Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mag Watch: Tin House, Vol. 12, No. 3 ("The Mysterious Issue")

"Scare me."

"So you think it's that easy, do you?  Scare me, right, I'm going to put on a pig mask and jump out of the bushes when you walk down the street at night.  Of course, that might be pretty scary, but not, I think, for any of the obvious reasons."

That's the start of the conversation between Benjamin Percy (The Wilding) and Peter Straub (A Dark Matter) in Tin House's "Mysterious Issue."  Though it came out this past Spring, I thought I'd pull it off the shelf, take a second look at its scarifying contents (through cracks in the fingers clapped over my eyes) and give you a report in time for Halloween.  Read on.  If you dare.

Benjamin Percy's interview with Peter Straub ("You Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Himself") is the candelabra centerpiece of this issue of Tin House--a spooky chat between two novelists who know a thing or two about making the words on the page hard to read for all the trembling of our hands. It's a wide-ranging conversation touching on the craft of writing ("a novel [can] be both horror and art"), the underestimation of Stephen King, and frank revelations about Straub's sexual abuse as a child.  Through it all, horror drips across the Q & A like a crimson rain.  I like to think they conducted the interview in the dark with lit flashlights held beneath their chins.  After Percy's "Scare me" challenge, Straub goes on to tell a pair of creepy vignettes too long to repeat here, but trust me when I say they'll set your mind at unease.

Straub finishes his answer by saying, "What would be frightening about me jumping out of the bush wearing a pig mask is not the sudden surprise, not me, and not the pig mask, but that the ordinary world had split open for a moment to reveal some possibility never previously considered."  Later, he adds, "When I speak of a crack in the world, I mean a fissure from which unease can leak, because all of a sudden, things are operating the way they're supposed to operate, and when you see that in your own world, you can't count on anything anymore, nothing works."

A split seam?  Oh, you mean like the one in Luis Alberto Urrea's short story "Chametla"?  The story opens with these sentences:
      The last shot fired in the Battle of Chametla hit Private Arnulfo Guerrero in the back of the head. It took out the lower-right quadrant, knocking free a hunk of bone roughly the size and shape of a broken teacup. This shot was fired by a federal trooper, who then shouldered his weapon and walked to a cantina on the outskirts of town, where he ate a fine pork stew with seven corn tortillas and a cup of pulque.
The crack in the world?  Hold on, I'm getting to that.

Private Guerrero doesn't die right away after getting shot in the head.  He falls into a sort of sustained epileptic fit, "the ugly black cavern" in his head leaking "slow and watery blood."  He's pulled off the battlefield by his best friend, Corporal Angel Garcia, who attends to him--with the help of their dog Casan--all through the night.  Then things take a turn for the horrific, magic-realism-style:
      [Garcia] must have drifted off to sleep, for it was Casan’s whimpering that awoke him. The big dog had worked himself free from the rope, and he stood over the prone body of Guerrero and whined.
      “What is it, boy?” Garcia whispered.
      Casan tilted his head and stared down at Guerrero. The dog yelped. Then he backed away.
      Garcia crawled over to Guerrero and said, “Arnulfo? Are you awake?”
      The wounded man didn’t stir.
      “What the hell is wrong with you?” Garcia chided the dog. “Nothing here.”
      Then he heard it, too. The faint whistling. He inclined his head. There was a plaintive hooting coming from under Guerrero’s bandage. Were poor Guerrero’s sinuses blowing air out of his skull? Christ. What next? Garcia pulled open the wrapping and was startled to see a small puff of smoke rising from out of his friend’s head. He crossed himself.
      “Ah, cabrón!” he said.
      The whistle again, then another puff of smoke. Casan barked. Garcia sat beside the dog and stared. Then, was it? It couldn’t be! But—a light—a small light was coming out of the ragged hole in Guerrero’s head.
      Garcia bent down, but then had to leap back because a small locomotive rushed out of Guerrero’s wound. It fell out of the wound, pulling a coal car and several small cattle cars as if it were falling off a minuscule bridge in some rail disaster. The soft train fell upon the ground and glistened, puffing like a fish. Casan pounced on it and took it in his mouth, shaking it once and gulping it down.

When a scene like that jumps out of the bushes at me, I tumble back from the page, tripping over my shoes, then scramble back along the sidewalk, trying to get away from a nightmarish vision spawned from an imagination as fertile Urrea's.

Fiction like "Chametla" is one thing, but what about when the unthinkable is unavoidably real?  That's the case with "Johannesburg Underground," Richard Poplak's startling account of "The Suitcase Murder" which plagued South Africa at the height of apartheid in the 1960s.  Never heard of it?  Trust me, after reading Poplak's reportage, you'll never forget it.  Here's just one of the paragraphs you'll read with a dry mouth and thumping heart:
      Bekker notices a suitcase washed up on the shale. He opens it and finds a hock of waterlogged meat wrapped in plastic, butcher paper, and a filthy sheet. The flesh is pocked with knife marks. He removes the sheet. A woman's breast, areola dark against a pallid mound, falls from the suitcase. An arm follows. Organs spill out like a chicken's giblets.

My apologies if I've ruined your lunch.  Not all of the mysterious goings-on in this issue of Tin House are as graphic and gruesome.  Many of the essays, stories, poems and reviews are the sort of reading that creeps up slowly on slippered feet in the fog, lightly touching the back of your neck with cold fingertips.  In her poem "Fear," Robin Beth Schaer writes: "Nothing is there, but you will never believe that."

John Crowley doesn't believe in ghosts, and his explanation for this ecto-atheism in "New Ghosts and How to Know Them" is a practical one:
      I was very young when I proved to my own satisfaction that the ghosts described in stories or appearing in movies didn't really exist. It was their clothes. I could entertain the idea that our spirits might live on after the death of the body, and appear as spectral selves before the living, but how do they come to be wearing clothes? It's usually by their clothes that we know them: the faded wedding dress, the bloody shirt, "my father in his habit as he lived." So how do they come to be dressed in clothes--often not even the clothes they were interred in? Are the clothes ghosts, too? What about the armor and swords and crowns and other things they bear? No, it was clear to me that such apparitions are not spirits of the departed but the guilty imaginings or irrational fears of the living made visible.
Lately, Crowley says he's been seeing a trend in "new ghosts" appearing in fiction (like that written by Kelly Link, Hilary Mantel and George Saunders): "They come from new afterworlds or underworlds; they have different ways to haunt the living, and the living have new ways of dealing with them.  They're usually wearing clothes."

One of this issues finest revelations for me was the ghost story by Maurice Pons--firmly in the "old ghost" tradition of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.  Looking at the contributors' notes, I was surprised to find "The Baker's Son" was the first of Pons' stories to be translated into English.  As Edward Gauvin tells us in his introduction to the story, Pons is something of a cult figure in France where he has been writing steadily since the 1950s: "Uniformly in the first person, the stories often turn on some macabre or mysterious coincidence, sometimes not disclosed until the final line or paragraph, when both reader and narrator are faced with the blunt fact of it, impossible to dismiss."

Such is the case with "The Baker's Son" in which the titular character's father disappears from their small French village one snowy, fogbound January 4, never to return home.  Over the years, the baker reappears to his son in various places in different guises (a traveler, a referee at a soccer game, a waiter, etc.)....and always on January 4.  The story builds swiftly and tightly to its final, inevitable conclusion.  In the end, I was left wanting to brush up on my French so I could read the rest of Pons' work in the original language.

Other highlights of "The Mysterious Issue" include a story by Andrea Barrett ("The Ether of Space") in which science clashes with superstition, and a story about troubled new parents by Kenneth Calhoun called "Then" which consists of a series of short sections all beginning with the word "Then" (sample: "Then he was so tired that he vomited. There were things in it that he didn't remember eating.").  You'll also be treated to a brief history of UFOs by Chester Knapp ("True Enough"), an appreciation of film noir by Eddie Muller, and a look at twentieth-century domestic thrillers by Sarah Weinman ("The Dark Side of Dinner Dishes, Laundry, and Child Care") which revives the novels of Marie Belloc Lowndes (The Lodger), Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (The Death Wish) and Celia Fremlin (The Hours Before Dawn)--three writers who "peered into the never-discussed abyss of family and home life and lifted rocks that revealed a pit of crawling worms."

Another fine selection from Tin House's "Lost and Found" section comes from Hugh Ryan who begins his essay with this:
      I’m a sucker for a good monster-origin story. What’s Cujo without the rabies, Godzilla without the bomb?
      So how about this: Imagine a man born at the end of the nineteenth century, the all-American son of a traveling preacher. He drives a French ambulance in World War I, gets gassed, and receives the Croix de Guerre. He becomes a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, but something is wrong. He can’t sit still. He travels–Arabia, West Africa, England, Timbuktu. He becomes obsessed with the supernatural and befriends Satanist Aleister Crowley. He moves to France and cavorts with ex-pats. Gertrude Stein writes about him. His sex life is the stuff of morbid pulp novels: bondage, sadism, wife swapping. He samples human flesh, which he categorizes as “like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef.” His drinking spirals out of control, and for eight months he has himself institutionalized. When that doesn’t work, he plunges his arms into a vat of boiling water, hoping that by immobilizing them, he will stop himself from drinking. Eventually, at sixty-one, after writing nearly a dozen books, he kills himself, destroying the monsters in his mind.
      All but one.
      That man was William Buehler Seabrook, and though he’s forgotten now, his book The Magic Island midwifed into existence a monster that lives on in undead fecundity, reaching out from beyond the grave to top the New York Times bestseller list, meddle with Jane Austen, and routinely scare the crap out of me: the zombie.
What, he couldn't simply attend a local AA meeting instead of boiling his arms to keep from drinking?  Still, Seabrook's work intrigues.  Methinks it would pair nicely with a marathon session of The Walking Dead or even a George Romero-fest one night in my basement home theater.  Shades drawn and doors bolted shut, of course.

Click here to purchase Tin House's "Mysterious Issue" (or, better yet, click here to subscribe)

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