Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Each Their Darkness by Gary Braunbeck, Sinister Resonance by David Toop

“We must read their intentions in the puddle of light on the kitchen tiles
understand their presence in our home while the neighbors harass them with greetings

There are two of them like the eyebrows on one face
two guardians of the tide who
knock on our walls at every equinox
and make our mother and the pomegranate tree bleed”
-Venus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker, “Interments”

A look at two books that came out within the last year that I loved – unfortunately I misplaced the Toop for a few months so it took me longer than usual to finish– that approach their author’s primary subject (music for Toop, horror for Braunbeck) through oblique strategies that make the lesson hit harder and the journey more fascinating. 

In the prelude, Toop talks about trying to hear, reaching forward or backward to an “unverifyable past”,  and reading that sent a shock through me.  I know that feeling, that slow shudder that something happened here and wondering what about the air that’s suffused with that joy or that loss.  Looking at the way the light hits the brick, but also feeling ears stuffed with thick, slow air, memories trapped like the old SF classic “Slow Glass”.  I had a great poetry workshop once upon a time where we had a week’s assignment that required us to focus on one sense, and what I turned in was too literal – it actually name-checked John Cage, for chrissake – but that exercise stuck with me and in the next few months I wrote probably 20 poems using that as a jumping off point, and it surprised me how many of them touched on nostalgia or ghosts.  This book put that together so it hit me like a lightning bolt, of course, things you can barely hear are going to trigger womb-memories and also seem ghostly, film sound designers exploit that and so do many musicians whether consciously or not.

Through the book, Toop connects that thesis with the way sound was depicted before recordings and broadcasts – the writing of Virginia Woolf, the paintings of Teniers and Lucas Cranach and Rembrandt– and he delves into how sound is vitally important to certain wholly visual works of art.  The sound of the water flowing in the background helps us understand the reclining nymph and the way we naturally combine those senses even when evidence isn’t there for it is very similar to the way we see new colors that aren’t on the canvas in Seurat or Olafur Eliasson’s color wheel, and there’s a discussion on Seurat making that process explicit, throwing the unspoken rule that there are things the painting can’t directly show right in the audience’s face.

Braunbeck’s To Each Their Darkness is also a hybrid form touching on a wide range of sources, parts gorgeous, heart-breaking memoir and parts showing how the sausage is made, the grinding gears behind narrative storytelling, delving into choices that go into his fiction and the fiction of others, and what each does to inform the other.   For my money, Gary Braunbeck is one of the greatest short story writers of the last 30 years (I don’t mean to discount his novels, but his short stories are what stab me in the lungs over and over) and there isn’t a single argument he makes in this book that can be easily shrugged off. 

Braunbeck takes horror fiction, as most of his work is categorized, and draws a series of threads, going back to Carson McCullers and John Cheever and through The Who (there’s a fantastic elucidation of Quadrophenia, particularly “The Rock”) and the films of Jim Sheridan and Sam Peckinpah, among many others.  He puts the names the reader expects in a book about horror: Brian Keene, Peter Straub, Jack Ketchum, etc, but he puts them in this broader context of literature and culture.  The horror writers exist in that bigger continuum which keeps the wonkier writing about writing from feeling too hermetic, too sealed in.

If there are weaknesses in the Braunbeck, it can get a little defensive.  It’s to its credit that it avoids the fanboy reflex – the tendency to point at things like Future Shock or Frankenstein or One Hundred Years of Solitude and shout, “That’s genre work too!  You do like genre work, asshole!” – but the writing at times takes on the air of a trapped man, someone as defensive about indiscriminate genre fans as well as ivory tower snobs, in playing both ends occasionally it overreacts a little.  Also, there’s some juvenilia in here, especially the reprinted Eldritch Tales columns about Stephen King movies that not only isn’t as good as everything else in the book (which is to be expected), but comes off as way too much ammunition getting unloaded on some movies that weren’t very good in the first place.

Those qualms aside, I came out of To Each Their Darkness and Sinister Resonance with a thousand new ideas swimming in my head.  Things to argue about at the bar, and work into my own writing, and things to watch for as I walk down the street or listen for in those rare moments alone.  Both are very much worth your checking out.

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