I read about Jonathan Carroll before I read him. His debut novel The Land of Laughs (1980) cropped up as number 82 in the classic 1988 Newman and Jones compendium Horror: The Hundred Best Books and the idea of it grabbed me so hard I went out and snagged myself a copy (fortunately Gollancz had recently reissued it in their Fantasy Masterworks series) more or less immediately. It was everything I hoped it would be and more: a compelling, mysterious story told by an articulate and obsessive-minded narrator in language so stylish and smooth it went down like chocolate sauce—a chocolate sauce so well made and so intense, so bitter and cocoa-rich that one taste of it would be enough to transform your idea of everything chocolate sauce might be about. I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to discover Jonathan Carroll, and why the hell weren't more people reading him?
I was eager for more but in those days before the internet it was difficult to track down a writer's out-of-print backlist, and apart from The Land of Laughs, none of Carroll's novels seemed to be available. Fortunately it wasn't too long before I came across a rather battered paperback copy of From the Teeth of Angels (1993) in a second-hand bookshop. I grabbed it and dived straight in, hoping to be swept away on a tide of Land of Laughs-style magic. From the Teeth of Angels (the sixth book in the loosely connected novel sequence known as the Answered Prayers Sextet) was Carroll all right, and could only be Carroll. The writing was as fine, as committed, as any I had encountered in The Land of Laughs, and yes, here again were intelligent and interesting characters drawn together by bizarre chains of inexplicable events and strange coincidence. Why then did I feel disappointed, and why did the book take me a fortnight to get through instead of two days? Why did I feel that the novel promised so much more than it actually delivered? How could the same writer, in two novels written equally well and dealing with similar concerns, provoke two such diverse reactions in the same reader?
It's a question that’s been provoking me ever since. The Woman Who Married a Cloud is the first collection of Carroll's shorter fiction to be published since The Panic Hand in 1996. It contains all the stories from that collection, plus all those written since and previously uncollected. At almost 600 pages in length, it's a big book. It is also the perfect one-volume exemplar of the whole great Carroll conundrum.
Carroll's novels abut one another like neighboring houses. Each is a separate and distinct place and can be inhabited without reference to or even knowledge of the others, and yet a quick walk across the street will reveal to the explorer of Carroll-world that this is precisely what we have here: not just a single novel but a whole tapestried world. Rather like those characters in Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence who skip out of their allocated universe and turn up in other, seemingly unrelated King stories and novels, there are characters in Carroll that make a brief appearance on the stage in one book only to become the central figure three novels down the line, repeating situations that are played out time and again, mirroring each other, picking away insistently at the same knotty problem without ever resolving it, for how can life and death ever be resolved?
And Carroll's short stories are an inextricable part of this interwoven fabric. There aren't a huge number of them, fewer than forty, which isn't many, for a thirty-year career anyway, and when you consider that some of them are integrated parts of certain novels ("Mr Fiddlehead" forms one chapter of A Child Across the Sky (1989), for example) it seems even fewer. For the frequent visitor to Carroll-world, the stories in The Woman Who Married a Cloud are a chance to explore the further exploits of characters already familiar to them from the novels (Vincent Ettrich from White Apples (2002) continues his amatory excursions in "The Great Walt of China" and "The Language of Heaven"; Ingram York and Michael Billa of Sleeping in Flame (1988) recall their first meeting in "Black Cocktail"; Harry Radcliffe from Outside the Dog Museum (1991) turns up again in "The Life of My Crime," and that's not all) as well as a series of rare snapshots of this place—so seductive, so frustrating—that they may not have seen before.
Carroll's writing is best described by experiencing it. Critics and readers have been more or less unanimous in classifying him as "unclassifiable"—indeed, trying to decide whether Carroll could most accurately be described as a Magical Realist, a fantasy writer, a denizen of the slipstream or a purveyor of horror stories has expended many pages and hours of critical discourse. I'm happy simply to agree that Jonathan Carroll really is unclassifiable. This quality of elusiveness tends to be assigned to more writers than it’s genuinely true of, but in Carroll's case it is for real. Carroll's use of the fantastic is bolder, more out there than in most work broadly categorized as slipstream. Similarly, Carroll seems to enjoy fantasy too much to be content to marginalize it to the region of pure metaphor that is the domain of many "pure" Magical Realists. And yet—the comfortably quotidian settings of all Carroll's stories suggest a delight in the interplay between the real and the supposed that is missing from much of the fantasy genre, which tends towards the immersive experience. Carroll specializes in dislocation, not immersion, and comparing him with other writers tends to lead you into a cul-de-sac. As a genuine original, Carroll demands to be considered on his own terms.
Carroll is a specialist in the art of things going wrong. A typical Carroll story (or novel) will introduce us to characters who are happy with their lives, who in many cases even seem to be leading charmed lives—they live in comfortable houses with their childhood sweethearts doing interesting jobs, they give birth to exceptional children. Then something happens, something bad, or more likely something strange. The strange thing not only overturns the protagonists' happy personal equilibrium, but seems to suggest that the the world they have been living in up till now has been ripped from its moorings, that it is merely the backdrop for a different theater of action and cut from another cloth entirely. This scenario is laid out for us clearly in "The Heidelberg Cylinder," a novella-length work first published in 2000. As the story opens, Bill and Rae, a pleasant, typically Carrollian middle-class American couple, are waiting for their new refrigerator to be delivered. Once it's been installed they chat amicably with the delivery men, who seem perplexed about a recent city-wide spate of what appears to be random furniture-dumping:
Right then Chapter Two began but none of us knew it yet. Before anyone had the chance to say more, the doorbell rang. I looked at Rae to see if she was expecting someone. She shook her head. Who now?
I got up to answer it. A second after opening the door I wished I hadn't. Standing on my porch were two guys looking like wet seals. One glimpse and you wanted to say, "No thanks to whatever you've got," slam the door in their faces and run for cover.
Naturally they were smiling—but you know the kind, totally fake. No one smiles like that without putting too much face in it. Or they got a gun stuck in their back. (p. 424)
Within a matter of a few pages, the refrigerator-buying is forgotten and the whole company are on the trail of a mysterious being called Beeflow, so repulsive, apparently, that one glimpse of him will drive you mad. But Beeflow needs help, he needs disciples—the Devil is evicting his surplus tenants from Hell and resettling them on Earth. Hence the furniture-dumping. Apparently not so random after all, and in an inimitably Carrollian way, no one's lives will ever be the same again.
Indeed, "The Heidelberg Cylinder" is a quintessentially Carrollian story not just in the matter of the shape of its narrative, but in its main obsession: the possibility of God and the true nature of a life after death. Carroll's stories differ from others of a similar preoccupation in that their protagonists rarely set out looking for meaning. Rather they have meaning thrust upon them. As well as "The Heidelberg Cylinder," "Uh-Oh City," "Black Cocktail," "Friend's Best Man," "The Sadness of Detail," "Home on the Rain," and "Alone Alarm" all deal with issues of mortality and the afterlife directly; the other stories in the volume, if they do not confront it head on, drive anxiously around in the near vicinity. There is a gleeful timbre to these stories, a sense of anarchic devilment in which the vagaries and vicissitudes of life are set to dance in the bright motley of a court harlequin. The more things go wrong in the lives of these characters, the more the stories fascinate. The discomfort lies in realizing that it's possible, in Carroll-world, to feel an acute sense of dismay at what is happening and still experience a greedy anticipation for what still worse thing might be about to happen next. Never more so than in "Mr Fiddlehead" where a previously benign imaginary friend is persuaded to evil by his impatience at being forgotten, or in "East of Furious," in which the soul of a female alchemist exercises emergency squatter's rights over the body of a friend and neighbor. In "The Sadness of Detail," an artist is shown a horrific photograph of her own future, and is thereby coerced into making a deal with a senile God—or is it really the devil?
"Futures can change. They're like the lines on our hands. Fate is a negotiable thing. I'm here to negotiate."
"What do I have that you want?"
"Your talent. Remember the drawing you did the other night of the child standing under the tree? I want it. Bring me that picture and your son'll be saved." (p. 127)
Deals with the devil are hardly new in fiction, nor is man's search for meaning in a meaningless universe, and the freshness of Carroll's art is to be found in his approach rather than his subject matter. Carroll's instinct for story is flawless, and at the sentence level his writing is so assured it becomes all but invisible—something many writers strive for but few achieve. Carroll loves to play games with words, and his imagery is never less than arresting, but gorgeously ludic though his mannerisms are, they never present a barrier between the reader and the story. Though complex in design, Carroll's thoughts are transmitted effortlessly by the material he has so expertly crafted. These are no mean achievements, and they are just some of the reasons why I find myself returning to read Carroll again and again—to frown and wonder and obsess over him—even though the stories themselves often get my goat.
The problem with Carroll is his fondness for homily. I have to stress here that I have seen many, ordinary readers and professional critics equally, point to the morality of Carroll's fiction not just as a defining characteristic—which it is—but as one of its chief attractions—which for me it most decidedly is not. The religious symbolism in Carroll is always neutral and I would never for a moment argue that Carroll is acting as a mouthpiece for any religion in particular, but his protagonists always tend to remind me of the twelve Apostles, shucking off the material and emotional ties of their old lives and heading out on the high road to follow Jesus. Everyone in Carroll has to see the light, to realize the error of their ways and Strive for Better. Not a bad idea in and of itself, but in terms of Carroll's stories it too often has the side effect of diverting the narrative from something subtle and genuinely gripping into yet another Search for Truth you don’t give a damn about. In "Uh-Oh City," for example, a university professor, Scott Silver, reveals how he once delivered a harsh lesson to one of his students about her writing abilities and has forever afterwards considered himself at least partly responsible for her suicide:
I could see the discussion was getting nowhere, and after two hours—two hours!—I told her I'd said all I could about the book, and that in the end it was her decision. Never once was I condescending or dismissive, I am sure of that. To make a terrible story short, Annette walked out of the room and left the manuscript in its box on the table. I thought it a bad dramatic gesture, and best not to follow. I'd wait till our next class and give it back then. I never saw her again. A week later she committed suicide.
Tell me you were connected to a suicide, but feel no guilt, and I will call you a liar. (p. 49)
Carroll's writing is full of such compelling setups, full too of illuminating truths and observations, delivered in scenes of heart-stopping poignancy and with an economy that is frequently devastating. I cared far more about the setup in "Uh-Oh City," with its long and seemingly directionless preamble and character analysis, than about the story's heavily portentous denouement, in which a magical cleaning woman Beenie Rushforth miraculously reveals herself (and not without a typically Carrollian bout of moral finger-wagging) as a one-thirty-sixth part of God.
The sad truth is, Jonathan Carroll's writing can be preachy. At its worst, a Carrollian narrator can end up sounding like the Robin Williams character in Vincent Ward's abominably trite and sentimental film What Dreams May Come (1998). I hate it when this happens, because the man can write, and when the stories in this collection aren't annoying you with their moral rectitude, they're leveling you full force with their potent artistry, with the articulacy and beauty of their invention. The stories I most admire here are invariably those which seem comfortable with the idea of being simply themselves, that feel the least need to expound a particular message. In "Elizabeth Thug" a woman tries to make her life more interesting by getting a tattoo (she succeeds). In the delightful "My Zoondel," a mere ten pages long but possibly my favorite story in the book, a very rare breed of dog is shown to have an unusual talent (it can detect werewolves). In "The Fall Collection" a teacher dying of cancer decides to live the remainder of his life as the man he always yearned to be but never was (he does so):
That is all. The dying man soon owned the wardrobe of a rich man with very good taste. He often stood in front of his open closet and smiled. He lived in New York until he died. Before the tin-top that was his life began to wobble and then fall, stopped, on its side, he had an affair with a really exciting and alive woman who was a buyer for an exclusive women's store. She had been instantly impressed by his knowledge and taste in clothes. She was the only person he told his terrible secret to. In the greatest moment of his life, he watched her face turn to bitter lines and tears after hearing the truth. She loved him, she said. She had never known someone so nice and yet interesting. Wonderingly, he watched her cry and couldn't believe his good luck. (p. 100)
The beauty of this story is revealed in the three simple words at the head of its final paragraph: that is all. For me at least, Carroll's stories always work best when they have no point to prove.
Reading The Woman Who Married a Cloud has done for me what reading Jonathan Carroll always does: it's left me perplexed and driven me crazy with trying to work out whether I even like this writer, and yet at the same time I feel an insistent need to reread his entire oeuvre, with close attention, so that I can map his world accurately and in detail and know it utterly. In the end, I don't care about Carroll's faults. He is a unique voice, with a unique vision, passionately committed to the art he’s creating and so gifted it's scary.
That's good enough for me.
A note on this edition: as an advance uncorrected proof, the copy I received for review contained no introduction and no bibliographical information. Perhaps it's just me and my obsessive predilection for writerly facts that feels the lack here, but when a collection is proudly presented as an overview of the author's work, it would seem only logical to provide the reader (who may after all be coming to Carroll for the first time) with some background information, or at the very least an indication of when and where the individual stories were first published. I have been so far been unable to find this information online. I have been similarly unable to discover any indication as to whether the corrected and published version of the book does contain such information. I do hope so, and if not, I hope that any future edition will make good this oversight as its omission here does both the writer and his material a disservice.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared regularly in the magazines Black Static and Interzone, and have been featured in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Best Horror of the Year #2, and Year's Best SF #28. A first collection of her short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by the story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. Her stories have twice been shortlisted for the BFS and BSFA Award. Nina's next book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in autumn 2012. Her website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.
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