Month: October 2012

Unsettling Chapters: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

As promised, we’ve come back to one of our favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates–the queen of disquieting literature. For this Halloween installment of Unsettling Chapters, we’re discussing the Holy Grail of dark fiction, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Nearly a half-century since its publishing in 1966, this remains the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. I was introduced to “Where Are You Going…” in college, where it was read aloud by our English teacher, and my former employer, Julie Papadimas.

What I remember most is gripping the side of my desk, trying to keep from screaming at Connie.

This is as visceral a reaction I’ve ever had to a work of fiction. I wasn’t just affected by this story. I was pissed. I felt sick. I wanted to dive into the pages and lock the front door.

Though a lot of readers, I’m sure, are familiar with the ending, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. I will only say that halfway through the story, it dawned on me just how it had to end. You feel the bile rising in your throat, yet there’s no looking away. There’s no putting it down. There is only the suffocating gaze of Arnold Friend and his sociopathic schmooze.

This is not a trick-or-treat brand of spooky, but the essence of true fear. The rare story that forces the reader to accept their vulnerabilities and realize that we can’t always protect the ones we love. Can we even save ourselves?

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” unnerves me in a way similar to Flannery O’Connor. It’s fiction that replicates that moment on a roller coaster when the train is briefly suspended at the top, about to descend, but seemingly frozen in place. When you feel the bottom drop underneath, but you have yet to tumble after. The breathless space where time knots into an excruciating paralysis.

This is the way Oates entwines and consumes us. With the patient grace of a constrictor. And her grip has yet to slack.

I pray that it never does.

And finally, for a Halloween treat, you can read (or re-read) “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” at the University of San Francisco’s Web site.

Enjoy, my Samhain sweets.

…And sadly, that brings us to the end of our 31 Days of Dread series. Tomorrow, like a post-rampage Hulk, we will return to our proper form as Ensuing Chapters, where we’ll produce a monthly column for Transgress Magazine and write semi-weekly blog posts.

Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for disturbing books or stories we may have missed, please send them along. We’re always looking for a new unsettling read… and we’ve got 11 months to kill until next October.

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Unsettling Chapters: The Fall

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Albert Camus. We both come from working-class roots, and we each found our way to journalism. That’s about where the similarities end. While I broke into newspapers as a music and features writer, Camus was editor of Combat, an underground political paper that was part of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

He and his co-workers were jailed and sometimes murdered. If you want to read some amazing and inspirational writing, pick up Between Hell and Reason, a collection of his war journalism. There is an immediacy to his writing, because he knew that every article could be his last.

If this book doesn’t get you up and off the couch (at least to go to the voting booth), nothing will.

However, that’s not the book I want to discuss today, although there is plenty disturbing about Nazi occupation. Truly, any Camus offering is unsettling, in the truest sense of the word, because that’s his intent. These are not pastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about your spiritual nourishment.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So it goes in all his works, both fiction and non. My two favorite books of his, and two at the top of my all-time list are The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The Plague is one of his darker (and classic) works, but for our purposes at Unsettling Chapters, nothing matches The Fall.

Here we have the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage—perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried under the rubble of his failings, held down by his own hand. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

Unsettling Chapters: A Study in Emerald

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, has to be one of the most adapted pieces of modern literature. Nearly every Holmes’ reboot begins with an updated take on this classic tale, which speaks to the brilliance of Doyle’s writing.

It’s a timeless tale of murder, deceit and the prototypical damaged investigators: the PTSD-stricken Watson and the mentally disquieted Holmes (pick your diagnoses: autism, OCD, bipolar, etc.).

For my money, the greatest adaptation of this story is “A Study in Emerald,” which appears in Shadows Over Baker Street, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

Penned by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” imagines the tale in a post-Lovecraftian landscape, 700 years following the epic struggle between humans and the Great Old Ones.

It shouldn’t come as a shock as to who won that inter-dimensional war, but the nature of the post-war dystopia might. As will the unexpected deviations from the original.

Is it truly unsettling? Not in the same way as most of the books we’ve previously discussed. But it is a bold venture by a gifted author, and the greatest mingling of two of my favorite mythos.

This story also appears in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, along with other favorites like “October in the Chair,” “Bitter Grounds” and “Strange Little Girls.”

For Halloween, Gaiman is offering a free audio book through All Hallows Read. It’s a program that promotes literacy by encouraging people to give someone a book for Halloween. Now through Oct. 31, in partnership with Audible.com, Gaiman is offering a free audio story of his, “Click-Clack the Rattle Bag.” Get yours at www.audible.com/ScareUs.

Unsettling Chapters: King Apocalypse

In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s obvious that Eliot never read any Stephen King!

King has destroyed the world many times over, and by many different means (plague, cars, cell phones, even exploding meth labs), and each time it is most certainly with a bang. My personal favorites are The Stand and The Mist, but there’s something for everyone on his buffet of world-ending visions.

Any longtime reader of King’s knows that his strength is character development. His end-of-days narratives are so strong not because of the impending doom but for how his characters respond to it.

For example, The Stand is horrific when Captain Trips decimates the globe, but heroic when its survivors stand up to Randall Flagg. The Mist enthralls with the interpersonal conflicts that emerge within the grocery store. I’m not afraid of fog-shrouded aliens, but I’m terrified of religious extremism in closed quarters.

Another favorite trick of King’s is what I call the extrapolated horror. “Trucks,” the short story that inspired the film Maximum Overdrive, focuses first on the ordeal of the survivors holed up in the diner. In many ways, the story is quite silly (a semi-trailer apocalypse!), but where it haunts the reader is its ending: The moment when you realize that all the horror that has come before is merely the opening act for something far, far worse.

This is a small sampling of King’s apocalyptic works:

The Stand

The Mist

Under the Dome (sort of)

“Night Surf” (prelude to The Stand)

King has also penned his fair share of dystopian literature:

“The Long Walk”

“The Running Man”

“The Children of the Corn”

With more than 100 novels, stories and screenplays to his name, King’s bookshelf is long. Pull one or two down from the shelves this Halloween. Believe me, the end of days never sounded so good.

Unsettling Chapters: Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” Is there a better opening line in literature?

Most importantly, this sentence establishes the tone that defines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Considered to be the first modern novel, there is no other work that as deftly captures the anxiety of despair and inadequacy.

Our narrator, the Underground Man, guides us through a dark and unpleasant world, recounting his drab civil servant’s life and the many insults that have shaped his misanthropy. Through this, he unearths the philosophy of the underground. It is a grim, but honest view, and with no connection to the surface world, the Underground Man simmers in his despair.

Actually, I’m not sure “simmer” is a strong enough word. The Underground Man doesn’t experience pain so much as he consumes it. He recalls past injustices when there is no fresh ones to sustain him. Misery exudes from his pores, his breath, his clothes, and rather than opening a window, he basks in the stench of his humiliation.

But his ordeal has only begun.

We come to section two, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” in which the true horror is set in motion. Here, we get more action and less confession. Following a series of insults, the Underground Man encounters a young prostitute, Liza, and for a time, redemption—and through redemption, meaning—seems possible.

Inevitably, though, you remember that you’re reading Dostoyevsky, and things become even darker than they were before. Watching the Underground Man abase himself is one thing. Watching him do it to another is harder to bear.

But of course, this is necessary to Dostoyevsky’s theme. Denigration is a team sport, and it relies on the consent of both victim and aggressor. That’s why, sadly, in the cycle of abuse, victims become abusers. We need Liza in the story to serve as witness to the Underground Man’s suffering. We need her to offer him redemption, or else he remains only a victim (which would be neither believable nor compelling). Ultimately, he is a conspirator in the surface world that has forced him underground.

And with true Dostoyevsky flair, Liza reminds us that there is no bottom. We meet the Underground Man, and we believe him to be the nadir of humanity. And then he meets Liza. We can only imagine what other characters are waiting offstage, unseen, but their suffering no less palpable.

So, this book may not be everyone’s mug of Russian Caravan, but it should still make your to-read list (especially if you’re a fan of unsettling literature). Notes from Underground is a link to the past, as it shows us that modern anxieties aren’t so new. It’s a classic work of existential philosophy. And artists and analysts alike should read this as a guidebook to the darkest shadows of the subconscious.

Notes from Underground is available as a free ebook through Project Gutenbeg.

Unsettling Chapters: House of Leaves

We are all familiar with the parameters of dream logic—the mental space where things are out of place or time but follow an alternative, interior logic. You know, like you’re catering a dinner for all your ex-girlfriends in a gothic castle, and for some reason Dog the Bounty Hunter is pitching you a show about vigilante sea lions. You wake up and wonder: “Why did that make sense?”

It’s a fun diversion that is, unfortunately, difficult to replicate in waking consciousness. But you can come close by reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a 2000 horror novel that is more of an entity than a book.

Designed with multiple fonts and colors, footnotes within footnotes and text running backward, forward, upside down, even spiraling, the physical layout of the text manipulates the novel’s pacing and creates a somewhat interactive experience.

It’s probably as close as we’ve come to reading with 3-D glasses.

The narrative is equally layered and complex, and academics have taken multiple stabs at this book. I would guess it’s had the most scholarly treatments of any horror novel since Frankenstein. Therefore, I won’t even attempt to offer an academic account, as I don’t have anything particularly profound to say on that front (and would bore myself to tears in the process).

What I can speak to is the effect Danielewski creates by inviting the reader into a story that they can’t quite trust. We have multiple unreliable narrators; the ever-shifting dimensions of a house; drug-impaired testimony; unverifiable videotapes; and the ravings of a half-mad blind man. (He also borrows the Lovecraftian theme of geometry-induced madness, not to mention a mysterious tome.)

Can we trust what we see and read? Hell no. And that’s why House of Leaves is so unnerving.

I think of it as a literary haunted house. Every October, people line up outside strip malls, warehouses and amusement parks to navigate dark, disorienting hallways. They know they won’t be harmed, but will experience the thrill of uncertainty.

The same with House of Leaves. It elicits a visceral reaction in a way few other books can. We’re aware of what Danielewski is doing. When we need to rotate the book to read the text, we know it’s to recreate the impossible geometry of the staircase. When there is one word of text on a page, it’s to replicate the cavernous quality of the basement and to force us to read slower.

But we’re affected just the same, as when we’re knowingly manipulated inside a haunted house.

House of Leaves is not a quick read. It is an experience. If you started reading it today, I don’t know that you could finish it by Halloween. But I feel confident in saying that you’re not supposed to read it that quick. This is a book to be absorbed. It should age along with you.

Read correctly, you will internalize the disorientation. You will want to measure the length of every hallway in your house to find inconsistencies. To make sure, every day, that the dimensions of your world haven’t changed while you were sleeping.

Because in Danielewski’s world, they do change. Sometimes they’ll shift right under your feet, and they might even swallow you whole.

Unsettling Chapters: All the Names

As I’ve expressed in previous posts, loss of one’s identity is one of the more unsettling outcomes a story can provide. With life such a fleeting thing, rarely does one’s name live far beyond their years.

Fair enough. To be lost to the ages is understandable, but for some, the worst fate is to be forgotten in your own time. It’s a unique flavor of despair, born of an imbalance between social needs and social disconnect.

Nowhere is this curious space more poignantly explored than in José Saramago’s All the Names.

This book was published a year before Saramago, best known for the novel Blindness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. All the Names is worthy of such honors.

The protagonist, one Senhor José, works in a nameless city (a stand-in for Lisbon in Saramago’s native Portugal) as a low-level clerk. Similar to Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Saramago presents us with a character caught in the gears of a drab, oppressive machine of unknown origin and inexplicable intent. He works for the Central Registry, which tracks the births, marriages and deaths of all citizens. Every life is reduced to an index card bearing these dates. The job of the Central Registry is to create, update and file each card.

“We all know that, however long old people may last, their hour will always come. Not a day passes without the clerks’ having to take down files from the shelves of the living in order to carry them to the shelves at the rear…”

José, who actually lives at the Registry building, makes nightly sojourns within its stacks. He hopes to escape his “bureaucratic alienation” by searching for meaning among the necropolis of index cards. Then one day, he finds something else. He becomes fixated on the card of an anonymous woman, and begins a clumsy search for her throughout the city.

Of course, what he’s really doing is working through an existential crisis. Or some other anxiety. The archives in the Central Registry are so large that clerks have become lost in their labyrinth. The metaphor is apt for José’s anxious mind. One bad thought, and then another. Disaster lurks eternal.

It’s unsettling to think that, in the end, we’ll be little more than forgotten statistics. The same goes for everyone we love and care for. We will all be forgotten. Time will make sure of that. What’s worse, though, is to feel societal mechanisms imposing anonymity while we’re still alive. To become a living ghost.

What makes All the Names successful, as with all existentialist writings, is that the answers seem more like questions. So, what is life if but a few dates typed onto an index card? Is there meaning or merely statistical data? Like Albert Camus, Saramago reminds us that the answer isn’t important—or even attainable. The meaning lies in the pursuit of, well, meaning.

Saramago empowers us with his narrative. He reminds us that in the face of mortality, victory is not an outcome. Victory is the fight itself. It is Senhor José taking those first bold steps into the archives, dwarfed by mountains of faceless information, to turn an index card back into a person.

I’m reminded of a favorite line from Camus’ The Plague: “And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”

Indeed.