Monday, August 11, 2014

Epistolary Horror

“Then swing your rope slowly and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along;
And in the grave throw me and roll the sod o'er me.
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong.”
—from The Streets of Laredo (1927)

The use of letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, excerpts from obscure texts, diaries, and various other documents to create a narrative is a technique used often in horror literature and in fiction generally.  Ambrose Bierce, near the end of his classic The Damned Thing (1893), uses a victim’s last journal entries to describe the nature of a strange, invisible predator.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) opens with Jonathan Harker’s journal of his frightful adventures in Transylvania, and later moves on to the diaries and correspondence of the other characters who encounter the vampire.   

H.P. Lovecraft made effective use of an epistolary approach in several of his stories, especially The Whisperer in Darkness (1931) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941).  One of his most accomplished stories, The Whisperer in Darkness makes use of both letters and an old fashioned phonograph recording to depict the menacing activities of a colony of extraterrestrials. (See ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best)  Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1928) also relies to a certain extent on newspaper reports, research notes, a police report, and a seaman’s journal, but these are paraphrased and not presented verbatim for the most part.  Nevertheless, the principle is the same:  the reader is expected to glean from the artful presentation of documents the full horror depicted in the story.

Frank Belknap Long was less successful with this technique in The Hounds of Tindalos (1929).  The story begins as straight narrative:  a doomed scholar experiments with a drug that will expand his consciousness beyond ordinary perceptions of space and time.  Later there are two newspaper reports, a chemist’s analysis, and an excerpt from the now dead scholar’s writing that depict the negative consequences of his psychic investigation.  (See A Death by Metaphysics)  But the story loses focus and becomes incoherent and disconnected.  The point of view becomes distant and fractured too soon.  One of the challenges of using the epistolary technique, at least within the confines of short fiction, is maintaining continuity and focus across multiple viewpoints with differing degrees of closeness to the subject of the story.  It seems to work best in novellas or longer fiction.

Robert E. Howard tries his hand at this in a story he published in Argosy in 1936, called The Dead Remember.  The narrative is a fairly straightforward, even predictable tale of vengeance.  However, the story is an interesting combination of western and supernatural genres, and the structure of the text, basically a series of documents from different viewpoints, is clever.  In fact, the sequence of these documents forms a narrative in itself:  a doomed cowboy’s letter to his brother, a statement from the cowboy’s trail boss, the bartender’s account of an apparent shooting in his saloon, the deputy sheriff’s report, a saloon customer’s observation of the event, and appropriately at the end, the coroner’s report.      

“Exhibit A”, the cowboy’s letter, written by one Jim Gordon, is the longest document in the set.  Gordon writes to tell his brother about his altercation with Old Joel and his woman Jezebel, a slave couple he encounters somewhere in late 19th Century Kansas.  Jezebel, a “high-yellow gal”, is rumored to be a witch, and the local white people are afraid of her.  Gordon and Old Joel play several rounds of craps while downing Tequila, a fight breaks out, and Gordon kills Joel and Jezebel in drunken rage.  However, before she dies, Jezebel curses Gordon “…by the big snake and the black swamp and the white cock.”  Because the author’s sympathies are clearly with the murdered black couple, readers know it will not end well for the cowboy.

Violence is common in stories by Howard, but in The Dead Remember, the events are depicted realistically and believably, as are the troubled race relations in America circa 1877.  So is the cowboy’s emotional state in the aftermath of the murders, as conveyed in his letter to his brother.  But with each succeeding document, the view becomes colder and colder as the distance grows between the cowboy and his observers.  Yet at the very end—the last line—the coroner discovers an unusual detail that ties the end of the story to its beginning.  The tone at this point of the narrative will remind some readers of “strange, but true” stories—one can almost hear the voiceover asking, “Fact…or fiction?  You decide!”

Despite the predictable ending, Howard was able to make effective use of the epistolary approach in The Dead Remember.  He appears to have done this by using a highly structured presentation of documents, with careful attention to repeated details.  The doomed cowboy appears clearly in all of the “paperwork”, so that continuity and focus is maintained, no matter who has “spied a cowpuncher, all wrapped in white linen, wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.”

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