The Importance of Detail

Introduction

One of the ways a horror novel works is it takes people who we can relate with (they are like us or someone we know) and puts them into situations we have lingering fears of (from childhood or from the anxiety of modern life). This is self-evident in the novels of Stephen King, the acknowledged master of modern horror. In books like The Shining, King spends the first half of the book just familiarizing the reader with his characters, their hopes and goals, and, most of all, their fears. Because he is willing to spend so much time before unleashing the horrific elements, these horrors gain intensity–from foreshadowing, from the anxiety of the reader anticipating bad things (it is a Stephen King book, after all), and from the identification of the reader with the characters.

Although Jonathan Carroll is not writing horror novels per se, he uses much the same method. Carroll’s mastery lies in his deft description of the everyday events and people that inhabit the real world. But he also has a wonderful sense of the absurdity of life, the strangeness of what we take for granted. He is able to describe these commonplace activities and make us look at them as if we had never seen them before.

Carroll’s imagination resides one step off the beaten path, which, because of the ideas and pictures it conjures for people, I can call none other than The Twilight Zone. But Carroll is interested in much more than just a simple twist–the reality of his worlds dissolve and crumble like the best of Philip K. Dick (in particular, such novels as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and UBIK). Cause and effect become important aspects of many of Carroll’s stories–do the characters cause their fates, or are their actions an inevitable descent into the maelstrom from which they cannot escape? Is there free will, Carroll asks, or are our lives ruled by something that we cannot see?

Most of Carroll’s narrators are what would be classed as “unreliable,” meaning that because of who the narrator is or what has happened to him or her, the reader is suspicious of any “facts” related by such a character. This device is very dangerous in practice because of the inherent trouble of alieniating the reader. But Carroll avoids this disaster time after time, chiefly because even his unreliable narrators are so much more interesting, so much more realistic than the standard stock that you’re willing to forgive them their eccentricities even if they turn out bonkers.

Most of all, Carroll, like King, has the ability to weave his story around the reader with such subtletly that until you’ve come to that last period, you are unaware of the webs that held you firmly in place. You can call it good plotting, steady buildup and mastery of tension and release, or a talent for setting up and following through–I just call it genius.

SPOILER ALERT: I give away the stories. I try to avoid it where I can, but sometimes it just wasn’t possible. If you have yet to read these stories and novels, and plan to (which you should!), be forewarned.

The Land of Laughs (1980)

Thomas Abbey and Saxoney Gardner take a trip to Galen, Missouri, the home town of their favorite author, the late Marshall France, writer of the wonderful children’s books The Green Dog’s Sorrow, The Pool of Stars and The Land of Laughs. Thomas, a schoolteacher, has taken a year’s sabbatical leave to write a biography of France. Given to believe by France’s former agent that they would receive a cold reception in Galen, Thomas and Saxoney are surprised at the friendliness that they encounter. But that’s not their only surprise. As they delve deeper into France’s life, certain parts seem odd. For example, his interests seem to have strangely influenced not only their own, but those of the townspeople as well, and then Thomas notices the dog at the end of the bed talking in his sleep….

The Land of Laughs is an amazing first novel. Provocative in its imaginary realm, Carroll is able to make you actually believe there was a Marshall France who wrote children’s stories (in fact, I’m sad there wasn’t, or that Carroll hasn’t written the wonderful stories he describes). There is also an inevitability here, as the events pile upon each other and the characters feel like they have no control. But the shocker, intentional or not, is that one character does have control. One character turns out to be the writer of the world, the definer of Reality for the other characters. Whether this character always had that power, even unto the invention of Galen and France, remains a puzzlement.

The Land of Laughs also reveals Carroll’s greatest weakness as a writer: an inability to provide a satisfactory ending. This is one problem that continues to plague his later works. His build-up is flawless, as the characters learn successive elements that piece together an astounding answer. Then Carroll stops his story abruptly, avoiding the realization of the “truth,” and gives you an after-climax, an epilogue hinting at what the main character has done with the “truth.” Some feel the epilogue provides a logical conclusion to the novel, saying that the main character’s recreation of a dead parent adds deeper meaning to what has gone before. They feel the book is that character’s search for a parent he never knew, that it is a message to those who never knew one of their parents. If so, Carroll’s audience is extremely limited.

This isn’t to say that The Land of Laughs is bad. Quite the opposite. It overcomes even its weak ending through Carroll’s skillful delivery and imagination. Perhaps the abrupt ending is designed to avoid giving readers any easy answers. Perhaps Carroll is forcing the reader to direct his pent-up imagination elsewhere — from the author’s imagination to his own. Perhaps. My feeling is that this method is ultimately unsatisfying.

Voice of Our Shadow (1983)

Voice of Our Shadow is many things: to the reader, it’s the name of the book itself; to the characters, it’s the name of a play adapted from the narrator’s short story; but Carroll’s main definition is that the voice of our shadow is our “Jiminy Cricket,” the little angel on our shoulder, our conscience. And our conscience can be a strong voice, speaking to us in such terms as guilt, indecision, and fear. Carroll’s second novel is much darker in tone than The Land of Laughs. What seemed whimsical in his first novel becomes dangerous even from the beginning of this one.

Joe Lennox is plagued by the memory of his older brother, Ross, who died at age 15 on a railroad crossing. But Joe knows the complete story of that day and this knowledge haunts him, manifesting first as a short story called “Wooden Pajamas” which he writes in an attempt to exorcise his demons. The story is good enough to attract the attention of a Broadway director, who turns it into a hit play. This gives Joe enough money to travel comfortably (specifically to Italy), yet gives him only fleeting fame.

Drawn into a conversation between a couple in a movie theater, he is recognized and befriended by the two. Although Joe is attracted to both Paul and India Tate, he soon discovers his attraction to India is as much sexual as intellectual. After a period of bliss in the beginning of a friendship between the three, things start to turn nasty. Paul, after having been away for a weekend, returns and accuses Joe and India of sleeping together. Although they hadn’t, Joe and India discover that each wanted to when talking together about this incident later. The inevitable happens, and Paul, who was always a little strange, loses control.

Like The Land of Laughs, Voice of Our Shadow gives a nod to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. In these novels, the characters are strapped by their emotions to a carnival ride that can only end up in unhappiness. Joe is a tragic figure, and by involving himself in Paul and India’s marriage, he dooms it. Once again, the ending is ambiguous and confused, this time because it is filtered through the perceptions of Joe. The only thing obvious to the reader is that the voice of Joe’s shadow is screaming at him and he, like Paul, has lost all control.

Bones of the Moon (1987)

Bones of the Moon proved to be Jonathan Carroll’s breakthrough novel, since it established him as something other than a one-shot wonder. In America, it was his first novel to be supported by advertising, the first to be brought out as a ‘genre’ novel, rather than being lost in the mainstream, and the first to have a significant hardback print run. Bones of the Moon is more consistent and mature than either The Land of Laughs or Voice of Our Shadow, but maintains the wild imagination that made those two worthwhile.

Cullen and Danny James are not your perfect couple, yet they are perfect for each other–a real relationship revealed by Cullen’s reminiscences in Part I. The description, the exactness of events, the truth revealed in this beginning belie the words “setup.” A set-up implies falsehood, deception or trickery, none of which apply here. Stories such as Cullen and Danny’s are the stuff that The New Yorker should be made of–hell, any fiction magazine. Who cares that nothing otherworldly occurs? Part I made me laugh, sniff, and awakened my interest in life.

However, there is no need to worry that Carroll’s gone John Updike on us–I haven’t even mentioned the reader-grabbing first line: “The Axe Boy lived downstairs.” Part II introduces Cullen’s dream of Pepsi, a little boy who lives in the dreamland of Rondua. These recurring dreams quickly turn nightmarish as they become more vivid until even another person in the “real” world begins to experience the same dreams.

The adventures in Rondua would make a fine fantasy novel on their own, but because Carroll inserts them into his realistic overlay they become even stranger. Jonathan Carroll has a knack for picking imaginative names and describing unreality much like that more famous Carroll, Lewis. Jack Chili, the antagonist in the dream world, is the epitome of chaotic evil, containing the worst aspects of creatures like the Grinch, Sauron, and the Heat Miser.

Rondua illuminates as well as exasperates, giving us glimpses not only of Cullen’s subconscious (her guilt over the abortion and her fears for her present pregnancy), but also events in the “real” world without the filter of Cullen’s narration. Carroll again has camped on the beach between the worlds and spends the novel wading in and out of the tide-pools. The ending is a shocker, a turn-your- knuckles-white this-can’t-be-happening page-turner. In this book, Carroll finally got everything right. But (and there’s always a but) Carroll revised the ending for all later editions, allowing for more novels using these characters. Although better than the endings to his previous books, the revised ending doesn’t come close to the shock or pathos of the original, only available in the 1,500 copies of the British first edition.

“Friend’s Best Man” (1987)

This story was my introduction to Carroll. Although I enjoyed it enough to get Bones of the Moon, I wasn’t convinced it could beat sliced bread. On rereading it recently, I acquired a newfound appreciation for its structure, clarity, and, most of all, its ending.

While saving Friend, his dog, from being hit by a train, Egan Moore loses a leg. In the hospital he meets Jasenka “Jazz” Ciric, who is terminally ill. Jazz can talk to Friend, or at least thinks she can, and translates Friend’s stories and predictions for Egan.

In this rare case of a reliable narrator, Carroll’s abilities in character development are prominent. The relationships between Egan, Jazz, Friend, and Kathleen (Egan’s next door neighbor who falls in love with him over the course of the story) intertwine. While nothing overtly fantastic occurs, the beauty of the story comes from what it suggests to the imagination. Although Egan is a reliable narrator, the story hinges on Jazz. In this case, Carroll puts his narrator in the same awkward position as the reader–causing both to ask, “What is real?” and “Who can you trust?”

Sleeping in Flame (1988)

Although Sleeping in Flame uses some of the same characters as Bones of the Moon, it is a thematic sequel that stands by itself. All of Carroll’s books seem to be variations on the theme of reality versus un- reality, and the Rondua novels are actually only separate from Carroll’s other novels because of their recurring characters.

Like Bones of the Moon, Sleeping in Flame starts out very realistically. We are introduced to our narrator, Walker Easterling, as he tells us of his marriage, divorce, and his subsequent fascination with a young Austrian girl named Maris York. Carroll shows us another wonderful yet marred relationship, different from the ones in his previous books, but just as true to life. Like Cullen, Easterling has strange dreams, although his are about growing up as the child of a Rumplestiltskin-like gnome. Mysterious things keep happening to him, like when old women refer to him as “Redaexnala” for no apparent reason, then deny having done so.

The story is basically a mystery about Walker trying to discover his own past, as this same past is returning to haunt him (shades of Voice of Our Shadow). The strange ways in which these pieces are revealed make up the majority of the novel, stemming from Walker’s role as an actor (he plays the part of Mr. Pencil in director Weber Gregston’s Wonderful), to Maris’ use of computers as design tools, to the old style storytelling of fairy tales. There’s also Venasque, the type of shaman that makes sense in this world, one whose affinity with animals is somewhere between Dr. Doolittle and James Herriott, and who likes nothing better than old movies on cable television.

Here, Carroll is in full command of his style, weaving in and out like a champion boxer, throwing well-timed punches into the reader’s face. There are no slips, trips or falls here, just an intoxicating bout of verbiage from someone with a story to tell and a unique way of telling it.

Sleeping in Flame’s climax serves well as a culmination of what came before. In this ending, Walker faces two elderly German ladies who plan to tell him the story of his father, but Walker has the true power in this story, and he is able to change it to suit his needs. Yet, with power comes great responsibility and even greater possibility for harm. Unfortunately, Carroll ends this novel on an ellipsis, leaving the reader to imagine….

A Child Across the Sky (1989)

This novel focuses on Weber Gregston, who we first met in Bones of the Moon (he was the other person to experience the Rondua dreams with Cullen). Another great opener: “An hour before he shot himself, my best friend Philip Strayhorn called to talk about thumbs.” That opening lets you in on the set-up; instead of a male-female relationship, Carroll looks at the relationship of two male college roommates with similar interests, who have gone slightly separate ways since school. Gregston became a widely respected director of art house films; Strayhorn became “Bloodstone,” the “hero” and writer of the Midnight series of horror films. Though addicted, both have become disenchanted with movies. Gregston has turned to theater while Strayhorn is putting the finishing touches on the fourth (and last) Midnight movie.

Strayhorn commits suicide, sending Gregston a videotape of his last requests. Strangely, the videotape will only play so much before showing white noise–revealing new portions each succeeding time it is played. Strayhorn requests that Gregston finish the last Midnight movie and close Strayhorn’s business in L.A. Interspersed in this narrative are comments from Strayhorn himself, who has entered the larger world (the “afterlife”?) and become a postmodern fiction character–someone who both participates in and comments on the action of the novel. While finishing “Midnight Never Leaves,” Gregston is visited by Pinsleepe, who is either Strayhorn’s unborn daughter or an angel. Pinsleepe explains to him the importance of finishing the movie, something to do with the evil that Strayhorn had released into the world. But there are may types of angels, and what the dead want isn’t always the best for the living….

A Child Across the Sky contains a lot of punch, yet most of the blows are only glancing. For readers familiar with Strayhorn and Gregston from the previous novels, this is an interesting addition and complication to their stories. Readers unfamiliar with them or Carroll’s work in general will find themselves lost and unsure in this new realm of unasked questions and unaddressed possibilities.

“Florian” (1989)

Painters do “studies,” small sketches in practice for what they plan to include in larger works. Writers have a similar practice in that sometimes they will do a short story that they later rewrite on a much larger canvas. But for the painter there is no analogy to the writer’s occasional goal of condensing everything into a brief theme, almost idea alone, that makes some short stories worth much more than the number of words on the page. One of the best practitioners of this idea-laden, dense prose is the Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges, who, in stories such as “The Library of Babylon,” posits incredible ideas as a library that contains an infinite number of books, presenting to the reader the entirety of the idea, and then abandoning it–the ultimate test of the imagination. In “Florian,” Carroll takes what could be considered the theme of his Rondua books (particularly Bones of the Moon), and expresses the same in a brief but poignant story of a father and son.

Carroll’s story begins from inside a structure of recursive boxes, wherein Florian[1] is “the most beautiful child in the world.” Surrounding that box is Author[1]’s story about Florian[1], while his own son, Florian[2], is dying of pneumonia. As we close that box, we discover Author[2] and his story about Author[1] writing a story about Florian[1]. Author[2]’s son, Florian[3], is healthy and normal, neither magical like Florian[1], nor sickly like Florian[2]. Of course, there lies that last box, Jonathan Carroll himself, or Author[3]. By the structure, the reader is left wondering if Carroll has a Florian[4] as his own son. Like Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, the reader discovers that a new world could be as close as the hot dog stand on the corner or the next paragraph in the story.

“Tired Angel” (1989)

This epistolary story (if you can call one letter epistolary), is a prime example of Carroll’s skill with unreliable narrators, as well as his understanding of the fears of modern living. Basically a letter to the reader from a psychopath, “Tired Angel” relates the identification, observation, familiarization, and victimization of a young woman by the unidentified narrator. Detailing every step in this process, the narrator lectures as if giving a course in “How-to-Be-a-Psycho.” Although patently disturbing, it achieves its effect through the gripping tale of a young woman slowly driven mad by the anonymous narrator.

Why is the narrator unreliable? Is it because he doesn’t give correct information to the reader? Although that is a possibility, it is doubtful that he is lying given the accounting of events. But because we realize by his very actions that the narrator is not “normal,” because of his clinical detachment and lack of emotions, he is inherently untrustworthy. By the end of the story, the question of trust (a major aspect of the story, considering the narrator’s “betrayal” of the young woman) is emphasized, forcing us to look askance to friends and neighbors.

This is the true type of horror that goes beyond tales of the supernatural, much like Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show” or the novels of Thomas Harris. There is nothing in the story that could not have happened. Because we know such things do happen, and because we read about them and see them on TV, we know they are real. And reality is always more horrible than fiction.

“The Panic Hand” (1990)

“I’m sorry if you’re unsatisfied.”

That sentence ends one of the last paragraphs of this story, and was like a slap in the face to me.

“The Panic Hand” is the story of an unnamed narrator who meets a young girl and her mother on his weekly visit to his lover in the country. This shy, young girl has a stuttering problem which seems to cloud her entire world. The narrator, first attracted by both females, finds himself opening up more and more to the daughter, finding the mother vain and talkative. But, like other Carroll stories, things aren’t as they seem. The mother is just a projection of the daughter’s dream self, anxious for the attention of men.

Although the story suggest a Lolita-like relationship, it avoids comprehension even on that level. The narrator (and presumably the author) has no idea what this story is about, if it is truly about anything at all. Is this a story about children and their miscomprehension of the acts of adults? Is the narrator instead a child mongeror, anxious for a quick feel of nubile flesh (an idea given weight by the story’s last sentence in which the narrator is excited by the presence of his lover’s daughter meeting him at the station)? Or is his lover a projection of her own daughter?

There are some worthwhile sections of text: the beginning description of the narrator’s ennui; the three paragraphs describing the entrance of the mother and daughter; the way some people can attract waiters. All interesting, yet almost tangential to the story, bits and pieces worthy of being put to print, but wasted in this nonsensical fashion.

The text of the story, the way it’s written, implies that something important is afoot, yet when finished I seemed to have missed the punch line. I re-read it, thinking some minute, telling detail had eluded me in my hurried reading, yet I was still unable to fathom the story. I felt duped, as if someone yelled “Penguin!” and I was the only one not laughing. “The Panic Hand” is the title story of Carroll’s collection available only in German. Maybe it’s a joke that lost something in the translation.

“The Sadness of Detail” (1990)

The title may think it sad, but it is the details that are important, as Carroll shows to great effect in this short story. The narrator is a wife and mother given to visiting the Cafe Bremen, sketching and humming. Her problem is an old man who invades her table with photos of her family–as they will be in the future. Confronted by these pictures–her son handicapped, her marriage in divorce–she stubbornly forces questions on the old man, What does he want? The answer is simple: a drawing. For happiness and the future, a drawing.

But, as in any good episode of The Twilight Zone, it is more than just one drawing, for the one drawing is a test–a pre-employment questionnaire, if you will–and the old man has need of her ability to remember and draw details so that God himself might remember. Although the reader is well caught up in the idea (think of it! God as senile, the hosts of Hell determined to be forgotten as well, so that true chaos may reign… James Blish, move over!), Carroll ends it abruptly, leaving any story beyond her continued drawings for God to the reader’s imagination.

In this case, such incompleteness is understandable. Not only is Carroll limiting himself to a short story, but the very fact that his strengths lie in a realistic setting, on a down-to-earth level, precludes him from branching out into an all-out Good vs. Evil battle to decide the fate of humanity. No, Carroll is quite happy to leave such epic tales to those inclined to mega-volume series. He has told the part that interests him, that little slice of one woman’s recruitment into the everyday battle for the forces of good. Anything more just wouldn’t have been Carroll.

Black Cocktail (1990)

This smallish and flawed novella concerns Michael Billa, whose tales mirror Carroll’s own: funny, interesting, but yet about the mundane. Clinton Deix, a purported school chum of Billa’s, tells the main character, Ingram York, that all of Billa’s stories are lies. Ingram has trouble deciding who to believe: Michael, who’s stories are so fantastic as to be lies, or Deix, who Ingram finds hard to be a schoolmate of Billa, when Billa is in his thirties and Deix is fifteen. Then we ‘learn’ that Billa has the ability to ‘freeze’ people at a certain development/age.

Confusing? Easily, because Carroll is trying to write at a shorter length what he usually spends pages on. Ideas and characters are thrown at the reader willy-nilly, until–BANG! The End. What happens? I can’t tell, but I liked some of the words, even the longer ones. Although not quite as bewildering as “The Panic Hand,” Black Cocktail is a drink best sipped for its style, rather than for any final refreshment.

Outside the Dog Museum (1991)

Another “Venasque” novel, named after the only character that appears in all of them (including Bones of the Moon, Sleeping in Flame, and A Child Across the Sky; John Clute calls this cycle of novels “Answered Prayers” which is an even better descriptor), Outside the Dog Museum centers around another artist type, Henry Radcliffe. Radcliffe is an architect at the height of his powers and popularity, and is being pressured by the Sultan of Saru to design and build for him the museum of the title. The Sultan, in spite of his religon which says that dogs are unmentionable creatures, feels that his life has been guided and saved by them, and that he must build a museum to honor them. Radcliffe refuses until an earthquake hits LA, and he and the Sultan are both saved by Venasque’s dog.

Radcliffe met Venasque after recuperating from a mental breakdown. Coupled with the seeming unreality (or disreality) or the Sultan’s world, Radcliffe’s tenuous grip on this side of the sanity of genius informs the majority of the novel. An interesting subplot is Radcliffe’s rocky relations with his two girlfriends, and their subsequent reactions regarding his infidelity.

Carroll is in fine form with this novel, yet there also seems to be something missing in the final reading. Perhaps I am starting to become accustomed to his themes, or perhaps he is only repeating himself. The localized stories and subplots remain as fresh and intriguing as anything Carroll wrote before, but the novel itself seemed lifeless. And again, the ending is an ellipsis, and not a fulmination of what went before.

After Silence (1992)

While every Jonathan Carroll book is a pure delight for the senses– mystical and suspenseful, yet realistic and touching–there is one thing that I (and others) have asked for from past books are endings that put just that right piece de resistance on an otherwise splendid story. Not that I’ve ever been that disappointed by a Carroll ending; I just expect more after the wonders that went before. With After Silence, Carroll’s finally done it–this book has an ending that I can point at and say, “This is an ending,” and quite an ending it is.

Like most of his other novels, After Silence is a love story. This time it’s Max Fischer, semi-famous ‘Paper Clip’ author-cartoonist, who meets Lily Aaron and her son Lincoln at a musuem showing. Max is the narrator, and proceeds to examine both his life, and the effect that Lily and her son have upon it. And everything seems idyllic…until. Like past novels, things aren’t as they seem in After Silence, and Max discovers that Lily’s protection of her son may have some other motivation beyond simple motherly love.

This is Carroll’s best novel since Bones of the Moon. What After Silence lacks is that touch of total lunacy of Cullen’s dreams; what makes up for this deficiency is Carroll’s most linear story to date. The details are still there–Lincoln’s disastrous birthday party, the weird and strange denizens of “Crowds and Power” (a Los Angeles restaurant at which Lily works), the nervousness of love and guilt, the Glock taped to the wall–but this time they seem more integrated with the story. Rather than those wondrous side-glimpses like “Mr. Fiddlehead” and “The Art of Falling Down” which were complete short stories wedged into the novels in which they appeared, everything in After Silence works towards the ending.

The ending is tricky, although I would hesitate to call it a trick ending. As the story winds down in the last pages, the pressure on the characters and the pace of the novel increases, so it is important to catch every nuance in the last 20 pages to fully appreciate what actually happens in the ending. And, although I say the ending is satisfying, I won’t promise that you will like it.

Conclusion

Although he uses the same “formula” for success as Stephen King, Jonathan Carroll’s work has the possibility for being much more rewarding. Carroll’s characters may not be as downhome or humorous as some of King’s, but their experiences are more universal. Carroll’s description is more succinct, pertinent and poignant than any of King’s, especially his recent novels. And Carroll doesn’t have to fulfill the expectation of a horror novelist, and thus has free reign to write that which King may be reluctant to (this even though King is the bestselling author of our time–great fame can bring about great limitations).

By mixing the best of mainstream and genre literature, Carroll has unearthed a rich vein of material for years to come, by giving us the most realistic people in the most unreal situations. He has the potential to attract a wide range of readers if he can master the climax–not necessarily “finishing” stories in a blaze of pyrotechnics, but rather achieving reader satisfaction. Although popular in England (and possibly the rest of Europe), Carroll has yet to truly catch on in America.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, Digory discovers a forest of trees and small pools–each pool a new world, and the forest a way-station between them. In Carroll’s writing, this station is the world, the setting of the entire story rather than just a means of getting there from here. Like the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, his characters are frozen in the moment between two worlds, and only observation can free them–to life, or death.

[Originally published in NOVA Express v3 n2, Summer 1990]

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