Saturday, October 22, 2011

"The Moon Pool" and other (nearly forgotten) stories for a scary season

Samhain or Dia de los Muertos, Celtic New Year, All-Saints Day or Halloween, whichever festival a reader celebrates at this time of the season it's bound to be fraught with thoughts of impermanence, the comingwinter's chill, the fragility of life, the world of spirits. What to read as the nights grow dark and cold and candle-lit? When the curtains are closed and shadows leap upon the walls, there's always Poe and Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to scare us, of course. But what else?

Plenty. There are lots of writers these days willing to scare us or spook us, naturally. But there is much more in the dusty stacks of forgotten and near-forgotten fiction, from serious writers like H.G. Wells to pulp master H.P. Lovecraft. (It wouldn't be much of a stretch to include William Burroughs in the ranks of the weird and spooky: Cities of the Red Night is a mind-melting nightmare of a diseased, dystopian world.)

Published in 1980, Cities of the Red Night is part of a trilogy (including The Place of Dead Roads in 1984, and finally, The Western Lands, 1988) in which Burroughs is the master of disaster from the personal to the universal, the greying misanthrope giving reign to his darkest thoughts about the human condition.

The book is dark and discomfiting, and very trippy. Plague, check. 18th-century pirates, check. A crew of very ill, very doomed lost boys, check. But there's also a contemporary element of detective fiction slamming the shifting of time and space together like H.G. Wells after dropping a tab of LSD in a visit to Owsley Stanley: a time-tripping apocalypse that would make the Mayans tremble with anticipation.

As is often the case, Jonathan Williams's view from Skywinding Farm was much more inclusive and forgiving of such matters as what our well-meaning teachers of English literature would deem worthwhile of our time spent reading. And he sadly notes, inthis essay from the Jargon Books website, how much worthy reading eventually slips away nearly forgotten, and how "each of us has read almost nothing."

Williams -- himself "internationally overlooked," with a bit of honor and pride in such a distinction -- was asked by Dennis Cooper, of Little Caesar magazine, to guest-edit an issue called "Overlooked & Underrated." He happily complied, and the result was an extensive list of nearly forgotten novels in every genre, a list which was published eventually in 1981, added to in 1989, and once more in 1998. More than ten years later, it would be easy to imagine that the list in "our dummified times" would be longer still. Here's an excerpt from his letter to Ian Young, with an emphasis on stories of horror and the supernatural.

"What a civilization! Nobody even remembers who wrote THE MOON POOL." Often I think of that ultimate lament by Kenneth Rexroth. However, good buddy, I remember that Honest Abe Merritt wrote THE MOON POOL, and I was very turned on by its unique art-deco, sci-fi eroticism back in the ur-sexy days of Flash Gordon and Batman and Robin.

... I'd love to write you a whole book on marvellous caitiff writers who go unread in our dummified times. But, I remain up to my hunkers in chores for the Jargon Society -- all that reading and writing that serve to make me internationally unknown, like one had better be these days. "Of making many books, there is no end." That's in, I believe, Proverbs ... "The flesh is sad and I have read all the books." That's Mallarmé. These quotations remind us that each of us has read almost nothing.

... If you asked the poet Basil Bunting to name the few, world-class masters, he would name you twelve, half of whom you'd never heard of. Viz: Homer, Ferdosi, Manucherhri, Dante, Hafez, Malherbe, Aneirin, Heledd, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth ... For Basil, that was it. No one in the 20th century, even his great mentor, Ezra Pound, made the Top Dozen. I know a lot that's "readable" and that will help get a reader through good and bad days and nights. I'll select a few genres and see what I think of, off the top of my head. One thing to mention at the start is that our friend, The Devoted Reader, is going to need the services of a very excellent library system.

... Horror and the Supernatural? Howard Phillips Lovecraft was my transition from boys' adventure books to the surrealism of Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen. Nothing wrong with a "third class" writer with a peerless imagination. THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME and THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD are perhaps better than I remember. They stick in the conk.

Others that do: THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND, by William Hope Hodgson; THE PURPLE CLOUD, by M.P. Shiel; THE HILL OF DREAMS, by Arthur Machen; and a lot by H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, M.R. James, Saki, Lord Dunsany, E.F. Benson, A.E. Coppard, Walter de la Mare, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, and Colin Wilson.

The two current writers of boogieman prose I like best are Stephen King (The World's Richest Writer, who rivals the Big Mac for style and usability) and the more literate Peter Straub. 'SALEM'S LOT and THE SHINING are first-class books by Mr. King. And IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, GHOST STORY, and MYSTERY by Mr. Straub. Two other writers of interest: Whitley Strieber (THE HUNGER, THE WOLFEN) and Robert R. McCammon (MYSTERY WALK). Check your local drugstore. ...

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