Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Okay. If awake were the sun, right now I'd be Pluto.
No writing yesterday, but you know that already. I did move a big bookshelf (and everything that was on it) from one side of my office to the other. And I made a rather wonderful chicken stew, with a whole hen, fresh spinach, portobella mushrooms, garlic and sun-dried tomato chicken sausage, green bell pepper, and loads of other stuff. That ought to count for something. Jennifer put up a new "pictures of the week" page on the website (click here), a veritable blast from the past. That was yesterday.
Today, I begin Part Three and start to draw this long, strange story to a close. I do hope everyone will order this little volume, which will be released in 2004 as a hardback by Subterranean Press.
First-person narrative. Do I feel like going there this morning? Maybe it'll jog my brain awake. I'll try to keep it very short, hoping that economy serves my purpose. Consider, if you will, H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which, I will say at the outset is one of my favorite weird/dark fantasy tales ever ever ever. But it has notable difficulties that might have easily been avoided. Perhaps the greatest of these is its use of the first-person narrative (HPL was addicted to it). In this particular story, it's not so much an issue so long as he stays away from dialogue. I can even forgive the lack of explanation as to why and how and for whom the story is being told, because the story itself, and its language, are so engaging. But whenever people start talking, my disbelief suspenders get all wobbly.
Remember, the unnamed Narrator experienced these events on July 15-16, 1927, and the present, when the Narrator is writing the story, is some time after 1931. So, at least four years have passed between the events in question and his recollection of them. But, we're expected to believe that he recalls exactly old Zadok's drunken confessions, in length, detail, and right down to the (unfortunate attempt at a) Massachusetts accent ? "Thar's where it all begun -- that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o' hell. -- sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin' line kin tech. Ol' Cap'n Obed done it -- him that faound aout more'n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands."
I'm supposed to believe that, after four or more years, after the horrific trauma the Narrator endured during his escape from Innsmouth, after his nerves have been shattered by dreams of sunken, "many-columned" Y'ha-nthlei, and the Narrator's discovery that he is descended of the Marsh's and has begun his own amphibious metamorphosis -- after all that, he not only remembers in detail his conversation with the old man, he even recalls where the old man paused while speaking. Sit down and try to recall, in anything approximating that detail, any conversation you had with someone four years ago and see how well you fare. It's easier, by far, for me to accept the reality of the Deep Ones than the perfect recollection of this conversation. Lovecraft could have avoided this pitfall in one of two ways: 1) he could have had the Narrator admit to being unreliable (i.e., "This is what I recall. By necessity, much of it is fiction.") or 2) he could have gone with a more sensible third-person narrative. The story's still wonderful, but it could have been much moreso, if only he'd stayed clear of the damnable convention of first person.
The same problem afflicts most of his tales, including "The Colour Out of Space," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Whisperer in Darkness." It's less problematic in others, such as "The Call of Cthulhu," and is avoided in stories such as "Cool Air" and "The Music of Erich Zann" by pretty much eschewing dialogue entirely. It's not that these aren't good stories. Lovecraft's imagination usually overcomes his poor narrative skills and they are, in fact, great stories. But few authors, especially young authors, possess such imaginations, and many authors, especially very young authors writing weird fiction, seem intent on employing first person, because it is easier and seems more natural. That's laziness, and you must remember all Nine of the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing.
All this is on my mind (again) because "The Dry Salvages" is first person, but I've tried to avoid the inherent problems by making the writing of the manuscript part of the story, so that we understand who and how and why and to whom the story is being told. Also, the Narrator acknowledges that she is unreliable and that much of her tale is only a vague approximation of the actual events. I wouldn't dare do first person any other way, except, perhaps, as an epistolary tale (see Dracula for an excellent example of this, or, for a less excellent example, my own "The Drowned Geologist"). I'm not asking that authors abandon first person entirely, only that they use it thoughtfully, with care, and only when it is appropriate to the specific tale being told. Few first person narrations would meet these criteria.
There. Class dismissed. No charge.