Saturday, May 21, 2022

Howard Wandrei, "The Other"

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Howard Wandrei, "The Other."

Although I've never had respect for Howard Wandrei (neither as artist nor as writer), I keep returning to this one short story.

The style is overblown, the story overlong, the characters not so much human as pulpoid:

"He jabbed the bell. He gave the knocker a boost for good measure and was pretty cocky about it. Then he yawned and blinked his eyes dopily, for it was morning, and Basil Sash's nights generally reeled....


"Then the door banged in again just as quickly as it had shut. A hand shot out, grasped him fiercely by the throat, yanked him inside.

"He swung his feet helplessly in the air. He plucked at an enormous hand which he found collaring his throat more and more tightly. Ingvaldssen had him off the floor and pinned to the door like one of his damned trophies. Sash's eyes bulged and darkened with blood.

"All at once the elephantine Ingvaldssen changed his mind. He gave the reporter a violent shake that came near to disarticulating the vertebrae and dropped him.

"'For a minute,' Sash choked out, 'I thought you were going to throttle me. Now, was that nice?'"

By this point, "The Other" has lurched beyond bad. I could forgive any reader for tossing the story aside and for moving on to something more believable.

Yet for all of its flaws, "The Other" develops into something interesting. Unlike so many pulp stories from the period that shared a Lovecraftian cosiness and offered a last minute reprieve to the human species, "The Other" leaps over the cliff. With a few well-chosen details, it implies that something terrible is free at last and will never be stopped.

I could never recommend so flawed a story to readers, but to writers, I would -- if only to give them a chance to see, for their own purposes and by their own standards, what does not work, and what does.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Abortion Rights

I believe that women have an inherent right to control their own bodies, and, in consequence, their own reproduction. I support their unrestricted access to contraception in all forms, and this includes abortion.

But something else comes into play, here:

As a heterosexual man, I support the readiness and reliability of contraception, which also helps to maintain my control over my own life. Even if I felt, somehow, perhaps in some hellish parallel universe, that women had no right to secure their own freedom, I would certainly want to ensure mine.

For this reason, I can't understand why any man would want to limit the reproductive freedoms of a woman. Does every man want to be a father, every time? Pardon my skepticism.

Yes, abortion is a woman's right, but the right to control reproduction belongs to all of us. People who restrict abortion are the enemies not only of women, but of men.

Is It Procrastination, Or Merely Good Sense?

Sometimes, what might seem at first like procrastination in setting to work on a story is actually a recognized fault in the planning stage: you skipped over a dead spot in the outline, your plot has a hole, your character assumptions are missing the emotional conflicts that can bring people to life, your story structure is less a firm skeleton than a seeping blob.

At times like this, it can be too easy to plow ahead and hope for the story to work despite its deformities, but I've learned to trust my hunches. If the outline stinks like a semi-liquescent groundhog, how likely is the finished work to smell as good as pecan pie?

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Horror: A Choice Between Masks and Monsters

"Not many people are comfortable with horror -- I'm certainly not. But it does allow me to play with metaphors and imagery that would otherwise be too disturbing or too bleak for me to confront. It's like the difference between a monster and a monster mask: I can at least recognize a mask when I see one, but monsters can be hard to know."

-- From an email that I sent on Tuesday, May 12, 2015 to my sister, who does not read horror.

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Rocking Horse Winner (1949)

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Three superb horror films of the 1940s have experienced separate fates. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) seems to have been recognized immediately as a great achievement. THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1949) developed its reputation over decades; it is now highly-regarded by many viewers and critics, but still not as well-known as it deserves to be. THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949) remains obscure, rarely seen, rarely praised.

The reasons for this obscurity are themselves obscure. I would call THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER as frightening and as beautifully crafted as DEAD OF NIGHT or THE QUEEN OF SPADES. From the cinematography of Desmond Dickinson to the music of William Alwyn, from the hideous eyes of the horse itself to a production design that turns an ordinary middle-class home into a labyrinth of disconnected stairways and narrow corridors, from the often painfully intense performances to the well-paced and escalating direction, THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER provides everything a horror film should. It even anticipates a later film, REPULSION, in its use of expanding sets to imply a mental breakdown. Why, then, despite its obvious merits, has it never been popular?

The trouble, I think, has nothing to do with the film, but might perhaps be caused by the expectations of horror film viewers.

Many people see horror as a genre, and they bring to it the expectations of genre. Yet horror is actually a mood, and can be conjured up with an endless variety of plots, characters, metaphors, images, and settings, too many to be limited by the constraints of any genre. At the same time, many viewers prefer horror as escapism, as a way to substitute imaginary troubles for the complications of everyday life.

One expectation that people often bring to horror is a touch of the supernatural. Both DEAD OF NIGHT and THE QUEEN OF SPADES offer hints of the supernatural right from their opening sequences, and maintain these touches from beginning to end. In contrast, the supernatural elements of THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER gleam out later in the film, as a reflection of everyday troubles in an ordinary family, and these elements remain muted until the climax. The film offers tensions beautifully developed and sustained, but these are the tensions of life as we know it, not of life as we fear it might be just beyond human perception. The supernatural elements are integrated fully into the plot, and they bring a nightmarish power to the climax, but the tragedy at work, here, is a human tragedy, caused by human desires and human misperceptions.

This emphasis on tragedy and grief takes THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER far from any hint of escapism. At the end of the film, there is no hope for any return to normalcy, no suggestion that the story's evils can be repaired. What is done is done, and it hurts. This puts the film in a category similar to the bleak psychological dramas of Bergman, dramas that I consider the most harrowing horror films ever made, but films unlikely to win the praise of many horror viewers.

It saddens me. A superb horror film deserves a wide audience, yet sometimes, the viewers most likely to embrace a film of that type stay away. All I can do is to encourage as many people as possible to see THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER and to reach their own conclusions.