Sunday, July 31, 2022

Xo Orpheus: The Sisters (2013).

Not too long ago, I did a review on a book edited and published by Kate Bernheimer.  It was one of those simple, under-the-radar type fantasy anthologies that you can easily find anonymously dotting the bookstalls of your local Barnes and Noble.  One of those obscure publications that probably doesn't deserve to be left collecting dust on a back shelf somewhere, in other words.  It's almost a commonplace of literature, and what it amounts to in practice is a sometimes great way of stockpiling curious volumes of forgotten lore for rediscovery at a later date.  I first heard of Bernheimer's anthology through a chance review of it on the Truth Inside the Lie blog.  It's one of those brief overviews that always manage to be handy enough to build up an interest in even the casual reader.  The merest description of the contents of the Xo Orpheus book were enough to one day get me to knuckle down and pick up a copy of my own.

The first result of these efforts were published a while ago, like I said.  It may even be possible to level the charge that I what wrote doesn't even amount to a review so much as an informal essay critique, one limited solely to Bernheimer's introduction to the entire collection.  My only defense for going that route was based on the fact that I still think Bernheimer's thoughts on the current state of myths in contemporary life is flawed at its core.  She seems to think that its impossible for anything so ancient to survive in whatever the modern scene happens to be, that all myths are doomed to oblivion in the inevitable march of progress.  Or at least that's what I took away from her editorial introduction.  My own take on that is pretty much the opposite, however.  I think all the best myths have a way of maintaining their own staying power.  It's like they one day take on a life of their own, and live on in the imaginations of new generations.  It appears to be a form of pop-cultural osmosis that is able to transfer all these old legends down through the ages, regardless of era, or zeitgeist.  If that weren't the case, then the content of Bernheimer's own anthology would probably never have been published at all.

What that says to me is that the main reason the figures of Greco-Roman or Norse folklore are able to survive and thrive in the 21st century is because more than anything else, they've managed to find universal forms of expression.  What I mean is something like this. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King once opined that what a good work of Horror fiction is looking for are what he called the "phobic pressure points" of the audience (4).  It's that innermost place where you live, and the good work of Horror is meant to play on those pressure points like a well tuned harp.  I think it's just possible to argue that a similar, yet differing process plays out in the case of all the classic myths.  The difference is rather than anything "phobic", what myth in general plays upon might be referred to, in a Jungian sense, as "perrenial pressure points".  These are the rest of the stock responses to be had in any well told story.

It's the part of our mind that responds to hopes, dreams, wishes, and wonders, in addition to the occasional shock of horror.  These "pressure points", or responses, are so universal as to permit the myths that create them an easy level of translation and understanding from one generation to the next.  It's a phenomenon that guys like Jung, Joseph Campbell or J.R.R. Tolkien spent their whole lives studying.  Sure it classifies them as a bunch of hopeless nerds, and yet that just begs the question.  How come everyone remembers their names, along with all or most of the myths they either helped create or translate for future readers?  I think a better way to explain the current state of myths in the contemporary scene is that all of them are there, on the table, for the asking.  The key thing that determines which myths receive the most prominence at any given moment depends on the particular direction the zeitgeist, or culture, is headed, or rather where it directs its perceptual lens.  It's a process that always seems to be a little all over the place at once.  Hence Bernheimer can get her collection of reworked mythological motifs published, and Dave Lowery can win acclaim with The Green Knight.

In that sense, Bernheimer's concerns about the health of myths in modern society seems greatly exaggerated.  The good news is that none of this really matters for the actual contents of her anthology.  If Bernheimer is wrapped up in questions of the sustainability of myth in her duties as editor, the writers who have agreed to be a part of her collection are burdened by no such identity crisis.  Each of them to an artist has enough experience under their belt to realize that myth is a constant source of inspiration for their work.  As such, all they have to do is sit down at the writing desk, and then start digging for treasure.  That's why I get the sense that contributors like Sabina Murray have a much clearer view of things, and as a result are having a lot more fun with this gig than Bernheimer seems capable of.  I don't know what to say to any of that, other than to note an irony when I see it.  That just leaves us with Murray herself, and the work of hers that is on the docket for review.The Basic Setup.

One of the more useful underlying premises of Bernheimer's entire collection is the not so new idea of showcasing classic myths in a contemporary setting.  It's the kind of setup that is so basic at this point, that it's sort of become a commonplace, one of those publicly accepted facts that have become so ubiquitous they're sort of rendered as anonymous givens, like night and day.  The trick with this kind of storytelling gimmick has nothing to do with originality.  Rather, the important question is how good each given author is at letting the archetype do all the talking it needs, in order for the story to be told?

Sabina Murray's entry begins in a setting which is almost familiar enough to be a staple of modern fantastic writing, the ivied halls of college academe.  Her story centers around an unassuming college professor, and the events that transpire after an incident involving one of his students.  The professor's name is Basil Zinn.  The student's was Carson Bakely.  And "From the start", Murray informs us, "it was a mistake (8)".  At the beginning of the story, Zinn has more or less "inherited" Bakely from a former college professor and colleague, which is just what he never asked for, especially not with the "specimen" that was handed down to him.  Bakely is described as "an earnest student", yet he also possesses "a mediocre intellect".  Zinn admits that he isn't "sure what to do with him".  Carson Bakely, in other words, is "bottom of the barrel" as far as Zinn is concerned (ibid).  His major subject in English was supposed to be Herman Melville (9), and it didn't take long for the young student to realize that writer's like the one who composed Moby Dick just leave him way out of his depth (9).

So now he's thinking maybe a change of subject would suit him best.  Pick a writer whose not so difficult.  After giving it a lot of thought (or at least however much he may ever have been capable of), Bakely managed to arrive what turned out to be a pretty firm decision for a guy like him.  "I'm interested in Emily Dickinson.  I want to know everything about her (ibid)".  So far, so harmless.  Even in these opening passages, Murray's prose gives off the sign of a sure hand resting comfortably in it's own chosen subject matter.  Her initial setup and character introductions could almost stand as a model kit of dramatic precision and brevity.  In just two pages of text, we're given half of the main leads of the cast, along with a neat and concise catalyst that starts the action rolling.  I suppose what might stand out as the most remarkable aspect of this opening is how it will read to anyone who is more accustomed to the pacing of the best possible Blockbusters available these days.  Here we have an artist who seems to operate at a faster pace then, say, Christopher Nolan.  The curious part is how Murray is able to create such a swift pacing that manages to tell itself in a seeming leisurely style.  By the time we've reached the third page of her narrative, things are off to the races.  It's also at this point that Murray reveals how devious she can be.  Here's where she yanks the rug out from under her readers.

"Of course, it has been forty years since that warm spring day when Carson Bakely's earnest form cast its shadow on the dusty boards of my office, but I remember this encounter very precisely because after Carson Bakely was found murdered, I had to go over it so many times.  The whole Bakely tragedy was an exercise in tedium foisted upon me by Bakely's desire to read as little as possible on the way to his Ph.D.  Bakely had expressed a desire to learn "all there was to know about Emily Dickinson" thinking that this was easily accomplished.  As I was the Dickinson scholar, he ended up on my doorstep.  Most of my advisees were earnest, plain girls who seemed to think that in the process of unlocking Dickinsons's secrets, they would discover something noteworthy about themselves.  No, there was nothing that distinguished Bakely other than his maleness and complacency.  Although he did present an opportunity since he lacked direction and, therefore, followed mine quite well: I could use his research.  Was I an opportunist?  Certainly.  Did I kill him?  Certainly not.  And I also never received the papers he was supposed to bring back to me.  But The Sisters - who had turned down so many of my more talented, accomplished, and capable students - accepted him.  I could only surmise that this decision was based on his good look.  He really was a handsome boy (10)".

Conclusion: A Myth Well Retold.   

One of the first reactions I had to Murray's story was a sense of comforting familiarity.  I'd been here before, in other words.  I'd spent countless hours of my time pouring over stories with just this kind of setup.  They're the type that begin in the seeming normalcy of everyday reality, and then start to introduce a fantastical element into the proceedings through various means.  Perhaps I ought to point something important out about this practice.  The dirty little secret here is that there are perhaps no fail-safe right ways to carry of this kind of story.  However, there may be a lot of ways in which you can screw up a good idea.  In a story of the fantastic, I don't think any writer has to worry too much about believability.  A narrative that features the presence of elves or ghosts doesn't seem to me to be operating in the realm of everyday realism here.  That in itself is a kind of get-out-of-jail free card for the author.  You can literally let your imagination sore as high as you want, and have fun while doing it.

The biggest pitfall to avoid is a lack of effort.  A lazy writer, for instance, would probably make the mistake of reaching at what they consider the "Big Moments", and jump recklessly for all the bells and whistles of the story.  My problem with this approach is that it makes the mistake of believing that all you need is a good spectacle to carry the audience.  Artists like this are good at creating a lot of noise with little substance to what's happening on either the page or the screen.  In all these cases, I've found that the same mistake is being made over and again.  The artist's think they can get by on noise, and let the special effects do all the talking for them.  The result is a narrative with no real story anywhere.  If it sounds like a contradiction in terms, that's because it is.  It's a sign of impatience and laziness in the writer where his or her immaturity leaves them with the conviction that they just can't be bothered with all the effort it takes to tell a full story.  They've got other things occupying their minds, and when you put it all together, what it amounts to is a major obstacle and detriment to the art and craft of writing.

The good news with Murray is that she's too much of a seasoned professional to get caught up in that kind of self-indulgence.  Even if all she's doing is just trying to keep up with the story as it unfolds itself behind her eyes, she still proves herself up to the challenge.  I can't tell whether or it's right or not to say that her approach to the material is in any way deliberate.  Nor am I certain that it matters quite as much.  What can be said is that everything plays out in a low key, ominous fashion.  We open with a complaint that things have gotten out of hand, and then are introduced to a quiet, almost stereotypical scene between a college professor and a student.  The entire opening setup could almost sound like the beginning of a Henry James novel.  The looming presence of Emily Dickinson just helps cement the idea that the audience might be in for one of those "Artsy" stories, the kind of offering that is able to receive a heap of praise in whatever is left of "the critical press", without making any sort of meaningful public impact.

That's when the story's built-in hat trick begins, and the narrative switches gears as the main character
relates that the student we were just introduced to in the previous, unassuming scene is now dead.  The skill that Murray displays in laying out her first scene has been so smooth that even those of us who might suspect something interesting is about to turn up will probably still feel an impact from the blow.  It has to be one of the best examples of the classic bait and switch approach that I've seen yet in modern literature.  I don't know if it deserves to be the best example of the species out there, yet it's probably somewhere in the top tier.  With the shift in tone comes a resulting change of atmosphere to the story's descriptive passages.  

If at first it sounded like we were in a mere polite society drama, now it begins to feel like we're entering much darker, yet familiar waters.  Everything has this sense of menace to it.  This can be seen in both the style and content of everything Murray writes from this point on.  Here, for instance, is the way she raises the stakes after we learn the fate of the unfortunate Carson Bakely."The Sisters of whom I speak were the board members of a literary society whose seldom used but official name was "The Sisters of Emily Dickinson."  These women were all residents of Amherst, Massachusetts - birth, life, and death place of Emily Dickinson - who claimed to have some previously undocumented papers.  The Sisters did nothing to convinced me of the value of their property, but if what they had was genuine I would benefit dramatically from this connection and knowledge (10)".

The passage above has taken things a step further.  In addition to a new set of mysterious sounding characters (the titular "Sisters" of the story) we also have a Macguffin.  A set of unpublished writings, possibly of a poetic nature, from one of the premier masters of American verse.  We're also given a further bit of character motivation.  Professor Zinn has had an eye on this elusive prize for some time now, for what sounds like very selfish reasons.  Now the greater outline of Murray's text begins to make a bit more sense.  We've been here before, or at least that's possible if you're any sort of devoted fan of Gothic fiction.  The basic starting idea for Murray's story is in essence the same one that can be found in a work like Peter Straub's novella, Mrs. God.  That book also focused around a self-centered academic's quest to uncover a forgotten sheaf of literary manuscripts, and the lengths he was willing to go and endure in order to get it.  In part, Straub's work can be seen as an exploration of egoistic monomania that slowly goes out of control.  Murray's protagonist seems just a bit more well screwed on than the clearly troubled main lead of Straub's efforts.  The back story Zinn gives us is by turns a bit more tragic and pathetic.  Like Straub's English teacher, he's a fundamentally Gothic protagonist.

Unlike the earlier book, however, Zinn comes off as less aggressive, and more put upon, or just simply cowardly.  He's the type of character who is always looking to make some kind of meaningful contact or important gesture, and always lacks the nerve to take charge of his life on that account.  This unsung collection of Dickinson poems might just be his chance to make at least one act of any substance.  The irony is that Zinn is still a coward at heart.  He prefers to let subordinates get their hands dirty, while he remains in the safe space cell of his college offices.  Another major difference is that when the first note of terror begins to sound off, Zinn doesn't rage or brood like Straub's character, he merely retreats further from the limelight, and instead is content to let the story build by sharing all the gory details:

"In the weeks after the discovery of Bakely's body, details began to emerge.  One of his arms had been torn from his shoulder and was a good twenty feet from where - apparently in flight - the rest of him had finally expired.  In the surrounding area, police had discovered the carcass of a deer, four squirrels, a fox, and a house cat, all of which had met a similarly violent end.  A broader investigation was opened - apparently, in other years, other young men and house cats had disappeared.  The specter of Bigfoot was raised, also aliens.  Perhaps cougars were back in the area.  The story was tabloid ready, wildly popular, and then spent.  The letters from The Sisters never came again.  I retired to Truro to my life of splendid isolation, only occasionally disturbed by local reporters who found my living alone - I am now a hundred and two years old - remarkable (14)".

From there, the story almost builds itself up in the form of a detective story.  It starts when the professor receives an unexpected package in the the mail.  "And the origin of the package?  It had been sent by an Emma Dickinson Slutsky, 317 Garber Road, Amherst, Massachusetts (ibid)".  By this point, the savvy reader will probably have alarm bells going off in their head.  Even if you've never been here before, something about that package, and the name attached to it, should be enough to alert you that this special delivery is, in some as yet indefinable way, bad news.  Still, Murry has a story to tell, and so the following events unfold.  The letter details the usual, familiar tropes of a secret box full of unsent letters, neatly stored and tucked away inside of a kitchen wall, like any good prop of this sort is supposed to be.  Furthermore, each letter is addressed to Zinn himself, from Mrs. Dickinson's grandmother.  Grandma is described in equally fitting terms. "(She) was kind of weird, the kind of weird that does things like stuff letters in walls and seal them up (15)".

The package contains all the notes of the late, unfortunate Bakely.  From here, the majority of the text, at least right until near the very end, is concerned with retracing Bakely's last few hours of survival, while also serving as a brief, informal sort of rumination on life, the kind in which you build up regrets, and how all of this can sometimes find its way into the stories we tell, especially those of ancient myth.  Indeed, aside from the plot points related to what happened to the college student, the majority of the story takes an unexpected sort of twist, in that it's other main content consists of the ruminations of Prof. Zinn as he looks back on his life, and the moments or choices that have all brought him to where he is now.  Since the over-arching theme of all the stories in Bernheimer's collection is to see whether it's possible to re-tell or reuse all the old figures of ancient myth in a modern setting, it sort of leaves me wondering if perhaps the proper way of examining Murray's offering is to look it through the lens of the same classical literature that gave us Jason and the Golden Fleece, or the Maze and the Minotaur?

If we use that vantage point as our base of critical operations, then the biggest theme to emerge is surprisingly the figure of the narrator himself, and the way in which he can almost be said to function as this sort of modern anti-type to characters like Ulysses.  In Homer's original story, his hero is someone who lives up to that title in a lot of the best senses of the word.  He's a guy who dares to risk much, and is rewarded for his unflinching bravery and dedication by being granted what the author implies is the best gift any hero can ever get, the chance to live a normal, human life.  The poet even opens his story by calling his protagonist "the man of many ways".  Now if you take all that, and apply it to the figure of Zinn, then it's almost like watching a sock turned inside out.  This man is no one's definition of brave.  He comes off more like a reshuffling of J. Alfred Prufrock, more than anyone else.  It's for certain the good professor is not the kind willing to stick his neck, even for the causes he believes in.

This is sort of the continuing keynote of Murray's main lead.  He's always being presented with chances to take his life in more challenging, and positive directions.  In each case he winds up more or less repeating the same sentiment expressed by Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener.  "I prefer not". It's the same excuse Zinn uses to first screw up the only chance he ever took on a happy marriage.  Then he turned around and let that be the issue that drove a wedge between him and his family.  From there, he compounds his cowardice by running away from home to join the American circus.  The one notion he ever appears to have said yes to was accepting a teaching job as an English Lit. instructor.  And even then, the only reason he stuck his neck out was because he could tell there was no fundamental risk involved.  Even when it came to his favorite subject, Emily Dickinson, Zinn remains unwilling to disturb the universe, even if something good may come of it.  He has to send, or rather use people like Carson Bakely to get his hands dirty for him.  This time, the same choice came with a price tag, one that drips with someone else's blood.  It makes all that follows a matter of comeuppance. 

In that sense, Murray seems to have found a way of taking the basic moral stance of Greco-Roman myths, and finding what reads like a very fine execution of the tropes in a modern guise.  In fact, the one nitpick I can think of has nothing at all to do with Murray's narrative.  The fault here is all on the critic, rather than the artist.  That's because I want to swear the actual Greek Myths have got to contain a story, or character who displays just the sort of behavior Murray's protagonist does.  The trouble is I can't find anything like it anywhere lying around.  Guess I'm just not enough of an expert in the field to know where to look.  "And so it goes".  What I can tell you is that Murray has concocted an interesting moral fable.  I imagine it's the sort of thing that Aesop might have gotten a kick out of writing, if he could ever learn to so much as write his own name, and then be willing to experiment in a longer, novelistic format.  As a matter of fact, all this talk of Homer is kind of funny once you realize Murray's story is one I've technically covered here before.

Not too long ago I did a review of an episode from an old radio drama anthology.  Nightfall was the series, and Welcome to Homerville was the name of the episode.  It told the tale of a long-haul trucker, and one bad night he spends on the road, trying to reach his destination.  The reason that other guy was in such dire straits is because he kept being stalked by a creature from Greek Myth.  It was always out there, prowling the back roads and highways, looking for passing strangers, like that truck driver, to come along so the creature could "have them over for dinner", presumably.  It's almost kind of the same setup that Murray gives us with "The Sisters".  In Homerville, what we were dealing with was an encounter with one of the Sirens, straight out The Odyssey.  The titular siblings of Murray's narrative, while similar in many ways, might have just enough of a difference to require maybe a bit of explanation.

Here's the way Murray herself describes the nature of her fiction in the author's note included with her work.  "I live in Amherst, Massachusetts, where the cult of Emily Dickinson is thriving.  This made me think of other cults that buzz around the theme of womanhood, so my story is a somewhat humorous recasting of a troop of Bacchantes, who, in classical mythology, are followers of Bacchus/Dionysus who liked nothing better than to get really drunk and then go running through the wooded mountains slopes of Nysa, often in the nude.  Sometimes they would encounter animals that they would tear limb from limb in a spirit of feminine camaraderie.  And sometimes they would come across unlucky young men, who would meet the same fate (29-30)".  The same kind of fate that awaits for Zinn and Bakely.

With all this in mind, it should be clear what type of story we're dealing with.  It also helps explains the sense of cozy familiarity I had with the whole thing, from start to finish.  What Sabina Murray has written here amounts to no less than a spin, or riff on the type of narrative you might expect from someone like Neil Gaiman, or Peter Straub.  In other words, it's a pretty good example of what has been referred to elsewhere as New Wave Fabulism.  If that title sounds anything like pretentious, then all I can do is shrug.  There's nothing about it that bothers me at all, really.  It has that kind of fitting ring that's able to bestow not just a smidge of commoner's dignity, yet also a sense of identity to a number of big names who can be said to belong to an entire artistic movement.  It just happens to be one that has gone on to shape the nature of modern Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror.  In addition to Gaiman and Straub, you've got people like Charles De Lint, Connie Willis, Alan Moore, Terry Pratchett, and Stephen King.

With the publication of "The Sisters", it looks very much like Murray could have found a way to add her name that illustrious list.  I say go ahead, and why not.  She's isn't the first one to find her way into such vaulted company.  The heralded arrival of authors like Joe Hill and Kelly Braffet seem to be proof enough that New Wave Fabulism is one of those naturally welcoming artistic movements.  So there's no reason not to try and aim for the stars in this regard.  Like much of the modern Fabulist literature, Murray's story deals with what happens when the subject matter of ancient Mythology begins to make its subtle, yet steady encroachment on a contemporary civilization that always thinks it has outgrown fairy tales, and anything that goes bump in the night, only to learn better by the time the curtain falls.

"The Sisters" isn't all that different from works like Ghost Story, Bag of Bones, or Neverwhere.  Each of those other books feature a protagonist who winds up getting caught in the machinations of a spectral otherworld, and sometimes paying the price for it.  It's the same familiar setup that Prof. Zinn finds waiting for him as he makes his way toward the final remaining "Sister" in the story.  It's an interesting yarn, one that might have come from the pen of the Brother's Grimm, and is well worth a read.      

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