Sunday, October 13, 2019

At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (2000).

This is less of a review and more of a first introduction.  Maybe it's best to think of it as a sort of user's guide, or the barest sketch of a cartographer's map.  What I'm really here for today is to get readers to shake hands with a guy who's worth knowing.  Even if he is kind of strange.   It's with this idea and setup in mind that Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is a useful glimpse into the literary world of one of the Gothic genre's most interesting practitioners.  Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent could be in danger of falling off the map.  His name is Peter Straub, and he still (as of this date) writes Horror fiction for a living.

It is just possible that the name sounds familiar, yet the face or work it's associated with is somewhat vague, or hard to recall.  Maybe some readers will have heard something about this particular writer, but have forgotten his work with the passage of time.  Or else his name was mentioned and no one ever bothered to find out just who he was, or what made him in any way special.  Despite this, I'd argue that Straub's work is capable of a defense on its own merits.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, it helps to get a sense of the historical setting which in Straub first made his name.  If this sounds like a digression, I'd argue it's not on the basis that context is everything.  Gaining a proper literate understanding of Straub and his work means placing him in the proper setting from which he first emerged on the publishing scene.  To do this, it is perhaps best to start out with a decent summary of Straub's artistic milieu, and in particular the other writer who sort of defines it.

This is where Bev Vincent's Stephen King Illustrated Companion comes in handy.  Vincent is able to provide a neat capsule snapshot of Straub's context.  The irony is he does this by talking about the work of someone else.  "In part", Vincent writes, "it was all a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  Readers who had experienced the terrors of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were primed for more, and (Stephen King) delivered.  By the time his third novel, The Shining hit the best-seller lists, King was already being called "the master of modern horror".  Seemingly overnight, he had become a "brand name" author.  However, few of the other writers he identified as his peers in other genres at the time are still household names...(6)".  It is here that the subject of this article comes in.  

It is debatable whether the Horror genre has ever been in any way respectable.  However, Straub, like King, was a beneficiary of a time when the genre was at it's most commercially viable.  To that extent, publishing houses everywhere seemed willing to lap up the next kid who showed up on their doorsteps with a Shilling Shocker manuscript in hand.  This setup seems to have been made possible by a previous explosion of talent during the preceding decades.  The 50s and 60s can be thought of as the time when Horror fiction began to come of age.  The genre had undergone some growing pains in the form of a series stylistic leaps and bounds dating all the way back to the Victorian Era.  Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne brought the genre to mainstream awareness, while H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle helped begin it's modern identity.  The process of bringing Horror to it's full maturity seems to have been the work of artists like Ray Bradbury and a group of writers known as the California Sorcerers.

They were the first to find ways of taking the horrors into settings like a modern suburban home,or of re-introducing the haunts of old folklore into the middle of a busy 20th century street, and turning all of it loose to mess up our cozy conceptions of order and stability.  King and Straub were effectively the inheritors of this tradition of the Modern Gothic, and it is safe to say that the latter was no slouch when it came to living up to his inheritance.

As Sheehan explains on the very first page of his study: "Peter Straub first came to prominence with the 1979 publication of Ghost Story, a gaudy, expansive novel of supernatural terror that was deeply rooted in the classic tradition of the American Gothic tale.  Ghost Story was an immediate popular  success that quickly established itself as one of the seminal works of late twentieth century horror fiction.  Like the very best examples of its kind - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining spring immediately to mind - it offered  conclusive evidence that art and entertainment, literature and "popular fiction" need not be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.

"Despite his apparent status as an "overnight success", Straub had been a working writer for more than a decade before Ghost Story put him on the map, having published two slender volumes of poetry (Open Air and Ishmael), a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages), and a pair of striking, increasingly ambitious horror novels (Julia and If You Could See Me Now).  With Julia, Straub achieved a modest degree of financial success and began the process of discovering his own true voice.  At the same time, he demonstrated an instinctive affinity for the requirements of the Gothic form, a form that proved particularly suited to his own sensibility and narrative gifts.  With If You Could See Me Now, his grasp of those requirements deepened.  With Ghost Story, he achieved a new level of mastery, and made the form his own (11)".

I have written elsewhere that it is possible to notice how certain creative projects during the 70s and 80s tended to coalesce around the work of several differing authors into something resembling an informal artistic group similar to Bradbury and the Southern California writers.  I'd argue that Straub counts as one of that number.  By saying he is an inheritor, he is also part of a much larger literary tradition.  That would make his work uniquely placed and crafted in such as way as to help further set the definitions of Modern Gothic literature.  As such, this article counts as part of an ongoing series that examines the work of writers like Straub, and how they have shaped our understanding of the stories we enjoy.  It also helps grant a certain perspective on the nature of our favorite books and films over the past century and a half, when it's possible to see them as part of a greater, albeit informal, artistic movement.

Since this article is meant to be a user's guide, it's focus will be more on filling in a general outline of the author, as well as the thematic nature of his works.  Because of this, an emphasis will have to be placed on where he stands in the historical continuum of the Horror genre.  Straub's case is interesting in that he is one of the most self-aware writers operating in the confines of this particular category of narrative.  The best place to start is to discover how his life led to the work.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Halloween (2018).

Sequels have become something of a problem for me in recent years.  I started out more or less neutral at first.  I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I began to look at the proliferation or more of the same franchise as a problem, yet it has to have been pretty recent, as I don't recall having these issues, say, as far back as 2002.  If I had to say what brought about this growing negative outlook on dragging a story and it's characters on, then maybe it has to do with a perceived slip in quality among a lot of the popular franchises, such as Trek, Star Wars, DC.  It's like some kind of important narrative quality, or creative writing element got lost or mislaid somewhere along the way and now most filmmakers are scrambling to remember how to get the engine running like it used to.

I think a filmmaker like John Carpenter might know something of what I'm talking about.  At one point he found himself on the receiving end of a Hollywood's sequelitis complex.  The difference is he may have had only himself to blame.  In 1978, Carpenter made his name with the release of Halloween.  It remains something of a rare anomaly in the field of the slasher genre.  Unlike a lot of the knock-offs and imitations it spawned, Carpenter's original narrative somehow manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that mar a great majority of films that came in it's wake.  I'm afraid the same can't be said about the sequel that came a few years later.  I can remember being willing to give Carpenter a second chance as far as a follow up was concerned.  I wound up tuning out and turning off Halloween 2 somewhere near the middle of the whole thing.  It's kind of obvious that Carpenter's heart isn't really in it the way it was the first time.  The plot lumbers along with the struggle he had in coming up with a usable sequence of events that would pad out a standard movie-house runtime.  The director later admitted that when he wrapped up the first film, a sequel wasn't strictly a part of the package.

The trouble for Carpenter was that he chose to end his film on a shot that more or less begged a sequel of some kind.  To be fair, Carpenter did claim that the ending was meant to be taken on something like a symbolic level.  The disappearance of that film's villain, the now iconic Michael Myers, was meant to suggest the pervasiveness of evil, or a palpable sense of threat.  I suppose it means Carpenter's real trouble stems from the fact that sometimes most audiences can only read symbols on their most literal level.  Either way, fans were left wanting to know what happens next.  Over the following decade, each sequel detailing Michael's twisted life and exploits made everyone less anxious to find out what happens as time went on.  The original Halloween saga came to its inglorious end with Busta Rhymes kung fu-ing the Shape into cinematic irrelevance.  Rob Zombie tried to give the mythos his own spin, and as a result we don't talk about that particular episode.
Like I  said before, I've grown leery of sequels these days.  The gradual, disappointing slope of Carpenter's original vision is just one of many examples of why knowing when to write "The End" can sometimes be the most important way to guarantee a story has a meaning and therefore a purpose.  Now, after number of years, we have yet another entry in the Myers story.  The difference is this time, director David Gordon Green has decided the best course of action is to chuck the whole thing as a bad go and create what amounts to a soft reboot that starts more or less from scratch.  The big question is: does it work?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of The Twilight Zone's Magic Man (2009).

Nobody knows him.  I'm not sure how many even realize he existed.  Is it possible for a real person to become a myth, or figment of the imagination if enough people never realize that you're there?  Either way, if you mention the name Charles Beaumont, the sad fact is people are going to have no other choice except to give you a blank stare in response.  If you mention someone like Rod Serling or The Twilight Zone, however, then you might be lucky enough for someone's eyes to light up.

The Zone premiered in 1959 as the brainchild of TV wunderkind Rodman Edmund Serling.  After half a decade of having to fight for his scripts to get an airing in the censorious world of 50s network television, Serling's idea for an anthology series centered around the horrific and fantastic was a spark of inspiration that provided just the platform that could solve his woes.  Serling found that network a lot of network executives were squeamish if you wanted to put on a dramatization of subject matter like the death of Emmet Till.  However, if you couched you're messages in the generic forms and formulas of Sci-Fi or Horror, then you were given sort of a free pass.

The reason why Serling was given liberty to say whatever he wanted with the Zone is very simple when you realize that that popular genre fiction was never regarded as something that mature people were meant to take seriously.  All that sort of thing was little more than juvenile trash.  Who could possibly care for any of it?  It's even less than a deck of cards.  The curious part is that a lot of viewers still remember and re-watch the Twilight Zone long after it's original critics have been shuffled out the door.  I think a lot of great names should be so lucky.

One of those names belongs to a part of the of crew that Serling gathered around him to help create his fabled 5th Dimension.  I'm not at all sure whether it's true to say that the Zone had anything like an actual writer's room, with a fixed staple of creative talent waiting in the wings and on-call whenever a new idea had to be brainstormed for next week, and the one after that.  It at least sounds like standard operating procedure as far as most contemporary television goes.  However, I still don't know if that's how Serling ran his operation.

What I do know is that Rod would employ a continuous, returning roster of talent to pen some of the most well-known and remembered episodes during the entire series run.  Richard Matheson, who wrote such classics as The Howling Man and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, is probably the closest author anyone can recall in connection with the show.  However that unofficial roster included quite a few other names as well.  George Clayton Johnson was responsible for the Robert Redford episode Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can, and what I still consider his best effort of the series, A Game of Pool.  There was a third name in that roster, however.
He was Charles Beaumont, and almost no one knows who he is.  That's why filmmaker Jason Brock has probably done history a favor by making a documentary about the creative legacy of a forgotten name.  The best part about Brock's efforts is that he gives his viewers more than enough clues to not just reconstruct the life of Beaumont, but also the nature of his imaginative writings, and how they have managed to shape the current nature of the fantastic genres in America.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Dave Made a Maze (2017).

Meet Dave (Nick Thune).  How does one describe someone like Dave?  There's no real outstanding feature about him.  He's just a regular guy living in an apartment complex with his live-in girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).  The worst part is Dave is not some isolated loner.  He's got an active social life with plenty of friends.  In fact, one of Dave and Annie's closest acquaintances is Harry ( James Urbaniak), a documentary filmmaker.

With all this neat stuff happening all around him, Dave must have a lot of things worth doing, right?  At least that's probably how a normal person would handle it.  Don't misunderstand, Dave's very normal.  He so ordinary he qualifies as wall-paper.  That's sort of the problem.  In a world full of stuff happening, Dave somehow never manages to find out what to do with himself in all of it (his to-do-list includes: "Finish Concept Album.  Make Ultimate Sabbath Mix", and "Fix Front Door").  He's never made a real contribution anywhere, and he can't figure out where to begin.  To say Dave sort of has an inferiority complex about his troubles is a bit like saying Niagara Falls runs downhill.  The thing is Dave would like to be able to say there is at least something out there, in the world, that he can say he has achieved or accomplished with any kind of professional pride.  It's just that he can't figure out what that is.

One day, out of the blue, Dave had an idea.  He would try and build the world's greatest maze.  Right here, in the middle of his apartment.  He would just start from somewhere at random, and build on from there.  It sort of helps that Annie was away for the week, otherwise none of what happened next would be possible.  Dave built his maze alright.  He finally did something.  There is one minor setback, however.  You see once Dave got started, he didn't much of any ground-plan, or layout in mind.  He really just seems to have gone wherever his thoughts took him from one moment to the next.  He must have had some idea for an exit.  Though maybe he can't quite remember where it is, what happened to it, or if it even existed in the first place.  Dave made a maze right in the middle of his own living room, and now he's stuck there with no clear idea of how to get out.  The worst part is that somewhere along the way Dave made an unsettling realization.  He's not alone inside the maze.  And whatever it is that's stalking him, it's hungry.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Christopher Robin (2018).

All of us have childhood memories.  For both better and worse, they make up our introduction to the world, and how we will respond to it as adults.  One element that can sometimes be a part of this arrangement revolves around the kind of entertainment we take in as kids.  There are a great deal of us whose childhood is in many ways a catalogue of the cartoon characters we saw at an impressionable age.  Some of them left enough of an impact (and here I'm thinking of Garfield and the Three Stooges) that they can inform the ways in which we look at the world today.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh was never one of the big things for me growing up.  It was definitely something that was there, and I can remember watching it as part of my childhood, yet the character and his world are little more than just fragments scattered here and there as a sort of background noise in my memory.  As a result, the character spun off from a series of books by A.A. Milne was never one of those instant-recall figures for me.  It was more like something that was just sort of there, hanging around awhile before fading out of sight.  I don't know if this makes me the ideal audience for this picture, considering it's subject matter.  All I know is that after having a chance to sit down and watch it, my thoughts are as follows.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014).

For some time now, I've had the idea that it is just possible to examine a specific strand of time which represented an astonishing period of artistic creativity among a number of several well-known authors.  While it is a mistake to believe that these authors make-up anything like an organized group, there can still be a sense in which each individual writer was responding to a phenomenon that is best described as the birth of the proper cultural and aesthetic climate which would allow them to find both their individual voices, and methods of expression.  The curious part is how often this disparate group of writers from the 70s and 80s often find ways to dialogue with one another in their works of fiction.  It is similar, in many ways, to the kind of artistic flourishing which saw another handful of differing authors produce a series of texts during the Victorian Age which now make up the canon of both children's and popular literature.

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon, of sorts.  Sometimes there will be moments in any potential age which can serve as a kind of igniting spark that will both draw in and produce artistic minds capable of churning out a surprising (and hopefully effective) level of creativity.  The children's authors (i.e. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Edith Nesbit etc) of the Victorian/Edwardian eras are just one such example of this phenomena.  I'd like to argue that a similar group of authors is the product of a similar kind of cultural convergence.  These writers came of age either during or after the 60s, and were, in general, a mix of both Boomer and Gen X cultures.  The curious part is how this doesn't seem to have led to anything like an expected series of major clashes that can erupt between generations.  Instead, older scribes like Ramsay Campbell were able to get along just as well with relative youngsters like Neil Gaiman.

It is Gaiman as both an individual talent, and as part of this larger artistic phenomena that I'd like to examine here.  Gaiman is one of those semi-household words of the moment.  The good news is that a close examination of his works reveal that we are dealing with a genuine talent, and not just some ever vanishing fad.  Of all the names associated with this semi-group of writers under discussion, Gaiman is one of the few to win his way to mass popular ubiquity, along with the likes of Stephen King and Alan Moore.  In taking a closer look at Gaiman's life an art, the trick here will always be how to realize that Gaiman is one of those artists who does not exist in isolation.

I find that the most interesting aspect of Gaiman's writings is that he is one of those rare talents who is willing to pretty much wear all of his influences on his sleeve.  In both fictional writings, and real world essays, Gaiman has proven himself more than willing to talk about his artistic enthusiasms.  These range from obscure names like Hope Mirless and Lord Dunsany, to the work of popular comic book artists like Jack Kirby.  The result is that Gaiman's work demands that we see him as an individual talent in relation to the cauldron of story from which he returns to draw ideas from time and again.  Hailey Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman is just the sort of text that can help us in this regard.

Novelist and academic Audrey Niffenegger describes the book in rather succinct terms.  "As time runs along we can all look back and trace the large events in our lives (marriages, children, vocations, artistic triumphs) to some small conversation in a pub, a book encountered at random in a library or a chance meeting on the street.  In this book, Hayley Campbell rewinds Neil Gaiman's life and explores the connections between his life, his ideas and his work; She has interviewed Neil about every comic, novel, short story and movie he's ever created, excavated old photos and manuscripts out of boxes in Neil's attic and spoken to many of Neil's collaborators, editors, and friends.  She has written a delightfully comprehensive, matter-of-fact and sometimes surprising account of the development of Neil's entire body of work thus far (60)".  In addition to all of that, Campbell's book is good for one other thing.  It is perhaps the closest resource critics and fans may have at trying to gain an idea of the meaning and nature of Gaiman's work as a writer.

In what follows, I'll be focusing in on certain aspects of Campbell's insights.  In particular I want to see if she can tell us anything about what we're Gaiman's influences, does he have a relation to any kind of artistic cultural milieu, and would these two factors tell us about the thematic significance of her subject's work.  In trying to find this out, I will be not be focusing on any one specific text.  The goal here is to work toward an overall understanding of Campbell's subject.  In order to accomplish this goal, I will be focusing in on just a small handful of Gaiman's texts.  There is always the risk that such a method of approach can wind up giving the reader a distorted picture of the author.  However, I've never been able to shake the idea that at least a tentative beginning of an understanding of Gaiman's work can be reached if we first zero in on a small sample of his stories.  From there, it should be possible to build on the basic idea suggested by these works as each of Gaiman's other writings come under eventual examination.

It is true that Campbell provides an extensive look into Gaiman's creative output in her book.  Each book is given it's own two to four page chapter in the text.  These examinations of Gaiman's work come after a few opening sections dedicated to the life of the author.  Now a focus on the early chapters to the exclusion of most of his book's might be a disappointment to some.  However, it has to be remembered that this article is concerned with whether or not Gaiman belongs as a part of a disparate, yet related group of writers that together make up a sort of informal group that defined the nature of fantastic fiction for a brief span of time near the end of the 20th century.  If Gaiman does have a place in such a gathering, then it means we need to review the author as an individual talent in relation to whatever literary traditions might have informed his writing, as well of those of the other creative artists in this hypothetical collective.  This means we must first look at the author himself, and the ideas behind his writings, if we can ever hope to gain a better understanding of each of his individual stories in the future.  In this regard, Campbell's text can be of great help when the  time comes to look at each of Gaiman's artistic endeavors on an individual basis.  It's for all the above reasons that taking a critical look at Campbell's text might just help us to understand what kind of a writer Neil Gaiman really is.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.