Sunday, October 23, 2022

C.S. Lewis's Forms of Things Unknown (1957-59)

Would you believe me if I said I'd found a Horror story written by C.S. Lewis?  Would you be even more incredulous if I told you it was set in outer space, of all places?  These are the type of questions that can sometimes be fascinating.  My reasons for enjoying these occasional, left field curve balls is because of what the responses to them can tell me about the mindset of the audience as a whole.  It might not sound like much, yet it can be sometimes be like hitting the jackpot for any professional critic dedicated to doing the job well.  A great majority of the audience might have no clue at all who or what I'm talking about.  The second response belongs to those who might have at least some passing familiarity with the author mentioned above.  Though they might be inclined to discount the idea that a guy like that would ever bother with something like outer space, or the Horror genre for that matter.  

Didn't he write something to do with a magical land behind some sort of locked door, or whatever?  There may be a few fuzzy childhood memories about reading, or having such a storybook told to you and your long-forgotten elementary school friends out loud when you were little, and that's about it as far as any grand awareness goes.  What I find so interesting about both sets of replies is what it can tell us about what might be termed the artistic awareness of the viewers and readers of stories

What it helps the critic to discover is the actual limits of pop-culture memory.  What I've found is that it's an often slippery slope, one in which even the greatest of artistic names can fall through the cracks of cultural awareness and literacy if you're not too careful.  Let's take one other example of what I mean, before moving on to the main subject.  Let's take the streak of Blockbuster Comedies that appeared during the 1980s.  Who do you associate most with those films?  My guess is that most people today would have trouble recalling the comedians who starred in those pictures, or what made them, for a time, a series of household names.  A few might be able to recall the likes of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, or John Candy.  And yet sometimes its difficult to recall the exact details.  So here's the deal, if it's tough for most people at this time to remember even the basic plot of a film like Ghostbusters, what are the odds anyone's going to remember that time when an old children's author wrote a Cosmic Horror story?  I'd say odds are good no one would ever have a clue such a thing even existed.

This appears to be about as far as pop-culture is able to take anyone anywhere.  It's a rough gig, and  what's hip today may barely cast a glare in the rear-view mirror of tomorrow.  The funny thing is how a short attention span does little to erase the past.  It also can't stop a lot of old, obscure works of fiction from existing.  It's one of those cases where if you're enough of a bookworm, sooner or later you might kick over a metaphorical rock, and discover a rich load of undiscovered writings you never knew existed.  At least that's sort of the case with my finding out about the story under discussion today.  It's the kind of discovery I wasn't expecting to make when I fist picked up a simple book of short stories.  All that happened was I got hold of a collection with the unassuming title of 13 Uncanny Tales, Chosen and Edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  He's another writer of forgotten children's books, and as I'd liked or enjoyed some of the stuff he's written before, this didn't seem like that much of an unnatural choice to make.  It also didn't hurt that this time Green was editing together a collection of Horror stories.

The truth is I've been a sucker for that type of writing since almost before I learned to read.  It was spotting a kid's Gothic novel by John Bellairs that made me want to pick up my first book.  I've been perusing through pages ever since.  So the idea of yet another anthology dedicated to the October Country genre was music to my ears, at least.  I picked up Green's book, leafed through the Table of Contents, and there it was.  Forms of Things Unknown, by C.S. Lewis.  I'd heard of the guy, of course.  The first time I recall ever hearing anything about him was once when I caught the preview of an old, animated TV special that was made from one of his books, on the Disney Channel.  A few years later, I had this same story read to me by one of my teachers way back in elementary school.  I suppose that's how a whole generation in the 80s and 90s grew up hearing about him.  It's like there was this brief span of time when Lewis was part of this informal group of writers that kids would either pick up on their own, or else they would come in contact with his work the way I did, by having adults read the stories out loud to us, either alone, or in a group.  That's how most us remember him, so far as we can.

As I've already said, though.  I wasn't expecting to run across him in a book of short stories dedicated to the Macabre.  Nor was I expecting this same guy to set his work in the great expanse of outer space.  In fact, I'm not sure I know of many people who would ever have expected him to do such a thing.  For most of us, he's just this half-remembered name on a list of a handful of literary babysitters we used to have when we were kids.  That list might have included the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, and not many others.  In that sense, it's kind of a wonder that at least 50% of the audience can still recall Lewis at all.  To discover that one of your old, nursery school teachers could have this other writing career, one you never even knew about, is interesting to say the least.  It's like discovering that one of your school teachers once tried a turn towards novel writing without telling anyone, thus creating this odd sense of confusion and intrigue.  That fact that one editor decided this work classified as Horror just went to sweeten the deal for me.  It's not what I expected, and yet it got my interest.  Enough of it, anyway, so that I wound up intrigued enough to want to know more about this left-field offering.

So far, the best bits of background information I've been able to dig up on this story boils down to just two sources.  The first and oldest is The Shorter Planetary Fiction of C.S. Lewis, by Bruce R. Johnson.  The second, and only other source I could find is Suzanne Bray's Close Encounters of the Mythical Kind.  It's in the latter essay that Bray comes closest to giving the average reader anything resembling an insight into where a story like this might have come from.  "When asked about how he wrote his fictional works, Lewis always asserted that these “began by seeing pictures in [his] head” (“It All Began” 79), sometimes pictures he had seen years before he started writing. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, began “with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” (79), which had been in Lewis’s mind since he was about sixteen. In the same way, “Forms of Things Unknown” probably started with a frightening dream Lewis described in a letter to his father in March 1927...

"I dreamed I was walking among the valleys of the moon—a world of pure white rock, all deep chasms and spidery crags, with a perfectly black sky overhead. Of course there was nothing living there, not even a bit of moss: pure mineral solitude. Then I saw, very far off, coming to meet me down a narrow ravine, a straight, tall figure, draped in black, face and all covered. One knew it would be nicer not to meet that person: but one never has any choice in a dream, and for what seemed about an hour I went on till this stranger was right beside me . . . it was the sense of being on the moon you know, the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect. (Letters 1 678).

"However, both this dream, and the later short story, may have been influenced by his reading of H.G. Wells’s novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), which Lewis particularly admired and which has, in places, an atmosphere similar to the one found in “Forms of Things Unknown.” Describing the novel to the Cambridge University English Club, Lewis stated: 'The first glimpse of the unveiled airless sky, the lunar landscape, the lunar levity, the incomparable solitude, then the growing terror, finally the overwhelming approach of the lunar night—it is for these things that the story. . . exists. (“Science Fiction” 86).  Lewis also asked his listeners in Cambridge whether any man is “such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowed, sky” (85), implying that he himself had certainly done so (web)".  This scrap of useful information leaves a number of interesting thoughts in the readers mind.  For me, what's most fascinating about all this comes down to just two things.  The first would have to be this almost shared sens of surprise among the majority of the audience.  I doubt there are a great many people who would have expected someone like C.S. Lewis to enjoy the Solar System.

The second has to do with Lewis's skill in describing that eerie "picture" he saw in one of his dreams.  That being the image of what, to me, sounds like a basic sort of death's head figure making its slow way toward the viewer as it glides, ghost-like, over the rocky, bleached-out terrain of the Lunar surface.  There's just this odd sense of creepy power to the idea in Lewis's dreams.  There's this quality to it that might be described as a terrifying glamour.  It puts the proper sense of artistic fear into the reader, while at the same time being able to draw their attention towards it, with the extra addition of this weird (or perhaps wyrd is the more proper term) "fascination" the creative idea has about it, for lack of a better word.  A part of the draw for this creative picture can be put down to Lewis's skill and the already evident ease that he has with the elements of description.  This dream, or nightmare, appears to date from an early time, perhaps before he even published his first, tentative works.  If that's the case, then Bray has more than one good reason to showcase it in her essay.  The composer of these words is the type that already sounds like he might have a lot going for him.  Even if you never knew who was speaking, any good reader could tell these were the words of someone who could be a talented writer.

What makes this all sorts of interesting, for me at least, is that, once more, these words don't come from an obvious source.  Th image that's being painted suggests a fear of mortality in relation to the vast and boundless oceans of the cosmos.  It's the sort of image you expect to find within the correspondence of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith.  Instead, the fact it comes from the pen of someone like Lewis just adds to the sense of intrigue.  It's like learning he has maybe not a Lovecraftian, though perhaps something near to a Bradbury like streak in him, one that never got as much attention as his current reputation testifies.  The final source of power for this early dream correspondence can all be found in the image itself.  The ultimate reason I can find for the strength of Lewis's descriptions is very simple, though perhaps also complex.  The short of it is that he seems to have encountered an archetype in his sleep.  It's just a case of the Imagination putting in a good night's work, in other words.  It's the sort of thing that happens to everybody, yet creative types like Lewis tend to notice it, or place a greater deal of importance on it, than the rest us.  However puzzling that may be.

Either way, the facts are discernible enough in this case.  Lewis manages to capture a snapshot of this dream in his waking memory, and his latent artistic abilities as a wordsmith allowed him to make his readers see that veiled figure making its inexorable way toward the audience.  In my mind, it moves like a slow-motion time-lapse film.  First there's just the surface of the Moon.  Then the dark figure appears at the top of a horizon.  A brief fade-cut, and then the figure is walking down the hill.  Another time stamp jump and the hooded thing keeps making its way closer until...That's when you begin to realize how at least some folk would maybe begin to wonder if its possible to find a story tucked away in the folds of that image.  For instance, what if the first ever explorers to arrive at the Sea of Tranquility got out of the Lander, only to find that same gaunt, imposing, personage coming right towards them.  It's the stuff that both nightmares and potentially good campfire yarns are made of.  The real surprise remains that Lewis appears to have been of roughly the same type of mind.  He must have been if he was able to tell a whole Tale of Terror out of it.  This, then, is an idea of just how it all goes.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1983).

It's interesting the way some memories can stick in the mind.  That's not like any world shattering secret, or anything.  I know that's always the truth for everybody.  Some folks, including perhaps a surprising number of famous writers, have admitted to having a difficult time dredging up their own long ago experiences.  In his creative, how-to memoir, for instance, Stephen King admits to being "stunned by Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club.  Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality - she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.  I'm not that way.  I lived and odd, herky-jerky childhood...Mary Karr presents her childhood in an almost unbroken panorama.  Mine is a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you (17)". 

To be fair, I don't think he's lying.  Instead, based on a lot of other non-fiction writings of his elsewhere, and even in the same autobiographical writing manual, it seems more as if all King has done is to perform a minor, yet helpful form of public service for those who wish to remember their own pasts, yet often have a surprising amount of difficulty in ever finding their way back to that fabled memory lane.

I bring this up not to criticize.  I think all it does is just help make my point about how interesting are the things of our youth.  Those fragments of lived experience that we can sometimes manage to recall at odd hours, when we least expect it.  This is often because of the quirky nature of some our best recollections.  They ususally tend to center on an event, person, or thing that just has this aura of fascination about them.  It's the kind of experience that manages to stamp a permanent imprint of magnetic allure on our minds, and makes sure that whatever else happens, the remembrance of that person, place, thing, or event somehow manages to never fade away with the rest of the photographs we keep floating around in our own mental attic chests.  I know of at least one instance in which that has has been very true for me.  Even King himself admits that one of the few memories he can recall, the one that still sticks out with so much clarity as to prove itself something of a formative influence on his profession, is that time he and his brother Dave found a collection of old, Horror pulp magazines hidden away up in an old, attic loft of a family residence.  It's something he could remember so well that he later felt it important enough to share with his reader in the pages of Danse Macabre (98-102).

My own experience of this same phenomenon is a lot less rich and full of hidden depths as it was for King, I'm afraid.  In fact, it can't even qualify as anything special.  Mine was no rich harvest of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, like the ones King and his brother turned up.  Instead it was just this one excerpt of narrative tucked away in the back of an old, battered copy of a simple high school English 101 text.  It was one of those ancient seeming 6th grade primers that somehow look as if they might have been around long enough to witness the building of the Alexandrian Library, or something like it, anyway.  It's one of those school texts where the pages seem heavy in your arms, and yet are so soft when have to rifle through to find your assignment, that it's kind of a wonder that it never falls apart in your hands.  The funny thing is how the dreaded moment of textual collapse never happened.  Or at least it never did with me.  Those battered, old elders proved to be tougher than the rest in my case.  I still have some of them tucked away on a few shelves in my home, even after all these years.

Guess I'm just a sentimentalist like that.  The irony is that the one textbook I've been unable to track down is the one that contains the story I want to talk about today.  In a way, though, I suppose its fitting that the single, solitary, school text I might harbor anything like a genuine reader's fondness for is also the one that continues to elude me.  There's a real life poetry in that kind of situation, one which I think only a handful will ever have the capacity to appreciate.  It's that somewhat mystic gray area, where we know the memory is real, yet some of the details have managed to reach the right and pleasing amount of brilliant haze, making what we can recall stand out with a more powerful clarity.  If I'm recalling things right, here, one of the other reasons this textbook stood out was because it contained a recreation of Rod Serling's The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  It's not the story under discussion here, though it perhaps did work as a contributing factor to why I can recollect any of this in the first place.

The other story that makes that old, half-remembered school text stand out as clear as it does, all these years later, was a simple, almost childlike sounding title.  It was called Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed, and it was written by Virginia Hamilton.  Here's where I need to make a confession.  I ran across this author just the once, a long time ago, way back in high school.  As I moved up through the grades, I lost track of both Hamilton, and her story.  It was a time when it at least seemed like a lot of important stuff was happening.  It's all small potatoes, compared to where we are now, of course.  The point, however, is that it was one of those singular, fleeting encounters that manages to leave a certain type of impact that you're somehow lucky enough to remember all these years later.  The trick was that as far as I know, Virginia Hamilton is still very much a mystery to me.  That's not to say, however, that I haven't learned some things about her, or that her own life isn't a story worth telling.

That's far from the truth, as it turns out.  In fact, based just on what I've been able to dig up since that time, it is always possible that what I've accidentally stumbled over is a diamond in the rough.  Ginny Hamilton first saw the light of day on March 12th, 1934.  In her own words, she was born "on the outer edge of the Great Depression".  Which is a polite way of saying she and her folks got lucky, while a lot of others never were.  Her parents were part of a large, extended farming property which was brought together by the mutual agreement of each part of her extended family, on both her father and mother's sides.  The whole thing appears to have been a gamble that managed to pay off, somehow.  There's no way on any possible green Earth that Virginia, her parents, siblings, and the rest of her loved ones were ever able to be considered anything other than poor.  And yet, by the standards of the Stock Market Crash, along with the collapse of the Roaring 20s, and its attendant fallout, they were a hell of a lot better off than most folks at the time.  John Steinbeck's Joad clan, for instance, would have eyed Ginny's freehold setup with a very real envy, made up of equal parts desperation and hunger.

Ginny never seems to have had to suffer that kind of depredation, or at least not in that sense, anyway.  There's no way an African-American girl growing up during that period didn't have plenty opportunity to get well-acquainted with the peculiar institution known as racism.  It's not the kind of thing she, or any of her folks, ever asked for.  So there it was, even, or especially since they didn't want it.  In spite of this, going just off of the basic outline trajectory of her life, it seems as if Virginia wasn't the kind of girl who was ever interested in letting this kind of shit get in her way, or keep her down, and under the thumb.  Instead, consider these astonishing biographical facts.  In high school, Ginny graduated at the top of her class, and won a scholarship to Antioch College.  She was enough of a success there to transfer to Columbus's Ohio State University in 1956, where she majored in literature and creative writing.  In 1958, Ginny made her way to New York, getting by on a number of odd jobs trying to build up enough support for realizing her dream of being a writer.  Now imagine this scenario.  An Afro-American woman falls for a white guy.  Not unheard of, yet back in the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, it was pretty much like taking a blow-torch to some ill-defined taboo line.  Either way, Ginny crossed it by falling for and marrying Arnold Adoff in 1960.  Turned out that choice was yet another lucky break.  The added income was enough for her to focus on her writing career.

In 1969, Hamilton and Adoff made their way back her the ground of her parents old farmstead.  By now, Ginny was an accomplished and published writer, with her then latest book The House of Dies Drear having won and Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery (web).  The pay off from both her and Arnold's writing was enough to allow Ginny to buy back her own, old childhood home.  It's the place where she spent the rest of her life, and wrote the remainder of all her books   On the whole, not too bad of a record for a girl whose decedents were refugees, and possibly even workers on the Underground Railroad (web).  In fact, if you stop to take the time and think it over, it soon hits you that its probably because Virginia Hamilton grew up hearing stories about her ancestors exploits with the Railroad that led to her growing up with this sense of never wanting to let herself be either defeated or used by the same forces that tried to dominate her own family.  In that very ironic sense, Ginny was able to grow up with a perfect number of role models right within her very own household.  It appears to have been this particular, and familiar drive, that lead her into becoming what can only be described as something of an early pioneer in the history of the African-American arts scene, and it shows in a lot of her work.

Dies Drear
does, in fact, stand out as one of the first big successes of a black voice making a popular impact in the venue of American Gothic letters.  She followed this up, not long after, with The Planet of Junior Brown, a slice-of-life narrative which nonetheless might be said to contain certain tell-tale elements which mark it out as perhaps one of the first tentative steps into the sub-genre now known as Afro-Futurism.  With all this accumulated information in hand, it really seems as if the correct phrase we're looking for here, is to describe Hamilton as a ground breaker.  That's why it's all the more interesting, because aside from that one time I ran across a story of hers in an old Junior High textbook, I've never really heard her spoken of, or talked about much over the years.  If I hadn't been curious about that old, faded memory to enough to decide to look it up, I probably would never have become aware of either Virginia, or her literary efforts.  It's the kind of mistake that perhaps ought to be remedied, sooner or later, and not just by me.  If the voice of a pioneer in both African American and Women's Literature has managed to get lost in the shuffle, then I think future generations probably do owe it to themselves to try and rediscover a forgotten voice.  The best I can do in that regard is try and give an honest review as possible of a childhood memory contained somewhere in the pages of a book.