13 November 2007

The Outside Poet and Trash Surfing

Some authors have a way of infiltrating your head, working their way into your dreams. My second night of reading My Work is Not Yet Done inspired the following dream:

My consciousness appears semi-detached. There is a man and his girlfriend in the room. I am the man and I am also watching the couple--a strange bifurcation of consciousness that makes the dream sort of difficult to describe. The apartment is a curious blend of decadence and desolation. The walls were once covered with mirrors, and every surface appears to have been shiny, recalling a "futuristic" setting in a '60s sci-fi movie. The mirrors are in various states of destruction, some only cracked, others reduced to mere shards in their frames; the floor is littered with reflective detrius.

Somewhere outside of this room, lingering on the edge of our consciousness is the Poet, whose words create this world. I feel it when he is about to write, a sudden tension filling the apartment. At his whim, time moves forwards or backwards, the room degenerates or improves, the relations between the man and his girlfriend sweeten or deteriorate. There seems to be a randomness to these whims which destroys all sense of continuity. Ultimately, the Poet grows bored with writing this domestic situation. I am allowed an escape from the apartment.

And I find myself outside, atop a large garbage heap, looking down what must be four or five stories to a dumpster the size of a parking lot. I am among a small group of people. The garbage heap begins to slide forward, than plunge down, taking us with it. I try to stay on top of the shifting debris, seeing the ground come up at me, falling with that sense of exhilaration you get in dreams, where you know it won't hurt to hit the ground.

The landing isn't hard, but the garbage partially liquifies, becoming an opaque, turgid fluid in which float unidentifiable scraps. We struggle to get out, finally managing to cooperate to get a rope over the side of the dumpster so we can climb out.

09 November 2007

Books Compared: Lullaby/My Work is Not Yet Done

Only a cynic can create horror. For behind every masterpiece of the sort
must reside a driving daemonic force that despises the human race and its
illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.

-Howard Philips Lovecraft

I think I've been mentally comparing the works of Thomas Ligotti and Chuck Palahniuk since the first time I read Haunted.* Both are cult authors with reputations as nihilists, and both write with distinctive styles and thematic concerns. 2002 turned out to be an interesting publication year for both. (Pardon the familiarity of using first names; but both have rather long surnames.) Chuck published his first foray into horror with the novel Lullaby; Thom published his longest work, a novella by the name of My Work is Not Yet Done in a collection of the same name. (I won't get into the other two, much shorter stories included in that book.)

The similarities extend beyond publication date. Both feature disaffected narrators who find themselves acquiring supernatural powers of a questionable nature, but more importantly both are intensely dark, funny and philosophical works. There's even overlapping themes, such as concerns over mortality, criticisms of modern capitalism, and some apocalyptic musings.The main contrast is the characteristic style. Chuck's minimalism is descended from Hemingway by way of Amy Hempel and Raymond Carver. It emphasizes the use of verbs over adjectives, and he prefers short sentences that mirror the way people speak. Thom's style, on the other hand, reflects the baroque and surreal influences of authors such as H.P. Lovecraft (adjectivitis!) and Bruno Schulz.

I imagine most people will find Chuck's style a little more accessible. MWINYD is actually among the lower end of the baroque for Thom, but overall I find his style more effective, especially at evoking the requisite atmosphere of a horror story, than Chuck's.

Lullaby is easily Chuck's best work, but as a work of horror fiction it has some flaws. As I've already stated, his minimalism is less effective at creating atmosphere than Thom's subtle surrealism. Horror fiction revolves around the emotion of fear and its various permutations, and Lullaby is not particularly scary.

My other criticism of Lullaby as a work of horror is Chuck's handling of the supernatural element. Supernatural elements can be tricky to handle effectively in fiction, especially horror. When handled skillfully, they serve to effectively bind the story together, giving substance to submerged or displaced issues. (i.e., the way Cthulhu embodies Lovecraft's pessimism or Dracula lurks in the shadows of Victorian sexuality) When handled poorly, they come off as plot contrivances with little rhyme or reason.

Lullaby falls somewhere in between. I liked its haunted houses and visions of sonic plague, but I thought the culling song hadn't really been though through properly and its grimoire was a little silly. MWINYD's supernatural elements, however, seemed a much more natural fit for the narrator/author's philosophy and his concern with the meaninglessness of existence.

Both books, in fact, struggle with the question of the meaningless of existence, which is approached from a perspective of profound skepticism bordering on nihilism. Though both authors are considered nihilists, there is actually a fair amount of difference with Chuck's sunny nihilism an interesting counterpoint to Thom's bleak nihilism. As Tyler Durden says in an earlier Chuck book: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." I suspect the Frank Dominio, the protagonist of MWINYD, learns we're never free completely free to do anything and losing everything is its own reward.

As with writing styles, I think Chuck's work is probably the more accessible. Behind the bleakness and the dark humor lurks a heart in search of redemption as sincere as that of a Dr. Phil fan. Thom's philosophy is bleaker, like a shadow version of Zen, where we are only free when we lose all illusions, but to do that you must accept freedom itself as an illusion.** (Again, personal preference here leans towards Thom's more absolute darkness.) Ironically, these different outlooks reflect to an extent their literary influences; contrast Hemingway's humanism with Lovecraft's cosmicism.

* Haunted's prologue invokes the conceptual slipperiness between human beings and their simulacra (puppets, mannikins, etc.); while this concept was certainly not invented by Ligotti, he has evoked it more uniquely and effectively than any author since Bruno Schulz.

** Or to contrast two interesting quotes, one from Haunted, one from "The Nightmare Network" (the third story in MWINYD):
Chuck: "Each of us striving to be the camera behind the camera behind the camera"
Thom: "The camera pulls back on the entire universe. There is no one behind the camera."

07 November 2007

Open Circle Theater: "The Dreams in the Witch House"

Every year Seattle's Open Circle Theater puts on an adaptation of Lovecraft, usually several pieces grouped together. This year's performance followed the same pattern, adapting four Lovecraft short stories into ~90 minutes of theater.

The works in question were "The Picture in the House," "Nyarlathotep," "The Cats of Ulthar," and "The Dreams in the Witch House." Lovecraft doesn't seem a natural to adapt to theater since some of the horrors he describes seem as if they would be indescribable even with CGI, but the limitations of the stage make for some interesting approaches.

Last year's adaptation involved interlinked stories, one of which ("Strange Magicks") was original. This one was structured differently, with Nyarlathotep and Cats of Ulthar nested in Picture, and Dreams as a separate piece.

"The Picture in the House" was a relatively faithful adaptation, with only a few minor changes. The unnamed narrator still seeks shelter in an aged structure to avoid a rainstorm while out visiting the Arkham countryside. However, the events take place in the modern day, so that the narrator speaks his observations into a voice recorder. (A clever device for allowing for narration.) Inside the house, he discovers a series of books and meets a strange old man who asks him to read from the book. The stories he reads are "Nyarlathotep" and "The Cats of Ulthar." The core effect of the story is kept, though the writers felt the need to make explicit what Lovecraft never really stated. (Understandable, since the slow accumulation of little details is a little more difficult in theater than in writing.)

"Nyarlathotep," on the other hand, required quite a bit of adaptation to bring to the stage. The original story is a rather surreal prose poem of a travelling showman who appears to bring the world to ruin. (The story very dreamlike and provides for a certain ambiguity as to whether the destruction is real or hallucinated.) The piece is presented through the eyes of two men, Robert Chambers and Ludwig (or is it Edward?) Prinn, who are investigating the travelling showman. Like "Strange Magicks" the action ends with Lovecraftian revelations in a darkened theater. That can be a hard thing to make convincing and not goofy, but John McKenna manages to deliver it with the right degree of dramatic flair.

"The Cats of Ulthar" is also a tricky story to adapt. Written by Lovecraft when he was most under the influence of Lord Dunsany, it's set in a mythical dreamland and told almost as a fable. As with Picture, the adaptation makes explicit something that Lovecraft only points at. (Though in such a way that there is only one obvious conclusion.) It ended up capturing some of the fable-like feeling of the original, though still seemed a bit shortened.

Of all four performances, "The Dreams of the Witch House" was probably the weakest. The source material certainly presents its own sets of challenges, but even taking that into account, a lot of material seems to have been cut out, in contrast to the other adaptations where material was added in to provide coherency. The creature effects on Brown Jenkin were pretty cool, though.

Overall a good show, though not quite as good as last years. They had changed venues to a smaller space, and I wonder if that did not affect the kind of show they could put on. The OCT web site states that they recently moved to a new location, so I hope the space next year lends itself better to interdimensional horrors.