Allies

A couple of things I’ve run across on the Interweb lately have me thinking about influences.  If you know, me, then you know that this is one of my abiding interests.  I’ve published a couple of scholarly articles on it, and should I ever get around to finishing my long-on-hold dissertation, this will be its subject.

When I was younger, I was a bit more obsessional in my interest.  I think this was because I was more (self-) aware of my own influences, and felt pretty anxious about them.  (Yeah, when I ran into Harold Bloom’s earlier, less-crazy work, it really struck a chord with me.)  My concerns were probably affected by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, a Hemingway and Faulkner scholar who pretty much claimed that they were as good as American literature had gotten, and everyone to come since had been a lesser or greater imitation of one or the other.  (He claimed to have hung out with the late James Jones when they were both in Paris, and said that a drunken Jones had asked him what was left for him to do after those two.)

Anyway, during this time, I went to a reading by the late John McGahern.  For those of you who don’t know his work, he was an Irish fiction writer.  I had just read and been very impressed by his novel, Amongst Women, which concerns a family dominated by a tyrannical patriarch, Moran.  After the reading, I had McGahern sign my copy of Amongst Women.  As he was writing in my book, I couldn’t help myself.  I asked him how he, as an Irish writer, felt having to write in the shadows of Joyce and Beckett.  Wasn’t it intimidating for him as a fiction writer to have to follow in the footsteps of such giants?  How did he do it?

I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time McGahern had heard this question, or some version of it.  Well, he said, he didn’t think of Joyce and Beckett as competitors.  He thought of them as allies, great allies for a writer to have.

I thanked him and took my book, but I’m sure my lack of satisfaction with his answer was plain on my face.  We were talking about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett here.  How was it possible to see them as anything other than fearsome predecessors who had already occupied much of the aesthetic territory a fiction writer might wish to explore?  The same was true of Hemingway and Faulkner.  How could McGahern claim them as fellow-travelers, as friends, even?

From the vantage point of the two-plus decades that have elapsed since then, my own anxiety seems glaringly, painfully apparent.  Some writers never get past it:  late in his life, you find Hemingway writing to Faulkner about their great predecessors, evaluating them as if they were boxers, declaring himself and Faulkner able to take everyone but Tolstoy.  If that’s part of your artistic psyche, then I guess there isn’t much you can do about it.  And certainly, every writer, no matter how secure, experiences those moments of uncertainty, of anxiety, of jealousy.  Especially, when you’re working in what seems like a smaller field, like horror (or weird)(or strange)(or whatever) fiction, the presence of other significant writers, whether those who’ve gone before and continue to be revered (i.e. Lovecraft), or those whose body of work helped to bring the field greater popularity (i.e. Stephen King), or those who are doing dynamic work that’s gained a lot of attention (i.e. Laird Barron) can feel like a threat to what you’re doing, can feel as if it’s going to distract attention from your fiction.  Which in turn leads to all kinds of Oedipally-inflected behavior, trying to minimize those figures whose presence seems most overwhelming.

I think, though, that McGahern had it right.  Those writers, the Lovecrafts and the Kings and the Barrons, are in fact allies.  Their work is a testament of faith to the field in which I work.  The range of their stories, of their styles, helps to demonstrate the variety of plot and style I strive for in my fiction.  To be fair, it took me years of developing confidence in my own fiction, in the stories I wanted to tell and my ability to tell them, to arrive at such a view, for what once sounded absurd to sound reasonable.  I have to say, though, that it’s a nice feeling, to see yourself surrounded by allies, instead of enemies.

Ten Books

Over in the world of Facebook, the “Ten Books” meme is making the rounds.  As you know, Bob, this is the prompt where you’re asked to name ten books that have had a lasting impact on you.  And as pretty much everyone who’s responded to the meme has noted, it’s the kind of list-making that is subject to change almost the moment it’s done.  I’ve been tagged to do it by both Paul Tremblay and Jack Haringa.  So here you go:

1. Stephen King Christine:  This was the book that made me want to be a writer.  I read it in paperback during the fall of my freshman year in high school, and experienced something like a conversion experience.  It wasn’t just that I wanted to write fiction–previously, I’d wanted to work in comics, preferably as a writer-artist–I wanted to write horror fiction.  It had something to do, I think, with his ability to bring together something that looked like the world of my daily experience with the material of the fantastic.  All of King’s work has been tremendously important to me, from his stories and novellas to novels such as The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Misery, but this was the one that started it all.

2 & 3. Peter Straub Ghost Story & Shadowland:  I first read Straub at King’s suggestion (in Danse Macabre).  Then I reread him.  Then I read him a third time.  And so on.  I loved his work from the get-go, but for as much as I got from it, I was aware that there was a great deal I wasn’t getting.  I found that incredibly cool.  If, as Nabokov says, the literary is that which we are always re-reading, then Straub’s work is literature of the highest order.  These may be my desert-island books:  they work as narratives in their own right; they engage the history of the genre in which they participate; they do all kinds of other remarkable things.  These are the books I would most like to have written, myself.

4. T.E.D. Klein Dark Gods:  I knew T.E.D. Klein as the editor of Twilight Zone magazine, and it may have been in the pages of that publication that I read a review of Dark Gods, his collection of novellas, which made it sound like the kind of book I had to read.  To my delight, the local library had it, in hardcover.  It’s a virtuoso performance, one in which Klein, with seeming effortlessness, inhabits four distinct modes of supernatural horror.  At a sentence level, he’s one of the finest writers to have attempted the horror story, which helps to give his stories the richness and depth of much longer works.

5. Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre:  I read Jane Eyre during my junior year in high school, for my Honors English class.  I don’t know what I was expecting–something dry and tedious, I suppose–but I was completely swept up by Jane’s voice, by the passionate intensity of her response to her life’s changing (and challenging) circumstances.  It didn’t hurt that there was a humdinger of a Gothic plot at the heart of the book, either.  I think there was something, too, about the way that Bronte explored her character’s moral processes that really struck a chord with me.  Jane is highly conscious of not only what she wants to do, but why she wants to do it–and why she should or shouldn’t do it–and this resonated with my adolescent self.

6. Charles Dickens Great Expectations:  The first time around, I hated this book.  My response may been influenced by the fact that I was reading it two days before I was due to take a test on it for the same Honors English class in which I read Jane Eyre, and I was having a hard time with it.  In comparison to Bronte’s prose, Dickens’ struck me as tedious, meandering.  Needless to say, I didn’t do particularly well on the test.  I gave the novel another try during my undergraduate years, in a course on the Nineteenth Century English novel, but I didn’t like it much better, then.  It wasn’t until the summer of my twenty-fifth birthday, when I was house sitting for a week, that I though it might be time to take yet another crack at the book.  This time around, I was entranced.  Dickens’ writing now seemed to me a kind of proto-stream-of-consciousness, his often baroque figures indexes of Pip–his narrator’s consciousness.  Pip’s mind is a fairly Gothic place to begin with, and, like Jane Eyre, to which this novel increasingly strikes me as a kind of twin, there’s a heck of a Gothic subplot within his story.  What struck me most about the book the last time I read it, a few years ago, is the utter ruthlessness Pip displays towards himself and the great expectations that shape his life.  It’s a fierce, sad story, one of the greats.

7. Flannery O’Connor The Collected Stories:  Another writer I hated the first time I read her.  This was in my senior year of high school, in my College English class.  We had to read the stories in Everything that Rises Must Converge, along with O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away.  I had no problem navigating O’Connor’s prose, which was lucid, compelling, but the characters she portrayed, the situations in which she placed them, were unlike anything I had encountered before, the very definition, I suppose, of that trite term, Southern Grotesque.  My initial impression was of unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances that seemed humorous in a sinister kind of way.  What helped me out of my adolescent priggishness was a remark about O’Connor I encountered in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which King called her possibly the finest writer of short stories in postwar America (or words to that effect).  Well, if Stephen King thought O’Connor was good…I went back to her stories, and now, I saw their deep similarities to the horror narratives with which I was more familiar (and comfortable).  These were narratives about women and men whose lives were upended by catastrophes whose metaphysical dimensions were full of terror and awe.  As for the eccentricities of their characters:  what does it say about me that, the older I’ve gotten, the less extreme they seem to me?

8. William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury:  I read The Sound and the Fury during the my first semester of college, in my Honors English 1 class.  We had to read the first two of its three stream-of-consciousness sections with no forewarning, and the result was disorienting, confusing.  (For those who haven’t read the book, the first section inhabits the mind of a severely-mentally-handicapped man; while the second places the reader inside the consciousness of a college student on the day he’s going to drown himself.)  During the next class, however, in one of the great teaching performances I’ve been present for, the professor took us back into those mazes of prose and pointed out the threads that would guide us through them.  What had seemed formless, chaotic, slowly resolved into a kind of glorious Gothic coherence.  I went back re-read the first half of the book, and raced to the end.  At a certain point, I seemed to fall through Faulkner’s winding syntax, into the narrative, whose small cast of characters seemed like players in some kind of strange, mythic drama.  This started me off on a Faulkner kick that extended over the next several years, from As I Lay Dying through Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses.  I agree with those who call Faulkner the American Shakespeare, and while I think Absalom, Absalom may be his single greatest accomplishment, The Sound and the Fury remains closest to my heart.

9. Henry James The Collected Stories:  The last writer on this list I hated the first time through.  (Funny how that works, though, isn’t it?)  I read The Turn of the Screw during my senior year College English class.  I was primed to do so by my old friend, Stephen King, who had had very complimentary things to say about the novella in Danse Macabre.  This time, though, King’s praise was not enough.  I experienced the same problem reading James I’d had the previous year with Dickens, namely, the language was so dense, so labyrinthine, that I became lost in it, rereading the same sentences over and over again and still not fully comprehending them.  Interestingly–well, to me, anyway–what turned me onto James was reading one of his very last stories, “The Jolly Corner,” a few years later, in college.  It’s a story whose prose if even denser than that of The Turn of the Screw, which you would think would have put me off it, immediately.  Yet at some point not very far into it, I realized what the story was about:  a man who was being haunted by the ghost of the man he might have been.  That conceit electrified me, and while I wouldn’t say I raced through the end of the story, I finished it in a state of intense attentiveness.  With that one story, my attitude towards James underwent a sea change, and since then, I’ve been slowly making my way through his work, sometimes at the rate of one or two new things a year, sometimes revisiting texts I’ve read before.  I think his stories are my favorite of his work–and I’m stretching the definition of story to include things like The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and In the Cage, which are at least substantial novellas.  What I love most about James is the way he traces the responses of his characters to their situations, which quite often, when you boil it down, are fairly melodramatic.  He is the great cartographer of perception, and I learn something from him every time I (re)read him.

10. Samuel Delany The Einstein Intersection:  I must have known Delany’s name during my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction of the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein/Niven stamp, but I didn’t actually read him until I was in college, at the recommendation of a friend who had discovered his shorter early novels.  Of those, the one that thrilled me was The Einstein Intersection, in which Delany mixed together the stuff of classical myth with legends of the American west and contemporary pop culture, bracketing his chapters with excerpts from his notebooks.  It was a bravura performance that had as much in common with things I’d been reading for my classes (i.e. Faulkner, The Waste Land) as it did science fiction tradition.  I’m not sure I realized this at the time, but years later, I would see the book as similar to what Straub had been up to in Ghost Story and Shadowland, a breaking down and re-combination of the elements of its genre.  When I returned to the horror field in my late twenties, Delany’s work, along with Straub’s, was a kind of guiding star to me, an example of how much you could accomplish in fantastic fiction if you possessed sufficient ambition. It was a kind of license to try weird things, to approach narrative from new and different angles.

There you have it.  In the process of working on this entry, though, I’ve come up with a list of what I guess you might call honorable mentions, so I thought I’d end with them:

Clive Barker  The Books of Blood

Edward Albee  The Zoo Story and The American Dream

Samuel Beckett  Endgame

John Barth  “Lost in the Funhouse” (story)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Time of Cholera

Rainer Maria Rilke The Duino Elegies

Willa Cather My Antonia

William Kennedy Ironweed

Virginia Woolf  To the Lighthouse

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber