Monday, October 24, 2011

AN APPRECIATION OF T.E.D. KLEIN’S The Events at Poroth Farm

We begin our coverage with this essay by Maria Dahvana Headley, whose novel Queen of Kings has one of the smartest takes on vampires I've read. It would make an excellent All Hallow's Read gift.

Scariness is subjective. The maddening thing about it, though, is that one always believes secretly that what is scary should not remotely be up for debate, that whatever has terrified you should also terrify any other reasonable person. Alas, that’s not always true. 

Over the years of my obsession with T.E.D. Klein’s seminal 1972 novella, The Events at Poroth Farm, I’ve tried to recount the narrative of this particular, peculiar monster story to a variety of people, only to have them squint at me in bewilderment. It only added to my aggravation that the story was at this point quite obscure, and that I no longer had a copy. I’d end up muttering the novella’s culminating and awful line, and having my listener reply, “Hmm. Yeah, that sounds really freaky, alright.” They’d then tell me other things that this story sounded like, dismissing it as something in a long line of Stories Like That. 

It is and it isn’t. It is aware of its history, and references it.  Then it goes wider.

In 1993, I was a 15-year-old theater geek living in a mostly unpopulated section of Southwest Idaho, a region known both for its isolation and its survivalist bent. Like most teenagers, I felt surrounded by aliens in my hometown. Unlike most teenagers, I was actually justified in feeling this way. Other people joined 4-H or Rodeo Club. I’d spent highschool making my way through the library-scavenged ABC’s of Artaud, Beckett and Camus, and writing plays which started with everyone wearing Kabuki makeup and ended with everyone screaming miserably into the dark.  My childhood home, speaking of the dark, was deep in the country, outside of any town. My house was located down a long dirt road, surrounded by thorned trees, and at night we were barricaded by the howls of dogs (my father, complicated, not sane, had a chained hoard of sled dogs that varied in number from 45 to roughly 100), yowls of cats, and the chirping and shrieking of millions of insects. We had no neighbors.

My own setting was already horror story territory. In my mind, however, it was boring story territory. It had never occurred to me to be afraid of the natural world, to be scared of the things hiding in the dark. I thought I knew from dark. 

I found the story that changed all that on a Salvation Army bookshelf, (this particular rural Idaho Salvation Army was blatantly a portal to some other, better universe – on its shelves, I also discovered 35-cent copies of Jonathan Carroll’s equally mindblowing novels The Land of Laughs; Bones of the Moon; and Sleeping in Flame, thumbprinted, I shit you not, with Bag Balm and bound together with a piece of baling twine) inside a copy of 1977’s First World fantasy awards, ed. Gahan Wilson. The book, crappy, water-warped, silverfished and missing its dustjacket, fell off a shelf and into my hand, and I swear to you, the thing was alive. It bit me. I changed into something else. This is, after all, a story about possession, and also about obsession. In the grip of exposure to Klein’s work, I realized that everything I thought was dull had the potential to be terrifying. 

Shortly after my initial encounter, I lost the book, and then, of course, because this is how it always goes in stories like this, I forgot the title, the author, all relevant tracking information. For fifteen years, I quested in vain, piteously recounting the plot, attempting to find someone who knew what I was talking about when I discussed Mennonites, incredibly upsetting white moths, and feline savagery. 

A couple of years ago, I finally re-located The Events at Poroth Farm in an anthology, (the one I’ve got is American Supernatural Tales, Penguin Classics, edited by S.T. Joshi, but it has mortifying cover art of a black cat which seems to be yodeling. If you can, for All Hallow's Read purposes, I’d go for the far more glam Library of America two volume American Fantastic Tales edited by the encyclopedically magnificent Peter Straub – and obviously also stuffed brimful of other amazing stories) and read it again.*

After re-reading, fine, fine, scary is subjective, I concluded that the story I discuss here haunted me because I am me, and because I grew up in a place very like the one the story is set in. But. You live in the same world I do. At some point in your life, you too have been the only light in the darkness, and you have, perhaps, not even known it. At some point in your life, something has watched you. At some point in your life, you’ve been surrounded. 

The Events at Poroth Farm does not begin with horror. In truth, it’s a fantasy-horror hybrid. Klein is certainly categorizable as Weird, which was at the time I first read the novella, a good thing. I was not then a reader of scary stories. My mind has always been altogether too suggestible, to the extent that a viewing of the film version of Ghost Story, based on Peter Straub’s novel, had a few years before caused me to melt down into first entrancement and then vomiting night terror at a slumber party. So. Yeah, the only thing that got me to shell out my 35 pennies for this book was that the cover proclaimed the anthology to be Fantasy. I thought I was safe from the scary.  I wasn’t. It’s been almost twenty years since I first read The Events at Poroth Farm, and I’m still not over it. Certainly, there are reliable terrors: bogeymen, chainsaws. Then there are the things like this, which are horrifying for more complicated reasons. Though they pull at the primordial parts of our hearts that are inherently scared of the dark, stories like this one also horrify with their carefully constructed unease, with the gradual revelation that Something You Thought Was Perfect Really, Really Isn’t.

The novella is largely the journal of Jeremy, a college lecturer in his late 20’s, who is renting a room in a house outside of Gilead, New Jersey in order to do some uninterrupted rural reading for his next semester’s course, a survey of Gothic horror literature. One of the glorious oddities of the novella itself is that it spends nearly as much time analyzing a syllabus’ worth of history of horror (and meta-incorporating references from each book) as it does analyzing the narrator’s descent into a mildewed, moth-plagued, nowhere nightmare. It was T.E.D. Klein who first introduced me to Shirley Jackson (whose work I love much more than Klein seems to), and to Arthur Machen’s The White People. If you desire a speedy survey of What To Read in classic gothic genre, you could do worse than follow Jeremy’s courselist. Never mind that Jeremy is not entirely reliable in his sanity: he casually, and wonderfully uses Barbara Ninde Byfield’s The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical, as a sort of Farmer’s Almanac. ** 

Jeremy rents from a couple, Sarr and Deborah Poroth, who are part of a small Mennonite sect, and whose life is quite simple, farmers with no children, living with their seven beloved cats on a large and remote parcel of land. We start in Eden, and then Eden gets invaded by something

Things in the natural world begin to quiver. Klein’s magic is in the queasy details, the wobbling Wrongness he layers in. 

“While writing for the past hour, I’ve been aware, if half consciously, of the crickets. Their regular chirping can be pretty soothing, like the sound of a well-tuned machine. But just a few seconds ago, they seemed to miss a beat. They’d been singing along steadily, ever since the moon came up, and all of a sudden they just stopped for a beat – and then they began again, only they were out of rhythm for a moment or two, as if a hand had jarred the record or there’d been some kind of momentary break in the natural flow.”

Jeremy reads, and references an essay by Lafcadio Hearn on Gaki, the Japanese notion of insects possessed by the spirits of the evil dead. I quote it here, as it’s gorgeous, and also has bearing on the notion of an invisible awful, waiting just outside the light. “Even the little that we have been able to learn about insects fills us with the wonder that is akin to fear. The lips that are hands and the horns that are eyes, and the tongues that are drills, the multiple devilish mouths that move four ways at once…indeed, all that nightmare ever conceived of faceless horror…can appear but vapid and void by comparison with the stupefying facts of entomology.”

And so, the insects of the Poroth Farm are more than just insects: they sing, and stall, and spy through windows. And so, Jeremy frantically sprays insecticide, trying to protect himself from their invasion, and so, one day, the Poroth’s cat Bwada captures a small, strange rodent in the woods, and brings it up to the house. 

It bites. Shortly, the wrongness that was in the woods comes indoors. 

There’s a reason great monster stories are hard to write, and that is that the mind of every reader is plumped to obesity with a long history of horrible. To create a genuinely terrifying monster at this point is a feat of imagination, doable, but difficult. Klein achieves it. 

This novella is initially Walden (which is mentioned as part of Jeremy’s reading), and then it becomes Walden Weird. Let me not devalue the horror here. The things that ultimately happen? Scary as hell. I will not quote the line of dialogue the story culminates with. I will say that it became my family’s codephrase for unexpected and utter catastrophe. 

Recently, I looked up the town I grew up in on Google Earth. I walked virtually down the mainstreet, and kept walking for seven nothing miles out of town, until I arrived at my childhood driveway. I stood there, invisible, virtual, a ghost in my own history, looking toward where the buildings I grew up in still stand. My father and his dogs and their particular horror story are long dead, but I can still imagine myself, as I was 18 years ago, the only light at four am, my bedroom lamp glowing out across the nowhere, my profile visible in my window as I bent over a very scary story.

Now, of course, I’ve reversed roles: I’m the thing watching from the outside, the electronic insect glowing my way down the driveway. In this novella, Jeremy says of fireflies: “I always feel a little sorry when I kill one by mistake and see it hold that cold glow too long. (That’s how you know they’re dead: the dead ones don’t wink. They just keep their light on till it fades away.)” 

This scary story, and the way I discovered it, did the same thing to me. It sent its cold, unblinking glow out into the world, and that creepy light fell on my brain and lit it up. Now, a writer myself, I’m someone who makes a living off of seeing the questionable things that live in the dark. I can thank T.E.D. Klein for that.


*An agitated note about Minding Out Of One’s Own Published Work. The Events at Poroth Farm exists in several versions, because Klein kept working on the novella after it was published. I empathize with the impulse. I do. Given my own history with the story, I also feel maddened by it. The first version of the story was perfectly pared down. Things happened. Klein suffered (and perhaps is still suffering) writer’s block, and I suspect said block caused him to stack stories on top of his old stories. The version I initially read was the 1977 one, but it had already been revised twice by then. In 1984, Klein published a novel, THE CEREMONIES, based on the novella, and got, it seems, some new ideas. It was revised again in 1990. The version that I’m currently looking at is a 2007 revision (!). I have only my memory as a judge here, but I swear to you, the version which I first read, and which I can no longer locate, was superior. 

** THE GLASS HARMONICA by the way, a “Webster’s of the Weird” is an essay unto itself. It’s criminally underknown. AND. IT. KILLS. Out of print. Hard as fuck to find. Worth the pain. It contains illustrated entries such as:  “FAMILIARS: Familiars like to live in a small box of earth, a dusty pouch, or pocket. Are fed on milk, blood and bread. On Birthdays, they should be given a small crumb of the Host. Are often toads, but almost never frogs. Most often choose the form of cat or bird in preference to smaller creatures such as mice, rats, bugs, lice, which are susceptible to the careless handling of pesticides. Are inheritable.”

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the monstery historical fantasy novel QUEEN OF KINGS.