Monday, 22 August 2011

Oriental Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn, Wordsworth Editions

It is always refreshing to discover a British author from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras unencumbered by Christianity and its mono-centric repressions.  If unquestioning atheism is too much to ask, then those highly sceptical agnostics have at least gone in their own, intriguingly divergent directions.
  Algernon Blackwood, from youth, favoured a form of Eastern nature mysticism; John Barlas, Baudelairean revolutionary socialism, with Buddhism alone favoured by the writer of this three-volume collection.  Except Lafcadio Hearn was only ever British in the colonial sense, his life cosmopolitan to an almost wayward degree.
  Born of an Irish father and Grecian mother, David Stuart Davies’s usual informative introduction reveals a subsequent existence as a newspaperman in New Orleans, before moving on to Japan, aged forty, to study the culture, eventually settling to marry a local girl and change his name to ‘Yakumo Koizumi.’  (As if ‘Lafcadio’ wasn’t an original enough a choice for him, being pronounced Lefcadia after the Greek-Ionian island upon which he was born).
  The stories making up these three very short - and very plotless - collections, are fables, related to the reader almost as anecdotes, as if around a public bar.  This is just as well considering the Eastern names for places, times, ranks and reliquaries prompting footnotes at the bottom of the first two collections and so the inevitable pause every few pages.  Stick with these, though, as they are not unduly long, certainly informative, while evoking mystical mind pictures that, with focused detail, open up a world of Eastern mythology a textbook three times the size could not inspire.
  Like most fables, the construct in each is the same.  A beautiful and mysterious young woman captures the heart of a brave young soldier (invariably a Samurai in this case) and gives him a life choice by which to prove his heart.  By either reneging on a promise given or justifying it, is his fate sealed.  In the former case, one of the lovers (invariably the woman) dies.  In the latter, the male lover may yet die through proving his worth.  There are rarely happy-endings.
  Glimpses of what might today be considered ‘body horror’ (in truth, self-flagellation) accompanies the climaxes, but a large enough minority ensure you will not be left feeling too depressed.  Of course, these are also morality tales.  A few go against this grain.
  ‘Silkworms’ is inspired by the saying of a Chinese proverb told the author, who then quotes the proverb’s source.  It is as groundbreaking and beautiful a short story as I have ever read.
  ‘Incense’ continues in this vein of being more article than tale, with its history and varied early uses.
  ‘A Passional Karma’ is another suggesting Hearn is quoting an experience from life, while, for a change, it is the woman in the tale it has to tell who has the last laugh.
  Unlike other white Colonial writers of his day, Hearn himself is never judgemental, letting the material do the talking.  Since he integrated, going ‘native,’ this lends modernity to what is a passively appreciative voice.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Tartarus Press

There are three main effect-responses a writer wishes to provoke from the reader.
  In no particular order, these can be reduced to 1/ the heart, 2/ the gut, and 3/ the head.  If we take it as an interchangeable list, we can vary the order for various authors.  The final order very much depending upon a writer’s individual approach.
  Hold on, you say; surely, the author isn’t in charge of the response?  What matters is the reader and his reaction to the material?  You think?  I would argue that a competent writer is very much in control of a reader’s response.
I mean, when was the last time ‘War and Peace’ was bought by anyone anticipating knockabout comedy?  Or a James Kelman novel purchased for its solid Jackie Collins-type situations?
  So long as Genres exist for authors to write in – whatever that genre may be – then emotional response will always be their priority.
  The Horror genre might be one easiest to highlight by example, since it exists to provoke the more extreme reactions.  One author specialising in sensationalist pulp-horror, let us say Shaun Hutson, will try to instil a visceral, churning feeling mingled with black humour.  His order of priority of effect-response can be thus;

1/ Gut
2/ Heart
3/ Head.

Graham Masterson – less knowingly witty - might be closer to

1/ Heart
2/ Gut
3/ Head.

While Clive Barker, I would consider

1/ Head
2/ Gut
3/ Heart.

This doesn’t mean these writers lack what isn’t uppermost in the list; merely that one intended effect-response is prioritised over the other as the best means to tell their tales their own way.  Move away from straight horror, towards a less easily definable genre, and this list still applies.
  By this token, there is little doubt that Robert Aickman is a Head, first, heart, second, and gut, third, man.  Here lies an issue, at least, if not a problem.   Even as ‘strange’ rather than horror fiction, the gut reaction to a tale should never be as low as third inconsideration.  An accusation could be levelled that this may not have been the writer’s intention and, again, is more a problem for myself as anticipating reader.  I don’t believe that.  As an issue, I suspect it lies at the heart of Aickman’s detractors.
  ‘Cold Hand in Mine’ – newly reissued by quality independent, Tartarus Press – is a case in point.  As Phil Baker concedes in the latest of their, always excellent, Introductions, “Aickman’s stories are often over-plotted…”  I’ll say.  There is little doubt he pulls this off in most of the tales in the first three books.  There, they work because – however puzzling - the pay-offs never leave us hanging without considered cause.  Here, the climactic results are mixed and a lot more uncertain.
  ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’ promises much, being this collection’s longest narrative, but ultimately pulls its punch.  The Mr. Millar of the title is landlord to the narrator staying in his digs; to the latter he appears as absent in personality as in presence.  He also drinks too much and brings home strange women at night.  This marks him down as someone sinister – apparently.
  Believe me: passed experience has warned me to always approach Aickman with intellectual respect and rigour, knowing it to be a mistake ever to take his narrators’ statements at face value.  Yet, even with this mindset, this tale fails to deliver.  Based on his descriptions, there is no justification whatsoever in ‘Meeting Mr. Millar’s narrator feeling especially freaked by his landlord.  Millar makes shallow, distracted conversation and keeps dubious company at night.  I hesitate to ask; so what?  The narrator’s paranoid overreaction is puzzling, a possible covert source not even hinted at elsewhere in the text.  In trying to provoke a likeminded reaction in the reader, I wonder if Aickman was trying too hard in the preliminaries; the over-plotting Baker refers to.  Personally, I have met far more inexplicable characters in bed-sit land than Millar.
  ‘The Clock Watcher’ is interesting as an intellectual exercise of making stationary objects harrowing, but we are presented only with other cameo characters vaguely paranoid perceptions of various clocks, with no uniting factor even hinted at.  Is Ursula’s own paranoia justified or based upon something else?  Unfortunately, too much is left to chance, unexplained.
So, in this case, we are told too little to care.
  Aickman is on far stronger, and, perhaps, safer territory here in his more conventional storytelling.  Fortunately, his gift for originality isn’t consequently forsaken.  ‘The Swords’ is an intriguing take on unfettered sadism as a competitive circus game.
  ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,’ the most conventional entry here, is, nevertheless, a beautifully wrought tale of mutating vampirism from the victim’s point of view.  It perhaps feels a less original take on the sub-genre today than on the collection’s original release in 1975, but no less enjoyable for that.
  ‘The Hospice’ - easily my favourite in the collection – is a disquieting tale of a man who has lost his way who – suddenly injured - takes refuge in a care facility.  I later pondered that the whole tale might be based around the infected narrator simply misreading ‘hostel,’ or even ‘hospital,’ as ‘hospice,’ his terror stemming from that misled assumption about its staff and residents; but to criticise further on that would be churlish.
  ‘The Same Dog’ is almost unique in the Aickman oeuvre in actually foregrounding its pay-off in the title.  Still, it is a neatly dour tale of unrequited love meeting physical danger.
  The remaining stories, ‘The Real Road to the Church’ and ‘Niemandswasser,’ remind us where Aickman’s real strength lies; when dispensing with the pay-off entirely to concentrate on the poetry, gradually larding with likely clues, earlier, in the text.  It is here where I care more about his characters, his burgeoning heart compensating for the lack of gut.