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.