Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jonathan Williams' case for "boogieman prose"

Yesterday was the birthday of Mary Shelley, and the idea of "a modern Prometheus" that took shape in her novel Frankenstein  is still a classic horror tale. Since then the boundaries of the scary and horrible have expanded to include inner demons and outer space. Whatever the spooky territory is now, it's bound to be fraught with thoughts of impermanence, the fragility of life, the world of something unknown or unimaginably strange. 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.)

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. JW himself has gone ahead to join company with forgotten authors for "our dummified times" since he died in 2008. As he sadly noted, in this 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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