Monday, October 09, 2006

A Return To Strangeness

Yesterday's Boston Globe had an article about Small Beer Press in Northhampton, MA. Small Beer specializes in publishing a brand of literary fiction that isn't scared to introduce elements of genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror. This type of hybrid is being called New Wave Fabulist.

``A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm," says Morrow. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that, he
adds, ``would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall."

Critics have often talked of an element of strangeness or weirdness that that imbues almost all great works of fiction. Many consider Henry James a marvelous psychological and realistic novelist, but then again...Turn of the Screw and any number of short stories will show you his keen awareness of metaphysical possibilities. Toni Morrision's Beloved has a ghost as well.

Of course, talent will always out on these types of endeavours. Strangeness was special forte of H.P. Lovecraft, the inspiration of Stephen King and many other Horror writers. However, now that Lovecraft's fiction has been published by the Library of America, in one of its "for the ages" volumes, critics have been quick to point out its silliness, immaturity and amatuerishness.

The New York Review of Books has an article about Lovecraft this month:

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk...ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work.

On our stages, apart from the occasional failed foray, we have essentially given up on the thriller. Some theatre companies will occasionally trot out Knott's Wait Until Dark, which only serves to highlight how much better film and television can do that genre.

The ghostly and supernatural are still viables, Conor McPherson, (The Weir, St. Nicholas,) has undoubtedly shown us how well it can work. And the psychological-thriller elements of The Pillowman seem incredibly weak compared to the ghostly and macabre stories the author Katurian weaves.

One of August Wilson's triumphant moments was Herald Loomis's vision in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Indeed, anybody who reads Wilson's canon can feel that supernatural vision at the edges of the best of his work.

Maybe it is the Method's hold over actors, that makes them more comfortable with the realistic. Shakespeare had no problems with ghosts and witches.

I am doing Chilling Tales for Salem Theatre Company up in Salem, MA again this year. It is great practice for not only the actor, but the playwright as well. It is you, your story, and audience. That is it. Of course, we are surrounded by the replica of 1797 East Indiaman Cargo Ship, which is big help, but as far as pure theatre, you can't get better practice than this.

As a performer you are sitting in dim light, with just a story tell to a small group of people. Can you rivet their attention? Can you suspend their reality just for at least a brief moment somewhere in the course of the story? Can you bring them to a place where these eerie things are at least somewhat plausible?

It is great fun and a great challenge.

Does drama need to get back to a strangeness?

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