Some Novelists: Sturgeon, Wilson, Davies, Levin, Stewart - Anticipations of the Boom - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Some Novelists: Sturgeon, Wilson, Davies, Levin, Stewart
Anticipations of the Boom
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Some highly interesting individual specimens of supernatural fiction—or a fusion of supernaturalism and science fiction—can be cited, among them “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” (1950) by Margaret St. Clair (1911—1995), in which a boy with precognitive powers reluctantly declares that the sun will explode on the following day; “It’s a Good Life” (1953) by Jerome Bixby (1923—1998), where an entire community is held in terror by a boy who has incredible psychic powers and is not afraid to use them; and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967) by Harlan Ellison (b. 1934), a grim and intense post-apocalyptic tale of a computer that inflicts hideous tortures on hapless human beings. Ellison wrote a number of horror/science fiction hybrids, and the same could be said of Philip K. Dick (1928—1982). Perhaps his closest approach to pure supernaturalism was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), in which a businessman becomes a kind of sorcerer by means of a powerful drug that subdues his competitors. But a number of other writers probed the weird in a widely diverse array of novels.

Theodore Sturgeon produced a striking contribution to weird fiction in the short novel Some of Your Blood (1961). Telling the dreary tale of a young soldier who is identified only as George Smith (not his real name, evidently), the novel recounts his harsh upbringing in rural Kentucky at the hands of a drunken father who brutalises both him and his mother. George is arrested for robbery and sent to a prison/orphanage, which he actually likes because of the regular meals and the education it provides. After the death of his parents, he goes to live with his aunt in Virginia, where he develops a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman named Anne. He later joins the army, and at some point he is sent to a psychiatric ward as a result of various odd behaviours.

Some of Your Blood is presented as a psychiatric case study, with correspondence between the psychiatrist, Philip Outerbridge, and his superior; but the bulk of the text is an autobiography that George is encouraged to write, in which he discusses his life and sentiments in the third person. After reading the document, Outerbridge makes a breakthrough by realising that George has a need to drink blood—the blood of animals that he killed on a regular basis in Kentucky and, more loathsomely, perhaps even the blood of his own mother during infancy, that of a small child he had killed, and, finally, that of Anne herself. But what kind of blood did he drink from Anne? The appalling revelation that he drank her menstrual blood is made only at the end and is encapsulated by the chilling brief letter that he had written her: “Dear Anna: I miss you very much. I wish I had some of your blood” (142).

Some of Your Blood is a tour de force in that it is the first novel of which I am aware that provides a convincing account of a purely non-supernatural method of vampirism. The gradual manner in which the increasingly vile actions of George Smith are revealed, chiefly in his own words (and, more particularly, by what he fails to write about), is masterful. At one point, Outerbridge’s superior actually states, “He [George] is one of the few human beings I’ve ever heard of who seems to have placed sex in a genuinely wholesome perspective” (72)—an analysis that Outerbridge subsequently shows to be tragically false. And yet, the true horror of the novel is not George’s disgusting actions but the sordid upbringing that impelled him to perform them.

The British writer Colin Wilson (b. 1932) unexpectedly contributed to weird fiction with a loose trilogy of novels beginning with The Mind Parasites (1967). This novel, using several conceptions from H. P. Lovecraft’s tales as a springboard, was engendered in an unusual manner. Wilson had, in the treatise The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1961), written very harshly of Lovecraft, referring to him as someone who was “sick” and “rejected ’reality’” (whatever that may mean). This discussion so angered August Derleth, then Lovecraft’s chief advocate and defender, that he dared Wilson to write a Lovecraftian novel of his own. Wilson took up the challenge, writing The Mind Parasites.

The novel is surprisingly compelling, in spite of the fact that a large proportion of the “action” takes place quite literally within the minds of its protagonists. Set in the near future, it relates the discovery by some scientists of the existence of a race of creatures they name mind paraasites, who attack the creative and intelligent person and “cause him to become the enemy of life and of the human race” (58). Ultimately, the Lovecraftian content proves relatively tenuous, and Wilson has written a scintillating novel of ideas, midway between horror and science fiction, that ultimately emphasises his own relatively optimistic view of the future development of the human race as opposed to what he believed (and unjustly criticised) to be Lovecraft’s pessimism on the subject.

Wilson followed up this novel with The Philosopher’s Stone (1971), a pompous and windy philosophical novel that actually utilises Lovecraftian conceptions more centrally than its predecessor. Here the premise is the quest for eternal life by means of the expansion of consciousness, although the scientists undertaking this quest are menaced by Lovecraftian “Ancient Old Ones” (219) that oppose them. For all its extraneous verbiage, this novel too becomes compelling toward the end in its long, elaborate account of the million-year history of the Old Ones and their possible resurgence in the future. Wilson then wrote The Space Vampires (1976)—filmed as Lifeforce—but this work is chiefly an action-adventure science fiction tale about “energy vampires” that suck the life out of their prey, chiefly by the use of sex.

The Anglo-Welsh writer L. P. Davies (1914—1988), author of more than twenty novels from 1964 to 1983, has generally failed to receive his due as a contributor to the weird, chiefly because his works were marketed as either mystery fiction or science fiction, and because of a somewhat mundane prose style that relies largely on the compelling nature of his ideas to carry the narrative forward. Those ideas are, however, quite compelling indeed, chiefly focusing on the baffling themes of amnesia, displaced personality, telekinesis, and so forth. His first novel, The Paper Dolls (1964), is a noteworthy attempt to depict, not a single individual with multiple personalities, but a set of quadruplets with a single mind or soul. Psychogeist (1966) fascinatingly exhibits a schizophrenic who is able to revive the dead body of a transient and compel it to act out a comic-book fantasy.

The amnesia theme is perhaps the dominant one in Davies’s work and is present in his accomplished second novel, Who Is Lewis Pinder? (1965), and in what is by all odds his best work, The Shadow Before (1970). In this novel, Lester Dunn, recovering from an operation to remove a brain tumour, has an elaborate dream about finding a way to tunnel from his own pharmacy into the vault of a neighbouring jeweller’s shop, so that he and his friends can make off with a fortune undetected. This dream is not in fact presented as a dream until midway through the novel, and Dunn is relieved to find that it is only a dream; but, as he and his friends discuss it, the events recounted in the dream begin harrowingly to come true, with a kind of inexorability that produces chilling terror.

A sort of mirror-image to the amnesia theme is the theme of an individual’s past being apparently wiped away. Here a character knows who he is and has suffered no lapse of memory, but finds that the physical relics of his past have been absolutely annihilated. The White Room (1969) is a splendid instantiation of this conception, and Give Me Back Myself (1971) elaborates upon the theme.

All Davies’s novels make for entertaining reading, and his work deserves far greater attention than it received during his lifetime. (For years, indeed, Davies’s death date was unknown, and it required the work of a private detective to ascertain the date of his demise in the Canary Islands.) But his intricate fusion of mystery, science fiction, and the quasi-supernatural (the actual supernatural rarely enters his work except for the inferior late novel The Land of Leys [1979]) produces an unclassifiable amalgam that is strangely appealing.

If L. P. Davies failed to receive the attention he was due, it is arguable that Ira Levin (1929—2007) received far more than he deserved, and that Rosemary’s Baby (1967) is of much greater historical importance than it is from a purely aesthetic perspective. Levin, who had already attained celebrity for comic teleplays (No Time for Sergeants, 1955, based on the novel by Mac Hyman) and suspense novels (A Kiss Before Dying, 1953), was apparently inspired to write his horror novel when he learned of Anton LaVey’s establishment of the Church of Satan in 1966. The well-known plot recounts the renting of an apartment in an old building in New York, the Bramford, by Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, where they encounter other tenants who “seemed entirely commonplace” (27) but who prove to be a coven of witches.

The novelty of Rosemary’s Baby—or, perhaps more accurately, the reason for its popular success—rests on the utter mundanity and contemporaneousness of its setting and characters, matched by the mind-numbing flaccidity of Levin’s prose. The novel is so preoccupied with the commonplace matters of moving into a new apartment, furnishing it, and establishing the interplay with the various boring and stereotyped characters that it is difficult, at this late date, to discern how it could have become a bestseller (it ranked No. 7 in that year’s hardcover novels [Hackett & Burke 201]); even more surprising is how Roman Polanski’s slavishly faithful film adaptation of the following year could have been the sensation that it was.

In this novel, Levin found a formula—“ordinary” characters moving about in an ordinary modern setting, fused with highly conventional supernaturalism—that proved successful in capturing the interest of readers who were not hardcore devotess of weird fiction; in so doing, he paved the way for the adaptation of this formula by his successors, notably William Peter Blatty and Stephen King, whose work similarly appealed to the general public. If there is any “surprise” or ingenious twist in Rosemary’s Baby, it is that the Satanism works on two levels. Even after it is revealed (or the reader has guessed) that a coven of witches is living in the Bramford, it is possible to believe in a non-supernatural explanation—although this becomes implausible when we discover that actions by the witches (who quickly win over Guy Woodhouse to their plans) have resulted in injury or death to those who oppose them (a rival actor suddenly goes blind, allowing Guy to gain an important acting role; a friend of the Woodhouses, sensing the presence of the witches, lapses into a coma and later dies). But this Satanism rises to a new level at the end, when we discover that the baby that Rosemary has spawned is not merely one intended—as she believes—as a sacrifice during a black mass, but is in fact the son of Satan.

But the novel is beset with difficulties of conception and motivation. If it is hardly credible that Guy could be so easily swayed by the witches merely to advance his career, it is even more incredible—indeed, preposterous—to believe that Rosemary, after learning that the baby is in fact the son of Satan (he has yellow eyes—and, apparently, also a tail and claws, although these are never shown), would so rapidly come to cherish it and become its nurturing mother. It is difficult to credit that even a lapsed Catholic like Rosemary would become so easily reconciled to her giving birth to the Antichrist.

But whatever flaws exist in Rosemary’s Baby, the novel and the film laid the groundwork for the horror “boom” of the subsequent two decades—although this “boom” was itself largely a marketing or publishing phenomenon, with inevitable pop culture overtones, rather than a literary phenomenon of any interest or merit. What is most surprising of all, perhaps, is that Levin, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to devise ingenious plots without the slightest ability to execute them compellingly (The Stepford Wives, 1972; The Boys from Brazil, 1976), waited a full three decades before writing a truly horrendous sequel, Son of Rosemary (1997).

One writer who wasted no time capitalising on the popularity of Rosemary’s Baby was Fred Mustard Stewart (1932—2007), whose first novel, The Mephisto Waltz (1969), is suspiciously similar in many features to Levin’s novel. Here too we have a New York City setting, a focus on a young married woman (Paula Clarkson, wife of a former pianist and struggling writer, Myles Clarkson), and relatively routine supernaturalism of a manifestly Christian sort. In this case, it transpires that a celebrated pianist, Duncan Ely, somehow uses a formula found in a book of witches’ spells to switch bodies with Myles so that he can both gain a younger body and continue his musical career. Paula immediately senses the difference in her husband and also has suspicions about Duncan’s daughter, Roxanne de Lancre, who in fact proves to be the incestuous lover of her own father.

The Mephisto Waltz is of interest only in proving that an even worse horror novel than Rosemary’s Baby could achieve bestseller status and be the venue for a popular film. The conclusion of this work is even more ludicrous than Levin’s: we are asked to believe that Paula, although up to this point quite devout, suddenly delves into Satanism herself in order to switch bodies with Roxanne because she desires Myles’s body—in spite of the fact that Myles’s soul or personality is no longer in it, and in spite of the fact that Duncan/Myles and Roxanne had caused the death of her own daughter.

It is typical that Stewart, although venturing into the realm of the medical thriller (The Methuselah Enzyme, 1970), and producing a wretched horror/science fiction hybrid (Star Child, 1974), generally abandoned horror fiction after his first novel. He was the first, but by no means the last, of the opportunists who sought to cash in on the sudden popularity of supernaturalism, and the result is an endless array of mediocrity or worse that polluted the literature of the next two decades.