Thursday, October 31, 2019

"The Eye and the Finger" (1936)

Donald Wandrei's completely ridiculous and excellent story works much like F. Marion Crawford's "Screaming Skull"—by insisting on its premise with a relatively straight face. Indeed, with a quivering distended face of terror. A weary man comes home from his exhausting job in a downtown department store, where the people are rude, the noise constant, the lights too bright, and he stands all day. He trudges up to his 5th-floor apartment to find himself confronting an eyeball sitting on his bureau and a disembodied hand floating in the air, pointing first at him and then at the window. It's almost comical when you reduce it to description and in many ways functions as a forerunner to the Warner Bros. cartoon style of slapstick brutality. Wandrei, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and a fantasist who ran with H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth et al., keeps the focus on the tactile and sensory in this very short story. The man's first impulse is to go over to the bureau and pick up the eyeball (something of the object's mysterious power is already suggested by the way he even notices it across the room). It's soft and sticky, covered with a moist film, and warm. It's disgusting. Later, when he finds an available psychiatrist to make an evening house call (perhaps my favorite of all the ridiculous details here), his first move is also picking up the eyeball and being disgusted. In fact, he won't have anything more to do with any of it and leaves immediately. Meanwhile, the hand. I love this business of pointing at the man and then at the window. Talk about telegraphing it! Yet Wandrei maintains tone: "Where it should have been attached to an arm, he clearly saw blood, veins, flesh, muscular tissue, and bone. But it did not bleed." The man tries to grab it. In my mind it's a right hand, and shakable. "The hand felt neither living nor dead, neither hot nor cold. The fingers instantly curled around his own, not fiercely, but tugging him along, pulling him towards the window." This thing obviously has priorities. Another great detail Wandrei interjects throughout is the man's hearing, which somehow alternates between acute silence and a mysterious deafening roar. I'm probably not giving away much by reporting the man ends up taking the hint and goes out the window. Heck, what would you do? We know from cartoons and horror fiction you can never get rid of things like that. Capture it, put it in a cage, take a bus to a train to a seaport and put it on a freighter going to Hong Kong. It's still going to be waiting for you when you get back to your place. And it might not be in such a good mood anymore. Again, see also "The Screaming Skull." The thing about this kind of horror—based in Ineffable Evil, let's say—is that it's almost binary, alternating between ridiculous and effective, like that image of a vase and/or two profiles. But whichever this story might be ultimately, it's totally entertaining—the hand gesture, the available psychiatrist, everybody reaching for the eyeball first. I love it.

When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

"The Beggar Maid" (1977)

Alice Munro's story, complete with a well-chosen 19th-century cultural allusion (the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones), patiently observes a failed relationship, focusing on its doomed origins before hastily following up on the aftermath. I hadn't known it, but Wikipedia reports that King Cophetua represents "a man who falls in love with a woman instantly and proposes marriage immediately." I know the type anyway. Patrick Blatchford is the smitten (as he explains it to himself) and Rose the pursued. The main point about them, made early and often (even by subtracting Rose's last name), is the class difference. She is "poor" and he is "rich." She is attending the college where they meet on a scholarship. She lives with Dr. Henshawe, a donor who takes girls like Rose under her wing ("she liked poor girls, bright girls, but they had to be fairly good-looking girls"). Dr. Henshawe is overbearing and judgmental, projecting her sense of her own superiority and Rose's inferiority. Blatchford is 24 and studying to be a historian. He is a serious graduate student and rejects the crass business success of his family, which owns a chain of department stores in British Columbia. He believes he is fiercely in love with Rose but signs are it's more about rejecting his family. He doesn't seem to understand anything about Rose, who has little affection for him. But she realizes it's an advantageous opportunity. Everyone encourages her because they think Patrick is such a good catch. But he is not. Blatchford and his wonderfully ugly name see Rose as a kind of rescue job, as a "damsel in distress." He obviously believes he is doing her a great favor and she will owe him gratitude even as he proceeds remaking her for the position of his wife. Later he will give up his studies to work in the family business. Rose senses his attachment has nothing to do with her, that he doesn't really love her, and feels more and more repulsed by him. All these problems are seen clearly—by them, by us—on first visits to their respective families, which are nicely drawn disasters. Rose rejects Patrick cruelly. Then she reneges and marries him. Most of the story is spent on the half-sickening courtship, the disaster unfolding. While the characters are distinct enough, they are also carefully calibrated types, and their social-realism situation so typical as to be practically exaggerated for effect. It's a good story, but Munro would get much better.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writers: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, William Ludwig, Sarah Y. Mason, Doris Gilver
Photography: George J. Folsey
Music: Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Albert Akst
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Tom Drake, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, June Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Marjorie Main, Joan Carroll, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Sully, Chill Wills

I always think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie because the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is such a memorable part of it, but it's actually an all-seasons story playing across a single year, from one summer to the following spring. I also tend to keep thinking of it as a '50s picture because the technicolor is so glowing, warm, and magnificent it feels about 15 years more modern. But there it is, cognitive dissonance or no, all the way back in 1944, taking a sudsy warm bath in nostalgia for 1903. When will it ever end? Nowadays we are nostalgic for the 1980s, when we were nostalgic for the 1940s. I should also mention this picture left me cold when I finally caught up with it for the first time not so long ago. I might have liked it more if I'd seen it first when I was younger. But honestly, it can ooze saccharine like putrescence (e.g., everything about the "You and I" scene).

Lately, seeing more movies from the times and coming to a late appreciation for the MGM musical as such, and Judy Garland specifically, I've made my peace with the relentless corn, which is not actually that relentless, only in isolated spots. If you take this movie for what it is—a wartime cotton candy escapism musical made of costumes and lighting and nostalgia—it's virtually undeniable, with decent to great tunes and dance sequences and a musical family clan like the von Trapps in The Sound of Music (obviously inspired by the children here, notably Margaret O'Brien, who is notable). But I want to talk about Meet Me in St. Louis as my somewhat unlikely pick for a Halloween picture this year (or sharing it with last week's Dead of Night). The bizarre Halloween quarter of Meet Me in St. Louis was reportedly director Vincente Minnelli's favorite part of the movie to work on, and it shows from the opening crane shot on.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Man-Size in Marble" (1887)

I first knew of E. Nesbit as a children's author when I was a kid, by way of Edward Eager novels, but I never found any of her books (the E is for Edith) when I looked for them at my public libraries in the '60s. I never knew anything about her. I didn't know she was a woman. I wasn't even sure she was real. I barely understood she also wrote horror fiction though later I remembered her name in anthologies—it rang a bell, that was all. I never made the connection until recently. Her biography suggests her wide-ranging interests and the wild intellectual churn of her life, as she wrote continually for money, cofounded the socialist Fabian Society in England, bore three children and adopted others her husband had by another woman (who also lived with them), and collaborated with others as well as writing her own fiction for children and adults, horror stories, memoirs, and poetry. This story is one of her first and may be her most famous among the horror stories (with "John Charrington's Wedding," which is at least as good). "Man-Size in Marble" is remarkable not so much for its tale, more competent than inspired, but for some of the details and especially for its voice, which is deceptively easygoing yet bracing, seething, almost caustic when read in a feminist frame. She's an obvious source for Shirley Jackson. "Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it," she begins. It's a man's voice—a newlywed, in fact—but the clear-eyed feminist revolutionary writing the story obviously understands the painful ironies of social double standards, signaling from behind over his shoulder. Many Nesbit horror stories feature relationships between men and women but they are rarely this happy. He is a painter and his wife a writer. They are bohemians, for all their youth, bright and sophisticated but unable to afford London. Their requirements for a cottage in the country—sanitary and picturesque—take some work but are finally met in a small village in the marshy southeast of England.

I say the story is uninspired but that's not exactly true. The premise is unusual—it would be interesting to learn Nesbit's genesis of it. There's a church in the village, and in the church are two statues, about which there is an extraordinary All Saints' Eve legend. The couple's housekeeper, Mrs. Dornan, refuses to be there for the occasion, quitting her job if she has to but saying she's happy to return the week after. The narrator is more focused on the inconvenience first and then on his amusement at the way Mrs. Dornan expresses herself. He refers to the statues in the church as "effigies of the knights in armor" but she has another way of putting it: "'I mean them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble,' she returned, and I had to admit that her description was a thousand times more graphic than mine, to say nothing of a certain weird force and uncanniness about the phrase 'drawed out man-size in marble.'" The narrator also likes, when Mrs. Dornan gets to the legend itself, how she says they "sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble." I like how actively he misses the point (and the danger) and yet how understandable that is—it's classic horror stuff. We know perfectly well this is heavy foreshadowing, that it's a horror story and these things will happen. And as ridiculous as they are, Nesbit finds a new way to drive home the perversity of horror (and her rage) with an ice-cold voice that verges on brutality in the recounting and a strange detail that only unfolds in its terrible implications. In a hand of the dead woman, the narrator's wife, is a finger from one of the statues which is found in the church next day broken overnight. By the evidence, the thing was raping her in its marble. And she fought.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

On Bowie (2016)

I enjoyed Rob Sheffield's long eulogy to David Bowie, or short biography, or letter to the world. It made me think a lot about how much Bowie meant to me and it made me sad again when it came to the part where he dies. Although the book is poetically riddled with lines from Bowie songs in practically every paragraph, Sheffield still manages enough critical distance to judge him on the fine points. I didn't always agree—Sheffield has little use for the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, or more generally for director Nicolas Roeg, whereas that picture ranks high among the more important inflection points for me, and Roeg has his place too. Sheffield thinks Labyrinth is Bowie's most enduring and significant movie—no. I appreciate that Sheffield acknowledges the long-term enduring Bowie haters as it's such a common experience, for example turning up a quote by Keith Richards from about 2009 ridiculing even the idea of taking Bowie seriously, as a musician or anything. That's a common view I've encountered all my life, from oldest friends to major rock critics. They're wrong, that's all. Sheffield stakes out some bold stances here, such as arguing for the album run from Station to Station to Scary Monsters as one of the all-time greatest. Maybe—it is really great. But so is The Man Who Sold the World to Aladdin Sane, and has the advantage of not including Station to Station. Sheffield's passionate case for the Thin White Duke phase did send me back to Station to Station, where the only song I connect with there remains "Golden Years" (admittedly, I love it) and it reminded me again the thing has only six tracks (a sure sign of bloat). (In fairness, I may be in the minority on the album, as Scott Miller was another vocal champion of it.) Mostly I liked On Bowie because there was something cathartic about reading it. It made me wish there were something like it on Prince—2016 was a tough year for losses of all kinds. Sheffield is just plain a Bowie fan and that's what does the trick. He loved Bowie for all the right reasons. He knows an amazing amount about him, not just the glory years 1970 to 1980 (he pushes that out to 1983 and Let's Dance but I can't agree), but also the fallow time, which he separates into a dreck phase (1984-1995) and a revival from the mid-'90s on. He's harder on the later '80s stuff than me and easier on the 21st-century stuff (except the last two, in a class by themselves as everyone seems to agree). He knows all those albums with one-word titles, like Hours, Heathen, and Reality. So I learned a lot reading On Bowie too, found plenty of tracks and YouTube clips well worth chasing down. Sheffield always feels fair to him—he's well aware, for example, of Bowie's lifelong "laughing gnome" problem (which is exactly where I put Labyrinth, by the way)—and he's fair to David Bowie fans too. In a way, On Bowie feels like a gift, a rare quality.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dead of Night (1945)

UK, 102 minutes
Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Writers: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke, H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson
Photography: Stanley Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
Music: Georges Auric
Editor: Charles Hasse
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Frederick Valk, Mary Merrall, Miles Malleson, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Michael Redgrave

It may be hard to make out these days, following the advent and then the primacy of TV, but people have never stopped trying to make anthology films work. Just last year the Coen brothers were at it with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and who can forget such efforts as Four Rooms from 1995 or New York Stories from 1989 (which mysteriously elected to include Francis Ford Coppola and exclude Spike Lee). I have the anthology film associated in my mind with epic art cinema—e.g., Boccaccio '70 (1962), Spirits of the Dead (1968), and others—but even more with horror. That brings us to Dead of Night, which may or may not have been the first horror anthology picture but certainly contributed to popularizing the idea, giving evidence it can be made to work. Someone always seems to be giving it another shot: Kwaidan (1964), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), V/H/S (2012), etc.

And Dead of Night does work, very well in some ways. Before I get to the good stuff here, however, I should sound a word of caution as I have run hot and cold on it even in the few times I've seen it. Episode-based TV, which we have been living with coming out of radio for something like 75 years, with its potential for stand-alone shorts—from Twilight Zone to Outer Limits to Black Mirror—brutally exposes the weakest part of anthology films, which is the strained quality of the narrative connective tissue attempting to tie together different work, often by different directors and almost always by different authors. The episode model lets you dispense with that and focus on the merits of each story rather than something phony that is supposed to unify otherwise un-unified stories. That said, the best part of Dead of Night is exactly that connective tissue, for which it is rightly well regarded.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

"The People of the Pit" (1918)

A. Merritt comes from the dawn of pulp magazines, and it's not hard to believe he was an influence on H.P. Lovecraft and other world-builders (worlds lost, Lost, haunted, alien, or otherwise). Merritt's long story is blustery and thick with descriptions of fantastic landscapes, creatures, etc. It's set in unmapped regions of the North Pole and Yukon (compare Lovecraft's longest story, "At the Mountains of Madness," published nearly 20 years later, set in the unmapped Antarctic). The nominal pit is found within sight of Hand Mountain, whose five peaks appear to beckon or warn away, depending on vantage, time of year, weather, and other conditions. It looks like a hand, you see. This pit dwarfs the Grand Canyon (Lovecraft in "Mountains": "Everest out of the running"). A staircase leading down into it has been built on the side of a cliff. If you think it's a long way down, try coming back up.

One night, two explorers prospecting for gold see many strange sights and then happen onto a strange creature who turns out to be a man. He climbed all the way down, found himself trapped at the bottom—caught in some sort of soul and/or slave capture operation by weird creatures—and then somehow escaped by luck and wiles, though the climb out ultimately kills him. Even as he tells his story his limbs keep moving as if he is still crawling up stairs. I like some of this but the story is slow-moving and clunky. A fantastic landscape described in detail is not my idea of horror, but it does seem to be a main article for "weird" fiction, a separate but overlapping category. Indeed, as we've seen, horror overlaps with any number of genre labels: ghost, weird, science fiction, mystery, war, true-crime, and of course fantasy. I think, at some point, you have to quit the categorizing and move on a case-by-case basis, but the impulse often remains and anyway part of what I'm doing here is trying to figure out what "horror" is at all, at least in short stories.

Meanwhile, down in the pit, the cruel creatures that run the place—giant maggots, it appears, great white worms (the illustration above is not really accurate with my reading)—are powerful, telepathic in some way, and unheeding of human comfort. So it's plenty weird, and not surprising that I found it in The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which prides itself on excluding ghost stories but does shovel a lot of stuff like this. In many ways Lovecraft really is the big kahuna in this realm. Many of the stories in the first quarter of The Weird cover about the first quarter of the 20th century and point directly to Lovecraft. I admit I am coming to appreciate more the ponderous style of these older writers, including Lovecraft, as opposed to the more typical style of 20th-century stories I still tend to prefer, driven by scenes and dialogue, often operating in medias res and with twist endings. They keep the action moving and depend on grasp of concept keeping up. Here it's the other way around, proceeding by description and piling on detail for further opportunity to get the idea. A more mainstream long story that works this way for me is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The action can stop entirely for additional sensory details, usually visual, or further instruction in concept.

Sometimes it's useful to look at these stories through the side-by-side development of other popular media, as horror stories have certainly felt the impacts of movies and TV, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone in the '50s and '60s, or the slasher movies that rose up in the '70s (emphasizing the overlap with sex crimes and serial killers that practically redefined horror for a time). In that way, "The People of the Pit" might be thought of as a kind of silent movie that put all its resources into the sets. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, for example, which came out two years before this story, approximates the bloat of the exhibition for effect. We are asked to inspect and ponder visual detail in similar ways in both. I would say "The People of the Pit" is not as good as H.P. Lovecraft, or even Algernon Blackwood, but if you love either or both of them it's probably worth a look.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Darkness at Noon (1940)

Although it was taught in my high school and I've heard about it all my life, I'd never read Arthur Koestler's classic of dystopia literature until recently. "Dystopia" might be the wrong word. It's not set in the future and now it seems a little like a relic of the Cold War. In fact, I had it pegged in my mind as a '50s novel, but it was published when Hitler and Stalin were both in power and at war. In many ways it reads like a categorical rejection of communism but I don't think it's exactly that simple. It has more in common with Jim Jones than any of Joseph McCarthy's bogeys, a melancholy study of how ideals metastasize with power and grow mindless and deadly. The narrative arc follows the obtainment of a false confession from a once high-ranking Communist Party official, Rubashov. We hear about little physical torture, but the threat is pervasive. We see more the psychological side, with interview sessions conducted under painfully bright lights all through the day and night. Sleep deprivation is a key point though rarely discussed as such. There are various clumsy points that might be worth acknowledging—hard to believe, for example, that prisoners can communicate so easily and even eloquently with a tapping system through the walls. But what is profoundly believable is the ability of humans to turn true and sincere belief into unanticipated chambers of horror. As a species, are we ever going to figure it out? I despair sometimes. Rubashov may have more perspective on communist ideals as self-delusion, seeing it in his younger comrades as an older man, the generation which followed the Revolution. One of the ways Rubashov justifies his false confession to himself is that it is good for the Party. He knows he has committed his own sins of excess and zeal, and feels he is being punished for them indirectly. He still believes in all the Marxist concepts of history, logic, and inevitability. We know now that the USSR was doomed, even in 1940, to eventually implode into its own oblivion. But I don't think the news would cheer Rubashov. It might make him even more suicidal. It may be hard from the historical context to separate the anticommunist cant from the human tragedy but it's generally worth the effort.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Inland Empire (2006)

France / Poland / USA, 180 minutes
Director / writer / photography / editor: David Lynch
Music: David Lynch, Krzysztof Penderecki, Marek Zebrowski
Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Therous, Harry Dean Stanton, Karolina Gruszka, Peter J. Lucas, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Julia Ormond, Grace Zabriskie

The reluctant reviewer: I kept meaning to pick up a copy of this some years ago when I noticed the price drop below $10, but then I kept putting it off for the same reason I dreaded looking at it again recently. It wasn't much fun the first time. Now that it's out of print in DVD and inevitably commanding collector prices, it turned out to be Netflix DVD, of all places, that foiled my attempt to skip it—no waiting and the disc played fine. As projects by director David Lynch go (in this case, he's also the writer, cinematographer, and editor, plus provides music), it's an extreme example of the discontinuity inserted at the end of Mulholland Dr. and the middle of Lost Highway, with a tantalizing if hard to follow thriller giving way to a somewhat senseless explosion of semi-related images and scenes. Even dreams are more organized than Inland Empire. The part that almost makes sense is one hour. The rest is two hours.

My expectations were low so I ended up liking it more the second time and/or I had more patience for it. Lynch's films are always funny but I noticed and enjoyed it more this time. He's also expert at ratcheting tension out of very little. In the first 15 minutes there's an extremely worrisome conversation between Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie. I forgo giving character names. Why even try? Dern is credited on IMDb as playing two characters but at least one of them is an actress playing other roles. In many ways Inland Empire defies time and gravity and exists as a map of Laura Dern's face. I found it useful, when my mind began to wander, to think of the picture as a kind of extended John Coltrane solo and Laura Dern as David Lynch's instrument.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"The Haunted Dolls' House" (1923)

I haven't entirely connected with M.R. James so far, and I'd really like to ever since I found out Mark E. Smith of the Fall was a fan. I still haven't got to all his best regarded stories but consensus seems to lean toward "Casting the Runes" as very best and it didn't do much for me (the Tourneur movie Curse of the Demon is faithful, not bad, and about as good). This later story is not that impressive either—haunted dollhouse with tiny ghostly figures reenacting murders in an intricate tableau every night at 1 a.m., what's to be done? Still, I was struck by the glowing imagery of the dollhouse in its overnight convulsions. I thought the story ought to be an ideal candidate and good bet for a movie adaptation, particularly in the silent era it comes from. It's probably a little old-fashioned now but I imagine, say, director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, Tales From the Gimli Hospital) could do something with it. The detail I like is the sight of the dollhouse at night: " ... though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls' House ... stood out with complete clearness.... The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion—a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp." I like the image of our hero, Mr. Dillet, sitting up in bed in a dark room in the middle of the night and seeing that. Even silent movie technology in 1923 should have been able to handle it. Think of the French epic from 1923 La roue, or the 1924 version of Peter Pan, or certain effects in Metropolis that reduce actors to the size of dolls. Mr. Dillet is entirely rapt by his hobby of collecting antiques and especially dollhouses. When he brings home this one (it's not his first) he spends hours lovingly setting it up, arranging figures, furniture, and other accessories. That makes him likable even if he is moneyed and haughty, but it's also beside the point. As for the difficulties posed (mainly interrupted sleep) it appears you can do what Mr. Dillet finally does, put it in another room, and problem solved basically. It never seems to be threatening, only a nuisance at worst. Well, it might make you depressed to be reminded every night that some murders of innocents went apparently unpunished. That should never happen. But the magic, such as it is, is in the dollhouse and its ability to cast a campfire mood of comfort and thrilling strangeness.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Henry James: A Life (1953-1985)

Does it say something about the tendency of Henry James toward prolixity that even the condensed version of his biography comes in over 700 pages? It might have more to do with making his three score and ten in a productive career, but that's still a big book, cut down from Leon Edel's original five volumes published between 1953 and 1972. It's enjoyable for anyone with more than passing interest in James and who can stomach people routinely calling him "The Master." Yes and yes for me, though just barely on the latter point. I learned a lot of interesting things. He knew Flaubert and Zola as a young man. He became close friends with Ivan Turgenev. His flirtation with theater was a humiliating disaster. Beginning midway through composing What Maisie Knew in the mid-1890s, he dictated to typists and revised from there. In fact, his personal life in the 1890s—acquiring a typewriter and having electricity installed in his flat—vividly place him in the far past. I should know, because typewriters did not become available until 1874, but it still blows my mind that James and all the others submitted manuscripts in longhand. No wonder he developed some kind of repetitive strain injury, which prompted the move to dictation. Maybe that's all beside the point. Edel is an assiduous biographer, meticulously chasing down points of detail via letters, diary entries, and any way he can find evidence. By his view, James was celibate all his life, and there's a strong sense he was probably gay in an era that would not countenance that. James saw what happened to a much younger man, Oscar Wilde (whose work he didn't think much of anyway, though I still suspect Dorian Gray had something to do with James's The Sacred Fount, doubtless unconsciously). Edel's insights can be striking and illuminating, notably in that 1890s period, when James's greatest personal failure was followed by some of his greatest work, through which Edel traces an ingenious restorative process. Edel lauds the last three novels above all others, as do most students of James, but his personal favorites appear to be the short novel The Aspern Papers and the long story "The Beast in the Jungle"—excellent choices. Along the way, James has interesting friendships with Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and the public at large, which has always been a little dubious about James, the wise course. For the rest of us, this is a great one-stop account of his life.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 714 pages

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

"The Moonlit Road" (1907)

I've been finding out Ambrose Bierce was a much better and more influential horror story writer than I knew. His stories are versatile and always succinct and somehow find surprising ways to get in the path of 20th-century currents. This story, for example—which comes to function, if you think about it enough, like the view of infinity seen sidewise in opposing mirrors—ultimately provided the source for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. The movie is technically based on the story "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (incidentally revered as the father of the Japanese short story). It also includes some details from another Akutagawa story of the same name as the movie, "Rashomon." But "In a Grove" is the story that uses a single incident to probe at truth and perception from different points of view. Akutagawa was directly inspired by "The Moonlit Road," lifting its approach, structure, and key details nearly whole from this provocative and weirdly unyielding Bierce story.

Like much 19th-century horror, "The Moonlit Road" is largely built out of documentary texts, in this case more or less legal depositions. But these documents don't jibe, they differ in small critical ways and don't illuminate so much as confuse the open issues further. A man disappears whose wife has been murdered. It's not clear whether the murder is ever solved. It's not even clear they're talking about the same case. The story is short, divided into three sections, each one a separate individual's statement. The incidents they recount harmonize in some ways but diverge in others. It seems like the same case yet the parts don't fit. The first statement comes from Joel Hetman Jr., the son of the man who disappeared and woman who was murdered, and it's about as straightforward as this story gets, laying out the basic elements of the incident, with nary a ghost or mention of dreaming in sight. The second statement, disjointed and defiant, is from "Caspar Grattan" (he says the name is an alias), a man about to be executed for the murder of his wife. His case sounds just like Hetman's in the details, with shifts in perception arising out of the suggestion of shifts in motive. Yet even as he finishes his account Grattan begins to talk about it as if it were all only a dream he had. As if it never really happened, even though he has described it vividly.

The third section has the most obvious tie to the Kurosawa movie, with a statement from the woman who was murdered obtained by way of a spiritual medium. I always took this part of the movie to be reflecting something unique to Japan's past, allowing this type of testimony in a legal proceeding, and here it turns out to be something dreamed up by a writer in San Francisco, California! The medium, by the way, is identified as "Bayrolles," who also appears as the medium obtaining information in at least one more story by Bierce, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (along the way inventing Carcosa, a lost ancient city that would later figure in the work of Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and many others).

So who killed this poor woman and why? An intruder who escaped in the night or her jealous husband enraged to discover her infidelity (or appearance of infidelity)? And why did the husband run away—because seeing her ghost on a moonlit road filled him with unbearable guilt? And what does Caspar Grattan have to do with it? Alas, we never learn. Each account affirms some elements from the others, but each also has perfectly unexplained elements too. The woman didn't see her killer and can't say with certainty who it was. "The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward," is the way she explains her lack of afterlife omniscience. There are certain eerie parallels in this story with Bierce's life too. He divorced his wife in 1904 after discovering her infidelity. And he famously disappeared himself in 1913 and no one knows what became of him, though he's presumed murdered. Perhaps the way Kurosawa's Rashomon is most faithful to Bierce's "Moonlit Road" is that there appears to be no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how many layers you peel back.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
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