Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Mrs. God (1990).

Some authors can be a challenge.  This isn't always true across the board.  Nor is it meant as any kind of slight.  On the contrary, my own experience as a reader has taught me that sometimes its those who just write straight from the gut that tend to come off as the best tellers of tales.  That's not to say that complexity doesn't have its place, nor that simple can't be sophisticated.  If there's any kind of logic to all of this, then I guess it might lie in the idea that each story is like one big give and take process.  The general rule of creativity (for lack of any better word) seems to go more toward multiplicity, rather than uniformity.  It seems to be a major reason why even those books and films with similar sounding storylines just wind up veering off in their own, differing directions.  That may very well be a headache for some.  For anyone like a bookworm, however, it's something very close to the spice of life.  Perhaps that's why I've just never been able to mind it all that much when it's clear that I'm reading from a book who's author seems naturally drawn toward literary complexity.  Peter Straub seems like a good example of this trait.  He's the kind of author who's imaginative technique is best described as layered.

His books are the kind that often contain the themes, symbols, and sometimes even story elements from those of his Gothic progenitors.  The best example of what I'm talking about still remains a vignette from Ghost Story, which basically consists of the plot of Henry James's Turn of the Screw told in miniature.  The remarkable thing about it is not just that it works, but that it does so in a way which neatly ties into the remainder of that novel's main story.  It looks like invention, yet I'm willing to maintain that what we're dealing with in those moments is a sample of inspiration where the story is able to double upon itself, if that makes any sense.  We're not dealing with a mere Simpsons parody or allusion, in other words.  This is something else.  We seem to be in the hands of a creative process that is just that bit more sophisticated, if I'm being honest.  It's a simple story, told in a such a way that allows the plot to enrich itself through naturally piling on and playing off of earlier references in such a manner that the blending of all into one comes off as a single, seamless whole.  Like a well made birthday cake in which all the necessary ingredients have been packed in just so.

I think it takes a lot more than just "mere invention" to pull that off.  It takes a Romantic frame of mind that is willing to "let the muse speak", as it were, while also paying attention to what's going on as the words arrive on the page.  In any case, this a process that Straub has followed on every single book or short story he's ever written.  On the whole, it seems to have worked for him, more often than not.  Sometimes, in books like Koko or Mr. X, the results might be less than stellar.  When he's firing on all cylinders, however, you tell can things are going right just by reading a page.  Even if he's describing a relatively quiet scene, the way he writes it down makes the narrative instill in the reader a necessary desire to keep the pages turning in order to answer that all-important question.  "What happens next"?  It's what happened for me in my reading of the book that's under discussion here today.

I suppose the first step toward understanding a text with the curious title of Mrs. God would be to provide some much needed context.  For that, you'll have to turn to Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree.  He knows a lot more about it than I do.  It's in that study that Sheehan is able to situate both the genesis and first appearance of this overlooked piece in Straub's bibliography.  It came during a time when all of the author's concentration was laser-focused on what has now come to be known as The Blue Rose Trilogy.  It was a set of books (namely the aforementioned Koko, along with Mystery and The Throat) which featured intertwining themes and characters spanning across several decades and time periods.  It seems to have been the project that was able to capture the writer's heart, as its the one set of writings which Straub invested himself in the most.  A good way to the describe the triologu may be to refer to the whole project as his version of The Dark Tower, except this time a lot more down to earth.   This may also help explain the labored, uneven and uninvolved quality of these books as a whole.

I think what happened is that Straub's heart was always in the right place.  He just got so caught up in the explication of extra-literary themes that the idea of telling a story sort of got demoted to second place.  That's usually the kiss of death for any good chance at an enjoyable narrative.  Still, even if the ultimate truth about the Blue Rose saga is that of the clash between story and ambition, along with the inevitable downfall of the latter, then at least it is possible to say it wasn't a total loss.  While the Rose period might have been a less than stellar time for Straub, his real muse managed to speak up every now and then.  This would result in an occasional short story or novella, something that would be written off in a neat spurt of creativity and then tucked away for later.  Eventually, this process began to generate enough cast-off material to result in one of the author's few short-story collections.  This is where Sheehan's scholarship comes in handy.

"Before turning his attention to The Throat, Straub gathered together a number of shorter pieces and published them, in 1990, under the title Houses Without Doors.  A distinguished, ambitious collection that remains, justifiably, one of Straub's favorite books, Houses gathers together two novellas (both of which have deep connections to Straub's () series of Blue Rose novels), two short stories, and two short novels.  In addition, the book contains seven short, loosely connected vignettes whose themes, scenes, and subjects - childhood, Vietnam, resurrected memories - echo and amplify the central concerns of the stories that surround them, giving the collection an overall sense of cohesiveness and thematic unity that is both unusual and effective.  Together, these thirteen pieces create a composite portrait of a violent, claustrophobic universe whose essence is suggested by the Emily Dickinson epigraph that gives the book its title.  "Doom is the house without the door-'Tis entered from the sun-And then the ladder's thrown away-Because escape-Is done (211)"

Let me just note in passing, that ever since Sheehan penned those words back in June of the year 2000, Straub went on to write what at this date appears to be his final novel, just some few years later on down the road.  As a result, perhaps its fitting that Straub's A Dark Matter does well enough to act as neat a summation of his outlook on life, literature, and everything.  If this is the case, then the way that last big book ends leaves one with the sense that the author's own personal view of the universe is a lot more open-hearted than Sheehan is giving him credit for.  Let's just say that, as it stands, that latter novel might just help one figure out the definition and landscape of the Horror genre as mapped out by Straub and Stephen King for future generations.  All that is future fodder, however.  Back to Mrs. God.

Sheehan tells us that "Mrs. God was written in the aftermath of Koko, and much of Straub's psychological condition at this time found its way into the story.  Having invested so much time, effort, and emotion in Koko, Straub found himself literally bereft by its completion, a feeling complicated by the sense that he had just placed his baby, his 'Real Baby', into the keeping of strangers, and he "didn't know how they would care for it."  To combat this feeling, he needed to begin writing again, but was completely unprepared to begin working on a new novel.  Instead, he embarked on a longish story patterned, as he later realized, much too closely on The Turn of the Screw.  Not surprisingly, given Straub's emotional condition at the time, the story that eventually evolved from this initial notion had at its center the recurring image of a lost - in this case, aborted - child.

"At about the same time, Straub agreed to write an introduction to an omnibus edition of Robert Aickman called The Wine-Dark Sea.  Aickman (1914-1981) was one of the greatest and most original practitioners of the twentieth century tale of terror.  His stories - which he referred to, simply and precisely, as "strange stories" - are perverse, eccentric, often willfully obscure, and absolutely unlike anyone else's.  Writing in a British anthology called Dark Voices, about Aickman's 1957 story "Ringing the Changes," Straub noted that:

"(The) real oddness of most of Aickman's work is related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity.  Unconscious forces move the stories...as well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and events is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way.  To pull off this kind of dreamlike associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the nature of "ordinary reality," to demonstrate again and again...that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.   

"The process of reading a great many Aickman stories in a short period of time helped Straub solidify his notions about Aickman and his work.  It also helped him to solidify certain notions about narrative, and the ways in which narrative can be deepened and enhanced by subverting conventional expectations, and by denying readers the comforts of neat conclusions, sequential plot development, traditional climaxes and, above all, rational explanations (227-8)".  I feel the need to make an annoying critical pause here for a moment, if for no other reason than to head off a literal load of current assumptions that (as of of this writing) seems to be a constant presence of the creative scene at the moment.  The reason for this comes in Sheehan's use of the words "expectation" and "subversion".  The two terms, placed together, have become something of a loaded dice phrase of late, amounting to what could almost be the simplest, unexpected trigger warning phrase in existence.  Whatever meaning the current users of that phrase insist upon, one that thing that should be made clear is that its a usage which neither Sheehan nor Straub have ever meant or intended.  And yet I can't help thinking that's how some readers may view it.

If so, then I'm afraid a genuine misreading has been made of both author and critic.  The good news is the resulting morass is capable of helping us arrive at an understanding of where the trouble lies.  The whole crux of the problem seems to lie in a confusion between style and content, or literary method and matter.  The fact is that Sheehan is using his words in a way that allows a distinction between the style Straub uses to tell his story, and the actual contents of the plot itself.  If a reader goes in expecting to find the current, passing meaning of "expectation subversion", then I'm afraid they'll be in for a disappointment.  Indeed, there's nothing at all out of the ordinary in the tale Straub has to tell.  Instead, all he's doing is utilizing the methods, tactics, and stylistic flourishes of narrative dream logic and association (the kind you can still find in Alice in Wonderland) all in the service of a conventional narrative.  In that sense, I'm afraid Straub is among the least avant-garde artists out there, and it's a fact that Sheehan is well aware of.  In a sense, however, I'm afraid both of them are victims of the time.

What this means in practice, unfortunately, is the tedious yet essential need to help the reader gain a sense of the critic's terms and theirs uses for commentary as originally defined.  The good news is there doesn't seem to be any real reason why this should spoil the enjoyment of a story.  With all this boring preliminary out of the way, let's return to the podium back to Sheehan, who says: "The most enduring result of this extended encounter with Aickman and his work was Mrs. God.  And though there are a number of other influences discernible in the story - traces of Ramsey Campbell, himself an Aickman devotee, can surely be found here, along with traces of Stephen King (The Shining), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Carlos Fuentes (Aura) - Aickman is the major force behind this strange, extreme, "meditation on sex, violence, and the sacred".

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Polybius (2017).

There's a kind of trick involved here.  I'm not talking about the gimmick at the heart of tonight's entry (at least not yet).  The problem I've got to find some way of addressing right now is that of public awareness.  It's an issue that both artists and critics have to deal with.  This goes double for anytime that a writer or filmmaker decides to take the plunge and create an artwork that is new or original, and therefore has no built-in pre-awareness to it.  In the case of the critic, what this means is that if there's this neat, old, antique piece of literature or cinema that you're a fan of, and yet the odds are even that few to no one else has ever heard about it, what that usually amounts to, in practice, is that you have to go out of your way a lot more on explaining just what the forgotten artwork is, what it does and where it came from, in addition to what should be just a simple task of explaining why you either like or dislike it.  With a familiar franchise like Star Trek or James Bond, this issue doesn't exist as much, because they are pieces of entertainment that most audiences are still familiar with.  If you then turn around and mention someone like Algernon Blackwood, or Frank Belknap Long, then most people have no choice except to wonder who in the hell you're even talking about.  That's when the real trouble begins.   

I think something very much like this problem is in play right now.  It explains why perhaps a bit of context is in order.  There's also a bit of irony thrown into the mix as well.  That's because in one sense, the artist I have to talk about can at least be considered something of a known quantity.  He's got a popular following on his own, and he is a contemporary show business personality, at least of a sort.  Confession time.  I'm not real sure just how far the influence of YouTube personalities, or internet celebrity is able to extend, and what kind of effect it has at the cultural level of popular awareness.  Going just by my own experiences, the whole phenomenon of YouTube filmmakers is, at best, a curious combination of vague ubiquity, combined with a free-floating sense of anonymity.  When you decide to click on a video link by guys like MattPat, or Markiplier, the results always maintain this curious sense of the familiar and the unknown combined.

On the one hand, there's always the possibility that you might just wind up enjoying their work, and become something like a casual, regular viewer; at least here and there, on occasion.  At the same time, even if this happens, it remains very hard to tell what kind of impact they are having on the media and audience landscape at large.  It's like you know you might be looking at something of importance, yet it's hard to tell just how far that importance extends.  For instance, not long ago, one YouTuber named Patrick Willems did a retrospective on Francis Ford Coppola that helped me re-evaluate the entire cinematic generation of which he was a part.  That was a viewing experience with an ultimately positive sort of outcome.  I guess its as a good an example I can give of the best possible results this collective endeavor can have on the audience.  At the same time, I seem to have been an outlier.

The fact is I'm not real sure how much of an audience awareness or impact this kind of endeavor is able to generate.  It can be considered a shame in a few cases, as people like David Rose, or In Praise of Shadows have proven themselves capable of making legit documentary features exclusive to the internet.  There may be a sense in which such efforts point the way toward at least a hopefully vital aspect of the future.  However, I'm not sure we've arrived there yet, or even whether or not the majority well ever take notice.  The whole thing seems to amount to a collective problem and/or conundrum.  How do you leave an impact, and barely get noticed in the process?  The whole thing sounds like a demented, self-canceling zen koan.  It's also a challenge that every YouTuber will have to struggle with, even a nominal trendsetter like James Rolfe.

As of this writing, his popularity fluctuates between 50 and 75%.  What that means, in practical terms, is that a sizable half of the audience has a pretty good idea of who he is.  At the same time, there's an equal yet opposite majority who've never even heard of the guy.  He got his start a while back, yet not too long ago, incredible as that may sound.  His breakout performance debut was in 2004, by appearing in a series of YouTube comedy sketches, under the persona of the Angry Video Game nerd.  Since that time he's managed to build up something of a reputation for himself.  The nature of his act is interesting for the way in which it combines two elements which seem commonplace now, yet which probably looked revolutionary back in the early 2010s.  What Rolfe does is take the idea of critiquing a piece of artwork, in his case a video game, and then fitting it into the formatting and performance of sketch and/or stand-up comedy.  The result was and (at least as of this writing) remains: The Nerd.  

He's this hyperactive, hard drinking, profanity laden man-child of a figure.  Someone whose whole existence is predicated on not having much of a life outside of hiding in a way in a roomful of grade-Z video games, and then torturing himself by playing and reviewing them for our viewing pleasure and pop cultural schadenfreude.  At least I think that's the gist of it, anyway.  The premise itself seems to be very basic, and yet its what Rolfe has been able to do with the format that seems complex.  His early videos where very crude, bargain basement affairs.  Usually each video consisted of Rolfe in the Nerd persona filming both himself and recorded consul footage of the game he was reviewing.  He would riff off various aspects about it that happen to piss him off.  This can range from poor graphic design, faulty control functionality, all the way to various, weird, in-game creative choices that just don't amount to much in the way of common sense.  Granted, since most of the old consul games were geared more toward gameplay rather than anything like an actual story, I'm not sure how much its worth it to get upset over.  It wouldn't be until later that developers found ways of incorporating actual narrative into the gaming experience.

In addition to his profanity laden comedic riffs, Rolfe would often try to add variety to his endeavors by creating any number of comedy sketches, and wrapping these around the main riffing segments of his videos.  This sort of thing could range from toilet level crudery, to some material that could be actually pretty clever.  I think the one that's destined to stick with viewers the most is the constant creativity Rolfe is able to either draw upon, or in some cases just plain make up out of seeming thin air whenever he allows to Nerd to give any and all shitty games a good and thorough verbal abusing.  There's not any one example of what I'm talking about right now that would stand as the pinnacle of things.  It's all so much of a piece that Rolfe is even willing to include his curse word poetry in the main theme song to his show.  It's one of those things where either a positive or negative reaction goes a long way to determining whether you're willing and able to go along with the kind of idea Rolfe has got going here.  Based on the following he's been able generate from it all, I'd have to say that audiences have been quite willing to go along for the ride, for the most part, anyway.

There's probably a lot more to say about Rolfe's style of humor, and the particular YouTube culture and format that's grown-up around it.  For the moment, however, I think it's more important to note that one of the interesting things about Rolfe is that it turns out he doesn't seem to be just a one-trick pony.  One gratifying surprise is to discover that the guy is something of a Horror movie buff.  He's not the sort whose knowledge can't go any further than the year 1978, either.  This is the sort of Terror Geek that actually knows who Vincent Price and Boris Karloff were.  No offense, yet that kind of pop culture knowledge is the rarest commodity in an era that by and large can't seem to realize that any real history existed before Spielberg made a film like E.T., and even that film seems in danger of falling through the cracks.  Rolfe, however, isn't one to forget.  Even when its a film that he can't quite get behind (and there have been times when I have to disagree with him on certain cinematic texts), you can tell his love for the genre as whole is what allows him to be able to have at least some kind of appreciation.

Nor does Rolfe's fandom for the Horrific stop at just mere appreciation.  It seems to be enough of an inspiration for him to try his own hand at the genre.  It's a subject he's even willing to talk about at length at Cinemassacre.com, the site for the company he and his friends and family have formed just for this purpose, and of which the AVGN is just part of a greater, indie filmmaking whole.  It's on that site where you will find Rolfe sharing a lot about his love for the Horror genre, and how it has impacted him as an artist and movie maker.  Once you start to listen to him as he goes on, sometimes at eager and enthusiastic length, about a subject in which its obvious he cares passionately about, then perhaps it begins to make sense why one of his initial efforts as a film school graduate was a spin of on the Horror Mockumentary sub-genre.  In fact, you might say it's this love of Horror that is responsible for the topic of discussion today.