Thursday, August 22, 2013

FFB: The Crippled Muse - Hugh Wheeler

“Merape is a charming woman and distinguished poet. […] She is also a beautiful ruin. Ruins have gaping cracks in their battlements, rats in their armouries, jackdaws in their bell towers. And this, too, is true of Merape. You must beware, my dear sir…”

-- Professor Fishbourne-Grant in The Crippled Muse

Merape Sloane is a mysterious reclusive poet with a mystical aura and a coterie of protective sycophants. Horace Beddoes has traveled to the Isle of Capri where Merape lives in a sort of exile of retirement where he hopes to meet her, gain an interview and propose that he write her definitive biography. He happens to be an expert on Merape’s poetry having completed his Ph.D. thesis on her work which he titled "The Last Flowering of the Romantic Age". But when he meets Mike McDermott, a hack writer of sleazy potboilers, Horace is appalled to learn that McDermott has beaten him to the punch. Somehow McDermott managed to convince Merape Sloane that he would be the perfect man to write her biography and he has already a collection of notebooks with spicy gossip.

McDermott has also decided to title his book The Crippled Muse, alluding to Merape Sloane’s lifelong battle with illness that left her lame. This further upsets Horace because not only is it a near duplicate of his own planned title (The Crippled Corinna), the change of single word makes it a much better title in his estimation. Horace finds himself festering in jealousy and anger, struggling to keep from exploding with rage. A sex writer in charge of the life story of the genius Merape Sloane! What a cruel irony it all is.

Horace proceeds to drown his sorrows and sublimate his furor by getting blissfully drunk at a party where Merape is the guest of honor. In his besotted state he makes a fool of himself by introducing himself to Merape and groveling in her presence while slurring his drunken praise and admiration for her work. Shortly thereafter while stumbling home he comes across a bloody champagne bottle. Simultaneously he learns that Mike McDermott has disappeared from the party and not returned to his lodging. The next morning McDermott’s battered body is found at the foot of a cliff. It is thought that he too got carried with away with drinking, slipped and fell to his death. But the bloody bottle leads Horace to suspect foul play.

Soon Horace finds himself inextricably implicated in McDermott's death. He was seen holding the bottle by at least one person the previous night who then witnessed him throwing the bottle into the ocean. How will he prevent himself from being named McDermott’s murderer? But the novel is not simply another riff on the oft used wrong man theme. The crime plot serves only as background to Hugh Wheeler’s highly literate, allusion filled, languorous novel which touches on so many themes: love vs. desire, the importance of art in one’s life, the transcendent nature of lyrical poetry, the need to belong, the importance of finding home. The story defies categorization. It's a mixture of a literary detective novel, murder mystery and metaphysical exploration of attraction between all the sexes; a triple play mystery novel incorporating all connotations of the word mystery.

It's difficult not to find similarities in this book with some of Tennessee Williams' more recognizable plays about the sexual tension between a virile young Adonis and an artistic grand dame (Sweet Bird of Youth, Orpheus Descending, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore) until you realize that Wheeler's novel predates all of those plays, the earliest by seven years. Did Williams perhaps read this book and pick up on its theme either consciously or subconsciously? More likely is that Wheeler knew his Williams and either borrowed or was influenced by the playwright's trademarks.

The similarities in this one book to Williams favorite motifs are amazing -- the erotic temptations of Girlie and Loretta; the Duchessa who has a keen insight into the closeted homosexuality of McDermott and her sad resignation to being attracted to men who prefer men; Horace's repellent attitude towards the menacing pansexual Latvian gigolo Askold who attempts to blackmail Horace with sexual favors; Horace's admiration (attraction?) and envy for the brawny physiques of the Swedish masseurs who remind me of the athletic German couple and their overt sexuality in Williams' Night of the Iguana. The book is drowning with Williamsian desires whether they are forbidden, fantasized, or unrequited. Horace not only has the mystery of Merape's life to solve and clear his name of McDermott's murder he must confront the mystery of human sexuality in all its varied and nuanced guises. Horace's feverish confusion of sexual desire and love culminate in this lament:
Was this the way love operated--like a staphylococcus, one moment drowsing latent in the bloodstream, the next moment flaring up with renewed violence? [...] I'm a man and I don't know whether or not I'm in love--or with whom.
Isle of Capri by Jasper Francis Crospey (1893)
More than any of the Patrick Quentin or Jonathan Stagge books The Crippled Muse shows off Wheeler's gift for dramatic monologue. The sections with Clara Pott, Horace's landlady with a closetful of secrets, in particular foreshadow Wheeler's later success as an award winning playwright. There is a classic moment when Clara delivers a lengthy monologue detailing how Merape robbed her of her husband and her comfortable her life in Ohio. Her words are polite and contradictory to her actions. As she speaks Horace notices a flower in her hand that she continues to twist and crumple.  "No, I didn't dislike Merape," she says tossing the utterly destroyed flower to the ground. The book is replete with dazzling moments like that.

The Crippled Muse (1952) is Wheeler’s only novel published under his real name and it appears to have been a very personal work for him. He dedicates the book to Rickie – no doubt Richard Webb, his collaborator on dozens of detective novels using their pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge. Webb had retired from writing in 1951 and Wheeler continued writing the mystery novels under those pen names alone. Unlike his mystery novels, as good as they are, in The Crippled Muse we discover another side of Hugh Wheeler. He gives us another gripping and suspenseful crime plot, but there is also a greater display of Wheeler's love of literature, his love/hate affair with American culture and Americans, his fascination with exotic locales and even more exotic people. Perhaps, too, if we read a little deeper into the story of Horace's self-discovery we find a  revelation of the enigmatic writer himself.

Friday, August 16, 2013

FFB: The Eighth Square - Herbert Lieberman

Getting lost in the woods.  Anyone who has experienced that sensation -- no matter if for a few minutes or a couple of hours -- knows that it can unleash some of your repressed fears. From Hansel and Gretel realizing the folly of leaving bread crumbs as a trail to find their way back home to the videotaped confessions of the terrified campers in The Blair Witch Project being lost in the woods is a motif repeatedly exploited to elicit thrills in fiction and movies. The Eighth Square (1973), Herbert Lieberman's fourth novel, is a story of getting lost in the woods, too. It's also subtitled on the dust jacket as "A Diabolical Novel" which leads one to believe that the Devil has a role in the plot. Lieberman spins a tale of facing one's fears, revisiting past traumas, testing the bonds of friendship and marriage, finding courage and hope and eventually surrendering to Fate. Where is the Devil in all this? Hidden deep within nearly every character.

The plot is relatively simple. A group of adults led by a surveyor with near supernatural powers are walking the boundaries of an estate in the countryside of a small New England town. While en route their leader suffers a stroke and is rendered speechless. Now left to their own devices -- and none of them are very good at reading a compass let alone the lay of the land -- they try to find their way out of the forest and back home. But as the story unfolds the novel departs from a tale of survival to become a complex multi-layered phantasmagoria. It blends realistic drama (sometimes stepping over into soap opera melodramatics) with scenes of the surreal and hallucinatory as we get to know each character through both spoken monologue and interior monologue. Eventually it is revealed that all of the characters have known each other since childhood and they find themselves reverting to their relationships from days long past.

Lieberman's language is an example of what I like to call simile madness. Sometimes they are uninspired ("they were all silent, like shipwrecks on a spit of beach in the midst of a vast, unending sea") but often they are clever and offbeat ("as they wound their way like a weary snail in fits and starts up a gentle acclivity"). As their panic increases and tempers and fists fly Lieberman finds himself drawn to animal metaphors in describing his forest castaways. One character is described as a "slumberous bull", another as a heron making its way gracefully through the forest. Here are some other examples:

She darted like a bat swooping through the narrow circle of light.
...he swiped at her with the huge, ponderous, impatient motion of a bear agitated by a field mouse.
...the others swarmed all around the surveyor in deadly earnest, like wolves pouncing on a wounded stag.

Even the forest itself begins to take on a life of its own when Gladys, the one person who from the start never wanted to take part in the grueling hike, refers to the landscape that has swallowed them up into a threatening menacing beast. "[D]on't you feel it breathing? Growing" she says. "It doesn't care we're here." When John Bayles, the cynic of the crowd, says "Well, now it appears the forest owns us" the novel begins its journey into the land of nightmares. No matter how much existential talk and positive thoughts the hikers indulge in there is a lurking menace among them. In an eerie and brilliant touch their stroke suffering surveyor begins babbling quotations from the Book of Revelation confounding and spooking the lost hikers. Soon there is mutiny among the crew as they choose sides. Fights erupt, violence intrudes. The day passes into night and then another day passes, and another night. Will they ever get home? Are they trapped in a Sartre-like purgatory with menacing elements and a labyrinth of trees and rocks replacing a room with no exit? Is it truly the end of the world? Or only the end of this period of their lives?

Herbert Lieberman is probably best known as the author of Crawlspace (1971), a creepy tale of a retired man and his wife and the young man they want to make their son. In his time he received plenty of rave reviews for his unusual books but never found the long lasting fame he deserved. He also seems to have been prophetic in pointing publishers to popular trends in crime fiction.

City of the Dead (1976), one of his most compelling novels, followed then the popular formula of a police procedural but substituted the usual cop character in the lead role with a medical examiner. Quincy M.E. was just about to debut on television at the time the novel appeared and fourteen years later Patricia Cornwell  would publish Postmortem that essentially gave birth to the forensic pathology subgenre. He also dabbled in the serial killer subgenre in his gruesome thriller Nightbloom (1984) a few years before Thomas Harris gave us Hannibal Lecter.

Several of Lieberman's books have been reissued as eBooks by Open Road Media. All of his books can be found in the used book market for relatively cheap prices. I urge you to discover this neglected, talented writer.  He had a unique vision and an uncanny gift for predicting popular trends in the future of crime fiction.

Friday, August 9, 2013

FFB: Space Opera - Jack Vance

Pyramid Books (R-1140), 1965
1st paperback edition
Like most people who might see Space Opera on a shelf I figured the title was a nod to that denigrating phrase used to describe science fiction books filled with epic battles in outer space, populated with a variety of bizarre aliens and extraterrestrial creatures and larger than life heroes and heroines. The publishers of the first paperback edition commissioned Jack Vance to write a book using the phrase as his title thinking the same thing I bet. Vance fooled them. He decided to use the term literally. Space Opera (1965) is a about an opera company that tours the galaxies as "musical missionaries" and cultural ambassadors of Earth with the hope of enlightening and teaching the numerous alien life forms just how artistically rich is life on Earth. I think Vance meant it to be a comedy but it leans towards the melodramatic in the final chapters.

In only a few days Dame Isabel Grayce, the tenacious former Secretary-Treasurer of a little opera company, contacts the world's greatest opera singers, gets them to commit to space travel for several months, and expects them to perform the world's most famous operas with little rehearsal. Dame Isabel has the kind of bravado and persuasive skills needed to pull this off and succeeds impressively. Yet by the midpoint in the story Vance shows he knows very little about opera singers and how a performing group on tour operates.

In one chapter Dame Isabel demands her company to perform no less than three operas -- one each by Rossini, Wagner and Alban Berg -- back to back with only twenty minutes rest period in between the three works. Three operas (two with huge casts), completely different sets and costumes, and radically different musical styles all performed in one evening. Will any reader, regardless of his or her opera knowledge, swallow such a concept? That the same performers can sing Italian bel canto, German Romantic and a modern atonal opera like Wozzeck? Never. And only twenty minutes rest between the two? Ridiculous! Never mind that Vance tries to point out the absurdity of such a Herculean marathon of singing and musicianship by pointing out that one violinist is in pain and has to bandage his fingers and one diva so exhausted refuses to go on. The truth would be that everyone would be exhausted. Talk about science fiction! These musicians would be superhumans -- aliens even -- who could perform three operas like those one right after other.

Underwood-Miller, 1984
1st hardcover (limited edition)
The book is really not a novel at all. It comes across as a series of short stories slapped together with the unifying framework of a space journey to the mysterious planet Rlaru from which a company of performers travelled to Earth, did their thing, and then apparently vanished. Seemed like a good premise for an additional mystery novel element but it's almost immediately forgotten about as Dame Isabel and her company of singers and musicians travel the universe spreading the gospel of highbrow art.

Vance does a good job of showing how snobbish and intolerant Dame Isabel is when she encounters indifferent alien cultures who cannot grasp the magic of classical Earth opera. In one case she is convinced that Fidelio needs to be presented in an expurgated, re-written format so it won't offend the race of cavern dwelling rock-like beings that are the company's intended audience. In another scene one group of aliens believed that the company was actually a sort of travelling infomercial. At the conclusion of the opera a representative of the planet's denizens approaches Dame Isabel and says that they would like to purchase a few oboes and one coloratura soprano if they have any in stock. That was the first sign I thought the book was meant to be a satire.

Captain Adolph Gondar is the only person who has travelled to Rlaru and is very evasive about talking about the planet. He keeps wanting to take detours which continually delay arriving at the tour's intended destination. Gondar's behavior is so strange and secretive many of the crew suspect their captain is losing his mind. Dame Isabel won't stand for it; she insists they stick to their plan and make Rlaru their final destination. A romantic subplot involving a stowaway woman named Madoc Roswyn who is bewitching the male crew members and Dame Isabel's nephew Roger Wool with her charm and sex appeal in order to achieve her own secret plan is yet another incident that derails the book's main plotline.

When the story finally gets back on track and the spaceship lands on Rlaru I was ready for a kind of Rod Serlingesque surprise. Something like the twist in the "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone or a shocker like the one in Planet of the Apes. But it's an anticlimactic ending. I wanted to gasp and I merely shrugged. The secret of Rlaru is not at all shocking nor eye opening or even very interesting. I noticed that the planet's name is an anagram for rural and thought "Aha!" but even that didn't play out.

Vance has won a few awards for his science fiction. I'm sure he does better in his later work. This commissioned paperback original seemed like nothing more than a way to earn another paycheck with a lot of private jokes thrown in to entertain the writer. This reader found it to be like eating Crackerjacks and being disappointed when the toy prize promised inside never made it to this particular box.

Friday, August 2, 2013

FFB: Powers of Darkness - Robert Aickman

1st UK edition (Collins, 1966)
I love reading ghost stories just before I go to sleep. Crazy, isn't it? While most people headed for slumberland will reach for soothing poetry, inspirational passages from the Bible, or any soporific reading material (I recommend 19th century textbooks) I keep a small stockpile of spooky story volumes on my nightstand. Nothing like a little chill or thrill before I turn out the lights and wrap myself in percale cotton. And ironically I never suffer from nightmares. Well, almost never.

Robert Aickman didn't like to call his fiction ghost stories or even supernatural tales. He preferred to call them strange stories. That they are. Powers of Darkness (1966) is a cherished book I found a few years ago at the Newberry Library Book Sale for two bucks. It's Aickman's second collection of tales and has no US counterpart. Only two of the stories that appear in this very scarce volume have been collected in a US Aickman collection. The rest exist only in this book. It's a thrilling mix of the eerie, the creepy, the spine-tingling and -- oh, yes -- the strange.

One of Aickman's more remarkable qualities is his ability to lead you down a familiar path only to watch it veer off into a dangerous detour. For example, you will be reading and come across a character who seems to be yet another female vampire. Before you can grow comfortable with this conceit, before you can manage to outguess the conclusion Aickman grabs you by the wrist and drags you through a fiendish passageway drenched in shadows and sodden with dampness completely disorienting you; you're unsettled, disturbed and yet fascinated.

Among my favorites is "The Visiting Star," probably because it is a theater story. It tells of Arabella Rokeby, an actress, and her return to the stage in a play that was a starring vehicle for her decades ago. The narrator expects Miss Rokeby to be an aging matron, but when she turns up he is shocked to see a beauty of no more than thirty-five. Accompanying her are Myrrha, a mysterious female companion, and Miss Rokeby's sinister manager Mr. Superbus. It's a story of possession, bitter envy, spiritual imprisonment, and power hungry control. The striking climax takes place in a visit to an abandoned lead mine of all places. At times chilling, later puzzling and, in the end, ethereally beautiful. The usual allusions to mythology once again are seen in Aickman's choice of odd character names.

Aickman is a master at reshaping the traditional weird fiction motifs and fashioning them into scenes that look startlingly fresh. Then he inserts those scenes into his world of skewed perceptions and ambiguous mysteries. Reading one of his tales is akin to watching those grotesque contortionists in new age circuses. Such cute little girls who amaze you with their pretzel-like bodies creating human sculptures that simultaneously marvel and repel. The experience of reading Aickman is just as paradoxical. You're smiling at a witty remark uttered by a character on one page and shuddering at what happens to that same character on the next.

Powers of Darkness also contains these stories:

"Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" -- The familiar horror movie trope of incessant nuisance telephone calls gets the wicked Aickman treatment. Closest to a true ghost story in this collection. Less said the better. A cult favorite among the Aickman fans you can find lot of blog posts and essays about this particular story all over the 'net.

"My Poor Friend" -- An employee in a hydroelectric advocacy group befriends Walter Enright, an unconventional M.P., to help him get a bill passed in Parliament. As their relationship develops it is revealed that Enright is burdened with monstrous children, haunted by a spectral ex-wife, and tormented by vindictive bird-like creatures...or are they something else? One of the more deeply moving stories in the collection. Much of the story is political satire and draws on Aickmans' personal experience with the Inland Waterways Association, an organization he helped found.

UK paperback edition (Fontana, 1968)
"Larger Than Oneself" -- Mrs. Iblis visits a New Age spiritual retreat and meets a unusual assortment of seekers of truth looking for something larger than oneself. All of them ultimately experience more than they ever dreamed of. There is an arcane reference in the main character's name. Iblis is the name given to the Devil in the Muslim faith, or to be more specific a jinn (a spirit creature) that refused to bow down to the first prophet of Islam. Lots of religious satire here and an almost out of place Lovecraftian climax.

"A Roman Question" -- The Wakefields while travelling to an academic conference are beset with more than a fair share of troubles. The story begins more humorously than creepy but with the usual disturbing detour into the Land of Uneasy when a young woman named Deirdre using folklore rituals tries to contact the missing son of Major and Mrs. Peevers, also attending the conference. The turn from light to dark occurs when Mr. Wakefield, the narrator, makes this observation: "But before the session ended, there was a moment, more than just one moment, when I felt that Deirdre was totally and wonderfully different from what I had supposed. It was as if I saw into, or had even momentarily entered into,  her soul."

"The Wine Dark Sea" -- While on a vacation somewhere in the vicinity of Greece a man wants to travel to a forbidden isle but no local will help him. He ventures forth on his own in a stolen boat and finds a private paradise where he falls under the spell of three women who call themselves sorceresses.  More mythological allusions, some sex, and intoxicating descriptive passages.

Several of Aickman's stories appear in the eight volumes of Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories which he edited between 1964 and 1972. Two of the tales in Powers of Darkness are also in the US collection Painted Devils, usually easy to find and affordable in the ubiquitous book club edition. An excellent radio program hosted by Jeremy Dyson, writer for the UK TV show The League of Gentlemen, offers proof that Aickman is "the best writer you never heard of." It can be heard by clicking here.

"Spirit is indefinable, as everything that matters is indefinable, but one can tell the person who has it from the person who has it not."
-- Robert Aickman, acceptance speech for the World Fantasy Award