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".

The Story.

The Esswood Foundation?  Yes, I know of it.  Not through any personal experience, just by reputation.  I guess the simple way of explaining it is to call the place one of the few remaining holy grails in the ever parasitic halls of academe.  Trust me on this, I know that of which I speak.  Sometimes I think I know too much.  I've been a teacher in English Literature for almost forty years now at Zenith, and let me tell you, that's long enough to discover that the profession itself can serve as its own window into human nature.  Pretty soon you learn that phrases like objectivity, or academic validity are more like goals you just hope and pray to arrive at, at best, or else just some deluded pipe dream at worst.  You'd be surprised at just how much the sins of the outside world are able to encroach and then make a nest for themselves within even the most hallowed of ivy halls.  Sometimes I think its places like Esswood that best demonstrate the kind of phenomenon I'm talking about.

I wasn't lying just now, when I referred to it as a holy grail, of sorts.  Whether its good for the soul, however, I leave up to others.  It's just that somehow, after all these years, its the one element of the profession that never ceases to astound me every time it gets brought up, even in passing conversation.  I'm always amazed at the way it has of cutting down to the very marrow of human nature, in its own way, at least.  Esswood itself is a cozy yet semi-palatial estate tucked away within the sequestered hills of the Lincolnshire countryside in England.  It's been owned, seemingly for generations, by a family known as the Seneschals.  I'm afraid I don't know much more about the owners than that.  From what I understand, the house is now the property of two surviving members of the family, a brother and sister, I believe.  They also keep at least a handful of servants, if that's the right word.  Some of them may work for the two remaining Seneschals themselves.  However it stands to reason that most of them are there in what amounts to an administrative staff capacity.  This would be in service to the Foundation itself.

It's also known as the Esswood Fellowship, and sometimes I think it's the real cause of consternation for a lot of the faculty here at Zenith College.  Academic professors are, as a rule, discouraged from approaching anything that offers even the merest hint of superstition.  Or if we have to approach the topic, the collective advice from on high is to please limit it to Anthropology, or the Social Studies class.  The punchline is that even the bigwigs and purse string holders tend to act irrational when it comes to the subject of Esswood, on occasion.  A lot of that is down to the way the Foundation chooses to handle its collegiate brethren.  To say that Esswood controls its Fellows with an iron fist is a bit like saying that Niagara Falls tends to run downhill.  A better way of saying it is to compare the Foundation's rules to that of willingly submitting yourself to being placed in an iron maiden. 

"Esswood had been known to withdraw its Fellowships, occasionally at times very awkward for the prospective Fellow.  The Seneschals, Esswood's owners, appeared to be almost fabulously remote from the details of American academe, but Standish had known two men who, after a period of discreet crowing about being accepted for a term at Esswood, had abruptly ceased to speak about it at all.  They had been thrown out before even getting there (2)".  One of them was Chester Ridgely.  He specialized in the Modernist Georgics, with a particular focus on Theodore Corn.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, as well as ridiculous, then congratulations, you're normal on the subject.  Corn himself was a very minor figure among the poets of the 20s, incapable of coming within reaching distance of a reputation like that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  Old Chester, however, was convinced he'd uncovered a neglected talent, and Esswood was supposed to be his stepping stone on the way to proving his thesis.  In the weeks before his scheduled leave for an extended stay across the pond, Chester was like a man on fire.  He normally carried himself with a dignified professor's stoop, gracious and courteous, if always a little bit pompous.

This whole Esswood business, however, seemed to have lit a fire under him, or else it was just a plain metamorphosis.  The quiet academic seemed to have disappeared after leaving the office one day, and the man who returned was like a wild animal stuck in a barely held together cage.  To say that we all noticed the change is selling things a bit too short.  And I'm not at all certain I could explain those days any more in a way that would make sense.  The best phrase I have for it is that the whole affair was like being dragged along for a ride on an unexpected, unpleasant roller-coaster jaunt with the passenger from hell.  In some ways, everything was worse when the coaster finally came to a stop.  When Ridgely found out that Esswood had withdrawn its Fellowship (something about possible past indiscretions) then it was like watching a balloon deflate, and finding it difficult to get up off the floor.  For a time, Chester went back to his routine, yet I'll swear he's never been the same since.

Are you beginning to see what I mean when I speak of Esswood and superstition in the same sentence?  I can't say I know entirely what it is about that place that turns people inside-out.  I can take a guess on at least part of the issue.  A lot of it could be chalked up to the contents of Esswood's library, and the history of it's former owner and literary hostess, Edith Seneschal.  In fact, this is sort of where Chester's period of expertise comes in.  It turns out that back during the height of the Modernist period of English letters, old Mrs. Seneschal was one of the grand dame nobles who was willing to turn a kind eye (and the occasional open pocket book) toward all the important literati of her day.  This included a majority of the writers, poets, and essayists associated with what came to be known as The Bloomsbury Group.  Dorothy L. Sayers' phrase for them all was "The Bright Young Things", and Edith was willing to act as a fire bright enough to draw in all the scribbling moths.   

"In those days, what drew guests to Esswood was Edith Seneschal's hospitality and the fame of her kitchen...but the pleasure they had in one another's company and whatever they found to enjoy at Esswood itself kept them coming back.  Their gratitude for that pleasure led them to contribute to (Esswood's) library - which is of course why its unique.  Every literary guest (they) had donated manuscripts, papers, diaries, notebooks, drafts, material they knew to be significant as well as things they must have considered nearly worthless.  Of course, some of the latter have turned out to be among (the Foundation's) most important possessions (59-60, sic)". 

Now, try and consider what that means.  Imagine there is a place out there, an old family estate, with a library that is stocked for the most part with nothing else except the rarest, uncollected minutiae of some of the greatest names in the history of literature?  That means that sitting on a shelf somewhere are unread poems by T.S. Eliot that have never been anthologized.  Or the final draft of novels by D.H. Lawrence that have yet to see the light of day.  There could be even more to it.  We're talking about unpublished work by the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.  Perhaps even some uncollected nonsense verse for the Seneschal children penned by Edward Lear himself?  Or else some literary experiments by Walter De La Mare lying unknowing, and out of sight?  Yeah, let's just say it can be easy to understand the draw of a place like Esswood.  The perfect irony is that unless you're a bookworm, what I've just explained won't mean a damn thing.  To those who know the pleasure of the printed page, however, the Esswood Library acts as a kind of joyful and dangerous lure.  The textual history that Edith and her Bright Young Things were able to compile together are like a dream come true.

However, something tells me it would be remiss if I also didn't bother to point out the drawbacks.  This is where one of Edith's Bright Young Things comes into a peculiar sort of play.  She's sort of the last piece of the puzzle, you might say.  Her name was Isobel Standish, and she published just one volume of poetry in her lifetime, Crack Wrack and Wheel, before dying in relative obscurity.  That volume seems to have been the result of Isobel's stay in Edith's household.  Beyond that, not much else is known about the author except for the merest strands of theory and hearsay.  One scholar, in particular, however, has been less than content to leave it at that.  He's been mentioned in passing at least once before.  His name is Miles Standish, and he's a fellow tutor here at Zenith.  He's also something of the local handful hereabouts.  Remember how I said that a college can sometimes act as its own catalogue of human nature?  Well, fellows like Miles seem determine to prove that old saw to the hilt.

He transferred here to Zenith from Popham College, way out in Wisconsin.  To say that he arrived here under something of a cloud is to say the least.  We're discouraged from talking about it, especially on campus.  Seeing how its off-hours, though (and the college pub is often its own free-for-all zone),  I don't mind telling you that the truth of the matter is that it was a clear-cut case of adultery that brought Miles Standish to our hallowed halls.  It was between his wife and that other Esswood applicant, the one I've deliberately not talked about, except in passing.  This other professor shall remain nameless, except to say that at one point Miles at least labored under the impression that they were both close friends.  Time reveals all, however, and one of the upshots is that it was the affair that caused the Applicant's name to be withdrawn as an Esswood Fellow.  The irony is that once you spend time enough teaching under the same roof with an individual like Miles, you slowly begin to realize that perhaps the real truth of the matter is that it was never really his wife's fault.  It was the other way around, instead.  Some just don't know how to be there when it counts the most, I guess.

The curious part is how they're both still married, last time I checked, anyway.  I wonder how long that will last?  There is a betting pool on that score, by the way.  A dollar ten is the entry fee, in case you're interested.  Anyway, my reason for bringing this up at all is because you now get to have three guesses as to which of our staff has had their name chosen out of a hat to be the next potential Fellow of the Esswood estate.  Here's a hint, the first two guesses don't count.  I think even Miles himself was shocked to receive a letter of reply from his initial application.  It's been almost two whole years since he mailed off his request to the Foundation, after all.  Still, he was given a green light, and as a result, the lucky young putz is currently on a plane headed across the English channel as we speak.  

I suppose congratulations of a sort are in order.  Nor can you really blame a man for what amounts to an honest achievement.  It's the question of motivation that sticks in my craw, however.  You must be new here.  At the very least you don't seem all that familiar with our esteemed Prof. Standish.  I guess I don't know whether to call you lucky or not.  There are two reason why he sent off that request, you see.  The first one is semi-professional.  Turns out that Standish himself might just bear the slightest connection with the history of the Esswood residence.  You see, the forgotten poet Isobel was one of his descendants, same family tree, and all that.  He did not forget to mention this bit of trivia in his letter to the Fellowship organizers, by the way.  As you can probably guess, Standish has something in the way of a vested interest in this project.  The whole week before departing it was practically all he could talk about, whether you wanted him to or not.  

His conviction is that if he can just get a hold of Isobel's old manuscripts, and have enough time to study them in-depth, then maybe that will be the turning point for him.  Oh yes, and his wife, of course.  His goals are pretty simple.  All he wants is to be granted permission to publish Isobel's old poems and uncollected jottings and manuscripts in a brand new scholar's edition, complete with an extended critical introduction by none other than himself, of course.  After that the path ahead seems clear.  He'll most likely devote the rest of his time to bringing out a "prestigious" article here and there examining aspects of Isobel and her writings.  All of it is meant to culminate in what one hopes we'll the definitive biography of a forgotten talent, followed by an equally conclusive study of the poetry itself.  As an English Major, it's not difficult to appreciate the appeal of such a scenario, so I can't fault him there, at least maybe not all that much, anyway.  What really galls me is the sense that an ultimate reason he's doing this is both to get away from his wife, as well as something they decided to lose.  At least that's the way Miles tells it.  Either way, it doesn't erase what happened, no matter how he tries to forget.

There's just one other thing about this whole business, something that makes me nervous.  I've said before that superstition is disavowed in the halls of academe.  The trouble with places like Esswood is that it's almost their very existence which knocks all such guidelines and strictures into the same cocked hat.  I've mentioned what it can do to the reputations and lives of some of its would-be Fellows.  What I've been holding back on up to now is the rest of the story.  Some houses seem to draw folklore to it, like a kind of sub-audible magnet.  Part of its can be chalked up to the vagaries and eccentricities of history.  However, I've wondered if at other times it's just because some houses are born bad.  You think that's horseshit?  Then explain a few things to me.  This is stuff that you don't need a Fellowship grant to find out for yourself.  The reputations of places like Esswood are more than capable of traveling beyond their own environs.  That's part of how I was able to discover the following items of information.  What's interesting is how a dearth of public knowledge can escape the official records. 

For instance, there are rumblings in the surrounding Lincolnshire countryside in and around Esswood.  Most of that part of England is, as they say, decent enough, as these things go.  It's a nice place to visit and spend a vacation in if you enjoy the calm and quiet of the countryside.  However, a strange phenomena occurs if you take any of the available routes toward Esswood.  It's as if the surroundings and those who populate the landscape begin to grow less hospitable the closer the traveler draws into the fold of the Seneschal estate.  By the time you've reached the house, even if the setting is modern and contemporary, the nature of the Land about the house, and the closest neighboring villages give off the air of the medieval.  I've said it's as if the house or the Land (or are they one and the same?) are able to draw folklore into it.  That may not make much sense, yet I'll swear its the best description I can find for it.  It's as if legends can find a natural home there.

Right now, the best way I can describe it is to resort to the words of Washington Irving.  "Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols".  In the case of Esswood, these "strange sights" include the desire of villagers close by to keep their doors locked at night, in case something from the house or the Land might get in.  They like to claim and maintain in these local townships that the house has stood empty since the 1940s, even if you can sometimes still see lights moving in the windows at night, if you're brave enough to get that close, of course.

However, few people in the nearby communities ever dare go so far.  Those that do (various representatives of the younger generations, in the main) claim that they've seen what looks like a candle flitting from one empty room to another in the house.  Others report that they visited a crumbling old pile on one uneventful night, only to return to the sight of a palatial mansion lit up like a giant birthday candle on the next nocturnal visit.  It is claimed that sometimes the sounds of distant and echoing laughter can be heard at such times.  The most serious collection of accounts concern that of the Land itself.  That's always how the locals refer to it.  The grounds about Esswood are never just a regular countryside for them.  Instead, it is always just the Land.  While a few brave youngsters and lads have been able to "blood" each other into trespassing after hours on occasion, the ongoing consensus always comes out the same.  

It's dangerous to be on the Land after dark.  There might be things waiting for you in the tall grass.  You may here voices that are never quite right somehow.  They seem to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Sometimes it's as if the trees have faces.  They look as if they could reach out and grab you any time they like.  Many who have turned and fled in terror from the spot claim that the worst part is the unshakable notion that they were often being followed.  It was as if they could hear someone tailing from just a few paces ahead or behind.  One former young tough claims he kept catching figures watching him make his escape, either from the trees, or somewhere in the tall grass surrounding the estate.  He could never be quite sure, because the instant he turned his attention to those spots, nothing would be there to greet him.  He claimed it was like being caught in a tale of "Jack in the Green".  He has never been back since.

Anyway, the point of all that folklore is just to give you an idea of the local reputation of the place.  For better or worse, that's the sort of territory Mr. Miles Standish is headed toward.  Do I think there's cause for concern?  Well, after all, I mean we live in an enlightened age, so to speak.  I guess one of the things that gives me pause is the knowledge that sometimes enlightenment can only go so far before the old sense of superstition manages to crawl back into the thick of things.  I used to think that college was a bastion of civilization until I was schooled otherwise.  Aside from making me worry that most of us will never be able to really teach these kids anything of value, I also wonder what it says about the wider world, or the spots that contain places like Esswood?  We're taught here to treat such places as myths, and nothing more.  At the same time, there's always that creeping notion that makes us want to keep the lights in the room on at night, even as (so-called) adults.  

I'm reminded of what Hamlet told Horatio, about there being "more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamed of in your philosophy".  I sometimes wonder if any of that is true?  Sometimes, especially at night, when I'm drifting off to sleep, it almost looks like real.  Those are the moments when I wonder if our young Prof. Standish has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew.  I wonder what he'll find waiting for him there, in the, grounds, halls, and passages of Esswood Manor?

Exploring the Grounds.

In some ways, I almost came across this book by sheer accident.  I'd been a fan of Straub's ever since an early encounter with a truncated audio cassette version of the author's Ghost Story.  Even in an abridged form, that novel got my interest.  I'd sort of been away from the favorite genre of my childhood for sometime, however, when I first started to read the author's new/old haunted house tale.  I'm not real sure why that was, looking back.  I think it might have been either because I was looking not so much for a change of scene, so much as a sense of variety, and was busy exploring other literary avenues.  Or else it was because the contemporary field of Horror itself was entering a fallow period, at least in my mind.  In retrospect, the truth was probably a combination of both factors into one.  Anyway, the result was the same.  I saw a battered copy of Houses Without Doors on the shelf of a second-hand bookstore, and a look at the table of contents is what made me decide to purchase it.  I'd heard of The Buffalo Hunter and Mrs. God through the release of each story in its own specialty press novella editions.

Long story short, while I liked Buffalo Hunter just fine (I'd even go so far as to say it marks a kind of precursor to the type of narrative King would explore in greater depth in the pages of The Dark Tower) I'd still have to say I made the right choice, and saved the best for last by reading each story in the chronological order they were presented in the book.  Mrs. God was the final offering of the collection, and I think Straub made the right decision in choosing it for his ending.  The first thing that strikes the reader on just the opening page of the story is what can only be described as a sense of homecoming.  Even before the stage hands have shifted the scene to the main setting, the reader is greeted right off the bat with an establishing setup which is almost cozy in its sense of easy familiarity.  It's as if Straub is saying, you've been here before.  Sure you have, and why not?  Everyone is a sucker for a well told ghost story, after all.  To be fair, this might not have been the author's intention at all.  Yet even if that's the case, what can't be shaken off is the sense that we're in the hands of a capable storyteller in his element.  The result is that even the dourness of the main character and the situation he finds himself in at the opening can't help but come off as similar to meeting an old, well liked, acquaintance.

The establishing action that Straub begins with is typical for the type of ghostly narrative he has to tell.  You've got your troubled, young Gothic protagonist with a trouble past, and maybe a less than clear mind.  There's the hint of scandal in what should be a professional setting, one that paints the main character in shades of dull, leaden gray, which is able to add a sense of mystery to his nature.  Miles Standish is not the most sympathetic person that we've been introduced to in Straub's gallery of characters.  However, I'm not so sure how that's a problem.  It's clear to me from the instant we meet him that any sympathy we might have for Standish is meant to come more in the form of a very distanced sort of pity, rather than him being the kind of Horror story figure that you want to root for.  Standish may be a literate protagonist, however, he is not meant to be in the same wheelhouse as Ben Mears, or Stuttering Bill Dendrough.  Straub makes it clear to us that his protagonist is busy, and somehow more comfortable with walking along the shadier avenues of the street.

The trick with this kind of character is how to make the reader interested in the unlikable.  Part of the process of making that work is to realize that the reader's task in such a setup is to assume a role that is more in the line of a disinterested spectator, as opposed to that of a more heroic setup.  We are hear merely to see what happens to Standish on his journey into the unknown, and little else.  For the record, this type of setup, wherein the main character inhabits that strange, indefinable borderline between hero and antagonist, is one that has been used countless of times in the Horror story.  In that sense, Standish could be looked at as a somewhat distant cousin of Eleanor Vance from The Haunting.  Jackson's character is one of the great literary narcissists, and Standish is in good standing with Straub's book, operating as he does in a similar vein.  What's interesting is Straub knows how the expression of Gothic narcissism plays out once the shoe is on the other foot.  Where Eleanor is passive aggressive, Standish is unfairly assertive to those around him, even before the action proper has begun.

One of the first thing we learn about Standish is just how much trouble this narcissistic streak has gotten him into.  First it drove his lonely wife into the arms of an affair.  Then when Standish finds out about it, and that his wife is pregnant, he insists on an abortion.  Standish's sins are then compounded when he learns the baby might have been his.  These are all narrative elements that Straub is able to establish and describe with simple brushstrokes that are effective thanks to their very economy.  What's interesting about it is the way Straub tackles what in effect amounts to an old, genre standby.  The Narcissist has been a staple of the American Gothic ever since the genre moved out of the old, crumbling Transylvania real estate, and made its way into the modern suburbs.  In a way, it's as if a layer of protection has been removed, leaving the Jekyll-and-Hyde archetype more exposed to the elements, and thus in an even greater danger of standing exposed before all of his or her peers.

The likes of Heatchcliff were able to get away with their transgressions due to their isolated settings in the English countryside.  Now try to imagine the plot of Wuthering Heights taking place in a crowded, decently sized city like Atlanta or Ohio in the age of social media.  Even if Emily Bronte's villain managed to get a good way into his schemes, pretty soon someone would be there to record it all, and then not just the law, but society would land on him with both feet, and proceed to do the Bristol Stomp all over him.  It's a subtle irony of the modern Gothic that either Straub seems well aware of.  Or else it could be that his imagination has the story locked into this ironic mode, where even the most hardened Narcissus protagonist can't avoid the consequences of his actions.  As a result, when we first meet our "hero", Standish has already received a slap in the face that has left him more than a little shaken.  It is just possible that the blow has even knocked him clear off the pedestal that he tried to crawl onto.  The fact that the blow came by his own hand just serves to compound the sense of irony.

This setup proves to be ideal for the narrative's purpose, as it serves to open the proceedings on a note of dislocation that is welcome in its ability to establish a note that puts the reader on edge.  Straub appears to recognize this opening note, and is wise enough not to let it slip from his grasp.  Instead, he makes the wise choice of shining a spotlight on it, then allowing it to play out on its own time.  He's not creating the note, so much as he is busy following it along with the rest of us.  This sense of disorientation is thus allowed to continue and build as we follow Standish's fitful efforts to make his way toward Esswood.

"After landing in a tiny airport in Gatwick, he endures a hallucinatory, totally disorienting journey by car to Esswood House.  Deeply shaken by the difficulties of adapting to the British style of driving, he gets lost; meets a vaguely menacing vagrant with a penchant for quoting nineteenth century poetry; sees, or seems to see, a child with its frightened face pressed against the window of a passing house; and stops to eat in a pub called The Duelists, whose occupants bear an eerie resemblance to the principle figures in a recent scandal involving adultery and murder (At this point, Standish knows nothing about that murder, but he soon will, and the details of the murder will be ironically reflected in the violent, hallucinatory conclusion to the story.)

"Exhausted, hungry, and confused, Standish eventually finds his way to Esswood House, and falls immediately in love with it.  Just as quickly, he becomes infatuated with the woman who greets him at the door, a nameless, alluring figure he rapidly begins to think of as his 'beloved.'  She passes him into the keeping of the Esswood Foundation's director, Robert Wall.  Wall, by his own account, must be over eighty years old, but appears to be perhaps fifty; and has about him an indefinable aura of 'hunger.'  After serving Standish his dinner (Isobel Standish's favorite meal and the same meal Standish will be served over and over while at Esswood, a detail suggesting by the Carlos Fuentes novella, Aura), Wall helps Standish acclimate himself to his new surroundings, and then leaves him to his work.

"Once Standish enters the library and begins to pursue his research, linear reality rapidly breaks down.  Standish quickly comes to realize that living at Esswood is very much like living within an Isobel Standish poem: obscure, quirky, pregnant with undisclosed meaning...Standish's exploration of Isobel's poetry broadens almost immediately to become an exploration of the nature - the history beneath the history - of Esswood House.  From a variety of sources, he pieces together an unsettling portrait of what Isobel - who saw in Esswood the living embodiment of the sacred - referred to, simply, as The Land.  His own dreams bring him disturbing images of violence, of ritual murder reduced to a sort of bureaucratic routine.  Photographs reveal the existence of Esswood residents who, like Robert Wall, appear never to have aged in the normal fashion.  A visit to the local churchyard reveals that the owners of Esswood...have been anathema to local townsfolk for generations...

"Most of what he learns, though, comes from an unpublished memoir by Isobel Standish...The memoir illuminates Esswood's early history as a minor league literary colony to which distinguished visitors left small offerings in the form of stories, poems, and variant versions of their best known works.  None of these gifts have ever been offered to the outside world.  They remain Esswood's private property, and are the primary lures which have induced generations of scholars - 'Esswood Fellows' - to visit The Land.  (The memoir, sic) also recounts Isobel's gradual seduction by the forces which animate The Land, forces represented by its reigning matriarch, Edith Seneschal.

Eventually, Isobel died, "and was buried on the grounds of Esswood.  In the words of 'Robert Wall,' repeated over and over throughout Mrs. God, 'It is better never to leave Esswood.'  And Isobel never did.  Standish, following clues from Isobel's journal, discovers her gravesite, which is also the gravesite of numerous other visitors who sacrificed themselves so that Esswood and its inhabitants might continue.  At Isobel's grave, which is surrounded by the sub-audible humming of imprisoned souls, Standish experiences his final epiphany, and comes to an understanding of the true nature of Esswood House, a place which is eternally, unassuageably hungry (229-31)".  In other words, all we're given is yet another riff on the standard, old, Gothic Haunted House trope.  It may be impossible for Straub to gain any points in terms of originality.  However, novelty isn't everything, and nor should it be the main focus for the kind of story Straub has to tell.  What matters, as always, is how well the author is able to riff on what amounts to a collection of time worn, yet very reliable material?

In this case, I'd say Straub does pretty well for himself.  I've said that he begins on a note of disorientation, and it's this continuing chord of unease that Straub is able to play like a natural born prodigy, from start to finish.  From the moment we are introduced to Standish, and his toppled, wounded ego, we are never given much in the way of firm ground to stand on.  That might sound like a criticism, and yet that's not the real case at all.  It's that precise lack of stability that the story needs to rely on in order to pull off its full artistic effect.  What that means in practice is that the note of disorientation starts out small, and then is allowed to build and double upon itself with a skill that seems almost effortless.  The reader's sense that we've entered an atmosphere of the unhinged is always kept foregrounded, even in relatively quiet scenes where Wall is doing nothing more than sharing some background information with Standish.  The sense that something is never quite kosher is kept to that same, sub-audible hum, until finally it is allow to rev up to a crescendo once the story reaches its explosive climax.

The material that allows this dramatic tension to hold steady to the very end all appears to center in the changes Standish undergoes during the course of his ill-fated stay at Esswood.  At it's core, Straub's novella seems to be concerned with the question of character.  It's a topic that I think was discussed at least once before, in the course of reviewing an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling.  The two key factors associated with this type of narrative are (1) the protagonists himself, and (2) the up in the air question of his capacity for change.  It's a theme that is broad enough in its outlines to the point where it might be considered an all-purpose trope of fiction across the board.  Another way of putting it might be to say that this is all Joseph Campbell's monomyth amounts to once you strip all the scholarly and folkloric language down to life-size.  In Straub's case, it makes sense that we are dealing with the trope in its more Gothic-oriented formatting.  It's a configuration of the theme where the outcome can go either way.  Things can conclude with a success full of light, or else the Red Death can hold sway over all.  It's the genre of Horror in itself that makes the question of character that much more interesting.

A lot of it goes back to the question of Modern American Gothic Narcissism.  It's yet another trope that has always been a part of the Horror genre's repertoire.  However, it took the efforts of John G. Parks and Irving Malin to point out that the most common mode of the genre's expression during the mid to late 20th century was that of an innervating Narcissism that effectively cuts off the Gothic protagonist from any meaningful communication with the outside world.  The main character has been reduced to a microcosm that has been shut off from the larger macroverse, and in most cases, the doors have been sealed from the inside.  That's more or less what Miles Standish has been up to by the time we first meet him in the opening pages of Straub's story.  His personal concerns have sharpened to a fine needle point, namely those of his own, and whatever pet obsessions are deemed allowable to his essentially self-centered desires.  In his case, that means his own connection to Esswood House, and the potential for glory and fame that his time spent their might bring him.  All else is considered secondary.

This form of Narcissus character trope can be an interesting challenge for the question of character.  Since the starting point is what might called an inherently negative inverse, it means that all possible progression for such a character like Standish has to come in the form of a deconstruction.  The narcissist's ego must be broken down over the course of the story, and any positive outcome can sometimes be an open question.  What that means for Straub's protagonist is that we might be looking at an eventual tragedy, unless of course that's not the case.  What can be said with a bit more assurance is that once Standish arrives at the story's Gothic Manor, he has found the perfect mirror in which to see his own reflection.  Esswood then serves as the narrative's microcosmic projection of Standish's own ego.  As a result, one expects the main character to be lured into the forces animating the haunted house.  It's a setup that's so familiar as to be downright prototypical.  And at first, that seems to be true.

Things do start out on what looks like familiar territory.  With the main character's sense of belonging upon viewing the estate for the first time, to almost immediately thinking of a pretty servant girl as his "beloved", it does seem as if Standish is falling under the spell of whatever spirits are inhabiting Esswood.  What's interesting to note is that it's also possible that this closed society that the main character has been allowed into might also contain the seeds of its own undoing.  This comes in the form of Esswood's undiscovered library.  It is here that the narrative introduces what amounts to a slight hitch in what should otherwise be a steady downward progression.  The reason for that seems to be that even when he's trapped in a supernatural killing jar, Standish can't help succumbing to his other addiction, that being the written word itself.  What the forces behind Esswood and the Land don't seem to have counted on is that Miles was actually pretty good at being a close reader, and that the whole story seems premised on the idea of the value of all fiction laying in the truth inside the lie.

What this means in practice is that Standish's abilities are sort of what's helping to keep him from being consumed outright by the house or the Land on which it rests.  The irony is that the closer and more attentive a reading Standish gives to the writings placed in his possession, the more of an effective blow each piece of manuscript is able to deliver to his ego, thus proving capable of chipping away at his narcissism to the point where Miles is able to become aware that he's been invited into a trap.  However, his jailers (who or whatever they are) were counting on their victim remaining pliant and dulled.  What happens when one of the flies is able to achieve even a beginner's modicum of self-awareness, and is able to learn which meals to avoid, or to stop taking sips from each bottle of wine that's placed before him?  Better (or worse) yet, what happens if the fly finds creative uses of his own for the poison that's set before him?  That's kind of why the novel ends on a somewhat surprising note.  In other words, it seems like one of the rare examples in which the Gothic Narcissist is first placed under a microscope, and then almost turned inside out.  Whether or not this means at least the possible beginning of something new, and maybe positive for the main character is something the reader will have to decide for themselves.

I've said that it's a story about the question of character told in a modern American Gothic frame.  These stories tend to be tragedies, yet there's also no guarantee.  The monster doesn't always have to feed.  Sometimes it can also be bested.  What happens in the case of Mrs. God is that the narcissistic tropes of the American Gothic are taken all the way back to their roots in the soil of the British Horror yarn.  Once there, it could be argued that the tables get slowly turned as Standish begins to make his way through Esswood Mansion, overturning rooms and discovering their secrets as he goes.  The whole result ends up on a conclusion that is perhaps familiar.  At the same time, I can't say I was expecting thing to turn out the way it did.  You don't usually expect literary narcissists like him to wind up where they are at the end.  Without giving away spoilers, it's enough to note that the story leaves us with the imagery of "a new born baby".  The curious thing is how that image serves as a neat answer to the question of character at the heart of the novel, and while the conclusion is grim, it might also contain its own sliver of light and hope.  Can't say I was expecting that.  Nor am I really disappointed at all.

Conclusion: A Fine, Overlooked Gothic Classic.

Bill Sheehan claims that, "Essentially, Mrs. God is a story about hunger, about people sacrificed to the endless hunger of whatever entity animates Esswood (whose name itself deliberately suggests "eating") and its guardian family, the Seneschals.  This particular theme - supernatural hunger - manifests itself across the length of Straub's career, ranging backward in time to Ghost Story ("Ghosts are always hungry") and forward to his most precise exploration of this idea, the bluntly titled novella, Hunger.  

Still, despite the fact that - in its broadest outlines, at least - the meaning and general movement of the narrative are clearly discernible, Mrs. god remains very much a dreamlike, mysterious, open-ended work that draws a great deal of its power from the enigmatic details out of which the story is constructed.  In the end, despite everything we know - or think we know - about Esswood and its history, there remains much that we do not - cannot - know for certain.  Who, or what, are the Seneschals?  Are they the guardians that their name suggests, or the presiding spirits of Esswood?  And if they are simply guardians, what power do they serve?  

"What is the fundamental nature of the force that made Esswood into a sacred, or apparently sacred, place?  What happened to the children - "the broken babies" - who inhabited the miniature (model, sic) Esswoods that Standish finds in the cellar.  What is the nature of their "affliction?"  What is the connection between these broken babies and the older, more arcane secrets which bind the Seneschals to The Land the inhabit?  And what were the fates of the various scholars - the Esswood Fellows - lured to Esswood by the magnetic attraction of its incomparable library?  These are only some of the many questions that haunt Mrs God, giving this dense, compact narrative the kind of disconcerting power so characteristic of Robert Aickman and his strange, uncomfortable fictions (232-33)".

The curious part is how my own experience with the novella leaves me convinced that Straub's story has left us with a much more definitive answer than Sheehan is perhaps aware of.  In order to help explain what I mean, however, I think it might be necessary for me to recount the history of my own reactions to Mrs. God as I first experienced it on my initial reading, and then briefly detail how my second read-through has helped sharpen and lead to a greater understanding of the text.  It's one of those books where I'm able to have a very clear memory of it, based solely on how unusual the contents of its pages where, especially when you're going in totally blind.  Sheehan gets one thing right, at least, the language of the tale has this almost deliberate, stream of consciousness style to it that can catch you off guard in some ways.  You can start out, for instance, with the main character sitting by himself on a plane.  The initial description of the scene begins as something clear, economical, and precise.

Then the narrative takes us into the inner thoughts, and recent memories that Standish has just gone through, before the curtain opens.  It's here that the precise economy begins to slide into the disjointed and the fractured.  It starts as a noticeable quirk of the pages, something like the first note of the off-kilter at work.  As the story goes on, Straub allows this fragmentation to continue and build as the main character is continually broken down by his experiences in the manor house, and the Land surrounding it.  By the time we reach the end, the writer appears to have discovered a method of describing the action in a way that manages to come off as both "dreamlike" and coherent all at the same time.  As a result, we're left wondering how far gone our "hero" is, while at the same time not really doubting that something is terribly rotten at the heart of Esswood.  The result is a very interesting stylistic strategy that the novella has to work with.  It's a creative choice which is both deliberate and natural by turns.

The curious part is how this in itself can wind up playing mind games of its own with the reader's perception of events.  For the record, I can't say I know whether or not what I'm about to describe was ever intentional on Straub's part.  What I am certain of is that if he were to find out about this, he would just smile and consider that he'd probably done his job well, then.  The way the text plays with the reader is by what only be described as a very clever use of situational ambiguity.  This method of execution can often create a sense of entertainment, depending on how the reader chooses to pay attention to the text.  On my first read through, for example, it was difficult to tell if the ghosts were real, or if the story was just taking us through the messed up inner landscape of the protagonist as he suffers a complete mental breakdown.  In fact, there is one pivitol scene involving an axe and an occupied bedroom where at first I'll swear I thought it was just Standish play acting out a revenge fantasy he might have had about his wife's adultery.  

Or else the reader was being shown the memory of an actual event, where he really did put a good axe to bad use.  Or how's this for a mind-bender?  I also thought it was possible that either the house, or the spirits and entities animating it, might also have found a way to take the main character back in time for a moment, thus allowing him to achieve a sense of revenge on the past.  If all of this sounds off-the-wall, then congratulations, I might have just gone some way toward demonstrating the sort of hallucinatory power that Straub's words are able to create on an initial reading.  Now imagine my surprise on going back a second time for this article, and discovering that this doesn't appear to be the case at all.  Instead, it might be something very different.  It's probably best at this point to go over the nature of the kind of ghost story we're dealing with here.  It seems the only way to unpack the narrative in full.

To start with, what Straub has given us in the completed manuscript is a series of very old Gothic tropes.  All of them can trace their ancestry back to the kind of blueprint laid out by guys like Horace Walpole in the 19th century.  Though if I'm being honest, this type of story can probably trace its lineage to sometime just before the Middle Ages, if you want to get technical about it.  We have a House with a History, we've got ghosts (of some kind, anyway), we can even go for the full trifecta and throw in some cursed land for good measure.  To top it all off, there's the prototypical Gothic protagonist.  If Straub had lived during the years between the death of Samuel Coleridge and, say, the publication of Stoker's Dracula, then odds are even he would have painted Standish's personality in broader brushstrokes.  It was a time when his main character could have gotten away with being what was known as Byronic.  The irony is that it would have tipped the story very near into the kind of territory that's now covered by the likes of Daniele Steel, or V.C. Andrews.  One of those sweet-n-savage bodice ripper type potboilers.  With the passage of time, however, this form of anti-hero has had plenty of time for its wings to be clipped, and for the rug to be pulled out from under more than once.

Now, as Irving Malin demonstrated, the best that the Gothic anti-hero can muster is a kind of deadening narcissism.  This is territory we've discussed once before, and on this score, Standish's character can be said to conform to type.  The one thing I remain curious about is whether or not the narcissist's deconstruction also amounts to a form of reconstruction?  Then again, this could be something readers will have to make up their own minds about.  As for the setting, while Esswood is not as well known as Hill House, or the the Overlook Hotel, on the whole, I'd say Straub's haunted domicile is able to hold its own against those other two grand edifices.  It's spirits don't go around rattling chains, and yet this is the kind of story where such theatrics aren't really required.  The spirits of the modern ghost story have long since found ways of getting their point across with no more than a darkened room, and flicker of movement out of the corner of the eye.  That's the effect Straub is able pull off with consummate skill throughout the course of his story.  Whenever the narrative requires this kind of scare tactic, he's there to deliver.  Sheehan's difficulty lies in having to decide just what kind of haunting is taking place at Esswood?

The funny thing is how this is where a second read-through has further helped clarify things.  Or at least I'm willing to go with the idea that it's more explainable than Sheehan gives the novella credit for, anyway.  Both throughout this review, and even in Sheehan's study, casual mention has been made of the idea of "The Land".  It seems to be the one element that is giving him trouble, for some reason.  I'm now wondering if, in addition to Robert Aickman, perhaps adding the possible influence of Arthur Machen might have helped Sheehan gain a better footing on the narrative line.  Earlier in this article I had a character describe his (made up) experience of Esswood as like being caught in a fairy tale of "Jack in the Green".  That word was chosen very deliberately, as I think it provides the final piece of the puzzle that Sheehan was looking for.  To put it in simple terms, I think what we're dealing with is a Haunted House story combined with elements of what's known in Britain as the Green Man mythology.  

It's a piece of English folklore that can probably trace its roots back to the Celtic days, before the Romans crossed the channel from the Mediterranean.  It's a piece of worn out belief about the reigning spirit of the woodlands.  We're now in the kind territory were you can expect to find nymphs hiding in the glade, and the glowing eyes of sprites spying down on you from the tops of the trees.  Like every mythology having to do with the Fair Folk, the exact nature of these creatures is always walking a tightrope of ambivalence.  Some sources will claim them to be noble and kind, on the level of Tolkien's elves or ents.  Others, however, will maintain that they are malevolent beings, who mean nothing by harm to any human being that wanders into their clutches.  This is the creative tack that early 20th century Gothic writers like Arthur Machen latched onto when composing works like The Great God Pan, and in particular, The White People.  That's a classic which is heavily influenced by the Green Man mythology.  And I can't help thinking it is this piece of myth that Straub was drawing on when it came to helping him complete and flesh out the nature of his tale.

In his case, the trope seems to have been expressed in the form of a Green Woman, as opposed to a man.  The curious part is how none of this amounts to anything like a major deviation from the established tropes of the mythology.  Everything else remains in place, and performs exactly as it always has.  What convinces me that this is the final piece of the puzzle Straub has placed before us was two things.  The constant reference to the land, the titular Mrs. God, of the title.  As well as Standish's aforementioned visit to his ancestor's grave, which is really more like a medieval grove situated on the grounds of Esswood.  The grave itself is really at the base of a great tree which appears to be both alive, and also able to capture life within it.  It's scenes like these which should clue to alert reader in that we are well within the bounds of Jack (or Jill) in Green territory.

On the whole, Straub has been able to accomplish a feat that I've seen performed only once or twice before.  His final product is made up of varying elements that the writer is the able to blend together into one, seamless whole.  I'm familiar with this kind of story enough to the point where I can recognize it.  However, it's a very rare breed, and that's sort of what always makes it impressive in my mind.  Most writers and fans of the genre tend to find just one terror to hang their narratives on, and that's about it as far as it goes.  I'd argue, however, that it takes a real talent to find multiple ways of dealing out the necessary element of fear in your story.  I don't say it's always the right way to tell this kind of tale. However, if you can pull that sort of operation off with skill, then perhaps it can sometimes amount to a genuine form of accomplishment.  I think that's what Straub was able to pull off in the pages of Mrs. God.  It's the kind of story that he seems most comfortable in, as a writer.  It's narrative that is able to play to all his strengths, while also being able to indulge in his desire for experimentation without being in danger of breaking stride, or weighing the main plot down with "devices".

If anything, it could be argued that this entire idea came up as a response to Straub's recent activities.  Sheehan implied that the whole story came about over the turbulent state of the writer's mind after completing the first installment of his Blue Rose cycle.  In some ways, it could be posited that the author's imagination (or at least his "share" in it, for lack of a better word) sent this idea into his conscious mind as a way of pulling him back down to earth.  It's a highly speculative scenario, granted.  However if there's any truth in this surmise, then it does leave the door open to discovering a possible satirical theme tucked away in the folds of the narrative, and it could be aimed ever so slightly right at the author himself.  If there's one criticism to be made about Straub, it's that sometimes his desire for experimentation can get in the way of the main business of telling a good story.  To his credit, it doesn't happen often, and he's too good a writer not to realize when to let the story get on with things, and do it's proper job.

For me, at least, it's kind of easy to tell when the author's ambitions are outmatched by either the lack of story, or else in the sense that the potential for a good creative idea is there, and yet the writer has chosen to veer off in a direction of his own for whatever misguided reason.  Unfortunately,  books like Koko are a good example of what I'm talking about.  The idea may have been there, and yet it's clear the author's exuberance at some ill-defined personal goal has been allowed to hamper what should be a solid thriller.  As a result, the author loses sight  of both his limitations, as well as his natural strengths in his quest of being the James Joyce of the Horror field.  This is a problem that extends all the way to it's sequels, Mystery, and The ThroatThe Blue Rose sequence might just be Straub's version of The Dark Tower, and it winds up being just about as effective as that other story, which isn't saying much, I'm afraid.  The good news is that all these problems are absent in Mrs. God.

The story itself remains tightly plotted, the action never lags, and Straub handles the narration with the same sure confidence that is on display in his best work.  This is a book where you can tell the author is firing on all cylinders.  He's managed to find the key to the engine room after misplacing it for a bit.  The perfect irony comes in if you should decide to buy the idea that, once Straub starts to fire up the engines, the first thing the Imagination does is to toss out a story that acts as a mirror to his own situation.  It's not just any mirror, either.  It's an artistic piece of glass, one of those natural scrying reflectors that can't help showing both your shortcomings, as well as your potential for doing better.  If there's any kind of truth to this theory, then the good news is that Straub seems to have taken it to heart in this case.  The result is a fine old, dark, haunted house tale with its roots firmly planted in the rich soil of the genre.  

This allows the author to treat us to a story that acts as a callback to a unique expression of the poetry of fear.  It's one that can take its stand among the more recognizable artistic chills that audiences are familiar with today.  In fact, I'm going to have to commit a bit of heresy and declare that if your idea of the height of the genre comes to a stop at a guy in a hockey mask, then I'm afraid you're missing out on a lot.  Writer's like Straub aren't afraid to get their hands dirty, if you're convinced that's all that counts.  The trick is they don't just leave it at the level of mere gore.  What makes a story like this one count is that the author has found a way to take all the familiar trappings and ramp things up to a higher level.  It's when you reach this point that I think you begin to realize the true artistic potential of the Horror genre.  When the you learn to play the cards of this format just right, the result tends to be a sophistication that's easy to overlook.  That's because the more garish genre landmarks, the ones people automatically think of (such as Chucky or Jigsaw) whenever they can be bothered with the field of Horror, has a way of flattening the audience's awareness of the richness and variety that can be found in even the darkest corners of this grand, old literary edifice.

That's not to say that either the author, or the story is any kind slouch when it comes to delivering on the fright factor.  Far from being a dull slough, Straub is invested in the narrative enough to accomplish the two necessary goals for this type of book.  The first is to keep your interest enough that the reader is always curious, wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens next.  The second, and somewhat more important step for this kind of narration, is that Straub knows how to leave the right kind of nasty surprises waiting for you just round the next dark corner.  There's blood enough to be had in these passages if that's all that matters.  I think there's always more to a good terror tale than that, though, and Straub is smart enough to know it.  He doesn't just leave it at a splat of blood.  He finds ways of making even the smears of red count in a way that makes us care about the situation, and the people caught up in it.  The way Straub does it is by making sure the incidents surrounding the special effects are well written enough so that the blood is just one piece of the puzzle.  It's a type of artistic performance that I worry is falling out of style in favor of what Roger Ebert used to refer to as "Geek Shows". 

For the entirety of his life, Straub has dedicated himself to a more artistic form of Horror storytelling.  That's a rare sort of commitment in a field where most of the audiences seem to want to limit their palates to gore orgies, thinking that it's only kind of thing that counts in the end.  The truth, as always, is more complex, and just as easy to ignore.  As a result, it's up to blogs like this to serve as reminders that sometimes the best scares are the ones that take their time in working their way under your skin.  Keeping their effect hidden until they reach for the audience's collective jugular, and then sink their fangs in, and proceed to twist the knife in a way that leaves a real lasting impact, the kind a real fan of the genre can treasure for years afterwards.  That's what Peter Straub is up to in Mrs. God, and that's why it's easy to give it my highest recommendation.  It's the perfect treat for this time of year.  

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