Are you listening closely

I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.

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Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children

Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.

In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.

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Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928)..
Listen online: Pseudopod #331. (Or read online here.)

Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.

Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,

“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”

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Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329

This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapesWhen the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.

* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.

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  1. Aaron Carine’s avatar

    I read three of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories; they were all gruesome, and one was so over the top I thought he must have been on amphetamines when he wrote it.
    Lovecraft nicknamed Smith Klarkash-Ton. Not very significant, but I find it amusing.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    I thought he must have been on amphetamines when he wrote it
    Oho?! Which one is this? I must know, and see for myself!

    Klarkash-Ton
    I never thought I would find myself thinking of Lovecraft as “adorable,” but here I am …

    Reply

    1. Dan’s avatar

      Even more adorable is a reference in RAW’s Illuminatus Trilogy to two Atlantean high priests named Klarkash-Ton and Lhuv-Kerapht.

      Reply

    2. Aaron Carine’s avatar

      It was “The Dark Eidolon”.

      Reply

    3. Dan’s avatar

      I appreciate your comments about Smith’s “Ninth Skeleton” regarding motherhood and femininity from the male perspective. I just started reading his stories and I was having trouble making heads or tails of this one. I thought maybe the protagonist was having some kind of prophetic vision about his fiancée (or their baby) dying in childbirth, the nine skeletons representing the nine month gestation period, but your interpretation seems just as plausible.

      Reply

      1. Emera’s avatar

        Hi Dan – thanks for the visit! This is great – I completely missed the 9-months symbolism, and there can’t help but be a layer of fear of death in childbirth in there, too. The women-as-death-in-life thing makes me wonder whether Smith was reading a lot of Decadents at the time – I remember Baudelaire has a strident horror of female fecundity.

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        1. Dan’s avatar

          Several of his other stories (well, more like prose poems) provide similarly interesting gynocentric snapshots such as “The Flirt”, “The Perfect Woman” and “Something New”. In one of his letters (I forget to whom) he talked about one of his relationships in a less than positive light to say the least, so that may have colored his attitude. I haven’t delved too deeply yet into what literary critics have had to say about him as an author and as a person so I’m hesitant to speculate too much at this point regarding his motivations and influences. From what I’ve read, though, he was definitely up on his Baudelaire.

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          1. Dan’s avatar

            In regard to the very last point I just discovered from a biography on Baen.com that Smith was in fact greatly influenced by Baudelaire and that he wrote numerous prose translations of his verse, so there you go.

            http://www.baen.com/Chapters/9781597803601/9781597803601___3.htm

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            1. Emera’s avatar

              Well, howsabout that. Great find (that biography is a wonderful read all on its own), and thank you for the pointers to the other Smith stories dwelling on women. I’m sure reading a lot of Baudelaire did wonders for his view of his less-fortunate relationships.

              I would love to read more sometime about how the Decadents fed into the early Weird Tales crowd – their influence is still definite among current weird writers, but I know less about what the ‘original’ writers were reading and thinking.

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