Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tiger in the Snow (1984).

In my last article I made a deliberate effort to draw the reader's attention to the way author Philippa Pearce used the image of a lion, or generalized Big Cat, as a symbol for the fantastic in her story.  The tale is told in such a way that the appearance of this Cat right out of the blue, on a normal city street, is meant to appear enigmatic, and out of the ordinary.  This is easily demonstrated by the way the story handles its titular character.  The human like attributes of Pearce's second main lead mark him out as something other than just a normal lion.  There is always an undercurrent of the odd about this strange talking cat, and it's perhaps to Pearce's credit that she was aware of this in composing her work.  As an artist, she appears to have been able to recognize just how unusual a note her talking cat is able to strike in the reader, along with the other fictional characters surrounding him.  It's a character note the author recognizes, and is smart enough to realize that this is the note she needs to latch onto if her story is to have any chance of success.  That element of the unexplained is precisely where the engine that's driving this peculiar narrative is located.  It's what gives even the most unbelievable elements in her story their gripping power.  As a result, the reader keeps turning the pages, and even when the book has been closed up and placed back on the shelf, it's very oddness manages to stay with you.  There's always this lingering sense of the uncanny emanating from the story, and it still hangs in the air well after the final line.

It almost has to be one of the more unique experiences I've had from going into a story cold and unprepared, yet more or less ready for anything.  Part of my reasons for not calling it the most unusual story I've ever read is because, in the strictest sense, I'm not all that sure that Pearce's story exists in a vacuum.  If a fable such as The Lion at School were a genuine one-off, then it might have amounted to something like a true literary anomaly, the printed-page equivalent of one of those old impressionist landscape paintings featuring a lion crawling up to an unsuspected sleeper in the dunes.  Instead, it turns out I can point out at least two other examples where different writers sort of wound up using the same or similar conceit at the center of their respective, individual works.  The first title is the one up for discussion today, Daniel Wynn Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  The second is an old short story by Stephen King.  By turning the focus onto separate and yet somewhat thematically united works from both authors, the atmosphere begins to take a slight turn.  Philippa Pearce recognized an element of the uncanny in her story, and yet her narrative as a whole is kept light and humorous, for the most part.  When we turn to the efforts Barber and King, however, the uncanny begins to take a firm grip on the genre proper.  Even if there's the possibility that we are still dealing with children's stories, we've nonetheless wandered onto the shady side of the street.  By taking up first Barber, and then King, we've more or less entered the precincts of what Ray Bradbury liked to call the October Country.

This in itself doesn't strike me as all that big a leap of imagination.  If Pearce was able to locate an element of the uncanny in her own story, then all it takes for guys like King and Barber is to take that slightly off-kilter note, and then tip it over into full-on Gothic territory.  This includes bringing the image's potential for all out horror right to the front of center stage.  The contrast may seem jarring to some, though any careful examination of literary history and practice will be enough to show that this sort of thing happens all the time.  What it can't show quite as well is just who the author of today's story is, or where he came from, nor have I been able to learn about anything that he might have done, or written since.  In that sense, Daniel Barber is one of the most interesting types of case for the critic to have to confront.  If writer's like Philippa Pearce are capable of providing just enough material to allow us to reconstruct a working, fact-based biography about them, then Barber is very much of the other kind.  All we have of him is a name on the author's byline space, followed by a blank nothing where all the useful background material should be.  

Instead, the closest I've been able to come in terms of a reliable chronological record is this story's publication history, as laid out by the helpful folks at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  There you'll be able to find out all about the surprisingly long-lasting staying power of Barber's story.  It seems as if his simple efforts have turned out to be the little short story that could.  Tiger in the Snow is not a household tale like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, yet ever since its first appearance way back in 1984, that one effort has managed to stay in print, all the way up to the present day, in fact.  If nothing else, it's a textbook example of the reliability of good writing.  I'm just sorry that I can't find out anything else about the guy who wrote it.  The only other title Barber has to his name seems to be a 1985 effort known as Wings of the Hunter.  Nothing else is forthcoming.  In a way, while that does make the job of contextualization a lot more difficult, it doesn't render the task impossible.  A lot of the reason for that is because even here, Barber sort of conforms to a specific type.  He's one of several anonymous toilers in the trenches who have been able to leave some kind of mark behind, right before they vanish into the literary aether forever, never to be seen or heard from again.  

Barber isn't alone in this type of fate.  The most famous and similar example of this kind of author belongs to that of H.F. Arnold.  He is most known today (if at all) for a short subject known as The Night Wire.  In essence, the tale itself amounts to what has to be one of the first modern examples of apocalyptic horror ever printed.  It comes complete with an otherworldly fog, and what might be the first examples of flesh eating zombies in Horror fiction.  We also don't have a clue as to the life of the man who wrote it.  Dan Barber seems to amount to pretty much the same thing.  He' a name on a page, and his entire mystique stems from the fact that we know positively jack about him.  It's got to be the most anonymous way of gaining fame that exists out there.  You've got to admit, it's a genuine accomplishment of sorts, even if it is a headache for completionists.  The good news is that even if the author has slipped past the microscope lens, there is still plenty in the story itself worth talking about.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Lion at School by Phillipa Pearce.

One of the interesting perks of being a devoted bookworm is having the opportunity of exploring a new talent.  That opening statement is not dishonest exactly, though perhaps it doesn't tell enough of the whole truth.  The writer up for discussion today is no longer qualified as an unknown quantity when I decided to make this my first article on her.  I'd had the luck to discover the talent of a writer like Phillipa Pearce by the time I came to today's topic.  One of these days I really will have to get around to her most famous book.  There's a lot to talk about there, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.  That's sort of the explanation for choosing this title to talk about.  Sometimes I find it helps to start out slow and small, then gradually climb to the top of the mountain when the reader is ready and willing for a clear view of the whole panorama.  What I've read from the author so far has left me curious to learn more about her and her type of storytelling.  The curious part is how she's left so little to go on.  It can be frustrating as hell for any critic who wants to present a good snapshot of the author for the reader.  At the same time, I can't deny that there's anything irregular about such circumstances.  The sad truth is sometimes things like this just happen.  It shouldn't comes as any kind of surprise to discover that a lot of genuine talent has an unfortunate habit of slipping through the cracks of awareness and memory.

Philippa Pearce is one of those writers who seem destined to present a challenge to anyone who would like to examine her life in relation to her art.  Some authors, like Dickens, are able to become famous enough for their lives to be presented as more or less open books.  Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to stumble across what might be called the also rans.  These are the names that wind up as accidental flash-in-the-pans without really deserving such a fate.  Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson are two good examples of the kind of writer I'm talking about.  Both are pioneers in the fields of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  Now can anyone tell me who they are?  If the answer turns out to be an impossibility, the sorta good news is you can't entirely be held responsible for something you don't know about.  It's more the fault of a show business model that seems fundamentally designed not to be able to keep track of the very names that helped build it up.  As a result, the Horror genre is dominated by names like Stephen King, yet it never pays attention whenever the very same author makes an open acknowledgement of the debt he owes to the two writers just mentioned above.

The net result is that writers like Pearce, along with Johnson and Matheson wind up as regrettable footnotes when they should probably be at least something approaching solid and respectable brand names, if not outright household titles.  The trouble is that a lot of elements that should be in place for such a preservation process just aren't when the artist needs them, more often than not.  That leaves a certain amount of avid readers out there having to scramble just to uncover anything as basic as a simple author biography.  In the case of Phillipa Pearce, one of the crucial factors that seems key in getting any proper read on her biography has to do with what might be called the importance of place.  Perhaps it should be stressed here that questions of nationality don't enter into it.  Looked at from that perspective, place doesn't stand any sort of chance.  Instead, the phenomenon I'm describing has a lot to do with the psychology of first impressions, the way any well made landscape can impact itself on the artistic imagination in a way that produces creativity, as opposed to ideology.  I can even think of several good examples of what I'm talking about.

J.R.R. Tolkien always liked to say that the first time he ever became aware of his surroundings was in the idyllic countryside of the late Edwardian period.  This was a time when industrialization still hadn't quite chipped away at the local ecology.  It was still possible to enjoy a few green fields of earth, and to any mind with the capacity or talent for artistic creativity, the impressions such a landscape can leave behind might, under the right circumstances, be able to find their way into the ranks of aesthetic immortality.  This is the case with Tolkien, as the fields and pastures of his childhood in Sarehole Birmingham later wound up becoming not just the Shire, yet also a great deal of the secondary world we now know as Middle Earth.  

Stephen King is another writer who seems to have discovered the artistic importance of place.  He's never talked about it as much as Tolkien, and yet if anyone picks up some of his books, one of the elements in them that strikes the perceptive reader is just how good the author is at making certain landscapes come alive and jump off the page, giving that novel's action a sense of immediacy that helps to draw the reader in.  It makes sense to me, for this reason, to think of King as one of the last great, almost pastoral-regional writers in the history of American letters.  There's just something about the old, Gothic, New England landscape that always manages to bring out the best in King's descriptive abilities.  The same process at work in both these authors appears to be in play with the writer under discussion here today.

In the case of Philippa Pearce, one of the first things to note is the place in which she was born and raised.  In her case, that meant the Mill House, down by the River Cam.  It's the kind of setting that manages to have a reputation, and not be well known outside of its own setting, or region.  The reason for that is pretty simple when you realize most Americans, for instance, have no curriculum incentive to learn about other places than their own home.  A place Cambridge, England, however, does at least carry a vague, general sense of familiarity about it.  Don't they have like some sort of famous university going on up there?  Well, as of this writing, that's still the case, yes.  It's also the setting for the location of both the River Cam, and the Mill House, where Philippa grew up.  She wound up as the daughter of Ernest Alexander and Gertrude Ramsden Pearce.  Her father was a miller and/or local flour and corn merchant.  It sort of explains why the whole family was even living at the Mill House in the first place.  Like many residents of certain New England factory towns, the House provided a useful, cheap, and efficient means of housing the local working population (web).  I can't tell for certain, yet this seems to be one of the few cases where the working men and women's accommodations weren't really bad, or degrading for the local morale.  On the contrary, there seems to have been little complaint about a housing complex that appears to have been more upscale and comfortable than the usual fair the working classes had (and in many cases still have) to put up with.

The Mill House of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, was the first home Philippa ever knew.  Because of its more upscale living conditions, her childhood seems to have been able to be one of decent enough comfort and stability.  She seems to have been able  to enjoy the best of both worlds, as she came of age in a setting that combined elements of the metropolitan with the green and cozy enchantment of the Cambridge countryside.  It's almost as if she was given an interesting sense of options.  A turn in one direction would take you into a normal, thriving, civic population.  Just a few more turns of the corner, however, and you could find yourself in the midst of Geoffrey Chaucer country, with the rolling hills, and the steady quiet noise of the rivers and waterways.  It's easy enough to see how this strangely harmonious, and organic mixture of the urban and the English countryside could find a way to form a positive shape in the mind of a young future artist.  Tolkien, in that sense, was perhaps a bit less lucky than Philippa.  In addition to an equanimity of setting, she seems to have benefited from her specific sense of place in another way.  Philippa Pearce's educational history is sketchy, at least to start with.  Her schooling didn't really begin until she was eight years old.  The reason for that appears to have stemmed from a temporary on and off again childhood illness.

Nonetheless, I sort of have the impression that she suffered very little from what could have been a real setback in any other location.  It is just possible that the young Philippa entered her first day of school with a lot (if not all) of the academic ammunition she needed in order to get by tucked under her arm as she walked into class for the first time.  My reason for thinking this is because while normal class hours might have been denied to her for longer than usual, the same can't be said for any available reading material within reach.  As is the case with family settings like those of Tolkien or J.B. Priestley, Philippa seems to have been encouraged to take an interest in whatever it is that draws a reader to the words and worlds found within the pages of a book.  There are two reasons why they did this, one practical, the other less obvious.  The first is just plain common sense.  If you're a parent, and you know that school is on the horizon for your young pitcher, then I suppose it can at least make a kind of sense to encourage them to start taking to literature in the hopes of doing well in class later on.  That seems to have been part of the logic at play in Philippa's parents allowing her easy access to the world of books.  The second reason is a bit more interesting, as it has to do once more with the occasional importance that place can have on a developing mind.  

It's been established that the author's hometown was located in Cambridgeshire.  Since not everyone lives there, it probably takes more than just a few mental beats to realize that means Philippa was born, grew up, and spent a great deal of her early life never too far from the same University that has long since helped put Cambridge on the map.  The was a place that was long established before her time, way back in 1209 as it turns out.  That means it's had more than seven centuries to it; more than enough to time for the University to help set its stamp on the land surrounding it.  What few seem to realize (perhaps because this is a facet so fundamental as to be almost primal in its general lack of awareness) is just how much of a difference an academic setting can make to any society that is able to grow up around it.  It helps set a tenor, or specific character note to not just the landscape, but also the kind of people who are born, raised, or find themselves drawn to such places.  

Perhaps its a mistake to call such settings a Republic of Letters, however, on the whole, there does tend to be a certain sense of deference to learning and the Liberal Arts in places like Cambridge or Oxford than you tend to find elsewhere, even in most big cities.  This can sometimes result in households where the written word and the people who make it are held in a greater sense of regard than, say, places like Las Vegas.  This seems to have been the case with Ernest and Gertrude Pearce, as they gave their daughter ample opportunity to soak up the truths buried under various imaginary lives.  It takes perhaps a beat or two more before the full truth of the matter starts to sink in.  The reality seems to be that Philippa Pearce owed her skill with books to the fact that she was the ultimate product of a University setting.  She was, in effect, a College Town girl.  It doesn't seem to have hurt her chances, in any case.  Beginner's, Elementary, and eventually even College doesn't seem to have presented her with much of a challenge.  On the contrary, the final results tell of someone who thrived in an academic setting.  Again, luck of the draw, at least in terms of birthplace, seems to have been a good determining factor here.  

From there her professional career is best described as an admirable mixture of the remarkable and the pedestrian.  She seems to have had not much in the way of any personal drama, which might make her a boring subject for the contemporary biographer, yet is probably more of an accomplishment because of that.  Instead, she found herself a steady employment, first as a civil servant, then as a writer and producer of BBC radio programs for school kids.  In addition, she seems to have managed the job of children's editor for the Oxford University Press on the side.  Not a bad record, all things considered.  There's still the question of the stories, and where they might have come from.  I can't even begin to hope to find that kind of an answer in just a simple review article.  Still, it is sort of the ultimate question you have to ask if you want to get at the very heart of literary criticism.  What I think works best is to start out small, and then just keep building on from there as best one can.  That's why I decided to start out with a relatively light piece from her collection of works.