Saturday, April 25, 2020

Joe Hill's Faun (2019).

One of the main goals of this blog is to bring the forgotten pieces of artistic history back from the past, and give them their moment in the spotlight.  At the moment, I don't think the subject of today's post needs that much introduction.  If you mention the name Joe Hill to anyone, chances are there will be a sizable enough number of people that know who you're talking about.  He's managed to carve out a place for himself in the current pop-culture landscape, and emerge as a pretty good example of what modern Horror fiction is capable of producing.  His most famous creation remains the multi-part graphic novel known as Locke and Key, while his 2008 novel, Horns, was recently made into a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle a while back.  His name has received its most recent boost from having his 2013 novel, N0S402, translated into an open-ended TV series adaptation of the same name.

It's an admirable achievement for the most part, and Hill has been able to demonstrate a remarkable sense of talent when it comes to entertaining his audience.  This begins to make a bit more sense when you take the author's family history into account.  In the strictest sense, Joe Hill the writer is a man who doesn't exist, except as a limited number of words that make up a fictional pseudonym.  I suppose it looks good or at least serviceable enough for a book jacket byline.  However, that still doesn't tell readers the whole truth.  His real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and for whatever reason, he was lucky enough to have the famous Horror author Stephen King as a father.  Once this important fact is kept in mind, the outlines of Hill's creative output begins to perhaps make a bit more sense.

The introduction to his recently published anthology series, Full Throttle, is unique in that it marks the first time Hill has opened up about how the writings of his own Dad have influenced the nature of his career.  "Most sons fall into one of two groups.  There's the boy who looks upon his father and thinks, I hate that son of a bitch, and I swear to God I'm never going to be anything like him.

"Then there's the boy who aspires to be like his father: to be as free, and as kind, and as comfortable in his own skin.  A kid like that isn't afraid he's going to resemble his dad in word and action.  He's afraid he won't measure up.  It seems to me that the first kind of son is the most  truly lost in his father's shadow.  On the surface that probably seems counterintuitive.  After all, here's a dude who looked at Papa and decided to run as far and as fast as he could in the other direction.  How much distance do you have to put between yourself and your old man before you're finally free?

"And yet at every crossroads in his life, our guy finds his father standing right behind him: on the first date, at the  wedding, on the job interview.  Every choice must be weighed against Dad's example, so our guy knows to do the opposite...and in this way a bad relationship goes on and on, even if father and son haven't spoken in years.  All that running and the guy never gets anywhere.

"The second kid, he hears that John Donne quote - We're scare our fathers' shadows cast at noon - and nods and thinks, Ah shit, ain't that the truth?  He's been lucky - terribly, unfairly, stupidly lucky.  He's free to be his own man, because his father was.  The father, in truth, doesn't throw a shadow at all.  He becomes instead a source of illumination, a means to see the territory ahead a little more clearly and find one's particular path.  I try to remember how lucky I've been (2-3)".

Hill doesn't leave it at that, and is kind enough to provide the reader with a kind of map of his own development as a writer.  It kind of helped that both his parents were not just "book people", but were also dedicated to the art and crafting of a good story.  In spite of this, Hill says he was a poor student.  Here again, his parents demonstrated just how much they cared about their son's ambitions.  There big discovery was that Hill was able to remember things better if it came to him from the pages of a book.  It was a copy of Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing which began to unlock all the important doors in Hill's career.  The writer also mentions how make-up artist Tom Savini acted as a kind of "second father" and role model for him to look up to.

It was from Savini that Hill inherited the sometimes impish sense of glee the writer demonstrates in bringing some of his wackier and off the wall concepts to fruition.  I can see how some readers might be inclined to turn their noses up at these moments as a kind of sophomoric sensibility that the author allows to get in his way.  In Hill's defense, I'm willing to maintain he is able to pull off such stunts, more often than not.  Even when he doesn't make the jump shot, it's not for a lack of either talent or inspiration.  Instead it seems to a phenomenon I was puzzled about at first, but have since come to realize as those unfortunate, yet genuine moments when the inspiration is there, yet it also somehow manages to remain just out of the artist's reach.  I can't even begin to consider the level of frustration that must bring to someone who is such a perfectionist at his craft as Hill is.  The good news is that he never let it discourage him for long.

With all that in mind, it's refreshing to see Hill is the type of writer who isn't shy or ashamed of the influences on his sleeve.  There are two interesting aspects about Hill's work.  The first is the most obvious in the sense that it's plain as day that he's followed in his own dad's footsteps.  The second and more important is the way his work serves as both an extension and continuation of the type of Gothic tale that helped put Stephen King on the map.  I'll get into that subject in it's proper place.  For the moment its enough to stop and take a quick, close look at one of the stories in Full Throttle.  It's an intriguing sort of yarn in its ability to take old ideas, tropes, concepts, and give them a fresh spin.

The Story.

There's a whole other world out there.  It's very different from the one most people live in.  The denizens of this other world are peculiar in their habits.  They think nothing of wining and dining on the Riviera one moment, and then traipsing all the way to Africa in order to bag themselves a lion.  Now the average man on the street, if he takes time out enough to give the matter some consideration, might pause just long enough to wonder, "Isn't that supposed to be illegal or something?"  It is.  It also doesn't stop someone with the determination to go through with it.  A certain Mr. Stockton is just one such person with the necessary sense of determined disregard to try and see if he can get away with it.  It is just the same old natural law of the jungle after all, as far as he's concerned.

Stockton has been making these little outmoded and outlawed safaris for some time now.  This year was something special.  In addition to bringing along his son Peter (who in turn was nice enough to invite his college chum Christian for the ride), Stockton was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of a professional game hunter like Fallows.  They've never met before this time in the wild, nor were either men on speaking terms or in the same social circles until this very moment.  Stockton knew of Fallows more through reputation than any chance encounter.  However, with the great man in front of him now, Stockton can see the legends are true enough.  There's something about Fallows.  He's one of a much older breed, the kind that is able to understand the world a bit better than your average Mad Avenue suit ensconced up in a seven foot high-rise office.

You can tell, just by being in his presence, that whatever else he may be, Fallows is a born survivor.  This is a point that gets driven home for Stockton when Fallows is able to rescue both Peter and Christian from a brief lion attack.  It's all over in a flash, and no one is really hurt, except for one less king of beasts.  Yet even thought Peter has aged into something of a little overgrown inattentive brat, Stockton is still dad enough to be shaken by the encounter, and is in Fallows' debt.  Perhaps that was another reason to mention the Door.

As Stockton tells it, tucked away somewhere in the great northern New England woods of Maine, there is a door.  That door is located somewhere in the attic of a house.  The house is one of those old colonial estates, the sort of mansion that could have sprung straight from the ground in a story by Hawthorne.  Both house and the door are owned and operated by Mr. Edwin Charn.  He's something of a living antique in that he seems to be one of the last of another ancient breed.  He's a remnant of what might be called the New England aristocracy.  These are (or were) the families with long lived lineages, whose fathers and mothers probably can trace their ancestry all the way back to the landing at Plymouth Rock.  From there, they went on to establish a Gothic tradition in American society by shunning, hanging, or drowning anyone lucky enough to earn the status of outsider.  It was mainly these colorful antics that caused guys like Hawthorne make them famous, and notorious.  They were influential enough to cast a shadow on the identity of the fledgling American continent.  It's to this same line of descent that Mr. Charn belongs.

It's difficult to see how a guy like him could wind up in the business he now operates.  In all honesty, Charn is not quite sure how the Door even got there in the first place.  At first it was little more than simple cupboard or glorified broom closet.  Then one day, it just turned out to be a doorway of sorts; the Door.  Ever since then, Charn has been willing to offer a particular service to any costumer willing to fork over the exorbitant asking price.  For this simple ticket of admission, Mr. Charn is willing to take his visitors on a tour through the other side of the Door.  It's a hunting expedition, nothing more or less.  It's just the content and nature of the hunt that makes it unlike anything known in this literal world.

When Stockton makes this pitch to Fallows, the old survivalist is non-committal, often appearing just a few steps away from outright skepticism.  Stockton is determined to enlist the man in Charn's hunt, and he arranges a meeting between the two.  Stockton even goes so far as deciding to let Pete and Chris tag along, as he thinks the whole thing will be a good experience for the boys.  After some persuading, Fallows decides to give the old man a chance.  Charn himself comes off as something of an escapee from the local morgue, yet he assures everyone he is dead serious.  To prove his point, he brings in a cage.  What's in that cage is enough to tip the world off its axis, and sets off a chain of events that leads to a nasty surprise waiting for the main cast of characters on the other side of the hidden Door.

An Intriguing Blend of Genres.

In a notes section at  the back of the collection in which this story appears, Hill gives some useful background on the meaning of Faun.  He starts out by noting that the story "is a pretty conscious descendant of Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder."  In stories of Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, the little door to topsy-turvy land is always discovered by a child who needs something: to learn the value of home, or to serve a cause bigger than herself, or to avoid creepy old fellas like Charles Ludwig Dodgson.  I couldn't help but wonder, though, what might happen if an enchanted portal were found by someone with a more mercantile heart and a lot less moral fiber (471)".  That one single question seems to have been the mainspring for the entire narrative.

There's nothing too out of the ordinary about it.  Some of the best narratives in world history started out with a single question of "what if"?  What if a hole in the ground led to another world?  What if another hole was home to a particular kind of human like creature?  What if carpets could fly?  What if such things as a Jabberwocky could exist?  I think the real thing that singles out Hill's inspiration is that he seems to have been the first, so far as I know, to hit upon the idea of turning the concept of the discovery of a magical world existing alongside our own on its head. 

What Hill gives the reader of his narrative is an interesting and contrasting combination of two storytelling modes in one.  The first component is the idea of a prototypical world that is common to the fantasy genre.  It contains the usual flora and fauna one has come to expect in just such a setting.  The best way to describe is that its a natural product that results from modern authors culling through the back catalogues of old, Greek Pastoral writers like Ovid, or Renaissance poets like Spenser, and then taking the regular cast of mythical characters that populate those landscapes, and somehow managing to present them once more to modern audience tastes.  The process itself is far from original with Hill.  Nor is that a slight against him as an author.  The whole point is whether he is able to make these elements work.  I'd argue that the answer is more or less yes.  The way he goes about it brings the second element into the mix.

Hill is a very particular type of author.  I don't think it's any real controversy to state that, as the son of a famous artist, he is very consciously following in his dad's footsteps.  This applies to the genre Hill has decided to make his own.  Like King, Hill is a product and practitioner of Modern Gothic tradition in American letters.  This marks out the particular kind of story he is writing as something far older than any of the individual artists who've plied their trade in the field.  It's a form of writing that I'm convinced could only have happened in a country like this.  Granted, there is a great deal of thematic overlap between the American and English forms of this particular genre.  I think the critic Ann Tracy provides a decent enough description of the basic type of situation to be found in a work of Horror in her bibliographic work, The Gothic Novel.

"The world represented in Gothic fiction is characterized by a chronic sense of apprehension and the premonition of impending but unidentified disaster.  In this world, appearances frequently, though not consistently, deceive, the mind and the sense falter and fail, and the passions overwhelm.  Tempters, natural and supernatural, assault in impenetrable disguises, precipitating ruin and damnation.  Nobody is entirely safe; nothing is secure.  The Gothic world is quintessentially the fallen world, the vision of fallen man, living in fear and alienation, haunted by images of his mythic expulsion, by its repercussions, and by an awareness of his unavoidable wretchedness (3)".  In short, Tracy's outline of the Gothic is that of a situation in which guilt and the intervention of the fantastic are the norm, with an often extreme emphasis on the more horrific elements of folklore to serve as the genre's identifying trait.

If I had to add anything to that, then it would be a distinction between how a British and American writer would tackle the genre as a whole.  While it is possible that the trope of the guilty past could play prominent role in a Horror story written on either shore, there does seem to be a difference in the kind of emphasis a British novelist would place on the trope that sets him somewhat apart from his American counterpart.  A good way to highlight this distinction is to label the English Gothic as "Progressive", while its American format is best understood as "Denialist".  The English tale of terror always seems to carry the note of a forward thinking outlook which is always trying to leave the Dark Ages behind.  The trouble is the genre can often demand the presence of supernatural entities, and these elemental elements most often manifest as products of the very historical past that the modern British protagonist would claim to deny.  So that when the Horror is brought on-stage in a British setting, the audience is given a sense of just how much antiquity can lay a claim on the present moment.

The constant note of the American Gothic is that it is always on the run from a very specific and guilty past.  This setup is very much defined by the nature of the settling of America, and the crimes that often came attached to it.  In particular, the most definable trait of the American Gothic is in the way it is joined to the country's Puritanical heritage.  America is a very haunted country when it comes to the original Plymouth colony, and certain of the less savory historical events it helped create.  These include the standard list such as the breaking of promises to the country's original Native American population, the importation of slavery, and a bit of self-inflicted insanity known as the Salem Witch Trials.  If I had to give a reason why this particular moment in the Nation's history should exert so much of an influence on the Horror genre as it exists today, then I think it all comes down to the way certain origin events can leave a stamp on the character of its society.

There is a great repressive strain at the heart of the American Puritan culture.  It is just possible that this strain was able to survive long after its original hosts had mutated and passed on into what is now regarded as the regular American mainstream.  Just because the original Puritan stocks faded into memory doesn't necessarily mean that they weren't able to plant other seeds in the New World culture at large before taking their final bow.  This, in turn, may be the ultimate source for a lot of the by now familiar ills the plague the U.S. as a whole.  It's just one of those elements you begin to notice if you're a Horror fan who likes to pay attention to the stories you enjoy.  My own experience is that if you keep it up long enough, you begin to see how history has impacted the very DNA of the genre.  In all the best work of stateside Gothic fiction I've ever read, even in modern practitioners like Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson, there have always been faint traces of what I can only describe as a New England ethos.  This palpable sense of atmosphere has, in turn, always pointed back in one way or another to the precise culture responsible for the first big dark stain on the national psyche.

By now, it seems to have become a trope of its own in our national mythology.  Nathanial Hawthorne seems to have been the first professional writer to plant an idea of this basic Gothic setup in the minds of readers.  Poe followed soon after, and from their things began to pick up all the way to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and finally Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill.  Each of these writers is a practitioner of the American Gothic, and each of them have a shared sense of the Puritan legacy and how it has shaped and traumatized both the land and its genre.  These are all elements that I believe are very much on display in the course of Hill's short story.  Charn, for instance, is an almost snapshot perfect image of the Gothic American Puritan.  He sits and rules in his old, dark mansion like the owner of his own personal fiefdom.  And that is very much the way he treats the Land Beyond the Door and its inhabitants.  In this sense, Hill's villain is more or less replicating the crimes of his original New England ancestors.

I think Tony Magistrale is able to place Hill's story in its proper context.  The irony is that he does it by talking about the work of another author.  The punchline is compounded once you realize that Hill's relation to this other author is so fundamental that it's hard to tell if there's even much of a difference.  Of Hill's tradition, Magistrale writes: "(Stephen King's) debt to generations of literary artists in the Gothic genre is obvious; this book has attempted to detail only a few of the influences and confluences that connect King to the vibrant Gothic tradition.  Danse Macabre reveals a deep reservoir of influences that stretch back to Walpole, Poe and Lovecraft, and forward to Harlan Ellison and myriad of modern cinema directors.  But certainly one of the major elements linking King's fiction to the inclusive Gothic tradition is its attack on the very foundations and and values upon which society is constructed.  Similar to the anti-social world of the eighteenth century Gothic novel, which initiated the destruction of the cultural order and stability that characterized the Age of Reason, King's novels and stories emphasize the breakdown of civic ties, societal conventions and organizations.  His work is populated with standard Gothic apparatus - demons, ghosts, blood bonds with evil, self-corruption, and a reliance on supernatural terror.  But in his hands these elements are frequently connected to the tragic imperfections which constrain American culture.  In this sense he has, like Melville and Hawthorne a century earlier, contrived to "refine" the Gothic by highlighting and advancing the sociological and philosophical implications inherent in the horror story (106)".

I'm going to edge out on a limb here by saying that everything Magistrale just said about King applies in about an equal enough measure to Hill.  Both authors are at home in the same genre.  Each of them tends to play to similar creative strengths that tends to place a great deal of their work in the same regional New England setting.  The most important similarity, however, is that both King and Hill displays a more or less identical approach to the way they handle the Gothic material in their stories.  As Magistrale explains, there is a satirical element in King's work that gives it a certain amount of thematic weight it might otherwise not have.  This is not to say that writers like King or Hill set out to write conscious works of satire.  Instead its more that even as artists, both men posses a kind of conscientious awareness or ethical insight that inevitably tends to seep into their work.  Because of this, its not that much of a surprise when you realize there is a subtle, unforced form of cultural critique that helps add a few extra pounds of importance to the proceedings.  It is also in keeping with things that Hill's satirical elements wind around the same puritanical targets as his old man.  This aspect works best when neither author sets out to lecture, and are just devoted to having fun with a yarn.  More than this, there are hints, here and there, that Hill has begun to assume the rare position of an author who could one day stand to inherit the secondary world first laid down by King a long time ago.  I think such a development would have to be considered pretty unique for the way it marks the first time works written in the same fictional setting could become something like a family tradition.

The place that a short-story like Faun occupies in all this is that of a hybrid work.  It's not the first time someone has tried to blend the elements of horror and fantasy together.  If it's other examples of these types of stories you're looking for, then guys like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith were able to pen tones of similar ideas down on paper for whole generations to read and be influenced by.  Even Peter Straub wrote a whole Horror novel around the work of the Brothers Grimm with his 1982 Shadowland.  In that sense, the sub-genre of fairy tale horror predates Hill by a good margin.  I suppose the sense of novelty lays in the fact that this type of story is also very rare in terms of making an appearance on stage.  For the most part, modern horror has left behind the old haunted castles and misty moors far behind with the advent of the light bulb.  However, the ability to mix horror with outright storybook fantasy elements remains for any enterprising artist to pick up whenever they feel like it.  That it really doesn't happen all that often makes the appearance of a work like Faun something an unheralded event.  It is the blending of these two polar opposite styles that Hill is able to accomplish with a such skill that the experience of his secondary world is total and seamless.  It also highlights the question of accomplishment and potential.

A Short Story that wants to be a Novel?

If Hill is able to blend the genre trappings of Fantasy and Horror, that just leaves the question of how successful he is at being able to tell his story, just as simple narrative.  On the whole, there's not much to complain about.  The characters are sharp, and most of the narrative events are able to pay off in a satisfactory way.  If there's one criticism I have to make about the story it's that I can't help thinking the final curtain was brought down on the action a bit too abruptly.  This is not the first time I've had this reaction from one of Hill's works.  The first time occurred in reading the author's otherwise excellent 2013 novel, N0S402.  Everything about the former story works right up until the final confrontation and wrap-up scenes.  For some reason Hill seemed either in a rush to get things over with, or else it marked the one moment where something went wrong with his inspiration.

When reading about fictional places like Christmasland, or the Beyond the Door, the attentive reader soon begins to understand that the author has hit on a series of creative goldmines, the kind of fictional spaces that cry out and beg to be given more room to breath and time to grow into the fully fleshed out settings they deserve to be.  This would require an extra amount of determined dedication and effort on the part of the artist.  It was a level of commitment shown by the likes of Tolkien or Rowling in the construction of their respective secondary worlds.  I think Hill has a similar knack for this sort of world-building (in which sense he is, again, very much like his father).  It's a skill he's able to carry off with an expertise that seems almost effortless as the pages fly by.  Part of the reason for this could be the way Hill is able to introduce the settings of his stories.  He knows that the background stage has its place, while at the same time recognizing that it's not the real point.  The story is what's important.  Because of this instinctive recognition, Hill is able to dole out the secondary world as the story demands it in an organic way that introduces colorful scenery that somehow always focuses your attention on the characters, and what is happening to them.

It's possible to see this same process at work in Faun, and its kind of a shock and delight all mixed up in one to discover that Hill can mythologize with the best of them.  It's possible to criticize the Beyond the Door as a just a knock-off of places like Narnia.  However, it could that a better word to describe it is as a kind of satirical parody.  We've seen this world before, in one form, shape, or another.  In the strictest sense there's nothing new about it.  The difference lies in the way Hill tackles the material.  We all the know the enchanted glade, now what would it mean if something truly horrific were to happen in it?  Again, the very nature of the concept in itself is, as stated above, a creative goldmine.  The author should allow himself to take as much time as he needs to develop both setting, character, and events for the narrative to deliver its maximum effect.

I think the real trouble with the tale is that Hill made the mistake of letting it be a short story when it could have worked better as a novel.  It just feels like there's too much of a jump skip in the narrative when the resolution gets going.  There's nothing all that wrong with it, although I can see room for improvement here or there.  The main issue though seems to boil down to a simple question of dramatic timing.  Hill claims in his notes that it was written for an anthology being put together by a writer named Lawrence Block, whom Hill likes to count as an inspiration.  Hill makes a point of explaining Block's methods, and why he figures it was so important for his own short story.  "Block has something of a knack for the savage final twist.  When he asked me to contribute a story for an anthology he was putting together, At Home in the Dark, I knew I wanted to write something that would reflect his values and instincts.  Hopefully "Faun" does (471)".

To be fair, it's possible to see where Hill is coming from.  The trouble is he seems to have made a near-fatal mistake of taking an external practice in the abstract and then applying it straight away to his story without taking the time necessary to see how this can be worked out in a way that won't disrupt the flow of the narrative.  He also seems to have not bothered to ask the legit constructive question of whether such a shock-effect approach is even needed in the first place?  I'm willing to argue that, yes, the shock narrative turn can work in stories like that.  I've seen other writers apply just such misdirection gotcha tactics to good effect before.  The difference is they all seemed to know that such turns in the narrative require a more proper build-up.  The whole point of the turn itself is that it is an effect that requires the right preparation, and I'm not sure that Hill ever took that into account when he was composing his story.

The good news is that it isn't entirely a deal breaker.  The story is still able to work, misstep and all, although I still have some ideas about what could have been improved.  The main complaints I've got for the story center on the moments when the main cast has entered the secondary world and are huddled together in a survivalist tree-house that Charn has put together.  In the original short story, a family of titular characters makes their way toward Charn's target area, and in they just barely escape getting their heads mounted on a wall.  It's after this that Hill decides to kick the denouement into high gear with no fanfare or buildup.  This seems like the best place to expand and give the ending its proper context for maximum dramatic effect.

What could happen is that both the sighting and near catch have gone to Peter's head, and now his blood is up.  For the first time in his life, he's got the hunter's fever, and he becomes obsessed with tracking down the quarry they all missed.  Both Stockton and Charn tell him to cool it, shut up, and learn to appreciate the waiting game.  Peter is sent to a corner where he sulks, twitches, and fingers his rifle.  After that, the cast has to endure a a certain amount of monotony as the day fades, and soon night is on the horizon.  Charn decides its best is they take turns keeping watch, and waking the others if some more game comes into view.  Everyone agrees and the scene the closes with a focus on Christian as he begins to doze off.  We pick up with this character once more as he's being shaken awake by Stockton with a concerned look on his face that is both genuine and somehow alien to a man like him at the same time.  The reason for it is simple enough, Peter has gone missing.  He slipped out of the tree-house when no one was paying attention.  Fallows was the one who noticed and alerted the others.  Now the hunting party has turned into a rescue expedition.

Here is the part where the story would have to walk a fine line between Horror and Fantasy tropes.  What you have is the kind of setup that's been seen in countless chiller stories from the past.  You have the main cast out in the woods, looking around, hearing strange noises coming from all sides.  Just that description should be conjuring up numerous books or film's you've read in the past where this exact trope is taking place.  I don't see that it's too much of a problem, originality isn't so much the goal.  Instead its more a question of how good the author can make the audience care about an old trope.  In this case, the setup itself is the familiar  twist in that the cast slowly begins to realize the tables are being turned, and the hunters are becoming the hunted.  In all this, the effect to be reached is a note of terror in a setting out of Tolkien.  The real question for me is how do you handle the moment where the terrors have to be brought shambling out of the dark?

I know that as the cast makes their way through the forest, there has to be snatches and glimpses of the horrors stalking them.  The trick is these are really just the sort of creature you'd expect to find in an old medieval bestiary.  There's nothing new about them in the strictest sense, and traditionally there has never been a sense in which they were regarded with outright horror.  Instead, the main aesthetic response to these made-up creatures has been one of enchantment, more often than not.  Even dragons seem to have been met with a sense of wonder, as much as caution.  This makes it a genuine challenge to see how possible it is to make the wondrous frightening on a genuine level.  I've seen at least one auteur make such an attempt in the 2007 Norwegian film Troll Hunter.  However, that was played more as a comedy, and the effect for the kind of scenes and events I'm thinking of need to instill a genuine sense of threat and menace.  That remains the great puzzle to crack.  I think it's that aspect of Hill's story that I find the most fascinating.  I think he deserves some applause just for being able to even conceive of the idea in the first place.

Either way, I know what happens.  Pretty soon, the quarry stalking the hunters quits fooling around and strikes.  The attack is able to scatter the party, and we focus once more on Christian as he's on the run through an unfamiliar and hostile landscape.  From here, I'm less certain of what could happen.  I can see Chris stumbling upon Peter, who is still alive, yet shaken to his core.  The two try to make a run for it, only to bump into more of the denizens of this world.  They could then be rescued by Fallows, who then is able to track their way back to the tree-house, where Stockton and Charn are waiting.  From here, the story could transition into another classic Horror trope, with a cast of characters isolated and holed up while a supernatural threat encroaches from the outside.  The best example of this still remains the original Night of the Living Dead, yet the conceit isn't limited to just one movie.  John W. Campbell also gave it a good spin in his novella Who Goes There?, which later became John Carpenter's The Thing.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if the scenario was given the kind of spin that Hill was able to cook up.

Anyway, they are trapped, tensions rise and tempers flare.  Stockton starts to blame Charn, who in turn reminds them of the risks and tells Stockton he should have known better than to bring his boy along.  Before either of them can lunge for each other's necks, the barricades are breached and the bestiary figures start to tear holes in the tree-house.  This is the point where I think enough time and buildup has occurred so that a smooth transition can be made back to the denouement of Hill's original without missing a beat.  By now, with an entire amalgamation of story elements under its belt, the final reveal can have a logical sense of inevitability about it.  Beyond this point there's not much else I have to offer in the way of story suggestions.  I suppose I could make one final critical/creative proposition that either Christian, Peter, or both be allowed to leave the story with their lives intact.  Hill is following a very strict kind of Gothic moralism in his tale, and its one that dictates the nature and content of his ending.  However, I almost find it more fitting if at least one of the party, not Charn or Stockton, is allowed to have "escaped, alone, to tell thee" all about it.  This would leave the survivor as something akin to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner who survives a supernatural ordeal and comes out changed as a result.  If it's ethics Hill is so concerned about, then I'd argue such a move allows the moral of the story have more weight to it.

Conclusion: An Intriguing Statement.

I suppose the best way to approach a work like Faun is to view as something like a rough sketch.  It's an outline with a genuine creative idea at its center, it's just that it's difficult to determine whether that's all she wrote, or whether a lot more is still waiting in the wings.  However, what can be said is that it's easy enough to see the kind of goals Hill had in mind as he set about composing the whole thing.  At the heart of the story, there seems to be a heartfelt statement about the use and abuses of narrative art.  If it's true that Hill is working in the same Gothic tradition as his father, then it stands to reason that a lot of the satire that infuses the genre would turn out to be present in both their works.  I believe its there, and the satire becomes most obvious when you look at characters like Stockton, Peter, or Charn.

It's not too hard to spot the kind of allegory at work here.  Stockton and his no-account son are the type of characters who have been raised from birth to turn their attention as far away from the world as possible.  There's an emotionally stunted quality to both of them that bears this out.  The phrase that describes them best is narcissism.  It isn't just the money that makes them self-absorbed, however, although that is a contributing factor, like an intoxicating drug that helps them get through the night.  Instead, the real crux of their characters was singled out a long time ago by Stephen King.  In Danse Macabre, King singles out narcissism as a defining trait of the modern Horror genre: "it is a prime example of what Irving Malin calls "the new American Gothic"...John G. Parks employed Malin's an article for Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction.  Park's article is on Shirley Jackson's The Sundial, but what he says about that book is equally applicable to a whole slew of American ghost and horror stories, including several of my own...By narcissism, Park and Malin seem to mean a growing obsession with one's own problems; a turning inward instead of a growing outward.  The new American Gothic provides a closed loop of character, and in what might be termed a psychological pathetic fallacy, the physical surroundings often mimic the inward-turning of the characters themselves...(296-7)".

I think the characters of Stockton and his son fit this categorization very well.  Both men are raised in households full of silver spoons, and were trained to believe it is possible to take anything they want and suffer little in the way of actual consequences.  As a result, they are both used to crossing the normal boundary lines that make up daily life for the great majority of people.  However, the story demonstrates the eventual price-tag that comes attached to such actions, sooner or later.  However I think Charn sort of outdoes either them in terms of the kind of themes and obsessions the character is ultimately shackled with.  What makes Charn interesting is that while he's on the same ladder as Stockton and Pete, there is the sense that he has advanced to a higher (or lower, depending on how you choose to look at it) level than either of them.  There's a clarity to Charn's outlook, yet its not the same thing as whatever counts as wisdom.

When we deal with Charn, we are following the thread of Gothic narcissism all the way back to its grounding in the history of Puritan America.  Hill appears to suggest that anyone with a Puritanical mindset is incapable of reacting to anything, even the creative or extraordinary, except in so far as it can be used as an extension of the ego.  If this makes Charn a Puritan, then he is one where the veneer or mask of piety has been tossed aside to reveal the ruthless mercenary that was always lying underneath.  What's curious about Charn is that he regards even the world inside the Door as nothing of value in itself, except as a means for profit.  It is this entire mindset that the story is set against.  In opposition to it, there is the narrative's secondary world.  If I had to take a guess at what the enchanted land of Hill's story means, then it would have to be as a metaphor for all true creativity wherever it may be.  In this sense, the underlying message is more or less an argument for others to respect the integrity of art in general.

The idea itself may be simplistic when its all laid out on paper.  I think it's best to keep in mind that to call an idea simple or easy to understand is not always the same thing as calling it false.  The concept that the arts might need protection from those who would exploit it seems to be very up in the air right now.  Part of it seems to come from the way pop-culture is handling itself at the moment, and the backlashes from various fan communities.  It's a muted issue in a time where other conflicts are taking center stage.  The natural result is that it has no real choice except to get overlooked.  It also doesn't stop the topic from cropping up here and there.  I think it's one that perhaps needs to be discussed a lot more as the years go on.  At the same time, I'm also puzzled as to why it should even crop up in the first place.  In other words, why tamper with things that aren't broken or fading?  Isn't it enough to let good art do its thing?  Still, for whatever reason, this is how things have shaken out.  Now it seems to be a matter of defining terms, and clarifying such concepts as official canons and definitive texts, along with more obscure arcana such as what makes any given scene work in a narrative.
The good news is this is all just another day at the office for me.  As someone who at least tries to be a critic, I sort of have to ask these questions anyway.  The even better news is that it is possible to say I like asking an examining such questions.  Right now the most curious fact about the text under discussion, for me at least, is how Hill seems to be linking the disrespect for narrative, at least in America, to the Country's dark side as embodied in the old Puritan traditions.  It's an interesting concept, and I have to admit I'm still willing to here more about it.  However this is another moment where I find myself wishing that Hill would just let the concept grow to full-fledged novel length, because the story as it exists just doesn't leave enough room to let both characters and ideas breath in the way it seems like it wants to.  If that makes any sense.  Right now all I can do is hope and wish that Hill revisits this idea and perhaps give it the full exploration that it deserves.  Until then, while Faun is perhaps not all that it can be as a story, there's still plenty of food for thought within its pages.


  1. (1) I know little about the topic, but it feels entirely accurate to suggest that a heavy streak of Puritanism remains active in the American psyche; or in certain part of it, certainly. It'd be easy to make a case that this is a party-divide type issue, but I kind of doubt the reality is that simple. I think many Americans feel, if only subconsciously, that things used to be a lot simpler back in the olden times. I also think that the voices of people who know that that's not actually the case are growing louder; and between the two, conflict is bound to arise.

    (2) I don't think I'd considered the idea that "Faun" might have been better served as a novel. You might be right; it's a good enough concept that it could certainly withstand the expansion.

    (3) I take the resolution of "Faun" -- and maybe the entire story, in its way -- to be less an expression of literary tradition of the kind Magistrale talks about (in relation to King), and more of an EC throwback. This story could handily fit into a "Creepshow" movie as one of the segments. Big-game hunters go on the ultimate hunt and end up as prey. Not a bad EC turnabout.

    1. (1) I see it in a rather interesting light. To express a complex history in the most simple terms possible, its like the early Americans founded two societies on this continent. The first was the Puritans, as outlined above. The second was the more forward thinking and looking culture of the Founders. They were the ones who planted a lot of the seed ideas that have since taken hold on those voices you say are growing louder. Therefore America is a country of two cultures clashing against one another.

      There is one figure in the Puritan camp who is interesting, however. While he might have been the de facto ruler of the Puritan society for a time, his own private writings reveal someone more in the Founder's line of thinking. His name was John Winthrop. What makes him interesting is that while he might be defined as the first glimmer of a liberal strain in American thought, he was forever hemmed in by the society of which he was the ostensible head.

      I even came up with a metaphor to describe his predicament. Imagine Godric Gryffindor from "Harry Potter". Now imagine what would happen if he brought his ideas to the other school founders, only for them to reject those ideas and all become Death Eaters, leaving Gryffindor to fend for himself. The illustration may be crud, yet I can't shake the idea that it gets at the heart of things.

      (2) It's certainly something I'd pick up off the shelf like a shot.

      (3) The trick here is that I also tend to see the old EC Comics as also operating under this same Puritanical critique. Magistrale even highlights articles by other critics who've highlighted the King connection to the comics, and he places them in the same tradition. Personally I'd say Magistrale is able to help highlight the Comic's literary qualities. And I still maintain what I said about the need for a more dramatic buildup and payoff.