14 thoughts on “Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters

  1. On Skua Island
    “: there is no culture that is innocent.”
    In many ways, a well-written if workmanlike, sometimes gory, ghost / horror story telling of a true story spoken aloud within the author’s company by an otherwise taciturn house guest, when the subject of horror stories was broached, and in particular any about an Egyptian type Mummy. But I was genuinely intrigued by this storyteller’s Seamus Heaney reference (Heaney also translated Beowulf) and I was also duly chilled by the chase scene at the end involving the retributive ‘Mummy’ (annoyed at being exhumed on an island near Shetland). Also I received a frisson from the story’s use of ‘scour’ and ‘scholar’ and the fearsome ‘skua’-named seagull and I wondered where therefore be the story’s skewer? Not one of the Mummy’s finger-hooks or the thumbs she uses to de-face our storyteller’s companion or her ‘kindle-thin’ arm or the column that pinned her in her peat-bog till exhumed by this story or the ancient sword that kept her thus double-pinned? So if not, what? I shall now exhume my book of the collected poems of Seamus Heaney to discover what strange fruit it may reveal…
    If any, I shall be back to tell you.

  2. I have managed to find my book of Heaney poems in my garden’s log cabin – not exactly his collected poems, but a book entitled (appropriately!) OPENED GROUND (Poems 1966-1996) by Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber 1998): just re-read ‘Strange Fruit’ (mentioned in the Skua story) and a poem quite close to it in the book entitled ‘Bog Queen’, both of which are good companions to Langan’s story. No sign of a skewer yet, but then I looked at this book’s cover…

  3. That cover picture for the Heaney book seems, in hindsight, to prefigure the next story that I have just read, the one entitled…
    Mr. Gaunt
    I would have done no less to any son who scrawled in my first edition of Henry James’ ‘Wings of the Dove’, especially if his name was Henry, too. Or I would have got his uncle, my brother, to do it instead, with my being dead first. ‘The Golden Bowl’ is one of my favourite novels ever, even though I keep trying to negotiate its sentences that still stretch into an unreachable distance, like a lifetime of wanting to enter a forbidden room but its door never seems to get any nearer. This Langan story, meanwhile, is a compelling page-turner, its sentences being as limpidly crystalline as Henry James’ sentences are densely textured. It is also a very frightening story, and off-the-wall, another chase scene – as in the previous story – one that makes me hurry on toward what I expect to be the inevitable ending, inevitable but unpredictable. Two sets of father and son, with chilling implications in each relationship, demonstrating the ‘linked opposites’ of RL Stevenson who I think is also mentioned in this story. I don’t feel like sleeping tonight for fear Mr. Gaunt appearing in my dreams. Seriously. “…digging the sharp ends of its fingers and thumbs…” The Turn of the Skewer in the Sarcophagus. The original meaning of that word. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights inside a Golden Bowl. There is a compressed skull at the bottom of ‘The Ambassadors’ painting by Holbein. I loved this story. Only great stories make me thus extrapolate. Each reader brainstorming his or her own bespoke meaning.

  4. Tutorial
    “His features, fine as they were, were no more than scrimshaw tracing the surface of a great fang…”
    I think this whole book so far must have been simply designed for someone to gestalt real-time review it as it seems to radiate many of the considerations of skewer, skull etc that I have tried to bring out in discussing the previous stories and now tracing, like that scrimshaw, a nightmarish Pilgrim’s Progress of pursuit and being pursued — here another chasing and being chased page-turner as one establishes one’s style as a fiction writer, testing form and content, nub and decoration, skewer and skewered, now with a budding creative writer named James as protagonist to latch on to with the previous story’s Henry to test the nub and decoration explicitly raised by more effective communication of nebulous humanity through initial non-communication as exemplified by Henry James, and, in contrast, by those who prefer instead to distil this into the skeleton (cf Mr Gaunt himself) rather than the perishable ‘fat’ around the skeleton. Here, the intentional fallacy is shown as ambivalent in terms of the tutors’ own physical bodies representing that dichotomy. For me, the text IS everything, although that does not necessarily mean that the text should be ‘strunk-whitened’ to its nub. Fat text needs to be digested and shrunk by the reader (not necessarily by the writer) and in that metabolic process the levels of meaning can permeate more directly into the reading veins. Text as the only reality. Go for baroque. Even the sky can be carnivorous.
    This story gives all that to me and more. But the miraculous thing is that it is far more readable and linear and limpid and page-turning than some of the considerations I have expressed above might have otherwise portended!

  5. PS: An amazing personal coincidence for me, I feel, after reading the previous story, is that, only yesterday, my story ‘A Man of Bone and Fame’ was published here by ‘The Revelator’ magazine, a text that seems relevant to bones, the exoskeleton, the mountains of fat it inhabits, literary theory etc.!

  6. Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers
    “–when you came right down to it, the fire was a beacon and a goad,…”
    …and this mighty SF story (required reading, I’d say, for all SF fans as well as for those whom I visualise as Langan’s usual parish of horror and literary fans) represents that earlier sense of chasing and of being chased, here the dream-real Delany-Dhalgren-like post-plague holocaust scenario involving a pregnant heroine (pregnancy being related to the container and the contained ignited by the previous stories) along with one of her competing boyfriends whose super-hero straining personality arguably changes in tune with the ‘quantum rupture’ in our world’s ‘psychic geography’ — another ‘monstrous geography’ from the wide carnivorous sky of that chasing-chased holocaust-stirred Pack each one of which reminds me of the creature glimpsed earlier by James in his creative-writing Tutor’s room, the Tutor himself? And indeed this story’s narrative is brilliantly represented by that very story’s dichotomy: the skeleton of the story here in textual ‘bold’ and, between, its ‘fat’ as seemingly endless non-bold tentacularly sub-claused text of a Henry James or a Marcel Proust, but nevertheless slipstreamly, page-turningly compulsive rather than sense-deterrent.
    …and this author’s ‘Technicolor’ episodes, too, (six different colours of the rainbow explicitly named, with purple as indigo being the unnamed episode seven?) as the climax absorbs a whole synaesthesia of that dream-real world – prefigured in the cars littered about the land filled with purple flowers. Flowers that replaced the corpses. Beflowered royally rather than deflowered by gaunt, skeletal Death. As the baby kicks…
    Only experimental fiction can make the great incomprehensible experiment that is humanity really have the potential if not the certainty of transcending its own endless chase after endless chase …. across the bridge of colours towards a Stephen King Dark Tower ‘doorway’ …. Never to be reached, never to reveal Mr Gaunt or the Crimson King?
    Travelling far, travelling further…
    “…all of them pieces to a jigsaw they’d lost the box to–“

    (Delany and King were quoted at the beginning of this inspiringly extrapolative Langan story, but not from their specific books I’ve mentioned above).

    I & II

    “…initially, he’d understood his response to the sculpture as a series of reactions, curiosity and confusion giving way to surprise, which yielded in turn to recognition, familiarity and something approaching ownership;…”
    A middle-aged ex-married man (self-consciously going toward fat and hairiness – and toward a Lucian Freud* subject as he sees it – compared to his perception of his body as a younger man) ‘discovers’ (and he debates the right word for it eventually arriving at ‘discover’) a ‘statue’ near his trash cans in the alley (a statue or sculpture that is Giger-like but has a long tail which ‘skewers’ him with a wound when he tries to move it but this statue is more indeterminate, not so much Alien as something else, and only literature can give you an idea of this indeterminateness, I’d say, because if this were a cinema film you would be in no doubt as to the visual nature of this statue that he takes to his room) and he tries to describe this ‘discovery’ to his other middle-aged friends when they make their regular meet-up in a restaurant with these friends’ kids (one of whom moves his Thomas the Tank Engine you through his food) as later, along with the middle-aged protagonist, we debate the aesthetics of Art for Art’s Sake etc. and what his ex-wife would have thought about all this.
    A very intriguing, involving start to this novella. I do not intend to continue adumbrating its plot but merely adumbrating my reactions to it …. Hopefully.

    By the way, I have not yet read the author’s Story Notes at the end of this book, a fact that is in tune with my lifetime interest in Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy, and, as usual, I shall read them when I have finished this review of the fiction alone.

    *Coincidentally, a few days ago I posted one of my fiction thingies here (this month’s homework for the local writer’s group) which I somehow felt impelled to finish with a reference to Lucian Freud.

  8. III
    “Lessing was interested in differentiating the visual arts from the narrative arts,…”
    …and so I am pleased to have inadvertently pre-empted this turn in the plot’s audit trail with my earlier ‘cinema’ comment above – and now fourways via (i) his paternal access to his children at the cinema, with superhero (cf the previous story) and Star Wars references, and (ii) his job at the video shop and (iii) his own attempts at sculpture and (iv) his teaching students Art Theory (here his latest seminar he directs is Lessing’s LAOCOÖN) – all come together tellingly in his next proprietorial interface with the statue ‘Discovery’ when back alone in his room…

  9. IV
    His obsessional attempts at creating the Discovery’s Face (to the detriment of preparing for the Lessing lesson) is almost a rush, a chase again, like that in the Close Encounters of a Third Kind character who builds that chopped-off mountain in his living-room. Compulsive, too, for me the reader. Art object, too, as an original or a borrowing from some Jungian singularity?
    Intrigued by Lena – pinned and pierced like Frigga? – who, curious as to his sculpturing, mentions to him another Singularity, the point when computers optimise their superiority to the mankind that first invented them?

  10. V
    “The older you get, though, the more you find that doors are closing to you–have closed, were shut a long time ago.”
    The Lessing Lesson does not lessen but increase the parallel with his own life and his sons, and this book’s container and contained (now the Trojan Horse), its skewering and being skewered (here the Alien bursting from John Hurt’s chest) and the earlier wound hurting itself from the Discovery of the Statue’s tail, like those snakes…a wound that is now festering?
    Visual versus narrative.
    A quantum eruption or a gestalt synaesthesic episode from many episodes or real-time leitmotifs…?

  11. VI
    In spite of the author’s longueurs (or because of them, as a Tristram Shandy type delay by digression to delay his own birth!) telling us of the protagonist’s missed chances (the author’s missed chances?) in his artistic and family life, we are treated to the most amazing description of picking the scab off his wound, relaying all the resultant ‘hurt’ into resonance with the foregoing lexophony of leitmotifs.

  12. VII – X
    “…times like this, he knew he was plugged into forces vaster than himself as certainly as he could see the Discovery crouched in front of him.”
    In many ways, these last few relatively short sections represent, for me, a coda to that lexophony of leitmotifs. Not a calm moment of realisation but a process where the ‘objective correlative’ of the Face he had made for the Discovery becomes truly that singularity of the closest encounter of all. In all senses of close.
    If I am more precise, I would spoil your real-time reading of this man’s perfect story of the torn-out heart that any of those earlier creative writing tutors could not possibly critique. Except it’s not exactly a torn-out heart (although that does occur in a very poignant if not physical way) but it is more a torn-back face, those snakes slithering from the Trojan Horse to fit it up…to hide the tears.
    Despite some ingredients of a ‘juvenile avocation’ of which this story earlier speaks, I ended with tears in my own eyes at something far more literary as a gestalt than what some of its more ‘untutored’ ingredients may be deemed separately. That goes for this story as a whole and the book as a whole of which the story is an intrinsic part.

    That picture above on the cover of the Heaney book is Bosch’s The Christ Child With His Walking-Frame. Or with his Discovery?


  13. I have now read for the first time the author’s story notes and the introduction by Elizabeth Hand, and much new food for thought they have given me.
    I am particularly interested in the author’s passing reference to THE DARK TOWER series by Stephen King. When I mentioned it myself in my review, this was a wild card reference at the time that I thought was relevant but not in any way likely to be recognised by the author!
    My detailed real-time review of the whole Dark Tower series by King was carried out over three years ago and started here.

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