Friday, June 16, 2017

Hoarded Life And Beauty

More thoughts on Walter de la Mare, and on the difficulty of expressing how a story works....

In my slice of the world beyond the internet, I am surrounded by readers, but no one else in my life reads horror fiction. I often wonder if people find it foreign, inaccessible.

Both H. E. Bates and Seán Ó Faoláin have argued that modern short stories are closer in impact and scope to lyric poetry than to plays or novels. I concede their point, and I would call it even more true for horror stories, where causes are often unclear, where effects can be vivid but inexplicable, and where consequences are often left to implication.

Because of their kinship with poems, horror stories can be hard to describe, and their impact can be hard to understand. Why do they often work so powerfully? We might as well ask why a poem works. We can examine a poem's techniques, metaphors, and imagery, but by the time the sun has gone down, we are left in the dark with a piece of writing that cannot be paraphrased. The only way to grasp its effect is to read it from beginning to end.

One of the fascinations of Walter de la Mare's short fiction is that it relies even more than most on these elusive "poetic" qualities. Yes, the plots can be taken apart, the prose can be analyzed, but the lingering effect is more akin to the ripples of a dream. This makes it easy to enjoy, but hard to describe and even harder to recommend.

A case in point: again, "The Tree," from 1922.

I have read the story five times, now, and each reading has made it more disturbing. I believe I understand its meaning, or at least one of its meanings; these are for you to find on your own. But the power of the story goes beyond this rational awareness of what (in part) it seems to imply.

If a story like this cannot be paraphrased, then how can it be reviewed? One solution would be to describe the plot:

"A wealthy fruit merchant pays an angry visit to his half-brother, an artist whom he considers a lazy good-for-nothing parasite. But the merchant is uneasy about seeing, once again, the almost-alien tree that has become an obsession for the artist."

What would this tell you? Not much. Would it compel you to read the story? Most likely not, because it fails to give you any sense of how the story might actually feel as you read it.

But if I were to quote from it, at length?

...This old man, shrunken and hideous in his frame of abject poverty, his arms drawn close up to his fallen body, worked sedulously on and on. And behind and around him showed the fruit of his labours. Pinned to the scaling walls, propped on the ramshackle shelf above his fireless hearthstone, and even against the stale remnant of a loaf of bread on the cracked blue dish beside him, was a litter of pictures. And everywhere, lovely and marvellous in all its guises -- the tree. The tree in May’s showering loveliness, in summer’s quiet wonder, in autumn’s decline, in naked slumbering wintry grace. The colours glowed from the fine old rough paper like lamps and gems.

There were drawings of birds too, birds of dazzling plumage, of flowers and butterflies, their crimson and emerald, rose and saffron seemingly shimmering and astir; their every mealy and feathery and pollened boss and petal and plume on fire with hoarded life and beauty. And there a viper with its sinuous molten scales; and there a face and a shape looking out of its nothingness such as would awake even a dreamer in a dream....

And at that moment, as if an angry and helpless thought could make itself audible even above the hungry racketing of mice and the melancholic whistling of a paraffin lamp -- at that moment the corpse-like countenance, almost within finger-touch on the other side of the table, slowly raised itself from the labour of its regard, and appeared to be searching through the shutter’s cranny as if into the Fruit Merchant’s brain. The glance swept through him like an avalanche. No, no. But one instantaneous confrontation, and he had pushed himself back from the impious walls as softly as an immense sack of hay.

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.

We can break a story into pieces, scan it with a microscope, and learn a lot about the craft of writing. What we cannot describe, what we can only experience in privacy, is the effect of a story as a whole, because, again, like a poem, a story can be impossible to paraphrase.

And so, for my part, I would rather avoid many details of plot; I would rather let people see a long and characteristic section of prose, because this, at least, would give people some idea of how reading the story might feel.

If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them!

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