Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Escape Does Not Work

From "Books," by Joanna Russ, in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979:

It isn't the realists who find life dreadful. It's the romancers. After all, which group is trying to escape from life? Reality is horrible and wonderful, disappointing and ecstatic, beautiful and ugly. Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it. But painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide. Bravery, nobility, sublimity, and beauty that have no connection with the real world are simply fake, and once readers realize that escape does not work, the glamor fades, the sublime aristocrats turn silly, the profundities become simplifications, and one enters (if one is lucky) into the dreadful discipline of reality and art, like "The Penal Colony"....
There is no pleasure like finding out the realities of human life, in which joy and misery, effort and release, dread and happiness, walk hand-in-hand.

We had better enjoy it. It's what there is.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Resonance of Horror

More than most other types of fiction, horror depends for much of its impact on "resonance," on the subconscious connection we feel to the prose, the imagery, the setting, the circumstances of the plot. We can talk about craftsmanship, and for good reason. But when the sun goes down, some stories hit us, others pass by, in large part because they touch, or fail to touch, our nerves.

This can make the impact of certain stories difficult to analyse. Why do they work for us? What is it that reaches out and grabs our subconscious attention?

Recently, for example, I've been trying to understand why a brief, simple and (to be honest) minor story by Charles G. D. Roberts, "The Barn on the Marsh," compells me to read it so often.

I can see technical merit in the story: a clean, economical style, and a central event that is never explained to the reader, even though the narrator does everything he can to explain it to himself. But I can think of many good horror stories that have these merits, which do not compel re-reading. Something else is at work, here: something beyond technique.

How much of the impact depends on personal experience and memory?

"This road, on either hand, was bordered by a high rail fence, along which rose, here and there, the bleak spire of a ghostly and perishing Lombardy poplar. This is the tree of all least suited to those wind-beaten regions, but none other will the country people plant. Close up to the road, at one point, curved a massive sweep of red dike, and further to the right stretched the miles on miles of naked marsh, till they lost themselves in the lonely, shifting waters of the Basin."

When I was a child, I lived for a brief time in Ontario, and I saw many of these Lombardy poplars planted as windbreaks, row on row, beside country houses or barns. They seemed like green or yellow flames, fragile candles against the harsh weather: ghost-like, alien.

"One night, as I started homeward upon the verge of twelve, the marsh seemed all alive with flying gleams. The moon was past the full, white and high; the sky was thick with small black clouds, streaming dizzily across the moon's face, and a moist wind piped steadily in from the sea."

Again, this reminds me of my own life, much of it having been spent on long, isolated walks by moonlight.

Those who walk alone at night, far away from any house, will understand how easily the mind can be fooled by a glint of starlight, a swaying tree, a shifting thickness of clouds against the moon. This midnight uncertainty is what the story exploits, and quite well. But again, I have to wonder: why have I read this one minor story so often?

Questions like these trouble my stray thoughts, if only because they might underline some of the reasons why certain popular, critically-regarded stories do nothing for me. They might also explain why my own stories are unpopular -- and for that, I have no solution.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jacobean Strangeness

Nowadays, I write blank verse in my sleep.

The night before last, I dreamt that I and some strange person (whom I never saw, because I was too intent on the pages) were adapting a non-verse play into verse, with page after page after page of revision.

And just a few hours ago, I dreamt that I was poring through a stack of books, all of them paperback editions of The Duchess of Malfi. I came across one with an attractive cover (scrawly green and brown crayon work on a white background), and the Strange Person tried to convince me that I owned this edition in real life. I said, "No, I don't think so," but he or she or it kept placing the book in my hands.

Speaking of which, I think my obsession is getting out of hand.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fast Food Politics

My father was a quiet, socially-conservative but politically liberal American who became just a bit more quietly radical as the years went by, after we moved to Canada.

Late in his life, while visiting family in the States, he was told that he should take a look at a new fast food restaurant that used animatronic figures to entertain kids.

My father's profession and passion was usability testing to match computer systems to human needs, and so he took a look at this restaurant.

He was appalled.

Later, he said to me, "If that's the fate of computer technology under capitalism, then I'll be a communist."

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Listen. This will matter in the end.

Stepwise from the hill, the gulley curved,
Serpentine, between the fields and trees.
One step brought it up against a fence;
Shattered sticks collected there like bones.
Water spread behind them in a marsh,
Walled in by the fortress of the spruce,
Cedared on the other slope. Concealed.

Winter afternoons pulled shadows out,
Lay them, blue, upon the snow to fade.
One spot near the bones collected light,
Sprayed it back in spectral powder hues.
Timed correctly, visiting revealed
Galaxies of colour on the snow.

Spring will take the snow and bring the flood.
Water drains away; then you can see,
Buried to the rim beside the creek,
Built with all the care of any house,
Coffin-like, a box of water: clean,
Clear down to the floor where day reveals
White sand smuggled from the mountainside,
Spread upon the clay by piercing rain.
Box of water? Box of sand? A door?

Step aside a pace or two: a tree,
Dead and naked, shorter than a man.
Wedged today between one bough and branch,
Open to the air: a tiny jar,
Grey with greasy foulness. Right above,
Hanging upside down with wings outspread
(Death could not remove its urge to glide),
Strung up by its feet, a heron.

Have I told this tale without a key,
Kept you from catharsis? My regrets.
Be assured, these images from life
Beckon me to think about the past
Sealed up in my skull. When I am dead,
When my head is gone, my past will die.
Here: a glimpse, ephemeral, for you.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Blockes For Their Pillowes

F. L. Lucas on the technique of John Webster.

Really dead metaphors, like really dead nettles, cannot sting; but often the metaphors are only half dead; and these need careful handling. It may, of course, be argued that some mixed metaphors bother none but readers with too vivid imaginations. Yet I doubt if readers can have too vivid imaginations. At all events you will find, I think, that you lose esteem with many readers if they come to feel that you have a less vivid imagination than they have themselves. A main purpose of imagery is to make a style more concrete and definite; and it is interesting to note how much that imagery itself may gain by being made still more concrete and still more definite, as when Webster borrows images from Sidney or Montaigne.

She was like them that could not sleepe, when they were softly layd. -- Sidney, Arcadia.

You are like some, cannot sleepe in feather-beds, But must have blockes for their pillowes. -- Duchess of Malfi.

See whether any cage can please a bird. Or whether a dogge grow not fiercer with tying. -- Sidney, Arcadia.

Like English Mastiffes, that grow fierce with tying.
-- Duchess of Malfi.

The opinion of wisedome is the plague of man. -- Montaigne.

Oh Sir, the opinion of wisedome is a foule tettor, that runs all over a mans body. -- Duchess of Malfi.

Never, it seems to me, was theft better justified -- the plagiarist here is far more praiseworthy than his victims; simply because in each case the picture becomes much more precisely visualized. ‘A dogge’ is vague beside ‘English Mastiffes’; a ‘plague’ is feeble compared to ‘a foule tettor’. Here, as with other kinds of clarity, preferences may indeed differ according to taste and temperament; there are doubtless times when, here too, writing gains by half-lights, mists, and shadows; but I own that I love particularly in prose, keen vision; sharp focus; and clearest air.
Style, by F. L. Lucas.
Cassell, London, 1955.
Harriman House Ltd, 2012.