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When did we first get the notion that we have something called a soul which exists separately from the body? Pretty fundamental idea, don't you think?

Take a look at this funerary monument from Iron Age Turkey. Evidently, people in that place and time believed that an enduring entity survived bodily death and continued to live on in the stone monument where the deceased's image and final words were inscribed. The image shows a bearded man raising a cup of wine and sitting before a buffet, suggesting that he is now having a great time in the afterlife. Next to him words are inscribed telling his descendants to keep bringing him food....

or else?

I think my favorite story in the STRANGENESS collection is "The Waiting Place" by Sarah Orne Jewett. The story, excerpted from Jewett's THE COUNTRY OF THE POINTED FIRS, a work Willa Cather compared favorably with HUCKLEBERRY FINN and THE SCARLETT LETTER, showed me the value of steeping the metaphysical in extra-real settings rich with local color.

My medium is the upper South. Jewett's was the section of the Maine coast bordering New Hampshire. The lull of the sea, the squawk of gulls, the under-scent of dead fish are all evoked in the story without the author saying much about it. Jewett's style is spare and studied.

Jewett's strength is characterization, and this story's Captain Littlepage is worth a long look. We first meet the captain when he walks up the steps to the school house where the teacher, the story's narrator, is quietly working in the empty classroom. We sense he is an ordinary old man with a yearning for someone to talk to. He laments modern ways and the passing of an earlier, finer era, as older people inevitably do. He is also a learned man and a good example of the classic old sea captain. He has tradewinds blowing between his ears, and he has a seafarer's tales to tell. His best years are behind him, and we feel for him as he starts to share with the teacher what he has heard about "the waiting place," a kind of purgatory off the maps, in a place beyond the reach of a compass.

We also find in Captain Littlepage the classic mix of character traits so useful in the kind of naturalized gothic this story represents. He has a reputation for eccentricity. Someone familiar with him had warned the narrator/teacher that Littlepage "had overset his mind with too much reading." We understand then, that one who hears his tales can't put too much stock in them. He is old; therefore the strange visionary experience he tells about might be due to dementia. Also, since he is an old man nearing the end of his life, he might be prone to twist most anything he experiences or hears about into proof that life goes on after death. We can understand why such an old man would want to believe in the waiting place. If there is such a stopping off point between worlds, then there must be another world beyond the one we know, obviously.

If all that is not enough to make the narrator take what Littlepage says with some skepticism, the captain admits that he was dismissed early from his career as a shipmaster because "his experience upon a certain occasion...gave rise to prejudice."

Such was the way of nineteenth century writers, who took pains to give their readers rational along with metaphysical explanations of the strange events in their stories. Think of Henry James's classic ghost story THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

James made it hard to tell whether or not the ghostly governess really appeared across the pond to the living governess. Did the living governess really see evil Quint's face in the window or was it a vision rooted in her own repressed sexuality?

Daphne DuMaurier employed the same technique in REBECCA, and in that wonderfully re-readable novel, the first Mrs. DeWinter was the ghost of a ghost, showing itself through written menus Rebecca left behind, through her taste in decor, in the household staff's repeated comparisons between the way the narrator ran the house and the way Rebecca had done, and in the wicked housekeeper's direct suggestions that the dead "come back and watch the living."

In naturalized gothic (a term I have taken from Disch's introduction to STRANGENESS), the supernatural is optional, but when it is suggested, rational explanations are woven tightly into the fabric. Note that in genre fantasy the writer creates and alternate world to support the improbable events of her story. In magical realism, the bizarre simply appears on the ordinary stage of everyday, and the willing reader runs with it.

As writers, we have all those possible ways, and many in between, to interweave the unreal with the real. It would be interesting to speculate why different degrees of willing suspension of disbelief are tolerated at different times in history and in different cultures. However we go about it, our task and our calling is to take readers to the outer edges of the imagination and to help them loiter there for a while.

Sarah Orne Jewett's Captain Littlepage tells of a ship sailing off course to "a town two degrees farther north than ships had ever been." The ship drifts within sight of a place of "blowing gray figures,"--"the waiting place between this world and the next." This story is oh-so-believable, and it is haunting in the finest sense. Reading the story, we understand the old captain's need to hang onto the memory of that place. We understand why, at the tale's end, he is staring at the wall behind the teacher, his eyes fixed on the map of North America that hangs there. We know why "his eyes were fixed upon the northernmost region...with a look of bewilderment."

My Favorite (old) Anthology




Here’s the cover of my copy of Strangeness: a Collection of Strikingly Uncommon Fiction by Distinguished Writers. I discussed it in the previous post. You can see I’ve worn it out, but it’s still in pretty good shape for a thirty-year-old paperback. It’s long out of print but worth tracking down, not only for the finely-wrought weird stories, but for the introduction featuring editor Thomas M. Disch’s commentary on the art of the gothic.


I think our attraction to the strange has something to do with the big questions that we usually go to religion to answer.


In Disch’s introduction to Strangeness, he draws the comparison to religion, too:


[…Say that the problem is how we are to understand our human destiny, in all its complexity and ambiguity, without the support provided by the theoretical apparatus of religion; especially, how we are to face the problems of evil, of death, of despair, in a world deserted by the friendly gods of its springtime. Simply to look the other way, denying the problem’s existence, is (as Kierkegaard argues in The Concept of Dread) to consign oneself to damnation in its darkest (if also its most common) form.  But to face the problem is a treacherous business as well, and the safest way to do so is vicariously, through the agency of art.]

Thomas Disch, "ground down by a sequence of catastrophes," according to a friend, died in July 2008, at age 68.  Read his obituary in the NY Times here and another on Locus Online.




Strangeness - Thomas Disch - Review Copy H/C

“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion. So said philosopher/scientist Francis Bacon. I first read the quote in the introduction to the anthology Strangeness: A Collection of Strikingly Uncommon Fiction by Distinguished Writers, edited by Thomas Disch and Charles Naylor.


The cover above is from an advance readers' copy of Strangeness. It also features an alternate subtitle--"Curious Tales."  The illustration is hardly beautiful. Or is it? We have a man who could be Dick Cheney or C.S. Lewis or anybody's insurance man, viewed through The Looking Glass.  It is weird. Bizarre. Out of the ordinary. Unusual. Uncommon. Strikingly uncommon. Other dimensional. 


I could say the same about the cover art work on my own 1977 mass-market paperback copy of this long out-of-print title. Mine features a green, scaly serpent emerging from a fissure that breaks up the smooth surface of an empty plain. Or maybe it’s an ocean. A hint of hellfire creeps up through the cracks. The curl-tongued Leviathan is wrapped around a chubby, naked woman with a clunky metallic head that looks like an early video camera. Heavy gauge metal tubing winds around her body. Stars twinkle and blue bubbles float around her. The cover art is interesting and rife for all kinds of interpretation, and it certainly suggests that the stories within will stir up some cognitive and cosmic dissonance--which they do. Still, the illustration doesn’t fit the book.  It was the word “strangeness” inscribed in a blue arch over the cover, not the illustration, that attracted me to this anthology.


I love this collection which Kirkus Reviews called “A promising convergence of threatening landscapes and journeys to the interior.” My copy is worn, the spine broken.  Sections have come unglued. I’ve marked up the pages.


Now, here's where the beauty factor comes in--sort of. When I hold that little book in my hand, I feel like I’m holding a Psalter.  Thirty years ago, when I read and re-read the stories in it, I first started to understand that my hunger for the strange in art and literature—and in science for that matter; nothing is weirder than what we know about the natural world— was akin to a religious longing for the numinous. I needed “the weird” for reasons I couldn’t articulate. I even came to realize that by seeking out the peculiar strain of strange that we’ll discuss here, I was hoping for a kind of salvation. Even those of us who are skeptical about the supernatural and have reasoned ourselves out of anything resembling faith seem to need a wormhole into other worlds. Maybe we will evolve out of that need eventually, but we haven’t yet.


The stories in Strangeness, especially those by Brian Aldiss, Italo Calvino, Sarah Orne Jewett, Joyce Carol Oates, M. John Harrison, and Graham Greene, influenced my own work mightily. All those writers, as well as Robert Aickman, Muriel Spark, and so many others, take us to what Disch called “the intriguing penumbral zone between dementia and poetry.” 

And that’s what I hope to do here.