Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Thing on the Doorstep by H.P. Lovecraft

This story is about a man who has married a woman who in into the black arts and routinely steals his body. Kind of a cool concept, really. Lovecraft starts out with a great hook about “putting six bullets through the head of my best friend.” This draws you into the story and makes you wonder why and how this could possibly be.

Lovecraft shows a depth of characterization in this story, but does it through a lot of telling. We know everything about Edward Derby because the narrator (Dan) tells us everything about him down to the smallest detail in paragraph after paragraph of description. Obviously this telling wouldn’t go over very well today in a time when we are all very visual because we are so used to films. It would be a stronger story if Lovecraft has written some scenes at the beginning to show Edward’s character traits. He does so later in the story. Even with this shortcoming, the narrative definitely works as is. I found myself getting drawn into the story line of the strange woman who can steal people’s bodies.

The plot is very original for that time period or for any other. It took a few turns I didn’t expect. I knew that Edward has killed Aesnath when he said, “I had to do it—I had to do it…” when being held in the sanitarium. I hadn’t anticipated, that Aesnath had actually been possessed by the spirit of her father.

When Dan went to the door that night and “saw the dwarfed, humped figure on the steps,” I thought that Aesnath had put Edward’s spirit into the body of a dwarf. It’s a nice touch when Lovecraft reveals at the very end of the story that the mass of tissue Edward has been living in was indeed Aesnath’s corpse.

Lovecraft sets up a definite reason for Aesnath’s wanting to take over Edward’s body when she tells us she believes that only men can attain the heights of magical ability.

What’s odd and maybe inconsistent with human nature is that when Edward is trapped in Aesnath’s corpse, he wants Dan to kill his (Edward’s) body. Wouldn’t most people have wanted to find a way to get the offending entity out of his or her own body in order to be able to get back in?

The way Lovecraft has Dan kill Edward at the end could have been done differently to increase the suspense. Lovecraft throws this line into the middle of a paragraph: “I went to the madhouse and shot him dead for Edward’s sake…” Later he tells the details of the shooting. It would have been much more suspenseful if we had seen Dan sneaking into the sanitarium with a gun hidden in his waist coat. Then we’d wonder what he was going to do and if he would get away with it. (Of course, he had also told us at the beginning that he shot Edward.)

I like the title because at first it doesn’t seem to relate to anything and I found myself wondering how Lovecraft was going to connect it to the story. The meaning isn’t revealed until the end.

What I can take away from this for my own writing is that Lovecraft draws us into the reality of the story with all of the details. The characters and settings are all fully fleshed out, and we see definite reasons for all of the character’s actions. At first Dan thinks that Edward is mad and belongs in an asylum. Somehow when other people in the story question the veracity of the supernatural thing (whatever it is) that makes us as readers believe it all the more. Later on as Dan is drawn into believing the truth of Edward’s story so are we drawn into it.

Then there is the incredible richness an dark beauty of Lovecraft’s language that can chill you and enthrall you all at once.

This drawing is taken from the Penguin Classics version of "The Thing on the Doorstep." I like it because the specter of death looks so lonely huddled under a sheet.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hell House by Richard Matheson

I have to say I don’t get it. Stephen King calls this book “the scariest haunted house book ever written.” What did I miss? It was a cold day, and I settled down in front of a nice fire hoping to be creeped out, and I was just bored.

I think the book had shallow, undeveloped characters. The ghosts were stock--cut-outs from a Hollywood special effects department. The plot was predictable, there was nothing especially surprising. It should have been scary when they had to stay in the house at first with no electricity, but it wasn’t.

The core of the novel is about Dr. Lionel Barrett’s purely scientific take on hauntings versus Florence Tanner’s more spiritual approach.

Barrett is such a purely unlikeable jerk from the very beginning of the book, it’s hard to care about him at all. He has a condescending outlook toward everyone, particularly his wife. Edith, his wife, is just plain annoying. Fischer is ineffectual as a psychic. Florence is the most interesting character, but you know she has to get the axe because whe’s the one sexy woman in the story.

Matheson’s attempts to be daring with the sexual perversion that went on in the house during its heyday is kind of laughable. Maybe it was a shocker in the seventies, but the titillating sexually oriented scenes now just seem campy, for example, Barrett’s wife, Edith, giving the buxom Florence a full body search, and the lesbian “sex scenes” are just plain dumb, not at all believable.

The characters didn’t act realistically. When Florence first sees Belasco’s son’s ghost in her room, she talks to it like it was her long-lost brother who had wandered in. She's not even startled. After the house has tried to kill them, they’re sitting around eating sandwiches rather than getting the hell out of there.

The book is hopelessly dated. I sometimes try to put my finger on why some books seem that way when others hold up well over time. (One book that has held up really well is Rosemary’s Baby.) I think it is because the characters are affected and stereotypical. Matheson doesn’t get into the minds of his characters and tell us what’s going on there. The emotions aren’t genuine, they're a parody of sixties and seventies-era people.

The ending is laughable. Fischer, who didn’t do very much throughout the course of the novel, saves the day by, in essence, calling Belasco a short wimp. At that point the ghost caves and gives up.

I had the feeling that Matheson was making it up as he went along. The last chapter has Fischer explaining the inconsistencies in the plot. For example, why did Belasco allow Barrett to use the Reversor when he knew it would weaken him? Because it would have been an admission to Barrett that he was right. Pretty weak.

One thing that Matheson does well is his descriptions of the house. He describes the house in great visual detail to the point that you can actually see the place. Also the descriptions of the Belasco parties are very vivid and well thought-out. The house functions as a separate character in the book. Unfortunately it’s the only one Matheson has developed to any extent.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Music of Erich Zahnn by H.P. Lovecraft

At the beginning of the story, we know that something supernatural has taken place. We have a narrator who has lived in a house of the Rue de’Auseil, yet in trying to locate it again, he finds that no such street exists. The narrator is not described and we don’t know much about his past. Lovecraft seems to be fond of using narrators who stumble upon “the weird thing.”

As in many of his other stories, he gives the setting an inherent evil. “It was always shadowy along that river, as if the smoke of neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was odorous with evil stenches...” The houses “crazily leaning backward, forward and sidewise.” The inhabitants are all very old. The descriptions of the town and house are superb for setting a creepy mood.

He sets up the fact that the music he heard from Zahnn is other-wordly. “…they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth…”

Lovecraft’s descriptions of Zahnn are vivid and picturesque, especially during the night that he intrudes on Zahnn playing like a madman. “Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window… I could almost see shadowy satyrs and bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightening.”

When the narrator gets a look at the place where Zahnn has been glancing fearfully, where the lights of a town should be, he sees “only the blackness of space illimitable, unimagined space, alive with motion and music, having no semblance of anything on earth.”

When the narrator brushes by Zahnn, he feels an “…ice cold, stiffened, unbreathing face whose glass eyes bulged uselessly into the void.”

And of course, the explanation Zahnn had been writing about his horrible predicament blew out the window never to be seen again. It’s kind of similar to “Pickman’s Model.” The evidence is gone.

It kind of makes me feel let down at not knowing the reason. I would suspect that Zahnn was holding off some kind of evil aliens who were repelled by the music Zahnn was playing. When he finally died, they were able to come in and make the whole street disappear into another dimension.

In On Writing, Stephen King tells us to keep that door closed as long as possible, because when you reveal the monster, it completely loses its power. Well, in this story Lovecraft keeps the door shut forever.

I feel ambivalent about open endings. In one way I like them because they let us use our imagination. In another way, I like to have things wrapped up. It’s just too easy for an author to tell us, “This is what happened, and there was this horrible thing, but I have absolutely no idea what it was or what caused it. Reader, fill in the blanks and do my work for me.”

I think that this story has a great, original plot and it got me in the mood for creepiness, but it ultimately let me down.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

While I was reading this novel, I tried in my mind to separate it from the Andrew Lloyd Webber play, but had a difficult time of it. I kept thinking about how the play book really distilled down the plot and got rid of excess characters and scenes leaving only the most important parts. But the intent of this blog is to review the actual novel by Leroux.

The premise of the book is that Gaston Leroux turns himself into an inspector trying to gain some closure on the thirty-year-old case of the Opera Ghost’s alleged kidnapping of Christine DaeĆ©. He lists his sources at the beginning of the book, trying to give the inquiry as much credence as possible. Leroux uses outside source material like the journals of the Persian, police interviews, letters and articles.

I believe that his main point in doing this was to establish himself a reliable narrator to tell this fantastic story.

Leroux is taking a journalistic approach to the book, but this causes a viewpoint problem in parts, such as in Chapter 12 when we see Christine and Raul on the roof. The narrator would actually have no way of seeing this.

Some of the characters are a little flat, particularly Raoul, who is portrayed as an anemic shadow of his older brother, Count Philippe de Chagny. He can’t even rescue Christine on his own, he has to have the help of the Persian. Leroux describes him well at the beginning, giving us all of his background, but doesn’t develop him much as the plot progresses.

Christine sometimes acts in ways that don’t make any sense, such as when she tells Raul she would never marry him (without any good reason), or when she goes back to Erik’s underground lair even when she know that he plans to hold her hostage.

Eric is a fully realized character with a complete back story. Basically, he’s anguished by the dichotomy of his musical talent and the beauty of his voice against the ugliness of his appearance. He was so ugly as a child his mother forced him to wear a mask.

Eric is a tortured soul who feels incredible anguish in his circumstances. We can see this in his reaction to Christine’s revulsion of him. Christine said, "Yes, if I lived to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes.” And "He had let go of me at last and was dragging himself about on the floor, uttering terrible sobs…”

One of the things that struck me is that Erik has a definite character arc in this book. He goes from being a child who was abused due to his looks, to a youth who was victimized in side shows, to a person who took charge of his destiny when he used his skills to gain favor with the Shah of Persia. When he was forced to flee that country, he finally ended up in Paris as a contractor for the Paris Opera. Once he had access to the cellars, he created his own dwelling there. He becomes mad from that existence but then finds his love obsession with Christine. He shares has extensive knowledge of music with her. He wishes nothing more than to have an ordinary life and “take his wife out on Sundays.”

When he finds that Christine doesn’t quite feel the same way about him, he at first wants to keep her as his prisoner. He threatens to blow up the whole of the Paris Opera if she won’t consent to marry him. When Raul and the Persian go in search of her and end up in Erik’s torture chamber, Erik at first wants to kill them, but he later releases them because he wants to please Christine. Erik’s actions show great empathy when, even though he realizes that Christine doesn’t love him, he lets her go off with Raul, because her happiness is more important to him than his own. Eric comes full circle to show compassion. He’s not at all the monster everyone thinks he is.

Leroux seems to give Eric some supernatural powers. But at the end of the book, he goes back and explains how all of the seemingly supernaturally feats were actually accomplished by Erik by the use of trap doors, hollow columns and ventriloquism. For example, when the monthly sum to be given to the ghost was in one of the producer’s pockets then suddenly disappeared, Leroux later states that Eric reached his hand up through a trap door and pulled it out. I thought the explanations were a bit cheesy and not very believable.

The book makes a lot of symbolic use of mirrors. The phantom comes to her through mirror, and he bids her to look into the mirror to see him inside of her. His torture chamber is a room of mirrors. Perhaps Eric is tortured by looking at himself.

I have a vivid picture of what Garnier’s Paris Opera looks like, both from the play and from having visited the real opera house in Paris. But in reading Phanton, I found that Leroux describes it very little until the characters are in the underground. At that time he describes it in such detail that it begins to function as a separate character in the book.

The plot, for its day, was original and entertaining, even shocking and scandalous. I think The Phantom of the Opera stands the test of time for its true descriptions of the emotions felt by the characters, particularly Erik. It tends to melodrama, but that can be inherent in a Gothic story such as this.

Artwork is by Lehanan. My interpretation is that this is the vision of the Phantom's inner, beautiful spirit.