Friday, November 24, 2017

Nothing Creaks, Nothing Reeks of Dust

Reading E. R. Eddison and R. Murray Gilchrist along with Thomas Browne has forced me to think about the readability of prose, and about the effect of archaic styles in modern prose. I now believe that elaborate syntax and old-fashioned vocabularies can enhance readability, as long as the prose has been constructed with skill, self-discipline, rhythmical variety, visual or physical details to reduce abstraction, and (in certain cases) generous heapings of wit.

To clarify these points, I would ask you to read this passage from the revised version of "The Beast of Averoigne," by Clark Ashton Smith, published in 1933.

"As all men know, the advent of the Beast was coeval with the coming of that red comet which rose behind the Dragon in the early summer of 1369. Like Satan's rutilant hair, trailing on the wind of Gehenna as he hastens worldward, the comet streamed nightly above Averoigne, bringing the fear of bale and pestilence in its train. And soon the rumor of a strange evil, a foulness unheard of in any legend, passed among the people.

"To Brother Gerome of the Benedictine Abbey of Perigon it was given to behold this evil ere the horror thereof became manifest to others. Returning late to the monastery from an errand in Ste. Zenobie, Gerome was overtaken by darkness. No moon arose to lantern his way through the forest; but, between the gnarled boughs of antic oaks, he saw the vengefully streaming fire of the comet, which seemed to pursue him as he went. And Gerome felt an eery fear of the pit-deep shadows, and he made haste toward the abbey postern.

"Passing among the ancient trees that towered thickly behind Perigon, he thought that he discerned a light from the windows, and was much cheered thereby. But, going on, he saw that the light was near at hand, beneath a lowering bough. It moved as with the flitting of a fen-fire, and was of changeable color, being pale as a corposant, or ruddy as new-spilled blood, or green as the poisonous distillation that surrounds the moon.

"Then, with terror ineffable, Gerome beheld the thing to which the light clung like a hellish nimbus, moving as it moved, and revealing dimly the black abomination of head and limbs that were not those of any creature wrought by God. The horror stood erect, rising to more than the height of a tall man; and it swayed like a great serpent, and its members undulated, bending like heated wax. The flat black head was thrust forward on a snakish neck. The eyes, small and lidless, glowing like coals from a wizard's brazier, were set low and near together in a noseless face above the serrate gleaming of such teeth as might belong to a giant bat.

"This much, and no more, Gerome saw, ere the thing went past him with its nimbus flaring from venomous green to a wrathful red. Of its actual shape, and the number of its limbs, he could form no just notion. Running and slithering rapidly, it disappeared among the antique oaks, and he saw the hellish light no more."

Smith often wrote of places far away in time, in stories that called for a style beyond the everyday language of our experience. Here we have medieval France, and adjectives that might seem unusual to modern readers, but notice, too, the strength of the verbs, the visual and physical details of the setting, the varied structure and length of the sentences. As archaic as many of the terms might seem, the other words compensate by making the place and the actions vivid.

Now consider this passage from Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969):

"Cyprus was another world.

"The city of Paphos might have been designed and built by a Grecian architect dreamy with the drugs called talaquin or mandragora: in marble yellow as unmixed cream, marble pink as sweetmeats, marble the green of pistuquim nuts, veined marble and grained marble, honey-colored and rose-red, the buildings climbed along the hills and frothed among the hollows. Tier after tier of overtall pillars, capitals of a profusion of carvings to make Corinthian seem ascetic, pediments lush with bas-reliefs, four-fold arches at every corner and crossing, statues so huge that they loomed over the housetops, statues so small that whole troops of them flocked and frolicked under every building's eaves, groves and gardens everywhere, fountains playing, water spouting....


Once again, we have terms that might seem unfamiliar to modern readers, but we also have a disciplined use of alliteration (dreamy with the drugs), parallel clauses (marble yellow, marble pink, marble green), assonance (veined marble and grained marble) and contrasting visible details to make the description vivid (statues that loom, statues that flock and frolic). The passage is both exuberant and controlled; it says what it needs to say, then stops.

Finally, a paragraph by Murray Gilchrist, from "Dame Inowslad" (1894).

"The would-be musician turned and showed me a long painful face with glistening eyes and a brow ridged upward like a ruined stair. It was a face of intense eagerness: the eagerness of a man experimenting and praying for a result whereon his life depends. Without any prelude he played a dance of ghosts in an old ball-room: ghosts of men and women that moved in lavoltas and sarabands; ghosts that laughed at Susanna in the tapestry; ghosts that loved and hated. When the last chord had sent them crowding to their graves he turned and listened for a footstep. None came. He lifted a leather case from the side of the stool and, unfastening its clasps, took out a necklace which glistened in the candlelight like a fairy shower of rain and snow. 'Twas of table diamonds and margarites, the gems as big as filberts. He spread it across the wires, and after an instant’s reflection began to play. The carcanet rattled and jangled as he went: it was as an advancing host of cymbal-women. When he listened again, great tears oozed from his eyes. He took up the jewel and played a melody vapid at first, but so subtle in its repetitions that none might doubt its meaning: thus and not otherwise would sound a lyke-wake sung in a worn voice after a night of singing. And whilst he played, the door opened silently, and I saw Dinah, there in her nightgown, holding the posts with her hands. She took one swift glance, then disappeared again in the darkness, and came back carrying in her arms a bundle swathed in pure linen and strongly redolent of aromatic herbs. Holding this to her breast, she approached the man. Her shadow fell across the keys, and he lifted his head. From both came a long murmur: his of love and joy and protection, hers of agony. He rose and would have clasped her, but she drew back and placed her burden in his outstretched hands."

Notice here, as in the previous passages, qualities hard to define but easy to feel: energy and flow. For all of their adjectives, for all of their elaborate syntax, these passages move with an economy and clarity that, for me, transcends any sense of old-fashioned style. Nothing creaks, here; nothing reeks of dust. What I find, instead, is a liveliness that keeps me alert and happy.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tumblings of a Knockabout

Let the Jacobean out!
Let the clauses leap or dance
Within a gyre of craft or chance.
Let the motion sweep through doubt
As culminating fervours rout
Our lethargies. Like army ants,
Like thoughts that yearn for life's romance,
Like tumblings of a knockabout,
Let the Jacobean out!

[Saturday, October 21, 2017]

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Smooth Mask

Because I've been critical of Robert E. Howard, I should also point out a story in which he handled his methods well. Here, for example, in a most economical way, he states a theme to foreshadow events:

"He was king of Valusia -- a fading, degenerate Valusia, a Valusia living mostly in dreams of bygone glory, but still a mighty land and the greatest of the Seven Empires. Valusia -- Land of Dreams, the tribesmen named it, and sometimes it seemed to Kull that he moved in a dream. Strange to him were the intrigues of court and palace, army and people. All was like a masquerade, where men and women hid their real thoughts with a smooth mask [...] And now a strange feeling of dim unrest, of unreality, stole over him as of late it had been doing. Who was he, a straightforward man of the seas and the mountain, to rule a race strangely and terribly wise with the mysticisms of antiquity? An ancient race --

"'I am Kull!' said he, flinging back his head as a lion flings back his mane. 'I am Kull!'

"His falcon gaze swept the ancient hall. His self-confidence flowed back…. And in a dim nook of the hall a tapestry moved -- slightly."

-- "The Shadow Kingdom."

I would have cut back on "strange" and "strangely," but still, I have to respect what he does, here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

To my surprise, I've been asked to spell out the technical flaws in Robert E. Howard's "The Hoofed Thing," a story that reads as if it were an early draft. Howard would have most likely corrected these flaws in revision.

1) Failure to set up establishing details to make a narrative credible.

At first, not much is revealed about the protagonist, Michael Strang, but as the story develops, he pulls, out of nowhere, exactly the tools and skills that he needs to solve a supernatural mystery.

We are told, early on, that he has been "deeply interested in the anthropological researches of Professor Hendryk Brooler," which says nothing. For all we know, Strang might be an expert on matrilocal kinship in Siberia. Later in the story, after a series of strange events:

"With a bewildered shake of my head, I dismissed the matter from my mind and, picking up a book, settled myself to read. The volume, selected at random, was not one calculated to rid my mind of haunting shadows. It was the extremely rare Dusseldorf edition of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, called the Black Book, not because of its iron-clasped leather bindings, but because of its dark contents. Opening the volume at random, I began idly to read the chapter on the summoning of daemons out of the Void. More than ever I sensed a deep and sinister wisdom behind the author’s incredible assertions as I read of the unseen worlds of unholy dimensions which Von Junzt maintains press, horrific and dimly guessed, on our universe, and of the blasphemous inhabitants of those Outer Worlds, which he maintains at times burst terribly through the Veil at the bidding of evil sorcerers, to blast the brains and feast on the blood of men."

Nameless Cults, a book so extremely rare that Strang just happens to find a copy in his living room, just happens to solve the mystery.

Most writers would have prepared for a moment like this with substantiating details, by making Strang a collector of extremely rare books, an historian, a student of the occult, or anything that might justify his having such a book at hand. Here, it shows up from out of the blue.

Also from out of the blue:

"My gaze fell upon a great broadsword hanging on the wall. The weapon had been in the family for eight centuries and had let blood on many a battlefield since it first hung at the girdle of a Crusading ancestor."

Again, this could have been justified, if Strang had been a collector of swords, an expert on the Crusades, a man with a weapons fetish. Instead, what we have is an all-too convenient solution pulled out of a hat.

2) Failures of tone and voice.

Until three quarters of the way through the story, Strang appears to be an ordinary modern man, who speaks in the language of his day with an occasional use of slang ("petting party").

"Good morning, Mr. Stark, sorry to have troubled you. I’m Michael Strang. I live in the last house on the other side of the street. I just dropped in to learn if you’d seen anything of a big Maltese cat recently. [...] It’s my fiance’s cat, though, and she’s broken-hearted over losing it. As you’re her closest neighbor on this side, I thought there was a bare chance that you might have seen the animal."

Later in the story, he suddenly turns into Strang the Barbarian:

"A black fury gripped me, bringing with it the craft that extreme passion often brings. I was going into that dark house, and I was going to hew John Stark’s head from his body with the blade that in old times had severed the necks of Saracens and pirates and traitors....

"'This I do know -- that demoniac lust is no stronger than human hate, and that I will match this blade, which in old days slew witches and warlocks and vampires and werewolves, against the foul legions of Hell itself'....

"'Did not Stark say something about the thing breaking out of its prison?'....

"Now as I stood frozen, and out of that shambles the ghastly fiend came lumbering toward me, my fear was swept away by a red blaze of berserker fury. Swinging up my sword I leaped to meet the horror and the whistling blade sheared off half its tentacles which fell to the floor....

"She lay at my feet in a dead faint, and Bozo [the dog] stood faithfully over her. Aye, I doubt not, if I had lost that grim battle, he would have given up his life to save his mistress when the monster came lurching down the stairs."

Aye, indeed.

3) Poorly visualized action.

Strang, in his berserker fury, attacks the monster:

"With an abhorrent high-pitched squeal, the monster bounded high above my head and stamped terribly downward. The impact of those frightful hoofs shattered my upflung arm like matchwood [...] And with my one good hand I gripped the sword that a saint had blessed in old times against the powers of darkness, and the red wave of battle-lust surged over me.

"The monster wheeled unwieldily toward me, and roaring a wordless warcry I leaped, whirling the great sword through the air with every ounce of my powerful frame behind it."

After more unwieldy wheeling, Strang rescues his fiancée:

"At the foot of the stairs I stumbled over a soft heap [...] With a sob of horror I caught up the girl, crushing her limp form to me....

"I ran from that house as I would flee from Hell, but I halted in the old store-room long enough to sweep a hasty hand over the table where I had found the candles. Several burnt matches littered the table, but I found one unstruck. And I struck it hurriedly and tossed it blazing into a heap of dusty papers near the wall."

He does this while carrying a woman and a sword in his one good hand.

(Eventually, the pain of that arm "shattered like matchwood" will have to reach his brain. That's going to hurt!)

4) A ridiculously long-winded monologue for the sake of exposition.

The most jaw-droppingly bizarre technique in the story appears when Strang finds his fiancée chained up in a monster-haunted house, where silence and a speedy escape are the first priorities. But instead of getting the hell out of there, his fiancée reveals every background detail of the plot, while quoting the villain in full (right down to his multiple adjectives).

"I'll tell you quickly -- then we must run!"

This "telling quickly" requires twelve paragraphs:

"'You do not understand. I see in your eyes that you do not understand. But I will try to make you understand. Men think I am deeply cultured; little do they guess how deep my knowledge is. I have gone further than any man in the arts and sciences. They were toys for paltry brains, I found. I went deeper. I experimented with the occult as some men experiment with science. I found that by certain grim and ancient arts a wise man could tear aside the Veil between the universes and bring unholy shapes into this terrestrial plane. I set to work to prove this thing. You might ask me, why? Why does any scientist make experiments? The proving of the theory is reason enough–the acquiring of knowledge is the end that justifies the means. Your brain would wither and crumble away were I to describe to you the incantations and spells and strange propitiations with which I drew a mewling, squalling, naked thing out of the Void.

"'It was not easy. For months I toiled and studied, delving deep into the ungodly lores of blasphemous books and musty manuscripts. Groping in the blind dark Outer chasms into which I had projected my bodiless will, I first felt the existence and presence of unhallowed beings, and I worked to establish contact with them–to draw one, at least, into this material universe. For long I could only feel it touching the dark borderlands of my own consciousness. Then with grim sacrifices and ancient rituals, I drew it across the gulfs. First it was but a vast anthropomorphic shadow cast upon a wall. I saw its progression from nothingness into the mold and being of this material sphere. I saw when its eyes burned in the shadow, and when the atoms of its nonterrestrial substance swirled and changed and clarified and shrank, and in shrinking, crystallized and became matter as we know it.

"'And there on the floor before me lay the mewling, squalling, naked thing from out the Abyss, and when I saw its nature, even I blenched and my resolution almost failed me.'"

On and on and on, while the monster stomps overhead. She must have taken notes in shorthand.

5) Why harp on this? Why?!?

The only reason to examine a work this poorly crafted is to see how technique can fall apart, and to train ourselves to recognize similar failures of craft that might infest our own work. Lapses in technique do not always glare like neon, as they do here; they can be subtle and concealed. We can find them and resolve them, if we learn to recognize the old stench that bubbles up from hasty writing and lack of attention.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Horror Fiction, Lyric Poetry, and Short Stories

Joanna Russ on horror fiction:

"Perhaps the very nature of fiction militates against the use of horror-story material as narrative fiction. Although the horror-story image feels true (at least at the time one feels like that), it's not the whole truth of anybody's situation and so a moment's reflection will qualify the impact of the image. To my mind, even the best examples of pure horror story (like Poe's) are badly weakened by the necessity of keeping the reader from that moment of reflection. Avoiding thought is not a good recipe for art. I suspect that the most aesthetically successful examples of the genre move toward tragedy or social protest or something besides horror-story per se. Probably the ideal place for the raw, undiluted experience-treated-as-the-whole-truth is in lyric poetry, which is not under an obligation to add to the question What does it feel like? the further question Yes, but what is it, really?


"One very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and the alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest. Orwell to the contrary, there really is a certain subversive force to statements like Big Brother is ungood. Of course if people stay at this level without analysis and without remedies, nothing happens except a constant desire for repetition of the original, elementary validation. That is, you have addiction, a phenomenon well exemplified by the Lovecraft fans, who seem to constitute a perpetual audience for more HPL, more posthumous collaborations with HPL, more biographies of HPL, more imitation HPL, and so on."

-- From
"On the Fascination of Horror Stories," in
To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, by Joanna Russ.
Indiana University Press, 1995.
To her comments, I'd like to add my own perspective:

As H. E. Bates and Seán Ó Faoláin have pointed out, short stories often bear a stronger resemblance to lyric poetry than to any other literary form. In my view, this makes short stories ideally suitable for horror that focuses on "raw, undiluted experience-treated-as-the-whole-truth." (William Sansom, for one, offers pure examples of this.)

Also, it is precisely because horror is not a genre that it can easily encompass tragedy, or social comment, or any other narrative element that writers bring to it.