but it was kind of beautiful to see the repetitions build a story, and a story eventually build a legend, and legend build a culture.
And when I see a modern story find a way to artfully manipulate its images, metaphors, plot actions and language to create beautiful patterns and an entertaining story – not easy to do – it creates a feeling of the sublime in the reader, the same feeling the ancient audiences must have felt when listening to their favorite tales being handled deftly by an expert storyteller. No, wonder the Norse called storytelling a sublime gift of the gods.

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October 8th Ray Bradbury “The Man Upstairs” – the art of metaphor and subtext

It’s always a treat to delve into any of Ray Bradbury’s work. It’s imaginative, evocative and very literary. It’s easy to tell the diehard readers from the casual observers: the diehards read Bradbury and LOVE it. And get it.

I’ve noticed when I talk about the written word with some readers, there are those for whom the written word is just there to convey information. “Show me the scene and let me see what happens” they seem to be saying, and for those readers, a book is no different than an instruction manual for a blender. If the writing doesn’t say exactly what it means, then it must not be very good writing – for that reader.

Well, I’m hear to tell you, sorry, that’s not what fiction is.

I won’t argue that clarity isn’t necessary, of course it is, but fiction rides the fine line between conveying information and implying context or mood or an aesthetic. It uses metaphor and subtext to do this.

Ray Bradbury’s work is a perfect example of this. He is the master of metaphor and every action in his work happens in subtext – between the lines (or to be really, really clear you have to understand what the words are implying, not just saying). In his short piece “The Man Upstairs” he never tells you what anyone is feeling and it’s very rare to hear any character’s thought. Instead he shows their feelings and thoughts through their actions and their various comments and you, the reader, have to interpret what’s actually going on.

“The Man Upstairs” as a story that takes place in 1926. The point of view character is (as is often the case with Bradbury stories) a little boy about eight or nine years old. He lives with his grandparents in their boarding home. The grandmother runs the boarding home and the grandfather works as the chief editor at the local newspaper. One day a strange man arrives and takes a room upstairs. The little boy, Douglas, can’t explain why he doesn’t like him, he just doesn’t. Bradbury doesn’t go through much detail to explain why either or even how. All the text does is say that when Douglas sees the man he takes a step back (“he stepped away”).  That’s all that Bradbury felt he needed to say to convey to the reader that this stranger is not to be trusted. A young, innocent boy won’t trust to be near him, neither should you.

Douglas is pretty innocent. He obviously has a limited understanding of how the world works. He watches his grandmother in fascination as she guts a chicken and dresses it for dinner. He asks if everyone has the same stuff inside as the chicken and his grandmother explains that it basically the same, a bit larger and in different places. Then he brings up the woman down the street with the large belly like his grandfather.

The conversation goes something like this. Douglas(pointing to the chicken): “Grammy, am I like that inside?” Grandma: “Yes. A little more orderly and presentable, but just about the same…” Douglas: “And more of it!” (he rubs his belly, proud of his guts). Grandma: “Yes, more of it.” Douglas: “Grandpa has lot more’n me. His sticks out in front so he can rest his elbow on it.” (Grandma laughs and shakes her head.) Douglas: “What about Luce Williams down the street, she…” Grandma: “Hush child!” Douglas: “But she’s got…” Grandma: “Never you mind what she’s got! That’s different.”

That is all that is mentioned of the woman and her belly, but it’s easily implied that the grandmother is too embarrassed to explain that the woman is having a child outside of wedlock.

Where did I get that? In the subtext of course. I added that Douglas “rubbed his belly.” Instead Bradbury just wrote, “proud of his guts”, but it sounds like the boy is presenting his belly which can also be interpreted as guts (a good thesaurus and/or dictionary will tell that). Also when Douglas mentions that grandpa can rest an elbow on it, I think of the old expression of someone having a gut so large that it can be used as a shelf or a table, so it’s not a far leap to say that Luce Williams has a large gut too, even if Douglas never says so. She’s the next comparison to the chicken’s innards and Douglas’s belly. Grandma’s reaction to the child’s question, something she doesn’t want to talk about with him, tells me everything I need to know. Grandma thinks that this is an inappropriate topic for a child. The rest is elementary. All without mentioning the word pregnant, or any lecture on the topic which the grandmother wouldn’t be having with an eight year old anyways.

There is a moment in the story that I just call open magic where the boy sees his grandmother as more than just an elderly woman, or the manager of the boarding house, but as someone with magical power: “It was a wonder when Grandma brandished silver shakers over the bird, supposedly sprinkling showers of mummy-dust and pulverized Indian bones, muttering mystical verses under her toothless breath.”

The metaphor is on the inside being surrounded by the true thing as opposed to the opposite where it is the other way around.  When Douglas says: “Grandma is a witch”, he isn’t implying that she’s an elderly woman who does things that are so amazing that they seem to be magical. No, Douglas literally sees Grandma as a witch. This is an innocent child’s point of view of Grandma and how he feels about her. He can’t see her as a regular, powerless human, because she’s Grandma – all powerful and magical. She can transform a dead bird into delicious food. The subtext is superficial at this point, because we are only looking at the world through a child’s eyes, someone who doesn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the world. At least, not yet.

Subtext is Bradbury’s style. Almost nothing happens in the story and there’s very little to show the reader on the surface (those looking for blender instructions will be very disappointed in it). The story is as the title states an exploration of  “the Man Upstairs”. But it never says directly who he is. None of the characters when they meet him is sure who the stranger is or what about him makes them uneasy. Some character barely even notice their uneasiness.

For Douglas the stranger is frightening like lightening. (There’s a scene where the boy stands in the stranger’s room helping him and he reminds him of the fearful cold light that illuminated his room during a lightening storm.)

Bradbury uses his description of the stranger to tell us how Douglas feels about him. “Cold grey eyes…gloves rich and thick and grey on his thin fingers, and wore a horribly new straw hat.” It’s not just new, it’s horribly new as if deliberately chosen to blend in. When Douglas goes into the room that the stranger is leasing, he pauses at the threshold, “The room was changed oddly, simply because the stranger had been in it a moment.” How “oddly”? We don’t know, Douglas only says that it used to bright and flowery when the woman lived there. Even the stranger’s umbrella leaning against the bed is “like a dead bat with its dark wings folded.” But that’s as direct as the language gets. Bradbury never says who or what this stranger is, instead the language he surrounds him with not only makes us, the reader feel eerie about him, but gives us clues. Grey is his main coloring, not unlike a corpse. A dead bat hangs in his room. (No, not literally, remember metaphor? A thing that represents a thing.) Later, perhaps to be more overt, Bradbury has Douglas watching the stranger through a stained glass window as he arrives back at daybreak. Douglas watches him through the red portion. Hint, hint.

The word vampire gets mentioned by the boarders as they sup around the table, but it’s only superstitious conjecture about the women in town who have gone missing or found violently killed. We never see pointy teeth, or blood sucking or anyone skulking about vampire-like. Everything supernatural happens on a sub-textual level as if there was something magical underneath the surface of the text. The blender instructions are telling us one thing, but something else, something incredible is happening underneath them, something we merely have to imagine, something we have to dig deeper for in order to understand.

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