Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mon esprit autant que mon regard récusait ce ciel impossible

My attempted translation of one passage from a story by Michel de Ghelderode:

The living were scarce, but the town existed as always: a mass very much like coal, with bumps and passageways, streaming and drifting without a beacon like a wreck in the ashen air. I found it insane that no one had fought against the invasive obscurity, that not one lantern had been lit, that not one pane of glass gave off any light, anywhere. Fortunately, the air was breathable and not cold, even though Autumn was on the way; it even carried the old warmth exhaled by the soil. My body had been set free, and I went without hesitation to find the cause of that oppression in my soul.

Emerging onto the esplanade that encircles the Church of Saint Nicholas, where a hundred lanes and dead-ends hurl themselves as if into a vat, I caught the secret of that prostration, of that deadly torpor into which the town had plunged, and which remained exactly like the one that I had borne: the sky appeared before me, as the sea appears at the top of a slope, unexpectedly; a bizarre sky, hollowed out, a prehistoric fantasy, formed by the accumulation of gaseous caverns. And the light: a cold and dripping light with a knife's edge, foaming from the cloudy sacks, a light with a venomous tint, a slow ejaculation.

It all seemed to me like the invention of some painter mad or possessed. The discovery of that catastrophic sky awoke my mood of oppression and, at the same time, my sense of an imminent threat that menaced the Earth and the species teeming on its crust. I could not resolve myself to see nothing more than a dusk at its critical moment, its orgasm of light. No; my spirit as well as my stare challenged this impossible sky, because it reflected in reverse the bowels, the abominable internal fluctuations, of the globe; and even more, if I dare say it, because this atmospheric phenomenon seemed to me like a monstrous mistake of nature. And I concealed my aching eyes.

The original text:

Les vivants, on n’en voyait guère; la ville, elle existait toujours, masse charbonneuse tout en aspérités et galeries, encore ruisselante et, sans un fanal, dérivant comme une épave dans l’atmosphère cendrée. Je trouvais insensé qu’on ne fît rien pour lutter contre l’obscurité envahissante, que pas une lanterne n’eût été allumée, que pas une vitre ne s’éclairât quelque part… Par bonheur, l’air était respirable et non glacé, bien que l’automne avançât; il charriait même de vieilles chaleurs expulsées du sol. J’étais physiquement délivré et je ne tardai pas à trouver la cause de mon oppression d’âme. Débouchant sur l’esplanade qui encercle l’église Saint-Nicolas, où cent couloirs et impasses viennent se jeter comme dans une cuve, je surpris le secret de cette mortelle torpeur, de cette prostration dans quoi restait plongée la ville, et en tout semblable à celle que j’avais subie: le ciel venait de m’apparaître inopinément, comme au sommet d’une rampe se découvre la mer; un ciel bizarre, en creux, d’une fantaisie préhistorique, et fait d’une accumulation de grottes gazeuses. Et la lumière, une froide et baveuse lumière à couper au couteau, bouillonnait de ces poches nuageuses; une lumière de teinte vénéneuse lentement éjaculée… Cela me parut l’invention d’un peintre fou ou possédé. La découverte de ce ciel catastrophique réveilla mon oppression en même temps que le sentiment de l’imminent malheur qui menaçait la Terre et l’espèce pullulant sur ses croûtes. Je ne pouvais me résoudre à y voir un crépuscule à son instant critique, un orgasme lumineux. Mon esprit autant que mon regard récusait ce ciel impossible, parce qu’il réverbérait par inversion les entrailles du globe et ses abominables flux, et encore, si j’ose écrire, parce que ce phénomène météorique m’apparaissait comme une monstrueuse erreur de la nature… Et je cachai mes yeux irrités.

-- From "Un crépuscule," by Michel de Ghelderode. Sortilèges, 1941.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lawless Agency

Charles Lamb:

We are too hasty when we set down our ancestors in the gross for fools, for the monstrous inconsistencies (as they seem to us) involved in their creed of witchcraft. In the relations of this visible world we find them to have been as rational, and shrewd to detect an historic anomaly, as ourselves. But when once the invisible world was supposed to be opened, and the lawless agency of bad spirits assumed, what measures of probability, of decency, of fitness, or proportion -- of that which distinguishes the likely from the palpable absurd -- could they have to guide them in the rejection or admission of any particular testimony? -- That maidens pined away, wasting inwardly as their waxen images consumed before a fire -- that corn was lodged, and cattle lamed -- that whirlwinds uptore in diabolic revelry the oaks of the forest -- or that spits and kettles only danced a fearful-innocent vagary about some rustic's kitchen when no wind was stirring -- were all equally probable where no law of agency was understood. That the prince of the powers of darkness, passing by the flower and pomp of the earth, should lay preposterous siege to the weak fantasy of indigent eld -- has neither likelihood nor unlikelihood à priori to us, who have no measure to guess at his policy, or standard to estimate what rate those anile souls may fetch in the devil's market. Nor, when the wicked are expressly symbolised by a goat, was it to be wondered at so much, that he should come sometimes in that body, and assert his metaphor. -- That the intercourse was opened at all between both worlds was perhaps the mistake -- but that once assumed, I see no reason for disbelieving one attested story of this nature more than another on the score of absurdity. There is no law to judge of the lawless, or canon by which a dream may be criticised.

-- From "Witches, and Other Night-Fears."
In The Essays of Elia. J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1906.

Monday, December 28, 2015

You Have to Do it Yourself

I first read this little book in April, 1986, and I still do whatever I can to follow its principles. It might be the single most useful book on writing fiction that I've been able to find.

The craft of writing serves the art of writing and sharpens it.

Craftsmanship is the use of tools and materials in order to make something in a seemly and economical fashion. For instance, it is not craftsmanship to decide to build a table and buy half the lumberyard and have, when the table is finished, approximately eighty or ninety oddly shaped pieces of wood lying around on the floor and hundreds of bent nails and screws and great piles of sawdust. Craftsmanship does indeed carry with it this element of economy of materials. And when it is appropriate to the object being constructed, it acts to enhance.

Craftsmanship is not an 'in-group' word right now. Little attention of a public sort is paid to a writer simply on the grounds of his mastery of materials. Of course that mastery starts with words. And I have been unable to detect on the part of our critics any great differentiation between somebody whose knowledge of words is obviously imprecise and to whom words are frozen like stones to the hand regardless of their shape, color, and so on, and someone who has an obvious richness of knowledge of words -- the playfulness within the word. Craftsmanship is also not particularly admired today for another reason. It is supposed to betoken an absence of creativity to a certain extent. A well-constructed piece of fiction is assumed, if it seems very neat and tight, to have lost something, to have been diminished by the writer, to have been placed on a bed of Procrustes in order to come out even with its own material, and this in itself is considered old-fashioned and probably hostile to the creative spirit.

Furthermore, our age does not care very much about craftsmanship. Most of us don't have to make very many things with our hands anymore. This is not a criticism of the way in which we live in twentieth century America, but people are conditioned by what they do with their bodies. Even though many people have returned to the land and to 'natural' things, the majority of us no longer practice craftsmanship in our lives. Our food is largely prefabricated. Our clothing is almost wholly prefabricated. Our shelter is prefabricated. Our entertainment is almost all prefabricated. Most of our experience in sport is a vicarious and spectator experience. The permissive nature of our sexual morality requires very much less proficiency on our part in the whole broad spectrum of the sexual experience than in ages when things were a little tougher to get away with than they are now, and we have a crowd of helpers to raise our children.... In any event, almost everything has been removed one step away.

When it comes to craft and writing, however, you have to do it yourself. If you blow in sweet and it comes out sour, the best editor in the world cannot help you to anything more than either silence or an inoffensive mumble. So while it may not be possible to teach people much about writing, it is possible for some people to learn something about how to write.
-- William Sloane, The Craft of Writing.
W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1979.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Unimpaired and Undiminished

 F. L. Lucas:

It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us, and to be forgotten, when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its ‘stars’.
Part of our heritage -- you are now coming into it -- is the English tongue. You may not be among the few in whose hands it becomes an Excalibur; but you can do your part to pass it on, clean, unrusted, undefiled.

-- From
Style, by F. L. Lucas.
Cassell, London, 1955.
Harriman House Ltd, 2012.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Trapped in the Reboot Phase

We seem to be trapped in a "reboot" phase of our culture.

Although I can understand that people enjoy this repetition, it troubles me by suggesting a reluctance to confront the world on personal terms, a refusal to dig for metaphors, imagery, stories, that present our own thoughts, our own impressions. We value replicas more than we value individual perspectives, and to me, this feels like defeat.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Miserable Spectacle

When people send me early drafts to criticize, I always recommend revising aloud. The ear can pick up awkward patterns often concealed from the eye, like the EEs of too many adverbs, or the monotonously-chiming INGs of present participles used in place of the simple past tense.

As an example of how badly prose can fall into mindless repetition, here's a passage from Cycle of Nemesis, by Kenneth Bulmer (Ace Books, 1967). This could have been avoided....

Friday, December 11, 2015

What We Say and How We Say It

I've long believed that how a story is told matters more than what a story tells, that even a story of strong conceptual interest can be ruined by weak prose and poor choices in structure. As proof, I'd offer A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit" (ALL-STORY WEEKLY, January 5, 1918).

Merritt's influence on American science fiction, fantasy, and horror should not be underestimated, but many would agree that the writers he influenced were better craftsmen than he was -- Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Henry Kuttner, and best of all, C. L. Moore. They responded to his ideas, which again, should not be underestimated, but ideas can only take a story so far, as they understood and reflected in their best work.

"The People of the Pit" does what it can to suggest a mood of alien horror, but it falls prey to Merritt's lack of skill with storytelling and with language.

For one thing, Merritt sets the story in a frame. A frame can be used effectively in a certain kind of retrospective story, in which the suspense of an outcome carries less weight than a narrator's inability to understand what happened. Two of my favourite examples of a frame used well are Walter de la Mare's "The Almond Tree," and William Sansom's "A Wedding;" in both cases, the story would lose its impact without a frame. But in "The People of the Pit," a story about capture and escape, much of the tension and immediacy are weakened, because the tale is told by a dying man who has already managed to get away.

But Merritt does even more to undermine his narrative: he writes badly. He falls back on stylistic tricks that seem ridiculous on their first appearance, and then he repeats them.

"Then -- I ran across the road!"

"The road!" cried Anderson incredulously.

"The road," said the crawling man. "A fine smooth stone road."

- - - - -

"A stairway led down into the pit!"

"A stairway!" we cried.

"A stairway," repeated the crawling man as patiently as before.

- - - - -

"But who could build such a stairway as that?" I said. "A stairway built into the wall of a precipice and leading down into a bottomless pit!"

"Not bottomless," said the crawling man quietly. "There was a bottom. I reached it!"

"Reached it?" we repeated.

"Yes, by the stairway," answered the crawling man. "You see -- I went down it!

"Yes," he said. "I went down the stairway."

- - - - -

"They hurried, they sauntered, they bowed, they stopped and whispered -- and there was nothing under them!"

"Nothing under them!" breathed Anderson.

"No," he went on, "that was the terrible part of it -- there was nothing under them."

I'll spare you -- the rest. Yes! I will! Too much exposure to writing this artless can lead to -- pain. It can lead to -- unearthly pain. A pain that is not -- of this Earth!

None of this would hurt if the story itself were lazy hackwork, something to be tossed aside with a wince, but Merritt has good intentions, here: he wants to convey an experience beyond the human, a challenge for any writer. He fails, not through lack of ambition, but through weakness in craft. C. L. Moore would take up this challenge two decades later, with her "Northwest Smith" and "Jirel of Joiry" stories. I'd like to believe that she learned from his failures and avoided the traps that hindered his work; what saved her was a greater skill with language.

For this one reason, I'd recommend "The People of the Pit" to anyone who writes fantasy or strange or science fiction stories, as an example of good intentions gone wrong. What we say matters, but how we say it matters more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Nine Of Them Lived

Leigh Brackett:

One of the horses died. They flayed him and dried the meat.

"They will all die," said Lannar grimly. "They will give us hides and food for the rest of our journey." He was a desert man and did not like to watch the death of horses.

The Sun became a red ember on the horizon behind them. They went down into a valley filled with snow and darkness and when they reached the other side the Sun was gone beyond the higher hills. Arika whispered, "This is what men call the Shadow."

There was still light in the sky. The land began to slope gradually downward, flattening out. Here there were no trees, nor even the stunted scrub that had grown to the edge of the Shadow. The wind-swept rocks were covered with wrinkled lichens and the frozen earth was always white.

One by one the horses died. The frozen meat was hidden by the way so that there should be food for the return march -- if there was to be one. The men suffered from the cold. They were used to the dry heat of the desert. Three of them sickened and died and one was killed by a fall.

The Shadow deepened imperceptibly into night. The rolling rusty clouds of the dayside had become the greyer clouds of storm and fog. The men toiled through dimming mist and falling snow that turned at last to utter darkness.

Lannar turned a lined and haggard face to Fenn. "Madmen!" he muttered. And that was all.

They passed through the belt of storm. There came a time when the lower air was clear and a shifting wind began to tear away the clouds from the sky.

The pace of the men slowed, then halted altogether. They watched, caught in a stasis of awe and fear too deep for utterance. Fenn saw that there was a pallid eerie radiance somewhere behind the driving clouds. Arika's hand crept into his and clung there. But Malech stood apart, his head lifted, his shining eyes fixed upon the sky.

A rift, a great ragged valley sown with stars. It widened, and the clouds were swept away, and the sky crashed down upon the waiting men, children of eternal day who had never seen the night.

They stared into the black depths of space, burning with a million points of icy fire. And the demoniac face of the Moon stared back at them, pocked with great shadows, immense and leering, with a look of death upon it.

Someone voiced a thin, wavering scream. A man turned and began to run along the backtrail, floundering, falling, clawing his way back toward the light he had left forever.

Panic took hold of the men. Some of them fell down and covered their heads. Some stood still, their hands plucking at sword and axe, all sense gone out of them. And Malech laughed. He leaped up on a hummock of ice, standing tall above them in the cold night so that his head seemed crowned with blazing stars. "What are you afraid of? You fools! It's the moon and stars. Your fathers knew them and they were not afraid!"

The scorn and the strength that were in him roused the anger of the men, giving their fear an outlet. They rushed toward him and Malech would have died there in the midst of his laughter if Fenn and Lannar together had not turned them back.

"It's true!" Fenn cried. "I have seen them. I have seen the night as it was before the Destruction. There is nothing to fear."

But he was as terrified as they.

Fenn and Lannar and the bearded Malech who had shed every trace of humanity, beat the men into line again and got them moving, fifteen of the twenty who had started, alone in the Great Dark. Tiny motes of life, creeping painfully across the dead white desolation under the savage stars. The cold Moon watched them and something of its light of madness came into their eyes and did not go away.

Fifteen -- twelve of these lived to see the riven ice of the ocean, a glittering chaos flung out across the world. Malech looked toward the east, where the Moon was rising.

Fenn heard him say, "From beyond the ocean, from the heartland of the Great Dark -- that is where we came from, the New Men who conquered the earth!"

Following the tattered map they turned northward along the coast. They were scarecrows now, half starved, half frozen, forgetting that they had ever lived another life under a warm Sun -- almost forgetting why they had left that life behind them.

Nine of them lived to see an island between two frozen rivers near the frozen sea and on that island the skeletal towers of a city buried in the ice.

Nine of them lived to see New York.

-- From From "The Citadel of Lost Ages," by Leigh Brackett, in  The Halfling, Ace Books, 1973.

Cover by Earle Bergey; December, 1950.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Grammar and Autonomy

In his book, The War Against Grammar, David Mulroy argues that grammar instruction early in school can give students autonomy. By instilling a sense of what can be effective and clear in writing, it frees them from a teacher's opinions, and helps to build self-confidence. This, in turn, can encourage them to experiment independently, both in school and at home. (He offers many examples of lively writing from even the younger students who were taught grammar rigorously.)

As I went through his argument, I realized that the benefits of learning grammar might not only help writers to express themselves with clarity, economy, and force (an axiom for me). It might also help them to face the inevitable mud-storm of rejection. All too often, rejection slips arrive without context, and writers can only guess what might have gone wrong. A deep awareness of grammar can eliminate one concern.

At the same time, it can prepare unconventional or uncommercial writers for the day when they might have to publish their own work. When they revise, all writers become editors, but when they publish, they have to become pitiless vultures with an eye for limping clauses. The more training in grammar they receive, the more skilfull they can be at scenting the reek of illness on a page.

The craft of writing can be hard enough to learn on its own. Without a firm awareness of the parts of speech, and of how they function together as grammar, writers take on a punishing task. That's not a fate I'd wish for anyone.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

That'd Be'd Unreadable

"Shall We Join The Hades?"
Horror in the Modern Style by Ran Screaming.

Two guys heading for the guillotine, bobbing and weaving just like Joy'd said they would, that night when Rita'd heard Macie tell Jane about The Plan, ducking and stumbling, and then Mary laughing and the blade coming down on vertebrae, first on one, and then, after that one, another one after the first one -- snap, snap! -- because June'd the best grip for letting that rope go, fast, and then after the first one and the next one, no one, and just like Bessie'd said, The Plan'd worked.

"Did anyone see us?"

Marie'd had her doubts, but straddling the neck of guy number two, scooping out the entrails of guy number one, Allison'd known for sure that Deborah'd remained invisible to the world.

"Don't forget the liver."

"Write it down on a Post-It, and fax it to my office."
Anna'd cackled, and that'd made June Bug smile. Liver on a Post-It, hold the mayo. What'd Frieda think of that?

"Yeah, well, no."
Their livid viscera, their unredemptive haecceity, their chopped meat of satori in a cosmic abbatoir.
Rock 'n' ruin.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Incessant Conflict

H. E. Bates on Ambrose Bierce:

In Bierce, as in all writers of more than topical importance... two forces were in incessant conflict: spirit against flesh, normal against abnormal. This clash, vibrating in his work from beginning to end, keeping the slightest story nervous, restless, inquisitive, put Bierce into the company of writers who are never, up to the last breath, satisfied, who are never tired of evolving and solving some new equation of human values, who are driven and even tortured by their own inability to reach a conclusion about life and thereafter remain serene.

[Wouldn't that describe many people? Not only writers, but anyone?]

But Bierce, who as a writer tirelessly impinging a highly complex personality on every page will always remain interesting, is significant in another respect. Bierce began to shorten the short story; he began to bring to it a sharper, more compressed method: the touch of impressionism.

"The snow had piled itself, in the open spaces along the bottom of the gulch, into long ridges that seemed to heave, and into hills that appeared to toss and scatter spray. The spray was sunlight, twice reflected: dashed once from the moon, twice from the snow."

The language has a sure, terse, bright finality. In its direct focusing of the objects, its absence of wooliness and laboured preliminaries, it is a language much nearer to the prose of our own day than that of Bierce's day.

Again the same 'modern' quality is found:

"A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, his wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck."

Note that there is no leading-up, no preliminary preparation of the ground. In less than forty words, before the mind has had time to check its position, we are in the middle of an incredible and arresting situation. Writers throughout the ages have worked with various methods to get the reader into a tractable and sympathetic state of mind, using everything from the bribery of romanticism and fantasy to the short bludgeon blow of stark reality. But Bierce succeeds by a process of absurd simplicity: by placing the most natural words in the most natural order, and there leaving them. Such brief and admirable lucidity, expressed in simple yet not at all superficial terms, was bound to shorten the short story and to charge it in turn with a new vigour and reality. Not that Bierce always uses these same simple and forceful methods. Sometimes the prose lapses into the heavier explanatory periods of the time, and unlike the passages quoted, is at once dated; but again and again Bierce can be found using that simple, direct, factual method of description, the natural recording of events, objects, and scenes, that we in our day were to know as reportage.

Born too early, working outside the contemporary bounds, Bierce was rejected by his time. A writer who wants to be popular in his time must make concessions. Bierce made none. With a touch of the sensuous, of the best sort of sentimentalism, of poetic craftiness, Bierce might have been the American Maupassant. He fails to be that, and yet remains in the first half-dozen writers of the short story in his own country. Isolated, too bitterly uncompromising to be popular, too mercurial to be measured and ticketed, Bierce is the connecting link between Poe and the American short story of to-day.

-- H. E. Bates, The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey.
The Writer, Inc. Boston, 1941. (1961 reprint.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

First Person

Alfred Bester on the styles of Fritz Leiber:

Shadows With Eyes by Fritz Leiber is a collection of six long stories by that warlock of the outre, dating from as far back as 1941 ("The Power Of The Puppets") to as recent as the current year ("The Man Who Made Friends With Electricity" and "A Bit Of The Dark World"). We had the misfortune to dislike Mr. Leiber's novel, The Silver Eggheads, a few months ago, so it gives us great pleasure to endorse this collection and heartily recommend it.

But we've been doing some intensive thinking about Mr. Leiber's work, wondering how it is that some of his stories can inspire us with delight, while others leave us cold and unmoved. All authors are entitled to failures, but when a rapport is established between author and admirer, there should be understanding and communication even through those failures. We think we've discovered the answer.

Mr. Leiber seems to function most powerfully in the first-person story form. When events are related by a protagonist, when characters are seen through his eyes, and when the conflicts are revealed by his reactions, then Mr. Leiber is at his best. But when he works from the omniscient or third-person point of view, he is handicapped. There isn't any opportunity in this form for the marvelous nuances, references, allusions... the network of stream-of-consciousness that is the quintessence of his unique style.

Proof of this is the fact that the two best Leiber stories of the past, classics today, are first-person stories: "The Night He Cried" and "Coming Attraction." And five of the six stories in Shadows With Eyes are also in the first-person form. Mr. Leiber and his many fans will probably disagree with this analysis; but isn't that a function of the critic, to provoke controversy?

-- Alfred Bester, "Books."
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1962.

Shadows With Eyes. Ballantine Books, 1962. Artist uncredited, but is most likely the great Richard Powers.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Which Is The Way?

The story that Loren Eiseley refers to, here, is "Winter."

"I may truly say," wrote Sir Francis Bacon, in the time of his tragic fall, "my soul hath been a stranger in the course of my pilgrimage. I seem to have my conversation among the ancients more than among those with whom I live." I suppose, in essence, this is the story of every man who thinks, though there are centuries when such thought grows painfully intense, as in our own. Shakespeare -- Bacon's great contemporary -- again speaks of it from the shadows when he says:

"Sir, in my heart there was a kinde of fighting
That would not let me sleepe."

In one of those strange, elusive stories upon which the modern writer Walter de la Mare exerted all the powers of his marvelous poetic gift, a traveler musing over the quaint epitaphs in a country cemetery suddenly grows aware of the cold on a bleak hillside, of the onset of a winter evening, of the miles he has yet to travel, of the solitude he faces. He turns to go and is suddenly confronted by a man who has appeared from no place our traveler can discover, and who has about him, though he is clothed in human garb and form, an unearthly air of difference. The stranger, who appears to be holding a forked twig like that which diviners use, asks of our traveler, the road. "Which," he queries, "is the way?"

The mundane, though sensitive, traveler indicates the high road to town. The stranger, with a look of revulsion upon his face, almost as though it flowed from some secret information transmitted by the forked twig he clutches, recoils in horror. The way‌ -- the human way‌ -- ‌that the traveler indicates to him is obviously not his way. The stranger has wandered, perhaps like Bacon, out of some more celestial pathway.

When our traveler turns from giving directions, the stranger has gone, not necessarily supernaturally, for de la Mare is careful to move within the realm of the possible, but in a manner that leaves us suddenly tormented with the notion that our road, the road to town, the road of everyday life, has been rejected by a person of divinatory powers who sees in it some disaster not anticipated by ourselves. Suddenly in this magical and evocative winter landscape, the reader asks himself with an equal start of terror, "What is the way?" The road we have taken for granted is now filled with the shadowy menace and the anguished revulsion of that supernatural being who exists in all of us. A weird country tale‌ -- ‌a ghost story if you will‌ -- ‌has made us tremble before our human destiny.

Unlike the creatures who move within visible nature and are indeed shaped by that nature, man resembles the changeling of medieval fairy tales. He has suffered an exchange in the safe cradle of nature, for his earlier instinctive self. He is now susceptible, in the words of theologians, to unnatural desires. Equally, in the view of the evolutionist, he is subject to indefinite departure, but his destination is written in no decipherable tongue.

For in man, by contrast with the animal, two streams of evolution have met and merged: the biological and the cultural. The two streams are not always mutually compatible. Sometimes they break tumultuously against each other so that, to a degree not experienced by any other creature, man is dragged hither and thither, at one moment by the blind instincts of the forest, at the next by the strange intuitions of a higher self whose rationale he doubts and does not understand.

-- From
Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma, by Loren Eiseley.
University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Brian W. Aldiss on the art of indirection:

"Artistry consists so often in indirection. As life is subtle and wayward, so should art be. The SF that has sprung from pulp sources has many strengths, not least its driving narrative power; but, by the nature of its audience, much indirection and waywardness have been ruled out.... Truth often comes from weak people. SF is full of big tough heroes; and, when they tell you something, it has to be right. But I don't go along with that. So I'll give you an example of indirection from Dark Light Years.... I had a message, as I've explained, to put over in that book. It is given explicitly only once, and then the lines are delivered by one of my weak characters, Mrs. Warhoon, who is ruled out of court immediately by the tough guys and heroes.

"No doubt an objection could be raised to this method: that readers might miss what you really mean. Okay. That's a risk you take. It's a lesser risk than making your book a mere diagram by ramming the message home; and I do believe a novel should attempt to be -- should move towards being -- some sort of a work of art. Anyone can be a commercial success....

"Anthony Burgess does the same thing in Clockwork Orange. It's the priest who says at one point -- too lazy to move to the shelves and quote chapter and verse, but it's something like, "Right, you have a foolproof method of making people good, and Heaven knows we seem to need it at this juncture of history; but are we human any longer if we have no longer the power to choose between good and evil?" I believe that Anthony likes Kubrick's striking version of his novel because Kubrick too has the art that, in this respect, conceals art: the parson says his lines and is then swept away by events....

"One must have something to say. One must also have the art of saying it.

"Another example: H. G. Wells. The 'message' of The Invisible Man is that a scientist works, to some extent at least, for the general good. A tenable thesis when the novel was written. So his invisible man, the irascible scientist, is a villain, using his invention in his own interest, for anti-social purposes. Wells's reviewers complained that Griffin was unsympathetic, thereby showing how they missed the point.

"Maybe truth should dawn slowly, not come as a thunderbolt. But communication is a difficult art."

-- From Speaking Of Science Fiction, edited by Paul Walker. Luna Publications, 1978.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This Planetary Grindstone

The force of metaphor....

And what else have I seen? A beautiful and far-famed insect -- do not mistake, I mean neither the Emperor, nor the King of Sardinia, but a much finer specimen -- the firefly. Their bright light is evanescent, and alternates with the darkness, as if the swift wheeling of the earth struck fire out of the black atmosphere; as if the winds were being set upon this planetary grindstone, and gave out such momentary sparks from their edges.

-- From LETTER VII (June 8th, 1824), in The Letters of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Elking Mathews & John Lane, London, 1894.

You Do Not See

A striking distinction between types of poetry (and types of fiction, too): "You did not see before," versus "You do not see."

"Having to know and being unable to know characterizes all the various Symbolist poems discussed in this chapter; it is a statement of their essential method. Now, poets and critics have been shouting up 'strangeness' for a long time. Perhaps the most persistent shouters of late have been the Russian Formalist critics, who proclaimed ostranenie ('strangifying') as the cornerstone of all imaginative literature. But for these critics, as for others, strangeness is nearly synonymous with newness, and, as has been pointed out, there is nothing novel about that kind of strangeness in poetry.
"The quality seen in [Symbolist poems] is of another order.... The strangeness of Symbolist poetry is identified with mysteriousness -- in other words, not only that which had been previously unknown, but that which is unable to be fully understood, that which perpetually lies just beyond our grasp. The difference is great. Where a poetry of newness says, "You did not see before," a poetry of strangeness asserts, "You do not see." Whatever its preferred subjects, themes, or artistic creeds, a poetry of this kind always has the same refrain: that the most basic structure people hold in common, language, is not held in common at all. To the extent that such a poetry can have meaning, to the extent that we can participate in its unfolding, it is a triumph of our ability to sense emotion in tone or to grasp fundamental similarities and parallels. It is, for all that, a triumph in the midst of incomprehension -- a victory in a world where, as readers, our own uncertainty and separateness is being established in the same breath."

-- From
The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, by James L. Kugel. (Chapter 4.)
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1971.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Out of Your Whispering

Yet, methinks,
The manner of your death should much afflict you:
This cord should terrify you.

Not a whit:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smotherèd
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways; any way, for Heaven sake,
So I were out of your whispering.

-- From The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster.
Act IV, Scene 2.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Unfinished Traceries

F. L. Lucas on Thomas Lovell Beddoes:

"At war within, he spared neither his country, nor his contemporaries, nor himself -- poor dramatist devoid of dramatic gift! But he was too hard on his own work. It is difficult to read through. I have done so twice, and never shall again. But I return with ever fresh astonishment to his fragments. The unfinished traceries, the ruined aisles of this gaunt sham-Gothic cathedral that he left half-built and roofless to the scorn of Time, will outlast many a newer and more finished edifice; saved by the almost unearthly perfectness of here a carved line, there a sculptured monster; and by the strange owl-light of its atmosphere in which Death's Jester wandered to his early and disastrous end. There is often more quintessential poetry, I feel, in three lines of his than in as many pages of other poets not without repute. Only wreckage remains of him; but enough to sustain his memory in that sea of Eternity into which he heard Time's river falling, himself so soon to fall."

From "The Playboy of the Netherworld," in
Studies French And English, by F. L. Lucas. Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1969 (Original publication, 1934).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Never Connect

Facebook is like a cell phone: it allows you to speak to yourself in public, and the few passers-by never suspect that your phone is dead.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I suspect that for many people, life is a series of problems to overcome.

But for others -- people who write, or paint, or compose, or dance -- life is a condition to explore.

For that reason, I can't blame the first group for shaking their heads in frustration over the second.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Challenge Me

Challenge me to understand the implications of your stories, and I'll brood happily for decades.

Challenge me to understand the meaning of your sentences, and I'll go read someone else.

A Fantasizing Sensibility

Strange verse, fantasy verse, call it what you will: when I was younger, I preferred it to "regular" verse.

I was wrong. Or perhaps I should say, I was looking in the wrong direction.

Reading Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, Mervyn Peake, John Keats, and so many others, has made me realize that what I value in strange verse is exactly what I find in the regular verse of these poets: a unique perspective that transforms personal experience into something new and striking; a fantasizing sensibility that sees the unusual in the common; a verbal skill that allows the poet to communicate a glimpse of inner life.

In short, what matters are not the fantastic concepts these poets might use, but the personalities and perspectives communicated through the verse.

This is not to say that I dislike strange verse, or consider it less valid than verse that grapples directly with everyday topics. Instead, I feel that strange verse can succeed or fail by the same standards applied to regular verse.

A few examples:

Autumn Orchards
Clark Ashton Smith

Walled with far azures of the wintering year,
Late autumn on a windless altar burns;
Splendid as rubies from Sabean urns,
A holocaust of hues is gathered here.

The pear-trees lift a Tyrian tinged with blood;
Strange purples brighten in the smouldering plums;
The fire-red gold of peach and cherry comes
To storm the bronzing borders of the wood.

Rich as the pyre of some Hesperian queen,
Feeding the ultimate sunset with sad fires,
Is this, where beauty with her doom conspires
To tell in flame what death and beauty mean.

O, loveliness grown tragical and dear!
My heart has taken from the torchful leaf
A swiftly soaring glory, and the grief
Of love is colored like the dying year.

This is very much a Clark Ashton Smith poem, and one of my favourites. But only one thing, here, is fantastic: the intensity of the writers's perception.

A Character
by George Sterling

Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph.  In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.

This is typical of George Sterling's approach: unexpected comparisons, vivid metaphors, a riot of imagery... but again, at the service of the everyday, to transform the common "into something rich and strange."

London 1941
by Mervyn Peake.

Half masonry, half pain; her head,
From which the plaster breaks away
Like flesh from the rough bone, is turned
Upon a neck of stones; her eyes
Are lid-less windows of smashed glass,
Each star-shaped pupil
Giving upon a vault so vast
How can the head contain it?

The raw smoke
Is inter-wreathing through the jaggedness
Of her sky-broken panes, and mirror'd
Fires dance like madmen on the splinters.

All else is stillness save the dancing splinters
And the slow inter-wreathing of the smoke.

Her breasts are crumbling brick where the black ivy
Had clung like a fantastic child for succour
And now hangs draggled with long peels of paper
Fire-crisp, fire-faded awnings of limp paper
Repeating still their ghosted leaf and lily.

Grass for her cold skin's hair, the grass of cities
Wilted and swaying on her plaster brow
From winds that stream along the streets of cities:

Across a world of sudden fear and firelight
She towers erect, the great stones at her throat,
Her rusted ribs like railings round her heart;
A figure of dry wounds -- of winter wounds --
O mother of wounds; half masonry, half pain.

Again, this is a matter of perception, one that allows Peake to transform a modern city into a realm as alien and grotesque as Gormenghast. There is no fantasy, here, but there is a fantasizing mind.

This importance of personality and perspective can be seen in prose, too, which is why J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun can be as unsettling as anything in science fiction, why L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between communicates the same dread that we find in his ghost stories, why an everyday story like "The Almond Tree" brings up the same unanswered questions that we find in Walter de la Mare's supernatural tales.

What this implies, for me, is that labels are useless. What matters is perception and skill, and these, more than topics, more than concepts, are what create the fantastic and the strange.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Five Amazing Fantasies

1) "Der goldne Topf," by E. T. A. Hoffmann (usually translated as "The Golden Pot.")

When I studied German 40 million years ago, I read many good stories, but this one shocked me with its utterly modern approach to parallel universes, doubles, reptile women, and the power of imagination to transform a dull existence in what was then modern day Dresden into something very strange indeed. If you want to understand why Hoffmann had such a huge influence on 19th Century fiction, then read this: not a fossil, but a fast-moving work of brilliance.

2) "Les Escales de la haute nuit," by Marcel Brion. When I read this back in the 1990s, I was convinced that it was, by far, the most vivid "dream" story I had ever seen; reading it again a few months ago, I felt the same way. When a night train stops in a town of buildings that are merely facades, a restless man wanders with a garrulous stranger and a living doll from one eerie landscape to another.

As a fine example of visual writing, it compares with anything by J. G. Ballard or William Sansom, but it also moves rapidly, like a story by Hoffmann. Brion paced his emphases; he understood the need to balance detailed passages with fast, simple paragraphs, and the result is a clear, light touch that never feels too thin or too heavy. If the story is like a painting, it's a painting that moves.

L’homme s’endormit. A son tour, la poupée, cessant de grogner et de renifler, glissa dans un sommeil épais. Je restais éveillé, seul dans ce wagon, seul dans ce monde, regardé par cette lune épouvantée qui venait demander du secours contre le garrot des nuages.

The man fell asleep. In its turn, the doll ceased to grumble and sniffle, and slipped into a thick sleep. I remained awake, alone in the compartment, alone in this world, watched by the frightened moon that cried for help against the noose of the clouds. [My rough translation.]

3) "The Colossus of Ylourgne," by Clark Ashton Smith. I could fill a list of favourites with stories by Smith, but I'll hold myself back. This one deals with a mass resurrection of the dead in medieval France, and a mad plan for vengeance against the world.

Smith's ability to put the reader there, right there, in the settings and circumstances of his plot, has rarely been better, and the story moves rapidly, vividly, from setpiece to setpiece until it reaches a giant monster climax. Widescreen Technicolor fantasy? Why not?

So, all that night, and throughout the day that followed, Gaspard du Nord, with the dried slime of the oubliette on his briar-shredded raiment, plunged like a madman through the towering woods that were haunted by robbers and werewolves. The westward-falling moon flickered in his eyes betwixt the gnarled, somber boles as he ran; and the dawn overtook him with the pale shafts of its searching arrows. The moon poured over him its white sultriness, like furnace-heated metal sublimed into light; and the clotted filth that clung to his tatters was again turned into slime by his own sweat. But still he pursued his nightmare-harried way, while a vague, seemingly hopeless plan took form in his mind.

4) "The Coming of the White Worm," by Clark Ashton Smith. When a mobile glacier threatens to freeze the world, its monstrous inhabitant offers one man a choice between death or death-in-life. Once again, Smith pours on the visual details to create a waking dream, and the results are unforgettably grotesque.

In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. And amid the visage a mouth curved uncleanly from side to side of the disk, opening and shutting incessantly on a pale and tongueless and toothless maw. The eye-sockets of Rlim Shaikorth were close together between his shallow nostrils; and the sockets were eyeless, but in them appeared from moment to moment globules of a blood-colored matter having the form of eyeballs; and ever the globules broke and dripped down before the dais. And from the ice-floor of the dome there ascended two masses like stalagmites, purple and dark as frozen gore, which had been made by the ceaseless dripping of the globules.

5) "The Tree," by Walter de la Mare. The most vivid and troubling fantasy I've read in years, this one is far more quiet than the others I've listed, but will not let me go. It nags at me. Is it about the inability of human beings to accept the everyday marvels of life? Is it about the curse of an artistic perception that can destroy even as it creates? Perhaps it is, and more. All I can say with assurance is that every time I read it, the story grows, both on the page, and within my skull.

These were not eyes -- in that abominable countenance. Speck-pupilled, greenish-grey, unfocused, under their protuberant mat of eyebrow, they remained still as a salt and stagnant sea. And in their uplifted depths, stretching out into endless distances, the Fruit Merchant had seen regions of a country whence neither for love nor money he could ever harvest one fruit, one pip, one cankered bud. And blossoming there beside a glassy stream in the mid-distance of far-mountained sward -- a tree.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Canon in Front of Them

For the most part, I respect critics, and I find especially useful those who write about the historical context of a given work, or those who examine the techniques used in a given story. But I have no use for critics who set up a canon of "essential" writers, because I've often learned more about writing from people on the margins of a field than from any central figures.

And so, for example, I've learned more from individual stories by Shamus Frazer, Edward Lucas White, Charles G. D. Roberts, Bernard Capes, and Ralph Adams Cram, than I ever did from Lovecraft, Ligotti, Barker, King, or from any number of writers who are often considered important in the field of horror. I believe that we take away those details of craftsmanship we need to create our own stories in our own styles, and that the best way to find solutions to our creative challenges is to read widely. I also put my trust in random discoveries, in the joy of picking up a magazine, collection, or anthology, and of digging up treasure that might appeal to no one else, but might also show me what I need to do.

I leave canons to composers; they know how to use them. But I read for pleasure, and to learn.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Not only in the brain's grey spaces

Those who love Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx," George Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry," and Clark Ashton Smith's "The Hashish Eater," might want to read Mervyn Peake's "A Reverie of Bone," printed for the first time in its complete form in the FyfieldBooks / Carcanet Collected Poems.

Although it seems unlikely that Peake would have read Sterling or Smith, at one point he did read "The Sphinx," and like that poem, "Reverie" is a long meditation on a theme. But unlike Wilde, Sterling, or Smith, Peake draws his elaborate metaphors and riotous imagery not from the world of Romanticism, but from "vast and valid landscapes" of the world as we know it, and as he would later do in the Titus books, he discovers the fantastic in the down-to-earth:

There is a pearl white arabesque of bones
Behind my eyes where the harsh brow encloses
These bones my visions conjure; I can see
Them lying pranked across a brow of stones.
Beyond them a dramatic mountain raises
High flanks of cold and silver-coloured scree.

And yet not only in the brain's grey spaces
Which, at the imagination's astral touch
Flare into focus, all horizons failing...
Not only through the wastes of thought uprises
A ghosted mountain lit by the full torch
Of a sailing moon that never ceases sailing...

Not only in the brain, nor in the heart
Nor out of love, nor through untethered fancy,
Is that cold mountain littered with the white
Residue of the dead, as though its bright
Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy --
Nor any other death-engendered sight
Which I envisage in deserted places --
But, in the ruthless regions of what's true --
And I can only hope to grasp the worth
From vast and valid landscapes, while Time passes
Beneath my pen-nib as it trails the blue
Thread of my thought behind each glimpse of truth.

Because fantasy is not a genre but a matter of perception, a shift in perspective, a construction of imagery and metaphor, "A Reverie of Bone" can hit the same nerves that Wilde and Sterling and Smith struck in their own fascinating ways, even as it remains true to this world of life and death and physical transformation by the slow artistry of time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Stars in Her Scowl

I can still see the splendid scowl and hear the gorgeously hectoring tone as my last girlfriend turned to me and said, "That's not the 'Big Dipper,' that's the Great Bear." Love, you knew I was a peasant when you kissed me.

That was years ago. Tonight, I thought of her as I biked home beside the Gatineau River, because the Bear stood right in front of me whenever a gap appeared between the branches. For a long time, the Bear never moved, until I veered away from the Gatineau and pursued Arcturus for the last few kilometres.

Alone with cold, clear stars and with 500 billion crickets, I felt happy... but not as happy as I was back in the years of that splendid scowl.

L'occulte hostilité de haineux paysages

Another attempted translation.

by Iwan Gilkin.
Towards new countries peopled by other faces, irretrievably dragged by steam, I shiver, I suffer: arrival frightens me. Through hypocritical omens, I forsee

Great castles that sour the bitterness of ages, walls mildewed with boredom from which a torpor oozes, and, despite their adorable, misleading smiles, the secret hostility of hateful landscapes.

-- Rocked by the carriage as by a vessel, I jerk up with a start at the moment of approach, in the same way that a sailor is jolted awake by fanfares.

O distant hearts, in the shadow of a hazardous night I see your fires glare like beacons, where voices call to me from shores unknown.

- - - - - -


Vers des pays nouveaux, peuplés d'autres visages,
Irréparablement traîné par la vapeur,
Je frissonne, je souffre: arriver me fait peur.
Je devine, à travers d'hypocrites présages,

De grands châteaux qu'aigrit l'amertume des âges,
Des murs moisis d'ennui, d'où suinte une torpeur,
Et, malgré leur sourire adorable et trompeur,
L'occulte hostilité de haineux paysages.

-- Bercé par le wagon comme par un vaisseau,
Au moment d'aborder je me lève en sursaut,
Ainsi qu'un matelot qu'éveillent des fanfares.

Dans l'ombre de la nuit hasardeuse, je vois
Vos feux, ô cœurs lointains, briller comme des phares
Sur les bords inconnus où m'appellent des voix.

La nuit, by Iwan Gilkin, Second Edition. Mercure de France, Paris, 1911.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su."

I'm always happy to find a writer even less cheerful than Leconte de Lisle, but I can't do justice to his words....

by Iwan Gilkin.

The black angel offered me a black onyx goblet
From which I drank, in sinister fashion, a cerebral liqueur.
I poured this death into the tomb of my mouth:
O, the charm of terrors! The splendors of despair!

Thought: acrid poison, ratlike nibbler of energies
That destroys happiness, love and health,
You dissolve every hope and desire
In the hearts transformed by your dark magic.

What a cadaver's reek from this horrible wine!
-- I viewed. I perused. I knew. I know that all is vain.
All of my pleasures die before birth.

What is the point of Spring to my Winter soul,
Which no longer feels joy, nor wants know,
Which would spurn a flower for the steel of a handgun?

"J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su." So simple and elegant. There was no way I could match it.


L'ange noir m'a tendu la coupe d'onyx noir
Où bout sinistrement la liqueur cérébrale.
J'ai versé la mort dans ma bouche sépulcrale:
O charme des terreurs! Splendeurs du désespoir!

Pensée, âcre poison, rongeur des énergies,
Qui détruis le bonheur, l'amour et la santé,
Tu dissous tout espoir et toute volonté
Dans les cœurs altérés de tes sombres magies.

Quelle odeur de cadavre en cet horrible vin!
-- J'ai vu. J'ai lu. J'ai su. Je sais que tout est vain.
Tous les plaisirs pour moi meurent avant de naître.

Qu'importent les printemps à mon âme d'hiver
Qui ne peut plus jouir et ne veut plus connaître
Et qui préfère aux fleurs l'acier d'un revolver!

La nuit, by Iwan Gilkin, Second Edition. Mercure de France, Paris, 1911.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My weak translation of a famous rondel from Pierrot lunaire.

by Albert Giraud.

The sun has opened its veins
On a bed of russet clouds:
From the mouth of each hole,
Blood ejaculates in red fountains.

Convulsive limbs of the oaks
Whip the insane horizon:
The sun has opened its veins
On a bed of russet clouds.

Like a rakehell filled with disgust,
Who, in Roman shame,
Has gone to bleed sick arteries into a filthy sewer,
The sun has opened its veins!

The original:

Coucher de Soleil

Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines
Sur un lit de nuages roux:
Son sang, par la bouche des trous,
S'éjacule en rouges fontaines.

Les rameaux convulsifs des chênes
Flagellent les horizons fous:
Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines
Sur un lit de nuages roux.

Comme, après les hontes romaines,
Un débauché plein de dégoûts
Laissant jusqu'aux sales égouts
Saigner ses artères malsaines,
Le Soleil s'est ouvert les veines!

Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques, by Albert Giraud. Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1884.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

And You Don't Know The Way

Clinical depression has been a challenge for me since I was at least three years old; I've been told by doctors that I might have been neurologically unusual right from birth. Whatever conditions brought it about, it's cost me more than I'd care to examine too closely. But in recent years I've come to accept it as a truth of life; I no longer fear it. When it creeps up on me, there it is. I know it now, as I might know a field or a hillside.

For that reason, I found Melancholia reassuring. It described a world, a condition that I understand, and the ending of the film actually left me feeling calm and whole. In fact, I feel better now than I have in weeks. I know the feeling won't last, but I welcome it.

Watching this for a second time, I had to question all the negative reviews. Yes, the often-shaky camera style seemed a poor aesthetic choice, and I would rather have had an original score that reflected the film itself, to music that already brings its own associations. But otherwise, I loved Melancholia.

Up to a point, the film reminds me of Bergman's Shame, where the two main characters also respond to the end of the world in opposite and unexpected ways. The coping mechanisms that we develop to handle depression often make ordinary life unliveable, but can be surprisingly useful when things fall apart.

Unlike Shame, which is one of the more depressing and paralyzing films I've seen (and brilliantly so), Melancholia feels like a lifted weight, like a wall kicked apart. Its final moment feels like love... and liberation.

Afterward, I kept thinking of a sad, stark line from another severely underrated film: Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. During an ugly, confrontational moment, the heroine turns to the main character, and says, "I've been down this road before, and you don't know the way." For me, that one line would sum up Melancholia.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Double Pulse

At first glance, Mervyn Peake and Robert Frost might seem dissimilar; but at second?

To Earthward
by Robert Frost.

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of -- was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

- - - - - -

Rather Than A Little Pain
by Mervyn Peake.

Rather than a little pain, I would be thief
To the organ-chords of grief
That toll through me
With a burial glory.

Wherefore my searching dust
If not to breathe the Gust
Of every quarter
Before I scatter,

And to divine
The lit or hooded Ghost, and take for mine
The double pulse; so come
Forth from your midnight tomb

Cold grief,
I would be thief
Of you,
Until my bones breed hemlock through and through.

(c. 1940)

- - - - - -

Complete Poems of Robert Frost. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Peake's Progress, Edited by Maeve Gilmore. Penguin Books, 1981.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gimme das Lied, Babe!

While on my bike this evening, as I drove into the tunnel of an underpass, I heard a woman singing in what I considered a fine operatic voice. I could see her up ahead, a silhouette against the exit; she stood beside a bearded man, and she was bent over with laughter.

As I rode past, I called out and said, "Can you sing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde?"

She replied, "No... but if you come back tomorrow, babe, I bet I could!"

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Wheels Failed, The Wheels

When I read something that fails, I tend to move on to the next with hope for better prospects; but sometimes, I hit the brakes to look at the blood on the asphalt, and I wonder: what the hell went wrong?

At the same time, as a person who writes nightmare stories, I'm eager to study a case that set out with nightmare intentions, but ended up as a pile of wreckage under clear skies on an empty road.

So let's have a look at the accident scene. This poem is from WHEELS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE (Longmans, Green & Co, New York, 1916).

by Osbert Sitwell.

Round the great ruins crawl those things of slime; --
Green ruins lichenous and scarred by moss, --
An evil lichen that proclaims world doom,
Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face.
And nothing moves save those monstrosities
Armoured and grey and of a monster size.

But now, a thing passed through the cloying air
With flap and clatter of its scaly wings --
As if the whole world echoed from some storm.
One scarce could see it in this dim green light
Till suddenly it swooped and made a dart
And swept away one of those things of slime,
Just as a hawk might sweep upon its prey.
Then there were horrid noises, cries of pain
Which only made one feel a deep disgust.
It seems as if the light grows dimmer yet --
No radiance from the dreadful green above,

Only a lustrous light or iridescence
As if from off a carrion-fly, -- surrounds
That vegetation which is never touched
By any breeze. The air is thick and brings
The tainted subtle sweetness of decay. --
Where, yonder, lies the noisome river-course,
There shows a faintly phosphorescent glow. --
Long writhing bodies fall and twist and rise,
Anil one can hear them playing in the mud.
Upon the ruined walls there gleam and shine
The track of those grey vast monstrosities --
As some gigantic snail had crawled along.

All round the shining bushes waver lines
Suggesting shadows, slight and grey, but full
Of that which makes one nigh to dead with fear.
Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.

A world that now is past all agony!

The one merit of this poem is that its flaws are clear enough to pick apart.

First of all, there are no surprises in the language. A good poem can startle us with a single noun:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
[Robert Herrick]

Or with a vivid simile:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -- and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
[John Keats]

With language that speaks to the senses:

Her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees....

Or with an abstraction that seems to fly directly to the subconscious:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot....

This poem by Sitwell has one vividly specific simile: "Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face." But otherwise, the adjectives are bland or cliched:

great ruins

evil lichen

dim light (green or otherwise)

horrid noises

dreadful green

noisome river-course

gigantic snail

awful shadows

Even worse, these adjectives make a promise that is not kept: nothing in the poem can justify the use of "evil" or "horrid" or "dreadful," because nothing in the poem -- not in its imagery, not in its narrative -- can bring these qualities to life. Writers can toss around as many adjectives as any good dictionary can provide, but unless the details of a poem can dramatize or suggest the applicability of such terms, then adjectives become like the coins fed into a slot machine: they fall away from your fingertips with an empty clatter, and they achieve nothing.

Meanwhile, Sitwell drags in a sense of portent that also achieves nothing.

Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.
A world that now is past all agony!

And yet, while the blobs "dance" and "play" (threatening verbs! Hide the children!) nothing much happens. I'm still here in one living chunk, and so (I'd like to assume) are you.

If poets want to destroy the world, they should go ahead and get the job done, as vividly as their skills can allow:

The Thirst of Satan
by George Sterling

In dream I saw the starry disarray
(That battle-dust of matter's endless war)
Astir with some huge passing, and afar
Beheld the troubled constellations sway
In winds of insurrection and dismay,
Till, from that magnitude whose ages are
But moments in the cycle of the star,
There swept a Shadow on our ghost of day --

A Shape that clutched the deviating earth
And checked its headlong flight and held it fast,
Draining the bitter oceans one by one.
Then, to the laughter of infernal mirth,
The ruined chalice droned athwart the Vast,
Hurled in the face of the offended sun. 
[From BEYOND THE BREAKERS AND OTHER POEMS. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1914.]

With one clearly-described action, Sterling achieves more doom in 14 lines than Sitwell can with all of his vague fumbling.

And what could be done, to justify that description of a world "past all agony"? William Butler Yeats took on the task, and even though he relied more on abstract implication than Sterling did, what he implied at least had the virtue of being specific.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.

For another world "past all agony," we can turn to Clark Ashton Smith.

by Clark Ashton Smith

In billow-lost Poseidonis
I was the black god of the abyss:
My three horns were of similor
Above my double diadem;
My one eye was a moon-bright gem
Found in a monstrous meteor.

Incredible far peoples came,
Called by the thunders of my fame,
And passed before my terraced throne
Where titan pards and lions stood,
As pours a never-lapsing flood
Before the wind of winter blown.

Below my glooming architraves,
One brown eternal file of slaves
Came in from mines of chalcedon,
And camels from the long plateaus
Laid down their sard and peridoz,
Their incense and their cinnamon.

The star-born evil that I brought
Through all that ancient land was wrought:
All women took my yoke of shame;
I reared, through sumless centuries,
The thrones of hell-black wizardries,
The hecatombs of blood and flame.

But now, within my sunken walls,
The slow blind ocean-serpent crawls,
And sea-worms are my ministers,
And wandering fishes pass me now
Or press before mine eyeless brow
As once the thronging worshippers....

And yet, in ways outpassing thought,
Men worship me that know me not.
They work my will. I shall arise
In that last dawn of atom-fire,
To stand upon the planet's pyre
And cast my shadow on the skies.
[From SELECTED POEMS. Arkham House, 1971.]

Specific details, clear focus, a promise of doom and evil not only made, but kept: Sitwell's poem could have worked if he had held these principles in mind. Instead, he gave us a smear of grease on a country road, a pile of crushed metal.

Staring, pondering, I can only vow that I will do whatever I can, to drive with greater care than he did, when I set off once more on my own untrusted wheels.

Noun Power

Never underestimate the power of a carefully-selected noun.

Upon Julia's Clothes
by Robert Herrick.
When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave Vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!

The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick, edited by F. W. Moorman.
Oxford University Press, London, 1921. (1957 reprint.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Meanwhile, In A Dull White Void

"Hey Ted," said Fred.

"Hey Fred," said Ted.

"What are you reading these days, Ted?"

"Fred, I've been trying to read John O'Hara."

"John O'Hara? Why, Ted?"

"Because Damon Knight had some good things to say about O'Hara's technique with short stories."


"Yeah. I really admire Damon Knight, and I respect his opinions. But you know, Fred --"

"No, I'm Ted. You're Fred."

"Oh, right," said Ted. "But you know, Fred, I'm having my doubts."


"Princeton doubts. Harvard doubts. Yale doubts."

"Those are some of the biggest doubts of all, Fred."

"Yeah, Fred, they are. Big prestigious Theta Delt Princeton doubts. You see, this O'Hara guy writes many stories that are nothing much more than dialogue."

"Dialogue, Ted?"

"Endlessly repetitive dialogue, Ted. No matter where a story might be set, the textures of the prose are always the same, and there's never any sense of place. People might be discussing universities and consumer items in a void."

"That sounds a bit stifling, Doris."

"It is, Bob. There's not much sense of a world in his work, and the people seem kinda thin. But they went to good schools. And they dress pretty good."

"I guess he's just not the sort of writer for me. Wanna play golf, Al?"

"Sure thing, Al. I wanna try out my new Honma Golf’s Five Star Set golf clubs."

"Wow! They start at five thousand and four hundred dollars each."

 "Those are the ones, Kit. They'll come in handy when I go to Yale."

"Oh... Esther... I wish I could have gone to Yale."

Smoked Paper

Before sunset this evening, as I biked through Parc Jacques-Cartier beside the Ottawa River, I turned a corner and noticed -- something -- on the asphalt pathway that was giving off a thin stream of white smoke.

When I braked for a closer look at this, I saw that it was a burning paperback of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Someone had set fire to the inner pages, and they were smouldering beneath an undamaged cover.

An unshaven young man in a blue shirt walked up and without pausing for more than two seconds, poured beer from a can onto the book, then kicked it off the asphalt and onto the grass. He went on his way.

After he was gone, I stomped on the book until it stopped smoking -- not the way I'd prefer to treat a book, but conditions at the time were slightly weird.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Uncertainties, Mysteries, Doubts

While thinking tonight about Negative Capability, I was hit by an extension to this idea that had never occured to me before... or perhaps I should say, by something I had understood and accepted all my life, but without noticing the connection to this idea from John Keats.

"Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

-- John Keats: Letter to George and Tom Keats, 22 December 1818.

Keats applied this quality to people who write, but this Negative Capability could apply as well to people who read -- especially to people who read poems. After all, a poem could mean one thing to you at twenty, and something subtly different at fifty. Which meaning would be correct: the first? the second? neither? both? Sometimes we have no idea, and we have to accept the poem without a firm understanding of what it means -- if it means anything at all, beyond its goosebump effect on some hidden sector of the brain.

Uncertainties, mysteries, doubts -- these are what we have to expect, if we want to enjoy poetry. But how many of us would rather not read it?

Saturday, August 1, 2015


For an interesting shock, read to the end of this quoted paragraph.

-- From
"Scientifilm Marquee," by Forrest J. Ackerman,
SPACE TRAVEL, September 1958.
THE CREATURE FROM GALAXY 27, his first screenplay, has been sold by the remarkable young (21) writer Martin Varno to the movies. The "Sci-Fi Studio," American-International, will release this sf thriller in which Varno, himself a fan, and son of actor Roland Varno, will essay an important role! Fanne [sic] Pandora Bronson will also be tested for a part in the picture, artwork for which has been done by another ardent s.f. reader and talented brush-wielder, Ron Cobb. Wait'll you see the monster Cobb has come up with for this one: it out-creatures the Thing!

As it turns out, the script was filmed, but without any contribution from the "talented brush-wielder." What a shame!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

These Delicates He Heaped

Although verbs and nouns are primary tools of writing, adjectives have been put in poor stead. I believe this might be only because adjectives are often used without precision or imagination. When chosen for economy and clarity, or at the prompting of some unconcious principle, they can take on a certain magic.

Consider one example, from "The Eve of St Agnes":

"Then by the bed-side, where the faded moon
Made a dim, silver twilight, soft he set
A table, and, half anguished, threw thereon
A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet...."

Keats has presented a place, a moment, an action, and within a few lines, he will have to refer back to the limited light in the room. How? In the most beautifully economical way possible. The character in this patch of moonlight, Porphyro, places food on the table --

"These delicates he heaped with glowing hand."

That's it, right there: the night, the darkness, the small sector of light at the bedside, all conveyed by one adjective and its modified noun.

"Glowing hand."

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Artistic Morality

John Ciardi:

It has always been an astonishment to me that people of the highest moral principle in the world's terms will yet abandon themselves willingly to the immorality of the cliché.

For a cliché is not only a sinful slovenliness; it is an enemy of mind and hope, and it is not only a prostitution but a theft. Nor can the case be put, honorably and accurately, in milder terms. Every morality must be bound by both a blessing and a damnation, and on this point, within the morality of poetry, only damnation will serve. Our mass-media journalism, our collapsing educational system, and the insanities of the Madison Avenue-Hollywood axis have already put us in sufficient danger of becoming a mindless generation. If our poets and would-be poets are to be encouraged in such slovenly thefts within their own imaginations, then a primary cultured force for good intellectual order is seriously weakened. The ultimate sin of the mind is the failure to pay enough attention.

It is exactly at this point that one may locate the essential difference between the kind of morality that binds the poet and that which seems to operate in the general culture. The Christian tradition recognizes seven deadly sins, which I take to be another way of labeling seven moral failures. Of them, the culture at large seems to have an adequate sense of pride, envy, wrath, avarice, gluttony, and lust, but seems to be relatively unaware of Acedia. We translate Acedia as "sloth," but that translation tends to blur the essential meaning. "Sloth" tends to suggest mere physical slovenliness. Acedia is quite something else -- it is the failure to pay sufficient attention to one's devotions. It has many faces, but its essence is an intellectual haphazardness that springs from not caring enough. In the Middle Ages, interestingly, it seems to have been the sin most feared by the monks: the fear that they had not paid enough attention to God.

No failure of poetic morality (and of artistic morality in general) can be more fundamental than the failure to pay enough attention to the nature and requirement of one's chosen form. To perform sloppily for high causes and high moral issues is both an affront to the cause and issue, and as thoroughly bad as performing in this way for low causes and issues.

So to the fundamental difference between one morality and the other: the world tends to recognize six deadly failures and to pay little attention to the seventh. The poet, finally, has to care only about the seventh. It is not at all necessary for him to scorn the other six, but granted that he has talent enough, his work will finally live or die on his ability to keep his attention in disciplined and self-consuming order.

-- From "The Morality of Poetry," in The Saturday Review, March 30, 1957.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Night and Solitude and Silence

Ambrose Bierce:

From the vast, invisible ocean of moonlight overhead fell, here and there, a slender, broken stream that seemed to plash against the intercepting branches and trickle to earth, forming small white pools among the clumps of laurel. But these leaks were few and served only to accentuate the blackness of his environment, which his imagination found it easy to people with all manner of unfamiliar shapes, menacing, uncanny, or merely grotesque.

He to whom the portentous conspiracy of night and solitude and silence in the heart of a great forest is not an unknown experience needs not to be told what another world it all is -- how even the most commonplace and familiar objects take on another character. The trees group themselves differently; they draw closer together, as if in fear. The very silence has another quality than the silence of the day. And it is full of half-heard whispers -- whispers that startle -- ghosts of sounds long dead. There are living sounds, too, such as are never heard under other conditions: notes of strange night-birds, the cries of small animals in sudden encounters with stealthy foes or in their dreams, a rustling in the dead leaves -- it may be the leap of a wood-rat, it may be the footfall of a panther. What caused the breaking of that twig? -- what the low, alarmed twittering in that bushful of birds? There are sounds without a name, forms without substance, translations in space of objects which have not been seen to move, movements wherein nothing is observed to change its place. Ah, children of the sunlight and the gaslight, how little you know of the world in which you live!

- - - - - -

I repeat that Lieutenant Byring was a brave and intelligent man. But what would you have? Shall a man cope, single-handed, with so monstrous an alliance as that of night and solitude and silence and the dead, -- while an incalculable host of his own ancestors shriek into the ear of his spirit their coward counsel, sing their doleful death-songs in his heart, and disarm his very blood of all its iron? The odds are too great -- courage was not made for so rough use as that.

"A Tough Tussle."
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume III -- Can Such Things Be?
The Neale Publishing Company, New York, 1909.