Sunday, May 7, 2023

Alan Moore's Cold Reading (2010).

A while back, I did a review of  book by Ramsey Campbell.  It was called Ancient Images, and it was one of those books with a winning concept that is hampered by the shortcomings of the novelist.  There are few fates worse than a good idea falling into the hands of the wrong artist.  That seems to have been what happened to the notion of an imaginary Horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the terrible events that befall the main protagonist as she tries to hunt down a copy.  If I've made that idea sound exciting, then I'm both proud to be of service, and also have to apologize in the same breath.  There may have been something worth sinking your teeth into with a story concept like that.  

The trouble is the power of any artistic idea is at the mercy of the artist's capabilities in realizing it on the page.  It's a skill set that is as necessary as it is often overlooked.  This is the part of creative writing that's perhaps impossible to teach in any school.  What it all comes down to is the writer's ability to realize the story in words (for lack of any better term).  It is a matter of being able to set the narrative down on paper, yet it's also a bit more than that.  At the start of his 1985 masterpiece It, Stephen King notes what sets one of his characters apart as a good storyteller.  He's not just good a telling, but also seeing and making others catch a glimpse of whatever imaginative vision that's floating around inside the artist's mind.

I think King gets very close to an accurate description of what good writing is in that moment.  Another way to say it is that good writing is what happens when an author is able to inhabit the story in such a way as to help bring it to life for the reader.  At least that's one alternate way of putting it.  However, I think I'm being more accurate when I say that all good stories, the really gripping works of narrative art, are able to contain, or come with their own artistic power and draw more or less intact.  The draw and allure of good stories, to me, are best seen as part of what might be called the "natural" ingredients of any imaginative idea, or archetype, that the artist is able to dig up from the depths of the unconscious mind.  The real task of the true writer is seeing just how capable they are of matching the power of their imaginative vision when or if they ever decide to record it down for the sake of an audience.

The is probably where any serious talk of artistic talent comes in, and perhaps the truth is that the level of success that each writer has with this skill is what sets the good and the great apart from the merely competent and mediocre.  Guys like J.R.R. Tolkien and Mark Twain have this ability in spades, which is why secondary worlds such as Middle Earth are able to seem so real to the tons of people who encounter it for the first time, over the years.  Or why a simple river in the Eastern half of the United States, such as the Mississippi, is able to take on this almost talismanic quality for anyone who has ever decided to give a book like Huck Finn a chance.  All of that is just a demonstration of Twain and Tolkien's narrative skills.  Both are capable of inhabiting their stories with skill.  They are each able to get into the zone, or whatever is necessary to not so much bring their respective archetypes to life, so much as allow them all the room they need to breath.  I think a lot of that also has to do with how each imaginative setting is able to play to the authors' strengths, and its another component in telling any good tale.  The trouble with Ramsey Campbell, at least in the case of a book like Ancient Images, is that he can't or won't seem to take the time to get inside of the story in order to help it fly off the page.

This is something that Campbell seems to have difficulty with.  His prose style and sense of pacing are well written enough.  There's not much in the way of any glaring errors of spelling, phrasing, or diction to be had, and the narrative itself keeps moving at a brisk pace that would be a welcome value in a better book.  The trouble is that the novel always reads as if its story is stuck inside a goldfish bowl, or one of those glass formaldehyde cases, with the author either unable or unwilling to do anything to improve it.  This is something that a writer like Stephen King is aware of in his critical review study, Danse Macabre.  There, he writes: "Campbell is good, if rather unsympathetic, with character (his lack of emotion has the effect of chilling his prose even further, and some readers will be put off by the tone of this novel; they may feel that Campbell has not so much written a novel as grown one in  Petrie dish (381-2)".  This sort of disconnected, almost hands-off approach has been Campbell's great weakness.

You sometimes hear or read novelists talking about how the best thing they can do is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.  That's not just a sentiment I agree with, I applaud it.  It's just the right frame of humility that any writer worthy of the title should practice.  The thing is that letting the story tell itself isn't the same as not giving it a ballpark to play in.  One of the key facets of good writing is the ability of the artist to record the inherent drama of the creative idea with as much accuracy as possible.  This is where the artist's ability to tap into the emotional content of the story comes into play.  It's a necessary and tricksy skill to pull off, and in terms of a book like Ancient Images, it seems to be one that Campbell has had some difficulty with.  That was a book I never set out to bad mouth.  What happened is the more I went along, the more the glaring errors in the composition stood out to me.

The result has been one of the most unsatisfactory reading experiences that I've had in recent times.  It's also kind of the explanation for this article.  What I wanted to do was to see if it was possible to find a story in the same genre as Campbell's, and that could act as a positive counterpart to the mistakes made in the last book I've reviewed on this site.  It didn't take long to dig up a likely specimen.  It's a short story entitled "Cold Reading".  The author also wrote stuff like Watchmen and V for Vendetta if it matters.

The Story

At the heart of this story is a character known as Ricky Sullivan.  His answering machine bills him as "the angel's answering service (102)".  Or least that's the kind of publicity he likes to write for himself.  In actual fact, Ricky's what you might call a "professional faker".  He's a phony psychic by trade, and he specializes in "giving the crowd what it wants".  He's a bit of a parasite, in that sense.  Though that's not the way Rick chooses to describe himself.  He thinks he's some kind of glorified public servant.  to hear him tell it.  At least part of how he got his start in the faker business is owed to dear old dad.  As he grew up, Rick learned that he sometimes had a pretty good gift for mimicking voices, and one of them was his father telling his mum how much he loved her.  That's was apparently how it all got started.

"Knowing Dad, it was a safe bet that he’d never told her that in life, and when I saw the comfort that I’d brought that woman, my own mum, that’s when I knew I had a gift. That’s when I knew what Ricky Sullivan had been put on this earth for. Oh, there’ll always be the unbelievers and debunkers in the papers, on the telly or what have you and it does, it makes me angry when they say people like me are cold, unfeeling, just taking advantage and all that. I’m sorry, but if they could see the happiness in people’s faces, if they really thought about the service me and others like me are providing, giving people strength to get on with their lives when they’ve just lost a loved one, well, they couldn’t say the things they say. I’m sorry, they just couldn’t. I don’t have to justify myself.

"I mean, do I believe all of the things that I tell people? In my heart, I can’t say that I do. But then, what about priests? You can’t tell me that all of them believe every last word of what they preach, but do they get called ‘ghouls in cardigans’ or ‘Vincent Price, but camp’? No. No, they don’t. That’s because people recognize all of the reassurance and the comfort that religion brings to people, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. Or doctors, it’s like doctors when they say that a placebo, that’s like, what, a sugar pill? That a placebo can work wonders without any side effects, but that they can’t prescribe them ’cause of all the medical red tape and ethics, health and safety, all that business. That’s me. I’m a spiritual sugar pill, but I do people good. I’m sorry, but I touch their lives

"And yes, I suppose you could say that I’ve done very well out of it, got the mortgage on this house paid off last year, but that’s not what I do it for. It’s not the money. How can I explain? It’s more the gratitude, the look on some poor widow’s face and knowing that you’ve helped them. That, to me, what can I say? That look’s worth more than gold. That’s my reward, right there (100-101)".  Still, he does perhaps make a tacit confession when recalling what it is he likes best about the "job".  "(When) I was little, what I liked best were the rainy, windy nights when I could lay tucked up in bed and think about all of the people out there in the cold, so that I could feel even snugger by comparison. I’m lucky in that that’s what my whole life’s like these days, very snug. Snug by comparison, you might say (101)".

So basically we're talking your friendly, local neighborhood con artist, doing his scams, makings his deals, and otherwise tucking himself away in a quiet corner where no one can hassle him for anything except the chance of letting him rob them blind.  Then one day, Ricky gets a phone call from a Mr. David Berridge about possibly holding a seance at what used to be his brother's house.  And from there, things slowly get interesting.

Conclusion: A Neat Little Exercise in the Horror Short Story.

I don't think Alan Moore needs much in the way of an introduction, even at this late date.  To claim that he's one of the Big Names in the world of comic books is to say little more than a truism as of this writing.  It's almost like talking in cliches.  I suppose the only real difficulty in discussing a writer like him is knowing where to start.  That's sort of the problem when it comes to discussing the real titans.  The trouble is they give you so much to work with that you're kind of swamped right out of the starting gate.  In a way, that's kind of the other explanation for this being the first Moore related post to appear here.  Tackling any of his minor works is probably the easiest way for me to begin, at any rate.  All of his major texts are going to be the kind of material I will really have to comb through in fine detail if I'm ever going to do something like From Hell justice.  I think I'd have to do the same for writers like Tolkien, Philip k. Dick, or Shakespeare.  With that in mind, a story like "Cold Reading" offers the beginner the perfect and easy starting place from which to get something like a workable bearing.

The first thing worth paying attention to about this short story is that the writer is able to start things off on a pretty good note.  For instance, here's just the second paragraph of Moore's composition.  "I can remember, I was only six or seven when I saw my first and only ghost. I was with Mum and Dad in the lounge of a seaside pub at night, standing there glued to the glass doors and gawping out into the dark, not thinking of anything in particular. Just then I saw this man walking across the car park of the pub away from me. He wasn’t any colour. He was all washed out and grey, and then I realized there were parts of him that I could see through. I could see the scrubby strips of grass, the bollards and the drooping lengths of chain that closed the car park in, through the black folds and shadows of his jacket. I thought, ‘It’s a ghost! I’m really seeing one!’ And then, and this was the most frightening bit, it turned its head and looked straight at me. It had got two blurry faces, one of them just slightly offset from the other, and it smiled in at me through the glass from out there in the night, and then it spoke my name. It’s like, I saw its lips move but I heard its voice as if it was right next to me, rather than outside in the car park. It said ‘Ricky? Would you like a Fanta (99-100)".

Right away, there's this cozy sense of familiar territory, and the best part about it is that it is being delivered by one of the best practitioners in the business.  The real surprise comes from learning that an expert in the field of the graphic novel is also capable of writing a pretty decent prose line.  This is somewhat all the more remarkable when you consider just how little the author has published in terms of straightforward literary fiction, without the assistance of the comics panel to help convey his meaning, or carry across whatever artistic effect he has in mind.  A brief look as his bibliography reveals that Moore has published no more than four legitimate works of prose fiction in his lifetime, including the nine short stories that make up the collection known as Illuminations, which is his most recent non-comic book to date, and in which "Cold Readings" can be found.  In that sense, perhaps Moore is best thought of as someone who has always been a dabbler in the medium of the un-illistrated novel, at least up till now, it seems.  This makes the self-assurance on display, even in what could be considered a minor work such as this, all the more remarkable.

Right from the opening paragraph, Moore's craftsmanship gives one the impression that we're dealing with the material of a seasoned veteran, someone whose been doing this far longer than the relative originality of the work might suggest.  The paragraph quoted above, for instance, displays a lively sense of timing, combined with the suggestion of a folksy immediacy that serves to draw the reader into the narrative right from the start.  It's the kind of strong beginning you want to have when telling a Gothic story.  Moore's familiarity with this type of story is not too surprising, given that we're dealing with the same guy who wrote From Hell.  His ambitions with this piece are a lot less ambitious, yet there is a certain amount of gratitude in knowing that he still saw fit to bring the same level of professionalism to what amounts to little more than a pleasant fireside tale.  This top shelf craftsmanship is something that Moore is able to keep going from the story's start all the way to the finish line.  It's something that would have been so easy to phone in, and yet it's clear the author is dedicated to giving us his best.

The story he has to tell is nothing spectacular.  We're not dealing with the vast mental landscapes of something like Promethea or Jerusalem here.  Instead, it's just a nice, fine, Gothic tale in the style of M.R. James.  All we're dealing with is the tale of a local, neighborhood charlatan who takes up an invitation for a "seance", and winds up discovering, in the words of Stephen King, that "the column of reality has a hole in it (948)".  The interesting thing to note is that even in the space of such a small offering, Moore finds both the time and a way to work in a lot of his usual concerns.  At the heart of this story, like in a lot of his work, lies the author's trademark outraged idealism.  Throughout his entire career, Moore seems to have been nothing if not a moralist, of some sort.  There's also always been this constant Romantic streak to his creations that I think often tends to get lost in the fawning admiration that readers and critics have had for the more easily graspable, outlandish pyrotechnics that the graphic novelist has kept using in his bag of tricks.  What all of it masks, though, is an ongoing desire for people to find at least some clearer, saner vision of reality, one with a lot more room for hoary old concepts like creativity, empathy, and compassion.  As such, Moore, often seems to reserve his wrath in his works for any of those characters who represent of a restrictive narrowing of this same vision.

It's a role that guys like Ricky Sullivan wind up playing all too easily.  He's very much a user of others, at his core.  Another good way to describe him is to claim that he is a disenchanted person looking to take advantage of others looking for any possible sign of enchantment in the universe.  The interesting thing about this character is that he believes his welching off the grief of others is just rendering a kind of service, while at the same time never grasping why its possible for so many people to believe in ghosts.  There's a fundamental blind spot in Sullivan's outlook, and Moore implies that a lot of it was beat out of him as child by his father.  This happened so much to the point that when it comes to the possibility that he might have had his own fleeting glimpse of a spectral other world, he now automatically dismisses it as an adult.  What Moore seems to be hinting at with just a few simple brush strokes is that our ability to see what is truly happening around us is often conditioned by, and ultimately at the mercy of, how we are treated by those around us.  This in itself is a very Romantic notion inasmuch as it is concerned with the opening and shutting of the doors of perception.

It's a topic Moore keeps picking at in his work, like a scab that won't heal.  His own ways of explaining this can often come off as trippy, and yet it's clear enough he's working from at least some kind of vision about the world which helps generate his work.  The closest I've ever seen the author come to explaining this outlook comes from an interview he gave for a magazine called Big Issue North.  There, he described what calls "this stupendous block universe”. It’s a theory that recurs in various forms throughout his work, from Dr Manhattan in Watchmen, temporally dislocated and able to see past, present and future at the same time, to the dizzying tapestry of Jerusalem, which collapses centuries of Northampton family history into a cosmic singularity.

“I believe that if we consider our lifetime as a physical structure in space-time, it would have our birth at one end of it and our cremated ashes at the other end of it,” he says, effortlessly segueing from Yarmouth’s tacky waxworks to quantum philosophy. “It would be like that forever, including that bit in the middle where we are living and conscious and having our lives – that would be there forever as well.

“The universe is a solid through which only our consciousness is moving, almost like a projector on a strip of film. Each of those frames is frozen and static forever, and nothing will change that. But when we run the light of a projector across them, or in this analogy the light of our consciousness, then you get the illusion of – well, it’s not even an illusion – you get movement, you get morality and motivation and good and evil (web)".  

It's this quasi-Blake style outlook which exists in back of stories like "Cold Reading".  It's main character refuses to see the hole in reality, and so one day he winds up paying for it.  In this sense, the author can be said to be working with a familiar trope.  It's the old idea of the arrogant everyman humbled.  The concept itself has had a remarkably resilient shelf life, from the urban legend of The Girl Who Stood on the Grave, all the way up the ladder to Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown, and My Kinsmen, Major Molyneux, along with later offerings such as Stephen King's The Night Flier.  What each of these tales have in common is the idea of an arrogant young type or trope that thinks they know all there is to understand about reality.  In all stories of this kind, what tends to wind up happening is that sooner or later the main character finds himself having to confront a situation or set of circumstances that acts as a direct challenge to not just their own notions of what the world is like, but also on a more fundamental level.  The leads of such stories often wind up having the self-assurance of who they are taken and scattered to fragments.  Often, they pay with both their wits and even their own lives.  It's a trope that a writer like H.P. Lovecraft was able to take and create an entire career out of.

Moore himself remains a lifelong fan of the scribbler from Providence, yet his own outlook is a bit rosier than anything the creator of the Necronomicon could conceive of.  That doesn't mean that Moore is capable of taking a very skewed and trippy outlook on the world around, nor that he is incapable of writing in the classic Gothic mode.  Anyone whose read Watchmen could point to Tales From the Black Freighter, or the graphic novel in its entirety as something to read if you needed to figure that one out.  Here, however, Moore has found a way to speak in a quieter, though far from subdued voice.  On the contrary, his command of the proper atmosphere of the English Ghost story is consummate, and professional, while at the same adding the extra qualities of being gripping and personable.   

It's those last two traits that separate Moore's efforts from either the mediocre or the merely competent, and elevate it into the realm of being a fine bogey tale.  Compare it to the cold, dispassionate prose line of Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images, and its like comparing night and day.  Moore is lively, where Campbell is distant, lively while the other is flat, and Moore is able to top it all off with a winning sense of almost folksy, good-natured charm.  A lot of this comes from the level of life he's able to find in the main protagonist.  The whole story is told from Ricky's point of view, and I think it points to Moore's unrecognized strengths as a writer of character.  While it's clear the story is told from the villain's viewpoint, the writing does such a good job of making Ricky Sullivan so approachable that even if you can see the cruel, O'Henry style twist coming a mile away, you're almost sad to have to see him go.

The ending is something might see coming from a mile away.  What it puts me in mind of more than anything, is the aforementioned Stephen King short, The Night Flier.  Both works share a trope in common, that of a skeptic and disbeliever encountering the supernatural, and being changed by the encounter.  In some ways, at least, King's protagonist fares a hell of a lot better than Moore's.  The first guys was lucky enough to be left alive by the time the final paragraph rolled around.  The latter example leaves us just as Sully finds out the situation he's in has always been different from what he assumed at the start, and then we read the following.  "Up above me on the landing there's a creek.  Somebody's coming down the stairs.  I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry (115)".  Moore, however, is able to add one final interesting twist to the proceedings by having his main character having a last minute realization when the main lead figures out that his "client" for the evening has asked him a question that dates back all the way to his childhood.  "Ricky?  Would you like a Fanta (ibid)"?  It's the kind of detail that so subtle as to slip past the radar.  For those who pay attention, however, it sounds almost as if Moore meant the ending to be an example of a guilty past catching up with the protagonist.

In all of this, as I've said, Moore handles his material with a level of professionalism that puts one in mind of the classic English chillers of M.R. James.  To go back to where it all started, this simple short story is everything that I think Ramsey Campbell wanted Ancient Images to be, and yet could just never manage.  I'm still trying to puzzle out what mindset allowed him to drop the ball on that one.  To be fair, there's minor bit of novelty involved in all of that for me.  It's not the first time I've seen a case where the artist has a potentially good story idea on their hands, coupled with a lack of ability to realize the fullness of that potential.  However, Campbell's novel might be the first time I've ever seen it "accomplished" in a complete, novel-length format.  I guess it's just that it's an experience that has been so fundamentally alien to me as a life-long reader that when it finally happens, I'm still left having to scratch my head in awe and puzzlement about it.  It is the perfect mixture of literary professionalism combined with a mind-boggling inability to bring at least that one other story to life.  I don't think I should go too hard on Campbell in all this.  Odds are still even enough that he's had other successes in his later works that deserve to be rediscovered.  In the meantime, though, here's where it all stands.

If you want a good, quick introduction on how to compose a fine, short, and enjoyable English ghost story, then right now I'd say Alan Moore's "Cold Reading" is a good primer text to start off with.  Am I saying that Moore is the best practitioner of this type of story.  I think that's a bit of a rush to judgment, there, if I'm being honest.  I'm willing to agree that Moore is perhaps one of a handful of writers in this genre that contemporary readers are most familiar with, the others being limited mostly to Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.  That's about as far as most of he audience can get in terms of a overall awareness of the ghostly tale in this age.  What this lack of knowledge can't do, however, is erase the artistic past that Moore has clearly drawn on in the composition of his short story.  In constructing the narrative at the heart of "Cold Reading", Moore can be seen reaching back to examples set by the older grand masters of the shilling shockers, such as Arthur Machen and M.R. James.  Both of them were authors who excelled at pioneering the look and feel of the modern Horror story, and Moore has been happy enough to acknowledge his debt to these ancient scribblers.  In that sense, "Cold Reading" has all the marka of being a thank you letter from a fan to his teachers.  There's a shared sense of enthusiasm at the heart of this story that will prove infectious for anyone who is willing to give it a chance.

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