Friday, April 19, 2013

The Cleft and Other Odd Tales by Gahan Wilson (1998): His Dark Whimsy

The blogging network can be a dandy place. A rewarding place, even, as it proved to be for me this past October, though the treasures of my “discovery,” as it were, would only fully reveal themselves to me ending with just this past week. It was not really my discovery, though, but Bill Ryan’s, the scribe behind The Kind of Face You Hate whose work I imagine you all are reading. If not, please fix that. It’s bothering me.

That discovery was the book under review today. It pains me more than a little to say that up until that day I read Bill’s blog (part of his essential annual month-long marathon in which he reviews all manner of horror fiction) I had never really known all that much about Gahan Wilson. I’d heard the name before; his story “The Sea was as Wet as Wet Could Be” had been mentioned in different lists of Great Horror Tales I had seen in the past, and I’m fairly positive I saw at least one of his drawings before. But I never knew that he was also a prolific author, penning enough short stories during his career to comprise the collection that Bill was talking about that day. After reading what he had to say, I knew at that moment that Wilson was somebody I had to become acquainted with. Like, immediately. It was a beautiful thing, one of those moments where you hear about some artistic work and think “Gee wilikers, that sounds… exactly like me.” A narcissistic approach, perhaps, but art is meant to appeal to one subjectively, right?

So, eventually, I purchased this little tome from Amazon and entered its circus tent of grim horrors with much eagerness. Not all the stories within are strictly horror, but they are most definitely strange. But they are not strange in an alienating, surrealistic manner though, the likes of which you’d see in a David Lynch film or this off-putting stop motion short. They’re weird in the same way Wilson’s illustrations are; bizarre, but with a strong current of the familiar running underneath it all. That is to say, they’re not strange in an obtrusive way, but almost kind of comforting, written in a style and manner that you can immediately tell the author does because he has fun doing it. Wilson isn’t writing from some inner anguish or out of apathy towards human existence. He does it because he delights in it. It tickles his morbid little bones.

This amusement with the subject matter, no matter how grotesque it gets, is infectious to the reader. I had a ball reading each story, relishing in the eccentricity and gruesomeness and wicked humor of it all. As Bill alludes to in his review, it’s fairly clear that Wilson, on the whole, was never writing with a target audience or a real “point” in mind. These stories were written because Wilson wanted to write them, and they’re also stories that Wilson himself would very likely enjoy reading. I’m compelled to write a cliché along the lines of this type of thing being “a breath of fresh air,” but that’s exactly what it was. Perhaps we can go with something more befitting of Wilson, like: “It was as relieving as a beheading,” or, “It was an invigorating acid bath.” You get the idea.

As to the stories themselves, there’s plenty here for the horror fan to enjoy. All the tales have a somewhat classicist feel to them, which I greatly enjoyed, but they’re accessible to anyone who has an appetite for the ghoulish. Reading through the collection, I couldn’t help but pick up on two “strains” of stories that Wilson dabbled in, meaning that there were similar thematic elements that recurred several times throughout the book. I don’t mean to pigeonhole his work, as it’s some of the most unique in both concept and delivery that it’s been my pleasure to witness, just to merely observe the similarities as I saw them.

For starters there are the “Snob Stories,” as I unimaginatively call them, wherein people belonging to society’s tasty upper crust face some sort of horrible thing, said horrible thing generally intruding on the comfortable lifestyle of the Snobs in a manner that they simply will not temper. The language in these stories is particularly fun, as Wilson really digs his heels into the utter douchebaggery of his characters, what with their endless riches and general disdain for anyone whose tongues are disgustingly absent of silver spoons.

The murderer in “Sea Gulls” discovers that the marching the titular birds on the beach perform is the least of his troubles when pieces of his wife’s waterlogged corpse keep inexplicably showing up at his posh hotel room. Naughty siblings “Hansel and Grettel” find out that some parties are best left uncrashed when they go to the strange mountainside castle in their mission to ruin the fun of their stuffy contemporaries. The embezzling protagonist of “The Casino Mirago” almost comes to a bad end when he is brought to the mystery-shrouded club of the title, a place where more than money is put on the line. The tale “Best Friends” probably has one of my favorite lines from the collection, as our ice-cold narrator refers to “that shitty, third world glare” her cab driver had the gall to give her before discussing the details of an associate’s killer cat malady.

But perhaps most delicious of all is the one story in the book that has no title at all, which Bill referred to as “The Spot” in his review. In it a particularly fastidious old coot discovers a blobby spot on his pristine tablecloth, but ordering his butler to cleanse it becomes a problem when the spot keeps moving to a different part of the house. It can vanish within a mere blink of an eye. And it’s growing larger and larger… A really insidious and engrossing read that is both a hark back to horror tropes of the past and a new innovation in of itself, as Wilson actually renders illustrations of the blob within the text itself as the little black spot assumes a more alien and giant shape as the tale progresses. It practically eats the pages near the end. If you didn’t smile or giggle once during that description, then clearly you’re already dead.

Then there are the “Kid Stories” which are about as sweet and stomach-churning as slightly aged Halloween candy. It gives me great pleasure to say that in a lot of these tales Wilson goes into prime “horror mode” and that refreshing quality I mentioned is in full effect when Wilson shows that he isn’t going to wuss out at the climax of these tales. This would have been fully expected had I been acquainted with Wilson’s comic strip “Nuts,” a biting inversion of Charles Schultz’s moral universe where kids see the truly ugly, scary side of the world. Honestly, typing this stuff out just makes my heart grow all big thinking about Gahan Wilson.

Anyway, the “Kid Stories” have a touch of Bradbury about them, a nostalgic remembrance of the past that is marred in wonderful ways by the introduction of the horrendous. This works as a nice flip-side to the “Snob Stories;” those yarns work in an E.C. Comics fashion, knocking hubristic or greedy people down a few pegs with the help of the supernatural and the super weird. Couldn’t you just see Jack Davis drawing the scene from “Traps” where the exterminator sees the old biddy’s stockinged feet being carried around a corner by the fleet of sentient rats? The “Kid Stories,” though, bump up the wide-eyed wonder of childhood against all manner of monsters and ghouls in a delightfully unflinching style.

“Mister Ice Cold” is probably the prime example of this, a real chilly anecdote that evokes a sense of summertime bliss before blowing in a gusty shiver of dread when a particularly nasty parcel is spotted freezing in the ice cream man’s cooler. “A Gift of the Gods” is equally brutal, showing what happens when a curious boy dons a monstrous suit of fur and the gory finale that comes about when someone takes it from him. “The Marble Boy” is perhaps the “bravest” of them all, as it shows our young hero slowly and assuredly being devoured by the corpse that he stole a finger from in the graveyard. I mean, yikes!

But I think I like “Campfire Story” even more. Short and sweet, it has the same inevitable feeling of doom that constricts around the other stories, but its final lines deliver a real slap that I think even rivals that of “Mister Ice Cold.” I won’t spoil it here, but I love how it has really nothing to do with the greater narrative, yet it’s added anyway as essentially a more indirect, sophisticated way of saying “Fuck you. This is the world.”

Not all of the contents fit snugly into these meager classifications I’ve constructed. There’s a tongue in cheek lunacy that flows through each piece at varying hums and roars. Hobos are emptied of innards and relieved of appendages in “Leavings.” A scientist finds his life literally slowing down after an experiment in “The Manuscript of Dr. Arness.” Dwarves, cadavers, and robots all manage to take prominence in the whacky “End Game.” Even his zombie-infested tale “Come One, Come All” manages to entertain as Professor Marvello weaves boisterous, enticing pitches for his sideshow wonders to the shuffling, rotting masses of a dead Earth.

“The Sea was as Wet as Wet Could Be” is perhaps the only story that seemed completely bereft of any sense of merriment. It takes the famous Carroll poem of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” and spins it into something genuinely bloodcurdling. The ridiculousness of the situation almost makes it more nightmarish, the idea of this grinning fat man who looks so uncomfortably like a walrus leading a group of drunk partiers down the beach for… reasons.

If I had the time, I could have completed Wilson’s collection in one sitting, because Lord knows I had the will to. Even with the best writers story collections can wear one out, the number of remaining stories starting to resemble an endurance test rather than a promise of future delights. Not so with The Cleft and Other Odd Tales. The stories and their accompanying illustrations offered here are filled with a dark whimsy that manages to hit the mark every single time. If none of this has given you a sufficient taste, check out this short animated feature Wilson created in 1992 to get a sense of where this wonderful man’s head is at.

Watch the short. Then go out and get that book.

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