Monday, April 1, 2019

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Beyond the Ken of Sublunar Spirits

Cover by Bruce Pennington. Panther Books, 1974.

"The Beast of Averoigne," by Clark Ashton Smith.

After time spent reading stories in Weird Tales that took too many pages to begin and too many words to say what a single noun or verb could have managed, I went back to this old favourite, first read in 1974, and found it as effective now as it was back then.

Smith's training in verse had taught him the value of compression. Not even C. L. Moore, Smith's Weird Tales rival in concepts and imagery, could match the density of his prose.

Too many stories are written as if the primary unit of information were the paragraph, but traditional poetic forms require a tighter focus, not only on the sentence, not only on the clause, but on the word. Smith understood this, and was willing to let a bare statement do all the work of implication that he needed:

"So, on the forenoon of that same day, Theophile, together with Gerome and six others chosen for their hardihood, sallied forth and made search of the forest for miles around. They entered with torches and lifted crosses the deep caves to which they came, but found no fiercer thing than wolf or badger. Also, they searched the crumbling vaults of the deserted castle of Faussesflammes, which was said to be haunted by vampires. But nowhere could they trace the monster or find any sign of its lairing."

This method allowed him to put the reader into a scene without needless elaboration:

"On the night following the desecration of the graves, two charcoal-burners who plied their trade in the forest not far from Perigon, were slain in their hut. Other charcoal-burners, dwelling near by, heard the shrill screams that fell to sudden silence; and peering fearfully through the chinks of their bolted doors, they saw anon in the starlight the departure of a black, obscenely glowing shape that issued from the hut."

"Peering fearfully through the chinks of their bolted doors" is just enough physical detail to give the scene a sense of place. Smith provides the detail, and then moves on.

His trust in the magic of words allowed him to state briefly what others might feel compelled to spell out in detail:

"Vainly I consulted the stars and made use of geomancy and necromancy; and the familiars whom I interrogated professed themselves ignorant, saying that the Beast was altogether alien and beyond the ken of sublunar spirits."

Always, the descriptions are brief, and conveyed in motion:

"Passing among the ancient trees that towered thickly behind Perigon, he thought that he discerned a light from the windows, and was much cheered thereby. But, going on, he saw that the light was near at hand, beneath a lowering bough. It moved as with the flitting of a fen-fire, and was of changeable color, being pale as a corposant, or ruddy as new-spilled blood, or green as the poisonous distillation that surrounds the moon."

As a result, the story moves rapidly at a steady pace.

This version published in Weird Tales is leaner and swifter than the original, and for that reason I prefer it. (It also has an effective use of a Chekhov's Gun in its gem-imprisoned demon, which adds to its appeal for me.)

I can understand that many readers might find compressed writing difficult to process, that they might prefer a slower pace and less density of information. But I have my own tastes, and the aesthetic qualities that drew me to Clark Ashton Smith decades ago still hold me in their spell.

Friday, March 22, 2019

"Vive la différence!"

Given all of the recent discussion about toxic masculinity, I've tried to think of positive traits that men contribute to the world, only to suspect that every good masculine trait is echoed by a feminine trait.

Think of courage: physical courage in the face of danger, moral courage in the face of social conflict. These are excellent traits, but women have them, too.

Protectiveness? Women can be just as protective as men.

Intelligence, compassion, endurance, drive? Again, women also have these traits.

What can men contribute, that women cannot? Beyond semen, which I consider important and which I'm always glad to share, I can't think of anything specifically masculine that could not also be contributed by women.

A neurologist might argue that distinctions do exist between male and female brains, but even if this might be true, normal human plasticity can do a lot to smooth over these differences, in the same way that technology can minimize differences of size and physical strength.

With all of this in mind, is there any value in talking about masculine traits and feminine traits outside of the bedroom, outside of the maternity ward? Is it possible, otherwise, that we're all just... human?

I would never deny the differences between people, but I would also wonder if it might make more sense to consider these differences, not in the light of masculine or feminine traits, but in the light of different personalities. Both men and women can be introverts or extroverts, artistic or analytic, romantic or classical, caring or callous, and so on. None of these distinctions is inherently masculine or feminine.

"Vive la différence!" I love that difference, I cherish it, but I have to wonder if it's really a big difference.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Curse of the Boa Constrictor Paragraph

Line engraving by P. Vanderbank, 1683.

I read more poetry than a human being should, and have been changed for the worse in result. I have no more patience for bloated prose, no more of what used to be called charity for the implied intentions of a writer. I want the prose to move.

What do I mean by bloated? This would depend on context, and on how much energy a writer can bring to words.

For example, I would never call bloated this passage by Thomas Browne:

"If we more nearly consider the condition of Vipers and noxious Animals, we shall discover another higher provision of Nature: how, although in their paucity she hath not abridged their malignity, yet hath she notoriously effected it by their secession or latitancy. For not only offensive insects, as Hornets, Wasps, and the like, but sanguineous corticated Animals, as Serpents, Toads, and Lizards, do lie hid and betake themselves to coverts in the Winter. Whereby most Countries enjoying the immunity of Ireland and Candie, there ariseth a temporal security from their venoms; and an intermission of their mischiefs, mercifully requiting the time of their activities."

[From "Of the Viper," in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Third Book), 1646-1672.]

His writing works the tongue and ear while remaining dense with detail, but for all of its thickness of texture, it moves rapidly.

In contrast, here are two paragraphs from a story I tried to read this afternoon:

"Whatever particle of a doubt there may have been in Mrs. Owens’s own mind, there was considerable more of doubt and apprehension in Mr. Evening’s as he weighed, in his rooming house, the rash decision he had made to visit formidable Mrs. Owens in -- one could not say her business establishment, since she had none -- but her background of accumulation of heirlooms, which vague world was, he could only admit, also his own. Because he had never known or understood people well, and he was the most insignificant of 'collectors,' he was at a loss as to why Mrs. Owens should feel he had anything to give her, and since her 'legend' was too well known to him, he knew she, likewise, had nothing at all to give him, except, and this was why he was going, the 'look-in' which his visit would give him. Whatever risk there was in going to see her, and there appeared to be some, he felt, from 'warnings' of a queer kind from those who had dealt with her, it was worth something just to get inside, even though again he had been informed by those in the business it would be doubtful if he would be allowed to mention 'purchase' and in the end it was also doubtful he would be allowed even a close peek.

"On the other hand, if Mrs. Owens wanted him to tell her something -- this crossed his mind as he went toward her huge pillared house, though he could not imagine even vaguely what he could have to tell her, and if she was mad enough to think him capable of entertaining her, for after all she was a lonely ancient lady on the threshold of death, he would disabuse her of all such expectations almost as soon as they had met. He was uneasy with old women, he supposed, though in his work he spent more time with them than with other people, and he wanted, he finally said out loud to himself, that hand-painted china cup, 1910, no matter what it might cost him. He fancied she might yield it to him at some atrocious illegal price. It was no more improbable, after all, than that she had invited him in the first place. Mrs. Owens never invited anybody, that is, from the outside, and the inside people in her life had all died or were incapacitated from paying calls. Yes, he had been summoned, and he could hope at least therefore that what everybody else told him was at least thinkable -- purchase, and if that was not in store for him, then the other improbable thing, 'viewing.'"

[From "Mr. Evening," in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy.]

Crammed with needless qualifications (he supposed, he fancied, after all, he felt, even though again, he could only admit), these boa constrictor paragraphs coil around and swallow meaning without offering any counter virtues of surprise or fire. In a novel they would seem ponderous; in a short story, incongruous.

And in a poem, of course, impossible.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Algolagnia in Carrion

You pour the words upon the page
And let them turn;
You bore the student and the sage.
Dry up, Swinburne!

Your gushing stanzas blot the land
And tread the fern;
They crush the readers into sand.
Enough, Swinburne!

I have waded through words like a heron,
Without even a frog to consume,
As your pages extend, flat and barren,
To fill every niche in the room,
And I ask, Why the pain? Why the wind burn
That buffets my eyes to their cores?
I've read more than I need of you, Swinburne,
Our Baron of Bores.