Thursday, February 25, 2010

"The Thing on the Doorstep"

Lovecraft not leaning heavily on his setting chops. This is a nice twist and it does give the reader a decent plot driven story. Sure the characterization is thin, the dialogue almost nonexistent, but “The Thing on the Doorstep” for once isn’t an over indulgence in eerie backdrop and moody set descriptions.

Edward Pickman Derby (any relation to the Pickman who was taking photos of monsters from beneath the North End?) is unique for Lovecraft in that the reader gets to witness pretty close to first hand what happens to him. Normally Lovecraft’s narrator (Dan in this case) would be retelling the harrowing tale of his good friend, the loyal but odd and in some ways genius (Edward Pickman Derby in this case) to another acquaintance and much of the tension would be lost due to the reader’s knowledge that all the supernatural events are past tense and pose no present threat (usually).

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more real-time and the story is better for it. Edward and Dan’s relationship is questionable. Lovecraft’s choice to describe Edward as childlike and soft all the while maintaining a close relationship with an older man had gay overtones to it. “His voice was soft and light, and his pampered, unexercised life gave him a juvenile chubbiness rather than the paunchiness of premature middle age.”

Add to this some of Lovecraft’s less than flattering comments towards women. “Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” Later in explaining why Asenath Waite sought out Edward: “She wanted to be a man – to be fully human – that was why she got hold of him.”

As the story goes the anti-female and possibly gay overtones are mitigated by the fact that Asenath may in fact actually be her father just inhabiting her body, and since he started life as a man he would probably be more comfortable back in the trappings of a male brain and body, even a weak and childlike one such as Edward offered. However, if Edward was so weak and easily controlled, how did he get the chance to kill Asenath as he claims in his note at the end of the story?

Up to that point Edward has been everyone’s patsy. He is utterly over-parented throughout his existence, his friend Dan is more a second home and confidant than an equal. Dan the narrator never speaks of the two of them going out, most of their time together is in Dan’s home which may indicate Edward is being guided/influenced by Dan. Finally Asenath marries him, takes him to the home she wants to live in, drives off his family servants, brings in her own (one who smells like fish, eww), and periodically steals Edward’s body to go driving up and down the back roads only to leave Edward wherever he wakes up.

Edward, poor sweet Edward, should not have been able to take Asenath out. “I lied when I said she had gone away. I killed her. I had to. It was sudden, but we were alone and I was in my right body. I saw a candlestick and smashed her head in.”

No, Lovecraft’s opinion of women wasn’t a very high one. Asenath herself is only half-female. The other half is some other-worldly thing from the deep bowels of the earth, down six thousand steps or some such. She isn’t even allowed to be a character. She is but a vessel for her crazed wizard father. If that is truly the case, then Edward’s striking the body of Asenath down is that much more impressive.

I like this story. It does suffer from one pretty big plot flaw though. The reader guesses what is happening, that Edward is being possessed, and the reader is given clues that the old man, Ephraim Waite, is actually possessing Edward. All of this plays well, is creepy and wonderful.

My favorite fright in this story is vintage Lovecraft. Lovecraft provided a unique language and vocabulary to his just off the beaten path world of dark things and shady places. When Dan goes to Chesuncook to retrieve Edward and Edward is found raving, the delirious rant is just excellent:

““Dan – for God’s sake! The pith of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps … the abomination of abominations … I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there … Ia! Shub-Niggurath! … The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…. The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven … I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me….””

Nobody before or since has provided such colorful language and flavor to stories such as this. Lovecraft had a very real sense of another world just below the surface of this one, or just a thin dimension over. Even more than his flair for settings in his writing, I believe it was this dark-vocabulary that gave Lovecraft a place in the canon.

So, what was the plot problem? Once Dan puts six bullets through the body/head of Edward the possession of that body should have ended. Up to this point in the story the reader has seen how difficult this process is. Edward, even weak willed Edward, has been able to fight it. The possession process has taken more than three years, and even then Asenath can only hold Edward for short bursts.

Yes, they performed a Hallowmass ceremony which was to make the process permanent. However, Edward’s note at the end made all the effort to take his body seem false. “A soul like hers – or Ephraim’s – is half detached, and keeps right on after death as long as the body lasts.” And if this quote is accurate, and Ephraim is in possession of Asenath, and has been all along, and Asenath’s soul was “half detached and keep right on after death” then where did her soul go when the old man took her? Another anti-female point against Mr. Lovecraft.

This kind of reasoning leads to the reader thinking there is nothing mere mortals like Dan or Edward (or me the reader) could do in this situation. Once they target your body for possession you are just screwed. Pack it in. You can hit them with candlestick holders. You can empty revolvers into them. They take a licking, but they just keep on ticking.

It takes a great deal of urgency out of the story, and it negates the actions of the characters we are pulling for. Plus, prior to this twist statement there is no clue of it.

Overall, this is a solid short story of “the weird” as Lovecraft said. It draws the reader in from the first sentence: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”

In it’s time this story had to really strike a cord. Today body possession, voodoo, zombies, witchcraft, all of these are well accepted character traits one can utilize to scare the reader. Lovecraft, once again, was ahead of his time and for that we who write horror owe him a tip of our hat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

So, Women Can Only Be Sexually Aggressive if Possessed?

What a shame. Here I sit without a massive house filled with a malevolent spirit to drive them to wanton lust.

“Hell House” by Richard Matheson is good in most respects. It is a haunted house story so there are some prerequisites that must be met. First, of course, the house itself. Belasco house fits the bill perfectly. Built by a wealthy recluse who spent his fortune and adulthood descending into studying debauchery and all forms of carnal sin. Second, we have to have the reason to be there. Enter the second wealthy person who now owns the property and wants it studied. Mr. Deutsch fills this role, though to be honest the motivation for the foray into “Hell House” is a bit muddy. Does Deutsch want to verify it is haunted or does he want the place cleansed of the evil spirit(s)? Third we have to have the haunting force (or hoax depending on the story). “Hell House” certainly does have a haunting force. Finally, we have to have our Scooby-gang who will reside within the house for some length of time. “Hell House” provides a plucky quartet who thinks they are up to the challenge.

The setting is wonderful. Matheson gives the reader the secluded manor devoid of life, light, or love. As is usually the case, the place is beyond large. It dwarfs the temporary inhabitants with a grand hall, a pornographic chapel, umpteen bedrooms, an industrial sized kitchen and theater. The scale spooks the reader as there is no way the place can be cozy or homey. Often Matheson describes the place as “museum like.” Museums can be pleasant (this one isn’t), but they certainly aren’t places you want to live.

The motivation to be in the house tends to be secondary in haunted house stories. In this case the cast of characters, except Edith, were all eager to get a shot at Hell House. Fischer finally admits he’s been dead for thirty years since the house beat him before. He seems reluctant, but he too realizes how important it is for him to face the place, or die trying. So, Deutsch’s role is minimal (and even less so as the reader discovers when they try to contact him).

The haunting force is one of the big twists in this book. Florence thinks she knows what it is. Barrett thinks he knows what it is. Edith doesn’t know and doesn’t care, she’s just there as baggage for Barrett, afraid to be alone. Fischer doesn’t know what the haunting force is and he doesn’t really want to know. Again, as with his motivation to return, he eventually comes around. Suffice it to say, the cast holds up their end of the tale.

So, the core elements of the tale are there, and are solid. Why am I not raving? What is it about this story that held it back from being over-the-top classic in my mind?

Sorry, it was the sex. Not just the sex, but the overt hot and cold flavors Matheson gave to Edith and Florence specifically. The classic “virginal” female character mold was once again reinforced with this story. It is laughable, unfair, and makes for painful reading. Edith and Florence aren't allowed to have healthy normal interest in or expressions of sexual desire. They fit the no-sex equals good girl, sex of any kind must be caused by the devil mold. Had Matheson engaged Barrett and Fischer with similar lust issues due to the haunting(s) it would not have bothered me.

Barrett would have been a perfect candidate too. Unable to perform sexually due to having polio as a child, Barrett is effectively incapable of sexual arousal or performance. Had Matheson teased and tormented him by providing an erection and coming at Florence or even forcefully coming onto Edith, the sexual aspects of the haunting events would have hit harder. Edith’s rape (or near rape) at the hands of her father would have hit her extra hard if Barrett, roughly her father’s age, had attacked her.

Instead the sexual elements of this story with Florence’s visions of “Daniel” and Edith coupling with her, of Edith coming onto Fischer multiple times, of breasts being revealed and mutilated, and nude strolls happening semi-regularly (but only to the women) seemed border-line exploitative. I write those words with pain. I don’t like to use the word exploitative as it implies a sense of crossing a line which implies the need for censorship. I violently oppose censorship. This story just seemed slanted in a very anti-female way.

The counter argument to this, of course, is that Belasco was lusting after the ladies. If Fischer’s brief history of the house from page 54 to page 61 would have only included wanton sexual depravity I would have gone along with the line of attack directed at Florence and Edith. But Fischer shares that along with the orgies and sexual depravity Belasco killed animals out of curiosity, drug addiction, loss of control, mutilation, murder, necrophilia, cannibalism, eating virgins by starving leopards, unnecessary surgery, swapping animal organs for human, and eventually death from disease, suicide or murder.

Some of these things appear to the foursome who battle Hell House, but the focus seems singularly on the breaking of the women sexually. It doesn’t ruin the story, but I was hoping for all the characters to face more private hells. Florence gives in entirely too easily to the whining of “Daniel” Belasco. She is the strongest of the characters in many ways, and for whining and pleading to be all that convinces her to let a spirit lie with her just seemed too convenient. Having pity sex with a ghost seemed out of character in the extreme.

Edith’s depravity is more believable. She is incredibly repressed due to childhood trauma and simple medical fact in the form of an impotent husband. Her slow walk down Belasco’s path is better written and hits the reader harder.

The attacks should have better reflected the history lesson Fischer gives and also the exhaustive alphabetized list of phenomenon catalogued on pages 45 and 46. Not everything needed to be in this story, mind you, but more of it could have been there.

Overall “Hell House” does a great job of drawing the reader in and the revelations as the story crescendos are worth the read. It was a nice twist that Matheson allows for multiple explanations and philosophies to exist in this universe. Again, don’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t read it. Is there a little too much separating of the characters so bad things can befall them? Yes, there is. There’s also a big focus paid to characters getting out of bed and slipping on shoes. If there was a literary device or some kind of symbolism going on there I missed it. All I could think of is “these people get in and out of bed a lot” and maybe there is some dim parallel to the roaring orgy days of Belasco’s heyday in Hell House there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do All Musicians Play to Keep the Void Away?

I specifically denied myself the pleasure of listening to the audio file of “The Music of Erich Zann” posted on our main page for class this week. I didn’t want to be tainted by hearing the interpretation of the “weirdness of his music” by someone else.

As usual this story is Lovecraft working his mojo on the reader by taking a perfectly normal setting and twisting it to the point where we recognize it but are now uneasy to have it described into our brains via the written word.

This may be one of the best settings and mood pieces Lovecraft ever wrote. It is a horror tale to be sure (after losing vampires and werewolves to other genres I cling fiercely to all our darlings now), but until the “big reveal” of Zann somehow trying to fiddle away eternity this story had elements of fantasy, fairy tale, and even romance.

This is not a knock, this is a huge strength. The fourth paragraph is really what did it for me:

“I have never seen another street as narrow and steep as the Rue d’ Auseil. It was almost a cliff, closed to all vehicles, consisting in several places of flights of steps, and ending at the top in a lofty ivied wall. Its paving was irregular, sometimes stone slabs, sometimes cobblestones, and sometimes bare earth with struggling greenish-grey vegetation. The houses were tall, peaked-roofed, incredibly old, and crazily leaning backward, forward, and sidewise. Occasionally an opposite pair, both leaning forward, almost met across the street like an arch; and certainly they kept most of the light from the ground below. There were a few overhead bridges from house to house across the street.”

That paragraph immediately brought a few vivid images to mind for me. First, Dr. Seuss and his illustrations of buildings that just shouldn’t be. The odd angles, the non-square corners, and everything just kind of blending together really popped. The second was Tim Burton and his production crew. I thought: what would Burton do with this paragraph? That was the fantasy/fairy tale take.

But Lovecraft being Lovecraft makes sure to sprinkle in the dark. Details such as “almost a cliff” (usually dangerous things those) and “struggling greenish-grey vegetation” (not attractive, kind of ominous) and “certainly they kept most of the light from the ground below” (so then it’s dark in and around these crazy houses) keep the reader off balance and worried. Interested yes, but worried to be sure. Plus, even with Dr. Seuss bouncing into my thoughts the quasi-rational part of me wondered how safe it could be to be in one of these houses? Are they falling apart? Were they designed like this? Did an earthquake or mudslide leave them like this and people have to live there anyway?

The final ratchet up that made it even better was that the narrator could never find the place again. Was it imagined? Is this narrator nuts and his memory is wrong? That just adds to the mystery and mystique of the setting.

In short, this was for me a very good hook. To be fair I know I’m not going to get a lot of satisfying characters or character development from Lovecraft so when he immerses me in his signature ability (setting) so well I truly enjoy his stories.

The other part of this story that absolutely sweeps the reader along is the reference to the music Erich Zann plays. Lovecraft makes his story timeless by never describing the music in specific terms. The narrator is “haunted by the weirdness.” He “often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread.” Never does Lovecraft say Zann’s playing sounds like a dying swan or a locomotive hissing or anything definable. He leaves the specific sounds up to the reader’s ear. Some will hear shrill orchestral violin solos. Others will hear synthesized keyboard-like tones that might be heard in a planetarium from hell.

The key is that each reader hears something different, and that is why I didn’t listen to the audio file on the class home page. I have my own idea of what Zann’s playing sounded like. After I finish this posting I will listen and see if they got it right or wrong.

The further beauty of using musical notes to ratchet up tension and fear is that it is a non-visual sensory experience for the reader. So much of what we read is described to satisfy the eyes. Zann’s music doesn’t satisfy at all, and it hits the reader in the ears, not the eyes. It might even go deeper for actual musicians who have studied notes and played scales. For those readers this story might evoke the memories of sore fingers, frazzled minds and endless hours trying to get a song just right. Lucky for those readers they weren’t playing to keep existence at bay.

The final reveal that steals Zann from this world and that the narrator flees from never to find that wonderfully strange street is less terrifying and more a question. Who was Zann? Why did this expanse want him? Was the narrator in the right place at the right time or is there something special that saved him from the void? This is one of the stories of Lovecraft that could easily be fleshed out into a larger more expansive work, and imagine how the music would sound for that?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Phantom or Master of Puppets?

“The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux has many different layers to discuss. The Paris opera house itself comes to mind. Masks, both literal and figurative seem a prominent theme. The ever goofy French sensibility could be discussed as they are shown in the opera managers and the not-so-elite police force who are more amused by the happenings in the opera house than anything else, even with behind-the-scenes people hanging themselves and chandeliers crushing patrons.

But The Opera Ghost himself is what drew me into this story. Erik. The trap-door-lover. Leroux casts “poor Erik” as the villain in this tale, but after it is read you realize that Erik is the only character to have changed, the only character to have learned and grown. He is the only character to move through the story and be made better by it. So, is he the villain … or the hero?

The documentary style in which Leroux presents his story is well done, but it does fall apart stylistically. The reader starts with a prologue that is signed “Gaston Leroux.” This breaking down of the “fourth wall” (if I can use a theater term here) to insert the writer into his own fiction is excellent. I had to close the book and compare the names and when I saw they were the same I thought “neat, well done.”

But the documentary style falters in the middle. For example, in Chapter X “Forget the Name of the Man’s Voice,” is simply a chapter of prose fiction. There are no author’s notes to explain this was captured or reenacted or taken from letters about this event. Leroux has created fiction in the middle of his fiction, but he’s presented that fiction as documentary style fact. Confused? Don’t be, it is a minor flaw in the story, and one that would be almost impossible not to make. But after the opening I was looking forward to an old fashioned story told in interviews, letters, opera play bills, etc. The final action during which The Persian and Raoul follow Erik into the bowels of the opera house returns to the documentary style with the entire account being “The Persian’s Narrative.”

Overall the story has a nice forward momentum. The asides with Erik tormenting the opera managers and embarrassing Carlotta were solid subplots, and The Persian standing in for the reader to share the background on Erik so we know more about who we are dealing with and who is holding Christine Dae prisoner is solid technique.

However, the emotions of the love triangle are, to put it mildly, overwrought and annoying. Raoul and his petulant boy-man ravings are nearly laughable at times, and he really never does anything in this story. Christine returns to her father’s grave, Raoul follows … and accomplishes nothing. He goes to Christine’s dressing room, and accomplishes nothing. Without The Persian Raoul never would have been able to pursue Erik down into the ground under the opera house, and once he gets there he’s more of a burden than a help.

Christine isn’t much better. Her emotional response to everything frustrates the reader. The one thing Raoul has right, running off before the big performance (the one in which Erik steals Christine off the stage mid-performance), Christine ignores as it would be too cruel to Erik.

And then there is Erik. All trap-doors lead to Erik in this tale. He beguiles those who do not believe in him, teaches a mediocre singer to become a virtuoso performer, steals horses and francs with ease, and has a dark past The Persian can barely recount as it is too foul.

Yet Leroux is very crafty with Erik. He fills the role of villain quite nicely, and much of his activity is, to be sure, less than honorable. I’ve already mentioned the theft of horse and money. Add to that kidnapping and doing all the heavy lifting to prepare to blow up a crowded opera house and the reader can easily hate Erik.

But again, does Erik ever directly kill or harm anyone? Anyone at all? There are allusions to assumed bad things done to amuse the sultana in Erik’s past. The Persian and Raoul end up in “the torture chamber” from chapter XXII to XXIII. I’m not trying to white-wash Erik of all sin here, but how bad could the torture chamber have been when Raoul and The Persian choose voluntarily to re-enter the place after finding the barrels full of gunpowder?

My point is that, Erik may have done some terrible things in his long life of side-showing, architecture, and singing, but the reader is never allowed to see these terrible things directly. This is very smart on Leroux’s part. It allows the reader to pity Erik. Sure he’s kidnapped and manipulated a young woman and his version of love is closer to that of a child loving a toy than it is to adult love, but he’s really not a bad guy. And he’s had such a tough go of it, right?

Where Leroux overplays the pity is in Erik’s direct interaction with Christine. He is nearly indistinguishable from Raoul in that account. Erik grovels and begs and whips from anger to tears in the blink of an eye. He is a passionate artist, and this is supposed to give him free license to act like this, but all it does is annoy the reader. From Chapter XXII:

“Soon the moans that accompanied this sort of love’s litany increased and increased. I have never heard anything more despairing; and M. de chagny and I recognized that this terrible lamentation came from Erik himself. Christine seemed to be standing dumb with horror, without the strength to cry out, while the monster was on his knees before her.

Three times over, Erik fiercely bewailed his fate:

“You don’t love me! You don’t love me! You don’t love me!”

And then more gently:

“Why do you cry? You know it gives me pain to see you cry!”” (Leroux 216)

Oh, knock it off! The constant groveling and the figurative clutching of the pearls took me as a reader out of this story too often. As horror goes it has horror elements (a monster, the potential for bodily harm, mystery that is thought supernatural, and a past that is terrible and not ever quite forgotten).

But once the reader gets to the end and realizes that Erik may not be the monster The Persian makes him out to be, then the story evolves into one in which the monster has a heart, and a soul. Sure he could use some lessons in self control and even more lessons on how to win a lady, but it is refreshing to see a monster who isn’t really a monster at all.

Erik, the Opera Ghost, the trap-door-lover, is shunned from birth. His own mother never even kissed him. His great intellect and his natural artistic abilities to build and sing and use his voice carried him from side-show freak to the man behind the walls who controls everything. From his time in Persia, then Turkey, and France he was in control of his environment and the people who inhabited it were but puppets he manipulated. But when one of those puppets took an interest in him, and gave him that first kiss, he cut the strings on the world and died a happy man, not a monster.