A Promising Start

by S. T. Joshi

MICHAEL GRIFFIN. The Lure of Devouring Light. Introduction by John Langan. Petaluma, CA: Word Horde, 2016. 319 pp. $16.99 tpb.

This book appears to be receiving high accolades from a cadre of Mr. Griffin’s friends and supporters—an understandable bit of log-rolling for a first short story collection by an author who hopes to establish himself as a figure in contemporary weird fiction. I am not sure the accolades are entirely deserved, but I am convinced that Michael Griffin has the native talent to become a meritorious writer—far more so than the overrated blowhard Scott Nicolay and certain other writers one could mention.

The chief quality that Griffin brings to his writing is deftness in prose. At its best, Griffin’s prose is luminous, lapidary, and evocative. His gift for language is admirable, and his insight into human character is often penetrating and insightful. He does, of course, have some limitations. All too often, his prose—and, more pertinently, his conceptions and his skill at narration—are not at their best. He has particular trouble with punctuation. He knows of no punctuation aside from commas and periods, and even these he handles poorly; he is blissfully unaware of the value and efficacy of the semicolon, the colon, and the dash. As with so many of his contemporaries, he lapses into stylistic and grammatical infelicities (the misuse of “like” for “as” or “as if”; run-on sentences; even misspellings such as “hippy” for “hippie”). And, as has become drearily common with the small press, his publisher has not seen fit to clean up Griffin’s work with the use of a skilled copy editor.

But Griffin’s problems go farther than occasional clumsiness in prose. He is afflicted with that most dreaded of literary faults, pretentiousness—a fault of which a number of other writers of his circle (I am obliged to mention Laird Barron and Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. as among the worst culprits) are guilty. Pretentiousness exhibits itself in the very titles of Griffin’s stories, whether it be the title story or such things as “Dreaming Awake in the Tree of the World” or “The Book of Shattered Mornings”; or in the ponderous quotations from an imaginary book in “The Jewel in the Eye” (“Nothing remains pristine. No wish is strong enough to preserve the smooth reflection of idealized self”). Pretentiousness is a sin and a crime because it creates the pretence of highbrow sophistication and profundity; it suggests an author preening himself and patting himself on the back for being clever and “literary.” It is fundamentally dishonest and insincere.

Griffin is fatally addicted to scenarios that rely on mere bizarrerie to generate terror and wonder; he is a bit short on coherence and narrative finish. The title story tells of a famous cellist (who also happens to be a sexual predator) whose playing somehow summons a strange female figure, with the result that the cellist is burned up. No attempt is made to account for the presence of this figure; instead, we are simply treated to a succession of affected descriptions of avant-garde music. “Dreaming Awake in the Tree of the World” features another odd woman who has lured a young man into living in a tree by way of psychedelic mushrooms. That is the extent of the story.

“The Book of Shattered Mornings” is the first-person account of a man, apparently suffering serious injuries, finding a book that appears to contain episodes from his past life. It is a beautifully written story, but its overall thrust is not evident. “No Mask to Conceal Her Voice” is an impressionistic but rather confused and incoherent riff on Chambers’s The King in Yellow.

One of the worst stories in the book—and one that painfully highlights Griffin’s deficiencies—is “The Jewel in the Eye.” Here the author has come up with a potentially powerful idea—the idea that certain people have the ability to fashion “shapers,” or quasi-human dolls, out of their imaginations. A woman designs such a shaper in the form of her younger self, for her husband to have sex with. What could have been a gripping tale that probes issues of identity, fidelity, and so on is spoiled by windy pseudo-philosophical discussions and irrelevant episodes.

Griffin has particular problems with longer narratives. There are two in this book, the novella “Far from Streets” and the short novel The Black Vein Runs Deep. “Far from Streets” begins compellingly, as a man named Dane builds a cabin in a remote plot of land in the forests of Oregon. His wife, Carolyn, is devoted to the city, and some of the more intense passages in the story deal with their sharp arguments over the relative values of city and country life. But the tale is peppered with all manner of episodes that have no relevance to the basic plot (assuming there even is a plot). Griffin makes much of the fact that Dane unearths a saucer-like stone with possible signs or writing on it. This object is brought in again at the end of the tale, but its significance is never clarified. There are numerous other elements that are not properly accounted for—and, more relevantly, that bear no clear relation to the city-country dichotomy that is at the heart of the tale. Perhaps Griffin, unwisely adopting one of the least admirable qualities of Robert Aickman, feels that he can simply throw in these elements to augment the strangeness of the narrative; but in fact he is doing the reader a disservice. Alert readers will want such elements to mean something in the overall narrative; when they fail to do so, there is an inevitable feeling of frustration and disappointment.

This problem is magnified in The Black Vein Runs Deep, which could have been a spectacular novel of underground terror. Here we are led to believe that there was a serious accident, killing twenty or more people, at a gold mine near the town of Kinosha, Oregon. Two people conducting a geological survey of the area, Adison Kye and Colman Quinn, find that the elderly owner of the mine, Lewin McAttree, seems to be hiding something. As they continue their investigation, the tension grows—until it is lamentably dissipated by long discussions between Adison and Colman about their personal lives (each is or has been involved in a failed marriage). This may all be in the interest of character portrayal, but its presentation in a big lump in the centre of the story cripples the pace of the narrative. Even when the story returns to the actual plot, grippingly describing the two protagonists’ probing of the mine as they descend far into the bowels of the earth, Griffin fails to deliver. He engenders a scenario where some invisible creature or creatures create mayhem in the depths of the mine, but then seems to forget all about this vital matter to dwell on Adison leading Colman to some ill-defined wonderland. Toward the end we get a passage like this:

New life coalesces, growing. Biology quivers with aspiration, yearns to challenge a patient, malicious universe. A foundry of one budding to infinity, emitting heat in its slow shift from embryonic potentiality to imminent ego-actor, awhirl with creative ambition and causative intent, soon to crack through the fragile shell of this tired Earth, shrug off ruptured shards, and like a chrysalis shed our obsoleted world.

Let it pass that there is no such word as “obsoleted”; this is pretentiousness, pure and undiluted. It is all bombast and fustian, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

But it would be unfair to focus on the (sadly numerous) instances in this collection where the stories fail to deliver on their promises. When we turn to a story like “Diamond Dust,” we are inclined to forgive Michael Griffin all the literary blunders he has made elsewhere. This story is a splendid example of what might be called industrial horror, envisioning some hideous fusion of humanity and steel. (The imagery is likely to have come from personal experience, as Griffin spent more than twenty years working in a steel factory.) In contrast to the incoherent passage above, consider this:

Creatures barely human climb slippery hot from the melt pool, pass without stopping and slither over the brink. Each descends to an ordained position and slowly hardens in place. Bound together in an agonized realm of ash and steel, their relinquished dreams and forgotten pleasures form underpinnings of a new, transformed world.

Magnificent! There is no question that “Diamond Dust” is one of the more powerful weird tales written in this new millennium.

Other stories in the collection do not quite measure up to this one, but are nonetheless admirable. “Arches and Pillars” is a kind of stream-of-consciousness story of a man’s ambiguous relationship with a man, featuring an effective atmosphere of unreality. “The Accident of Survival,” written in a similarly free-flowing manner, tells of a man and his partner narrowly avoiding a car crash with an oncoming truck—or have they in fact died in the crash?

Most short story collections are uneven, but Griffin’s seems rather more uneven than the norm, ranging from the superb to the sadly mediocre. But there is enough good work here to hint at better things to come. Michael Griffin has by no means arrived; and if he can avoid believing in the encomiums of his cheerleaders (as Laird Barron has failed to do, to the point that his recent work is close to unreadable), and if he can grasp the need to make further improvements in all aspects of his writing, he will do more creditable work in the future.