Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vintage Chills: The Big Halloween Read

Every now and then I like books to put some ice in my veins. What better time than October to turn to something weird, scary and uncanny? This year’s Halloween-themed reading centers around three books: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940’s to Now, the Library of America anthology edited by Peter Straub; Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont; and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I’ve finished Hill House and am still working on the other two. There are definitely some ice cubes clinking through my bloodstream.

Brief Biblical Aside:
Earlier this year, I decided to read the Bible, start to finish, by taking a chapter per day. (Aside to this aside: when I was 12, my father--a Baptist minister--said he would pay me to read the Old and New Testaments; I think the wages of un-sin were $35; I made it as far as Nehemiah before giving up; my father declined to pro-rate the payment.) At this rate, I’ll probably reach Revelation sometime in 2018 (I’m also reading the books of the Apocrypha). This month, I’ve been making my way through Leviticus and, buried amongst all the law-giving and commandments handed down to Aaron and his sons the priests, I found what I could properly call a one-sentence ghost story. The Lord is cautioning that those who “walk contrary to Him” will fall victim to a variety of Really Bad Things like plague, impotence, desolation, cities laid to waste, etc. Then, in Leviticus 26:36, He says: “And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them, and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword: and they shall fall when none pursueth.” I’m thinking of writing a horror story with the title “The Terror of Falling Leaves.”

Leaving the Pentateuch, I turn to the other terrible delights I have in front of me...

*     *     *

Let’s begin with American Fantastic Tales which presents 42 short stories (a couple of them border on novella length) that take us into the heart of darkness, American-literature style. Not all of them are full-on scary; some just make you think, “Well, that was weird” (and not in a good-weird sort of way). But overall, I’ve enjoyed my journey through the book (as of this writing, I’ve made it as far as the Stephen King story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”).

The first volume in the Library of America American Fantastic Tales duo tracks “terror and the uncanny” from “From Poe to the Pulps.” I’m saving that book for a future Halloween. I decided to go with the “from the 1940s to Now” collection because I’ve been immersed in classic literature lately and I wanted to read something a little more modern. This second volume of the set is heavily lopsided in favor of 21st-century stories—which I’m just approaching—but the earlier 20th-century freak-a-deak stuff is pretty good in and of itself. Some of the standouts for me have been:

“Mr. Lupescu” by Anthony Boucher from 1945, which is an exercise in appearances-are-deceiving literature. I did not see that one coming.

“Miriam” by Truman Capote (also from 1945), which is a damn fine ghost story, but one where I also reveled in Capote’s lush way with the language. A couple of examples:
Now Second Avenue is a dismal street, made from scraps and ends; part cobblestone, part asphalt, part cement; and its atmosphere of desertion is permanent.
And, three paragraphs later…
Within the last hour the weather had turned cold again; like blurred lenses, winter clouds cast a shade over the sun, and the skeleton of an early dusk colored the sky; a damp mist mixed with the wind and the voices of a few children who romped high on mountains of gutter snow seemed lonely and cheerless.
Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Daemon Lover” from 1949, which spirals the reader into that state of uncertainty—is this real or a dream?—from the very first sentence: “She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she had last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream.” I love how Jackson makes that adverb “lingeringly” really pop out of the sentence.

Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (which gets my vote for Best Damn Title EVER) from 1967, a futuristic computers-run-amok story which can basically be summed up as “What if Steve Jobs had a nightmare and you were in it?”

“Prey” by Richard Matheson from 1969 which convinces me to never ever ever buy a doll which looks like this: “Seven inches long and carved from wood, it had a skeletal body and an oversized head. Its expression was maniacally fierce, its pointed teeth completely bared, its glaring eyes protuberant. It clutched an eight-inch spear in its right hand.” Beware of gifts which come accessorized with razor-sharp spears.

“The Events at Poroth Farm” by T. E. D. Klein from 1972, which at nearly 50 pages is one of the longest in the collection, but certainly one of the most chilling so far. It’s the story of Jeremy, a college lecturer in his late 20s, who rents a room in a house outside of Gilead, New Jersey with the idea that he can do some uninterrupted rural reading for his next semester’s course, a survey of Gothic horror literature. The couple who rents him his reading space, Sarr and Deborah Poroth, are part of a small religious sect and even though they seem a little off, they’re polite enough. They live the simple life—just them and their seven cats. All seems bucolic and pastoral…at first. But then something invades Eden and things tilt toward the truly frightening. Let’s just say that the large insects aggressively attacking Jeremy’s window screen are the mildest of these horrors. Let me also add that “The Events at Poroth Farm” contains what may be the single-most scary sentence in all of these 713 pages: “Sometimes we forget to blink.”

“Family” by Joyce Carol Oates, first published in 1989, which is a completely fucked-up, squirm-inducing, alert-the-gag-reflex beauty of a story about the horrors of environmental poisoning. It’s also a wicked satire about our ever-changing family values which may be headed down a dangerous road. There are some horrible images in “Family” (for example: a baby with “its tiny recessed eyes, its mere holes for nostrils, above all its small pursed mouth set like a manta ray’s in its shallow face”), but I do love the way the story opens:
The days were brief and attenuated and the season appeared to be fixed—neither summer nor winter, spring nor fall. A thermal haze of inexpressible sweetness, though bearing tiny bits of grit or mica, had eased into the Valley from the industrial region to the north and there were nights when the sun set at the western horizon as if it were sinking through a porous red mass, and there were days when a hard-glaring moon like bone remained fixed in a single position, prominent in the sky.

And Straub’s own “A Short Guide to the City” from 1990, which reads like a Chamber of Commerce brochure that took a wrong turn on Scary Street. Straub sends a narrative camera roving across this unnamed Midwestern city (“northern, with violent changes of season”) where “the viaduct killer” is still at large.

Still ahead for me in the anthology: stories by George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Joe Hill, Steven Millhauser, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link and Benjamin Percy all lie in wait in the shadows, ready with a clawed hand to grab and yank me into the pages.

*     *     *

Imagine, if you will, an ordinary book, written by an ordinary man. The book is a door and you unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

Everyone knows the name Rod Serling, creator and host of The Twilight Zone; everyone can recite the TV series’ opening narration (which I burgled for the preceding paragraph); everyone knows the twists, the ironic reveals, the rips in the fabric, the wrinkles of the mind.

But not everyone knows that many of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes came from the three-dimensional imagination of a writer named Charles Beaumont.

The astute Twilight Zone fan will recognize Beaumont’s whirly-gig mind at work in several episodes he wrote: Perchance to Dream, The Howling Man, In His Image, and Number 12 Looks Just Like You among them.

A prolific writer who flourished in the 1950s (and who died far too young at age 38), Beaumont was part of a sort of Weird Tales Algonquin Round Table whose other members included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. As Bradbury writes in his introduction to the new Penguin Classics collection of Beaumont’s short fiction, Perchance to Dream: “He was, and remains in his work today, a writer of ideas, notions, fancies. You can tell his ideas to your friends in a few crisp lines.”

Plot capsules like: minutes before stepping into the ring, a bullfighter learns he’s been set up for failure; in a world of cookie-cutter beauty, a young girl refuses to get the operation that will "improve" her looks; a happily-married man has an affair…with a car; a vampire complains to his psychiatrist about hard it is to get bloodstains out of his shirts (“It isn’t like eating a bowl of tomato soup, you know”); and, a man invents a time machine in order to go back and kill his father…but won’t that mean his own suicide? Think about that one for a minute.

Though they’re far from perfect, Beaumont’s stories do make readers think. As Bradbury notes: “Every single one of these stories is the fox in the hen yard, stirring up a cackle and flurry of ideas among those students fortunate enough to read and react to them.” These tales wear the veneer of pulp, but they can be deep, too: “If a person died and remained dead for an hour and were then revived, would he be haunted by his own ghost?” a character wonders in “Last Rites.”

Charles Beaumont
Beaumont doesn’t employ a lot of pyrotechnics at the sentence level—in fact, most of the prose here is fairly pedestrian, though there’s no denying the sharp blade of the opening line of the story “Last Rites” which goes: “Somewhere in the church a baby was shrieking;” or “Sorcerer’s Moon” which comes at us like this:
When he heard the screams, Carnaday stopped walking. A fist closed about his heart. He stood perfectly still, waiting, knowing that the end had come and that he had lost.
But mostly, as Bradbury points out, Charles Beaumont was an Idea Man, a mechanic who opened up the back panel of a story and tinkered with the cogs until the machine hummed along, free of clunks and sputters.

His finest moment in Perchance to Dream might just be the frisson-inducing “Fritzchen” in which Mr. Peldo, a sort of exotic-animal agent for pet shops, comes across a creature his son Luther has found along a muddy riverbank. Beaumont never gives us a full-on look at this animal, dubbed “Fritzchen” by the boy, but the lightning-quick, sidelong glances are terrifying enough. To wit:
Mr. Peldo watched the small creature, fascinated, as all its legs commenced to move together, dwarfed, undeveloped legs, burrowing into the viscous ground.
Luther put his face up to the cage, and as he did so the small animal came forward, ponderously, with suctionlike noises from its many legs.
Fritzchen must be sleeping. Curled like a baby anaconda, legs slender filaments adhering to the cage floor, the tender tiny tail tucked around so that the tip rested just inside the immense mouth.
When Mr. Peldo asks a pet shop owner what kind of an animal he thinks it might be, that man replies, “Cross between a whale and a horsefly, near’s I can see.”

Most ominously, when Mr. Peldo first brings Fritzchen into the pet store, here’s what happens:
The silence roared. The silent pet shop roared and burst and pulsed with tension, quiet electric tension. The animals didn't move anywhere in the room. Mr. Peldo's eyes darted from cage to cage, seeing the second strangest thing he had ever seen: unmoving snakes, coiled or supine, but still, as though listening; monkeys hidden in far corners, haunched; rabbits—even their noses quiet and frozen—; white mice huddled at the bottom of mills that turned in cautious, diminishing arcs, frightened, staring creatures.
And the ending? Oh, man. Let’s just say that it’s even more chilling than the suctioning suck of a many-legged creature making its way up your leg.

*     *     *

And then we come to the house.

There’s no fussy dilly-dally in the way The Haunting of Hill House opens. Shirley Jackson lays it all out for us in the renowned first paragraph of the 1959 novel:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
(This paragraph is so intense and perfect, Jackson broke writerly custom and used it, verbatim, as the novel’s closing as well.)

No, this house is not sane. It’s downright cray-cray and, like some supernatural virus, it infects all who walk through its front door. For the purposes of this particular chapter in the house’s history, that means Dr. Montague, an occult scholar who rents Hill House for three months, hoping to “see what happened there;” the enthusiastic Theodora who accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation out of curiosity; Luke Sanderson, a liar and a thief, who also happens to be an heir to the family that built the house; and Eleanor Vance, thirty-two years old, friendless, shy, unhappy and the character with whom we most readily associate.

As Laura Miller writes in her Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel:
She is a complicated and distinctive individual, peculiar even, although not so peculiar that she fails to engage the reader’s sympathy. We experience the novel from within Eleanor’s consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her. When the house infiltrates her psyche, the reader, so thoroughly bound up in her, is also invaded. When the ground pitches and ripples beneath her feet, we are unsteadied, too.
(In the 1963 movie version directed by Robert Wise, Eleanor was played to perfection by Julie Harris.)

Julie Harris in The Haunting
Our first inkling that Eleanor is special comes when Jackson introduces her to us on page 4. Dr. Montague has selected Eleanor to join the haunted-house party “because one day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings, rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof.” The stone rain stops after three days, never to return...but it is a weird part of Eleanor’s life we won’t easily forget.

The stage has been set: Jackson wants us to know that Eleanor Vance, shy and mousy as she might appear, is a conductor of unnatural phenomena. When she arrives at Hill House, it feels like the mansion has been waiting for her with bated breath. Eleanor, on the other hand, has this first impression of the place: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.” But of course she doesn’t.

Hey, lady, you should have listened to your Inner Eleanor. Bad things are about to happen.

Shirley Jackson
Before we reach the estate, Jackson lays the groundwork with some short chapters which show the various characters in their pre-House lives—in particular, Eleanor as she leaves a domestic scene where she’s been living under the thumb of her sister and brother-in-law for far too long. Once she shakes off the burden of her family, Eleanor also seems to be dislodged—at least momentarily—from repression. I love the way Jackson describes Eleanor’s journey, throwing up all sorts of premonition and DANGER! BEWARE! signposts along the way. Here’s just one instance of how Jackson subtly uses language to its full effect. Dr. Montague has warned her not to stop in the neighboring village of Hillsdale (“The people there are rude to strangers and openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House”), but Eleanor uncharacteristically decides to defy him just this once and stop for a cup of coffee before continuing on to her destination:
Hillsdale was upon her before she knew it, a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets. It was small; once she had come onto the main street she could see the corner at the end with the gas station and the church. There seemed to be only one place to stop for coffee, and that was an unattractive diner, but Eleanor was bound to stop in Hillsdale and so she brought her car to the broken curb in front of the diner and got out. After a minute’s thought, with a silent nod to Hillsdale, she locked the car, mindful of her suitcase on the floor and the carton on the back seat. I will not spend long in Hillsdale, she thought, looking up and down the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly. A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who was afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. Inside, she found a counter with a chinless, tired girl behind it, and a man sitting at the end eating. She wondered briefly how hungry he must have been to come in here at all, when she looked at the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts. “Coffee,” she said to the girl behind the counter, and the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup from the piles on the shelves…
Just look at all the ominous signifiers populating this paragraph: “a tangled, disorderly mess of dirty houses and crooked streets,” “an unattractive diner,” “the broken curb,” “the street, which managed, even in the sunlight, to be dark and ugly,” the dog who sleeps “uneasily,” “the gray counter and the smeared glass bowl over a plate of doughnuts,” and how “the girl turned wearily and tumbled down a cup.” This is the equivalent of a dark note pulsing from an organ on the soundtrack.

Many readers call The Haunting of Hill House the scariest book they ever read. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to claim that for myself (my first reading of Salem’s Lot was a pretty sharp icicle-stab to the heart), but there are at least two moments in these pages which put the pucker in my goosebumps.

One is the relentless, loud knocking which wakes Eleanor and Theodora in the middle of the night:
     It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute, and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick flurry, seeming to be going methodically from door to door at the end of the hall. Distantly she thought she could hear the voices of Luke and the doctor, calling from somewhere below, and she thought, Then they are not up here with us at all, and heard the iron crashing against what must have been a door very close.
     “Maybe it will go on down the other side of the hall,” Theodora whispered, and Eleanor thought that the oddest part of this indescribable experience was that Theodora should be having it too. “No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”
     There was complete silence, and Eleanor thought, standing with her face against the door, Now I’ve done it; it was looking for the room with someone inside. The cold crept and pinched at them, filling and overflowing the room.
Reading this chapter, I could practically feel the sonic WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Jackson describes.

This place gives even that nice little family home in Amityville a run for its money. Also bear in mind, at the font level, Hill House has only three short horizontal lines separating it from Hell House.

The other unforgettable scene, which I’ll not spoil for those who have yet to read the book, also concerns an awakening in the middle of the night and Eleanor’s chilling gasp of “Whose hand was I holding?” If you’ve read the novel, you know the part I’m talking about.

In her Introduction, Laura Miller writes: “Most ghost stories offer a cozy armchair chill or two, but The Haunting of Hill House exudes a lingering, clammy dread.”

Truth. It’s been about three weeks since I turned the last page with shaking fingers and Hill House still floats like a cold fog around my feet. This is just about all the Halloween I can handle for one year.

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