Saturday, June 18, 2016

Metafictional Horrors

Creators of horror entertainments can be forgiven an occasional moment of self-reflection and self-indulgence.  They spend so much time delving into the darkest reservoirs of our collective dis-ease and fear, rarely coming up for air.  Swimming around down there all the time, it may be hard to keep track of the daylight, of the surface, of what normal is.  They need a friend, preferably one on dry land, with whom they can discuss their craft, compare notes on the nature of reality, and debate the deepest questions. 

In horror fiction it is not uncommon to find dialogue between a narrator and a confidant being used to introduce the theme and subject matter of the tale.  The opening scene is a familiar one: two individuals eating, drinking or smoking together in some quiet place conducive to discussion of macabre subject matter.  If the narrator’s friend disagrees or discounts the reality of the narrator’s claims, there are often dire consequences later on.  Subsequent events tend to demonstrate the implications of the narrator’s point of view.  

Here is H.P. Lovecraft, speaking through his avatar Randolph Carter, in “The Unnamable”:

…my friend chided me for such nonsense, and told me that since no interments had occurred there for over a century, nothing could possibly exist to nourish the tree in other than an ordinary manner.  Besides, he added, my constant talk about ‘unnamable’ and ‘unmentionable’ things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author.  I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.

Readers familiar with Lovecraft’s short story know that Carter’s friend Manton suffers a painful comeuppance for his criticism and materialistic world view near the end of the story—as well he should.  “The Unnamable”, is a reasonably effective horror tale, but it also provides an interesting glimpse of how Lovecraft saw himself as a writer and amateur philosopher circa 1925.

And here is Clark Ashton Smith, speaking through his avatar Philip Hastane, in “The Hunters From Beyond” (1932):

Though I had been for years a professional writer of stories that often dealt with occult phenomena, with the weird and the spectral, I was not possessed of any clear and settled belief regarding such phenomena.  I had never before seen anything that I could identify as a phantom, nor even an hallucination…

Hastane betrays this weakness as a horror writer to an artistic friend, the diabolically doomed Cyprian:

“What makes you think I have had no experience with the occult?”  I asked.

“Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are all palpably made up.  When you’ve argued with a ghost, or watched the ghouls at mealtime [As Pickman often did—edit.], or fought with an incubus, or suckled a vampire, you may achieve some genius characterization and color along such lines.”

With friends like these, who needs entities?  Those who have read Smith’s “The Hunters From Beyond” know that Hastane’s friend will also suffer at the end of the story—it’s risky business being the acquaintance of a horror writer.

Two other friends, both struggling writers, meet in a coffee shop late at night to discuss their work and their ideas—this is the opening to Thomas Ligotti’s “Sideshow, and Other Stories” (2006), a cleverly structured short story in the collection Teatro Grottesco.  A series of five obscurely titled vignettes—plus the ominous suggestion of a sixth unfinished work—are bracketed by a “foreword” and an “afterword”.  The metafictional form of the story imitates a collection of works, creating a false sense of objectivity and psychological distance for the reader.  We are meant to be studying an artifact of some kind, at least initially.

The story begins with one of the authors using a homely metaphor to describe his life:  he is the “ringmaster” of “the wretched show business of my life”, a series of sideshows from which he wants to escape.  He elaborates on this notion, while the narrator half-heartedly challenges some of his assumptions.  This debate is a version of the kind that occurs in the stories by Lovecraft and Smith discussed above, but Ligotti, true to form, goes much deeper.  While the other two authors are playing with broad, abstract generalities, Ligotti is exploring a single soul.  The “ringmaster” disappears, but leaves behind a small selection of his work for the narrator and the rest of us to review.

The five vignettes as well as the foreword and afterword that bookend them all have the quality of being artfully reconstructed dreams.  Superficially, the sections appear unrelated to each other and haphazardly organized.  However, they are united by recurring visual and auditory imagery—the color of an eye, or a “coarse, raspy noise”—which are consolidated into an effective conclusion that reprises them. 

Each vignette is intriguing on its own; the first one, “The Malignant Matrix” recalls a classic Harlan Ellison story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967).  This is because of its molluscan imagery—helpless, inarticulate creatures trapped inside a building they will not escape from.  Across the five sections, the tone remains constant, the kind of anxious vigilance one has in a dream that is verging on nightmare.  Unlike other horror writers, Ligotti deftly leaves intact much of the original dream material, without imposing obvious structure, narrative or interpretation.  As a result, he maintains the spooky, otherworldly feel of the original source.

Interestingly, in the afterward, the narrator discovers among his friend’s notes some comments about his own conversational responses, as if he were being written into his friend’s next work of fiction, the unfinished sixth vignette.  Because the setting is entirely nocturnal, and the narrator must return home just before dawn, it seems possible the two authors may have been the same individual, one the doppelgänger of the other, both engaged in a lonely, anxious debate about the nature of their work and the reality of the “side-show” world around them.


I recently had the pleasure of spending a day in Providence, Rhode Island.  Here is a picture of the inside of the Providence Athenæum, a marvelous old library built in 1836, said to be a favorite haunt of both H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.  A commemorative bust of Lovecraft is in the lower left hand corner.

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