Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The Potter's Art" (1977)

Before I talk about the story by Denys Val Baker, I want to talk about how I got to the story by Denys Val Baker in the first place. It started either five years ago when I was writing about the Beatles album Rubber Soul or more than 50 years ago when I checked out my first Alfred Hitchcock-branded story collection from the library. In fact, to get the anticlimax out of the way, as a horror short story "The Potter's Art" is merely competent. The reason I'm using it as a starting point is more because, thinking about it, its title is so suggestive to me of the horror short story enterprise at large, and even more because it happened to be when I was making notes about the story that, for whatever reason, I started to think about how to approach an extensive look at horror short stories.

I started writing about short stories a few years ago, individually, one at a time, for a mundane practical ("practical") reason. I like to run reading-related pieces on Sundays, but I'm a slow reader and average fewer than four or five books a month. Stories were a way to plug the gap. Then, because I like reading stories, they grew so numerous they needed their own day (so happy Thursday!). As you may recall I cycled through three survey collections of 20th-century literary shorts, plus extras, and then a collection of science fiction stories. But I think, ever since that Rubber Soul write-up, my heart has been with those old horror stories that used to give me the willies, and still can. It might be worth mentioning I had some still undeveloped ideas about albums and songs on the one hand and novels or story collections and individual stories on the other. As it happens I know of people who complain that individual songs are too much lost in discussions of albums, and others who feel similarly that individual stories are lost in the commercial demand for novels, or at least multiple stories for book-length collections. Some people only have one spectacularly good story (or song) in them. What are we supposed to do about them? How many collections by a single author have we seen that speak to exactly that?

Along the way I also came to suspect the short story as such may be going the way of poetry, into a kind of insular suffocating hobbyist activity pursued by a pinpoint minority perhaps even smaller than the population of stamp collecting clubs. That's a shame if it's so, and interesting too in this day and age when film and TV narratives have virtually changed places. TV is now the medium more offering sprawling immersive narratives telling big stories whereas movies have become more like finely observed chamber plays across the space of two hours or less (unless it's a franchise, in which case it is the worst of both worlds, far more lumbering than TV, but say, didn't that 11 years go by in a blip). I even noticed, as I was watching the 1931 Frankenstein the other day, that even that movie, working from a relatively compact novel, was still forced to make cuts and compressions in the story. My thought now is that short stories better suit and mimic the experience of watching movies, and/or vice versa I'm sure, and horror is especially good in that form. On the other hand, The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror are good approximations, so TV might be winning even there. I know the horror short story is a little old-fashioned.

I also wanted to apply some dignity to horror if I could, as it's so generally disreputable, much like heavy metal music, and so was gratified to learn Sigmund Freud addressed the issue in a 1919 essay called "The Uncanny." At one point in the piece he outlines the foundations of horror literature, as he sees them, which makes for an interesting list in itself: powerful irrational figures, simulacrums of life, doubles (doppelgangers), extraordinary coincidences, and repetitions of meaningless details such as numbers or phrases. Not surprisingly he connects most of them with fear of castration, repressed infantile impulses, etc. But he also goes down an interesting linguistic rabbit hole at another point, chasing the self-contradictory origins of the German word for "uncanny," unheimlich, until he lands on a definition from the philosopher F.W.J. Schelling which I think is close to my own hot button for horror: "the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden, but has come to light."

It's perfect, even the ellipsis and loppy rhythm. For that matter, Freud sort of shoehorns "powerful irrational figures" (my phrasing anyway) into the list, which is otherwise mostly the work of his colleague Ernst Jentsch. But really, for perspective, from Frankenstein to the Sand-Man to vampires to Saw, the overwhelming majority of horror as it is popularly understood falls into the "powerful irrational figures" category: all monster movies, of course, actually probably most of the supernatural, and all camp as well if it needs to be spelled out (Dark Shadows, The Munsters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, most Halloween parties). I realize there are many large overlapping areas here, and to be clear I have no bone to pick with monsters and/or the supernatural, or even Halloween parties. I like them. They work, or can work. But the overlapping area I would have to say interests me most is true-crime, especially now with Schelling's explicit sense of the motivating theme.

I must say it's still a mystery to me, frankly, what this (sometimes, intermittent) nervous response is that happens as we encounter the situations in these stories, but a hidden secret seems as good a starting point as any. We may call the response "fear" or "the uncanny" (or "chills," "the willies," or some other euphemism). It's not always very fun right in the moment. Sometimes it stems from a sense of utter powerlessness. Sometimes from despair at the limitations of life and society and one's own vulnerability. Sometimes from revulsion, moral, physical, or otherwise, at what we reflexively call "evil," a word that feels like it lives in the right hemisphere of the brain with all the swear words. Sometimes it just seems to be knowing you are safe even as you observe, enacting a kind of rehearsal with adrenaline. Often it is a unique mix of some kind of all these things. It's usually good with hot chocolate.

Another question might be why we're attracted to horror at all but that one is easier. It is primal and hardwired into us, like cats triggered by something moving under a blanket. We have to know what these weird things mean even if they are inexplicable. Especially if they are inexplicable. Repressing the desire doesn't make it go away, but the pressure can be relieved. It sometimes feels like it is the very no man's land between civilization and savagery, the primal spiritual growth point. Consider the story I wrote about a couple of years ago, "An Invitation to the Hunt" by George Hitchcock, in terms of the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden, but has come to light. There's nothing at all supernatural in the Hitchcock story, even though, like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," it is also quite fantastic. Imagine, humans hunting one another for public sport or some kind of catharsis. The thing in this Hitchcock story that might have been secret and hidden only to be revealed could be, say, the reality of class conflict in postwar America. That sinking feeling in the final scene is not just one of outrage and powerlessness, but of inevitability, like you always knew this is the way it really was. That's what makes the story effective. The reason it felt so extremely vital and frightening to me may have been because I was living through a version of it in the terrifying landscapes of junior high school at the time. But ultimately the source and the experience are universal.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. "An Invitation to the Hunt," which I read in approximately 1967, had become a virtual obscurity by the time I came to write about it in 2017, available only in three out-of-print collections. Speaking of one good story in a person, it might even be the only horror story that the widely accomplished George Hitchcock ever wrote. I tracked down copies of all three collections, hoping for biographical, publishing, or other information, which was scant. Later it occurred to me that any collection of horror stories that included the one that affected me more than any other was probably worth looking into further.

Thus, at this early starting point, reporting in, I've gathered up seven collections I'm working with. There are always more (so many more) but here's what to expect for now. I started with the three that included the George Hitchcock story: Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (1985); When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (1963); and Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories My Mother Never Told Me, ed. Robert Arthur (1963). For old time's sake, because these Alfred Hitchcock collections were my staple source when I was first reading horror, I also picked up a copy of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, ed. Robert Arthur (1961). The one I literally started reading first for this project—Realms of Darkness, which houses "The Potter's Art" (I'm getting to it)—seemed consistently good, so I got another one edited by Danby, 65 Great Murder Mysteries (1983). Danby also edited two more 65s I may get to yet (at its most fevered optimistic, this is going to be my never-ending tour). Those five account for the out-of-print class. The other two are in print, very big, and very impressive (and recommended): The Dark Descent., ed. David G. Hartwell (1987); and The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2012). I have some quarrels with both of them but they are the kind of quarrels I enjoy having.

I'm planning to take it chronologically, in a loose kind of way, which is also how The Weird is organized, plus it goes well into the 21st century, unlike any of the others, so I can see that it could turn out to be a certain guide pole. The VanderMeers have their own idea of horror, which they call "the weird" and which seems, at least early, to align somewhat closely with H.P. Lovecraft, who, like Stephen King, will be an issue or theme, I can see already (August Derleth, for one, story writer and editor of When Evil Wakes, was an ardent Lovecraft disciple). As far as I'm concerned and can see so far, "the weird" is just another way of saying the name for everything that ought to have remained ... secret and hidden, but has come to light.

For what it's worth I'm also thinking of the larger project as a work in progress. In many ways, obviously, I'm most comfortable writing reviews, but in some ways I think I need to get away from it. After all, n.b., why read a review of a story when you can read the story? On the other hand, the impulse to discuss them remains compelling too. Look at me typing! Call it the pie and coffee urge—the typical write-ups are here for you (if you're a pinpoint minority hobbyist like me). But I might experiment with more thematic approaches or in other ways. We'll see. There are also issues to consider about horror short stories and horror novels and horror movies (and horror comics and horror video games and long horror TV arcs and the horror the horror). Others have argued and I think I agree that horror naturally works best in the short story form. It's the potter's art—working with clay compounded of earth and water from underground, spinning it into symmetrical vessel shapes in the open air, coating it with colors, and applying fire. The result is beautiful and fragile yet resonant of the eternal. You will always need another handsome coffee mug or vase as long as you live, if only to hold your ashes.

Finally, "The Potter's Art," the story by Denys Val Baker (pictured above), comes from a 1977 collection of his stories called The Secret Place (speaking of unheimlich). It's from Realms of Darkness, where Mary Danby's strategy as an editor is to hit you with dozens of stories, mixing up tried and true names with one-offs and stories usually away from the typical picks, though not always, coming from the distant past (Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce), more recent distant past (Patricia Highsmith, Robert Bloch), and midcentury and later, often cherry-picked from a Fontana series of collections in the '70s. Baker's story is closer to the latter category, involving a cougar-style woman who thinks she can take control of the life of a younger and hunky potter, which leads to consequences. Baker died in 1984 so we can't ask him what kind of secret place he might have been thinking of in regard to this story, but going with the unheimlich thought, it's something in the vicinity of the unceasing struggle for power that exists between all humans at all times, even in consensual love relationships. If the Baker story isn't likely to stick with me much, it still has the tone and approach I like. Much more ahead.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)

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