Tuesday, September 22, 2015

'It' (1940) by Theodore Sturgeon

My review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is still cooking, but in the meantime I just wanted to drop a note about this story by Sturgeon.  I'm doing some research on 'muck-monsters' for a forthcoming essay.  This is the line of horror fiction creatures that tend to semi-spontaneously arise from environs naturally composed of slime, goop, mold, debris, mud, loam and the like and in a pseudo-humanoid form, usually based on the human corpse such environs have absorbed and grotesquely reanimated.  The transformation takes place by many means, from scientific to supernatural to inexplicable.  Some of the heirs of this sub-genre are the famous Swamp Thing from DC comics and the slightly lesser known Man-Thing from Marvel comics.  But it all started with the story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon. His seminal muck-monster is of the inexplicable variety and very effectively evoked.

The main reason I wanted to stop here and mention the story is that it is excellent.  I read it over a decade ago in an anthology and it was instantly a favourite.  But sometimes favourite stories lose some of their shine on a re-read, especially if many years lay between.  Sturgeon's story only shined greater.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how lovely the prose was, a wonderful evocation of a region and of the atmosphere of a particular kind of dreadful, cruel horror, all the more effective for its bucolic setting and likable, rustic characters.  If, like me, you've been wondering if it's as good as you remember, it is.  I highly recommend revisiting it.  It's a genuine modern classic of horror, much-anthologised (apparently some 60 times) for good reason.

(Spoiler in what follows.)

'It' has interesting potential intersections with my ecomonstrous readings of Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty.  The monster in this tale possibly evinces a meaningless cosmic horror, seemingly irrepressible, reminiscent of some of McCarthy's major themes.  Yet it is a persistent, bubbling brook that laughs the monster into nothing at the end of the story, reminiscent of Lafferty's 'cosmic laughter' theme.  Still, the family struck by this monstrosity is marked terribly and do not seem to wake from the nightmare, making the tale very downbeat overall.  It's a pretty bleak iteration of the environment 'speaking' to us, forcing us to reassess the place of the human in the non-human.  But there's some potential light folded into it too.

The ongoing industry of muck-monsters that eventually grew out of this fecund little masterpiece could be seen as the working out of the cosmic-personal themes Sturgeon's imagination initiated. The essay I'm working on explores Lafferty's take on muck-monstrosity and his repeated symbology of swamps, which I was surprised to find recurs fairly regularly in his work.

At any rate, Theodore Sturgeon's 'It' would very likely make it into my personal Top 100 list of classic horror stories.

(From the Marvel comics 1970s adaptation of Sturgeon's 'It')

Friday, September 4, 2015

Revival (2014) by Stephen King

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

What to say about this novel?  It was fun to finally get a chance to read something really recent from King.  And don't be misled by my 2.5 rating.  This is not a bad book, just not necessarily a great one. It was not a waste of time, especially if you want to work your way through the entirety of King's fiction like I'm trying to do.  It has important thematic elements that you wouldn't want to miss if you're hoping to trace some of his major themes across his body of work.  Indeed, as regards King's recurring engagement - from his earliest works to his latest - with theological concerns, this novel is very important.  I'm not sure he says much here that he hasn't said elsewhere, but it's one more iteration, important for tracking the sheer quantity of theological content in King's work if nothing else.

I assume most readers will take this story as a damning portrayal of Christian theology, Christian ministers, and Christianity in general.  But King's being far more subtle than that.  First of all, there are a lot of very sympathetic Christian characters in here, such as the protagonist's own parents. Their faith is simple and sensible.  They are taken in by neither scepticism nor fanaticism.  They are devout but generous, and probably represent a bigger swathe of American culture than is generally guessed.

Secondly, if you're paying attention, this is a damning story of the dangers and pitfalls of unbelief as much as belief.  The antagonist is a man who loses his faith after all, and who becomes a very evil charlatan only after this loss of faith.  You could fairly say that he is an illustration of the notion that if you don't worship God, you'll worship something else, probably to your own and others' degradation and detriment. Also, the book's portrayal of crowd-credulity is really about a very general gullibility that affects most Americans when it comes to 'cures' for health issues.  This novel happens to focus on an intentionally deceiving faith-healer and his all-too-willing dupes.  But this phenomenon is not unique to that context, as multitudes every day practice a similarly credulous hyper-faith in regard to both corporate drugs and alternative medicines or health practices.  The wise reader will take the tale as a reflection and warning about this widespread issue manifested in a variety of ways, not just 'tent revivals'.

Finally, as to whether or not this novel is just a lambasting against Christian theology, practice, and persons, it must be noted that though King gives full roar to unbelief here - and indeed, to the Lovecraft-esque belief that we live in an outright horrific, bleak, and cruel universe - he does not give voice only to such unbelief and belief-in-horror.  He gives a tiny space for the possibility that the Lovecraftian view is not only false, but an outright lie.  In this story, the evidence is very strongly stacked against the disbeliever in the Lovecraftian universe, almost overwhelmingly.  Yet King is careful to leave a pinprick's opening for the possibility of hope.  That's not nothing.  It's really not.  At some moments in life, that's all anyone can see or hold onto.  But it might be enough.  At almost the very end of the novel, King's narrator writes:  ‘There is hope, therefore I live.’  (Page 370 in the edition I borrowed from my local library.)  After all, a pinprick is all it takes to burst a bubble.  And lots of worldviews are up for having their bubbles burst, not just religious ones.

This theological aspect of the novel I actually found quite good, and if it were the only consideration, I'd give it more like a 3.5 or 4.  But other elements, of course, factor into it.

The storytelling itself is really quite lovely for about the first third or so of the novel - King at his nostalgic-but-tragic best.  The 1960s rural Maine life is realised nicely and makes for quite a 'cosy' read really, something of a warm but darkening paean to childhood.  The second third of the novel still grips well enough as we catch up with the protagonist as an adult addict, but it starts to lose some of its depth, becoming more of a merely entertaining yarn than a semi-profound meditation on life. By the final third of the novel, when it is supposed to be ratcheting up to its horrific climax, it threatens to become sheer goofy pulp.  That's, of course, what King is here revisiting and paying tribute to:  early Weird Tales horror, and earlier melodramatic Victorian horror.  But he just doesn't pull it off in my opinion. The antagonist, who was already thinning in the second third, has become a cartoon villain by this last segment of the tale, even speaking in a faux-genteel diction that made me cringe.  The antagonist's development into this kind of character could even have been done with some power, making him effectively creepy and terrifying in his ridiculous self-importance and affectation.  But that was not achieved.  

Worse, the horrors themselves, when they are revealed in fullness at the end, are more ridiculous still. I admire the level King was trying to take things to here, but again, to me, it just didn't come off. King is a genius at what he does well, carving out his own territory in horror by combining 'regular' late 20th/early 21st century American life with supernatural violence and terror.  But here, when he strays into the territory of the likes of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith or William Hope Hodgson or Frank Belknap Long - effective purveyors of otherworldly horrors who already have their own limitations - he just seems out of his depth.  He can occasionally dip into this sort of thing with mixed success, but still somewhat effectively - e.g. 'The Mist' and 'Mrs. Todd's Shortcut' in Skeleton Crew; and occasionally I think he really nails it - e.g. 'I Am the Doorway' and 'Gray Matter' in Night Shift. I'm sure there are other examples that I just haven't read yet.  But here, though I want to like [SPOILER, I guess] the central image of the claw made of faces coming out of the revivified corpse's mouth, it just seems to arrive more or less out of nowhere, with no real atmosphere for it built up, no rationale, no matter how otherworldly or metaphysically weird.  Even the preceding glimpse of the afterlife only strikes me as technically horrific - as in, yeah, that'd be just unspeakably terrible [SPOILER again, of sorts] to be slaves of some unspecified female sort of superbeing, driven by ant-men, but the scene didn't make me feel the horror.  It came closer to making me laugh, not at the horror of such a reality, but at its depiction here.  I again kept thinking of cartoons, and not good ones.  The reason I have trouble even thinking of the above as spoilers is because the horror-reveal came as no real surprise to me when I read it.  Its elements had either already been forecasted and were not substantially developed or deepened here or they were just out of left field, and not in a wow-ing sort of way, but rather in way that robbed them of impact.  

So there you have it, my take:  Revival is theologically interesting, good storytelling in its first third, weakened in characterisation and plot in the last two-thirds, and kind of terrible in its horror-reveal finale.  Still glad I read it.  But more looking forward to catching up on King's 80s output.

Up next:  Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (2014).