Friday, December 3, 2010

Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe

I have just finished reading Terrence Holt’s debut collection, In The Valley of the Kings (Norton, 2009). Holt started writing these stories while earning MFA and PhD degrees in English from Cornell. One of them, “Charybdis,” appeared in The Kenyon Review thirty years ago and was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories. He taught creative writing and English lit for ten years before earning an MD degree from the University of North Carolina, where he now teaches and practices medicine.

Holt is a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, telling an interviewer that he has loved Poe’s stories since grade school, adding that he often needs a voice “that can blur the lines between rationality and lunacy,” which he says turns out to sound a lot like Poe. Holt concludes, “I’m happy doing anything that makes people think about Poe.”

Since I am also one of those who started reading Poe in grade school, and who has since taught graduate-level seminars on Poe’s work and written a book about his contribution to the short story, reading Holt’s stories got me to thinking about Poe again. I would be happy if this blog entry makes you think about Poe and sends you to Holt’s stories, which I think get their energy from some of the primary sources of the short story as a form.

Poe was never highly respected among my colleagues in graduate school or at the university where I taught. I remember one professor asking me what in the hell I found to talk about in a semester-long course on Edgar Allan Poe, saying he had a hard time filling up one class meeting in his American Literature class on that adolescent-minded, alcoholic drug addict and child molester.

Because two of Holt’s stories--“Charybdis” and “Aurora”-- involve space travel to Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and two others--“ Ό Λογος" and Apocalypse”—center on a futuristic end of the world, the old genre issue of science fiction rears its Hydra head.
I suspect that Terrence Holt’s stories will raise the same kind of issues that Poe’s stories have always raised. When one writes “genre” fiction such as detective stories and science fiction, one risks being called light weight entertainment, appealing only to a small group of fans, such as Star Trek trekkies, but never having the respectability of serious literary writers.

In a Boston Globe interview last year, Holt said he avoids the science fiction label, noting that for him generic distinctions between what’s real and what’s fantastic doesn’t make much sense, since it’s all fiction. “And as part of a larger tendency to isolate things that make us uncomfortable, I think such distinctions are dangerous.” Holt says that it makes perfect sense we named everything in the cosmos after the gods. “When you set a story there you get a free pass into the realm of myth.”

And it is indeed the world of myth and mystery and magic that interests Holt. He says that he is interested in the limits of our capacity to understand ourselves. “For me, these stories are more than anything else about where stories come from, and where they take us. They’re about the moment-by-moment process by which our brains convince us that the world exists, and the gaps in that process as well. Those flaws in the illusion are what I want to capture. They’re the chinks in the structure where mystery gets in and haunts our lives—and through which one day we slip into eternity.” All this sounds very much like Poe, for whom the function of story is not to mirror external reality but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds only to the basic human desire for total unity.

In a New York Times review last September, William Giraldi suggested that Holt’s people are beyond the help of science, quoting one of his characters who says, “Science is a consolation only to the ignorant.” Giraldi asks, “What do we clutch at in place of science? What sustained and deceived us long before science, and what will we return to once modernity becomes an antiquated future? Mystery, magic, myth; the allegories and fables that crowbarred open our psyche.”

The “Power of Words” (which is the title of one of Poe’s stories) is central to Holt. Central is the opening story in Holt’s collection, entitled Ό Λογος” a Greek word that means “The word,” as in “In the beginning was the word” in John 1.1. The word of the title appears mysteriously on a young girl’s body, creating some sort of infection that kills her. When it is seen by others, they die also, and the disease then spreads to plague proportions that threatens the end of the world. Thus, instead of the beginning, it is “In the end was the word.”

The story also has a Latin head note: Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit. Some medieval manuscripts dealing with the Black Death end with the author's last prayer, "Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit" which means, "It seems the author died here." A similar “final word” motif is suggested by the head note for “Charybdis”: a quotation from Poe’s early prize-wining story that launched him on his career, “MS Found in a Bottle,” in which the narrator says that he will continue to write in his journal until the “last moment” when he will enclose the MS in a bottle and cast it within the sea. The story is not one of Poe’s best-known stories, but it is one of his most self reflexively complex.

Holt makes another reference to “Ms Found in a Bottle” in the story “Eurydike,” a futuristic version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Another isolated space traveler recognizes a word out of endless rows of empty letters on his screen, the word “discovery.”

In “Ms Found in a Bottle,” the narrator says a feeling for which he has no name takes possession of his soul--"a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of by-gone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key.” Such feelings are the sense of being "captured by the incredible" which is both the very essence of dreams, as Conrad's Marlowe insists in The Heart of Darkness, as well as the essence of story itself; for no "relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams." This realization is what the narrator refers to when he says a "new sense--a new entity is added to my soul." Moreover, this is what constitutes the unintelligible letters he unwittingly daubs on the sail, which, when the sail is put in use, spell out the word DISCOVERY. For the discovery the narrator makes is the discovery that dominates Poe's art and thought throughout his career; it is the discovery of the power of the imagination and thus the power of story.

Like the narrator, Poe himself felt impelled by a "curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of those awful regions . . .. It is evident that we are hurrying on to some exciting knowledge--some never-to-be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction." As Poe's masterworks "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Eureka make clear, the end of the imaginative journey is both the source and the end of life itself, for it is ultimate non-being. We imagine the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" lost in his fantasy, penning the last words--"going down"--and tossing his letter into the sea, from whence, eternally detached from its author, it is taken up by countless readers as a "dead letter" only to be made to live again continuously.

If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material facts of the external world, the short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. If the novel's quest for extensional reality takes place in the social world and the material of its analyses are manners as the indication of one's soul, as Lionel Trilling says, the field of research for the short story is the primitive, antisocial world of the unconscious, and the material of its analysis are not manners, but dreams. The results of this distinction are that whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual. While the novel is primarily structured on a conceptual and philosophic framework, the short story is intuitive and lyrical. The novel exists to reaffirm the world of "everyday" reality; the short story exists to "defamiliarize" the everyday. Storytelling does not spring from one's confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one's encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity).

In the short story we are presented with characters in their essential aloneness, not in their taken-for-granted social world. Such an understanding of the two different realms of the short story and the novel helps to account for one of the best-known discussions of the subject matter of the short story--Frank O'Connor's intuitive analysis in The Lonely Voice. The novel, says O'Connor, can "adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community . . .; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community--romantic, individualistic, and intransigent. This is why, O'Connor says, the short story always presents a sense of "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society. . . . As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness." We must approach the short story, O’Connor says, in the mood of Pascal’s “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

All of Holt’s narrator protagonists face the silence of infinite spaces, the mystery of pushing the consciousness to such extremes that physical reality disappears. To read Holt’s stories is not only to be returned to Poe, it is to return to the primal origins of story itself.


Mel u said...

I have not yet read O'Conner's book on short stories but the section you quoted perfectly fits Katherine Mansfield "presents a sense of "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society. . . . As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness." -Mansfield has many marginalized figures in her stories and in many ways was one herself even though her father was Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand-it is my understanding O'Conner ranked Mansfield right under Joyce as a short story writer

I need to read more Poe!

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, mel u. O'Connor has a chapter on Mansfield in The Lonely Voice--he had mixed feelings about her stories.

Lee said...

I've ordered a copy of Holt's book on the strength of this excellent post. And yes, I must go back to Poe, whom I haven't read, I'm ashamed to admit, since my late teens.

Lee said...

'O Logos is available online:

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Lee. Yes, this is the first story in the collection, the one entitled Ό Λογος