Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ghosts of October (3): The Hour After Westerly

Author Robert M. Coates.

Each week this month, leading up to Halloween, Devin McKinney is highlighting one of his favorite ghost stories, in fiction or film. See Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

To read, see, or otherwise experience a great ghost story is to feel the slow descent of a benign curse. But we who are addicted to the art of the ghostly know, for we are always being reminded, that most ghost stories fail. They simply don’t scare. Worse, they don’t haunt. They give us plenty of whimsy and cliché. What they don’t give us is the vibration, both fearsome and pleasurable, of imaginative contact with the otherworldly. We search for works of poetic imagination which skillfully convey the feel of quiet and disquiet, of distant forms and impalpable presences, and which will leave something inside of us: their ghosts, in a word. And seldom, so seldom, do we find it.

But eventually we may discover that our operative addiction is being fed sub rosa by works which, though they have little or no supernatural element, are nonetheless haunted. It’s inspiriting (no pun intended) to find that, if our antennae are so attuned, “ghostly” needn’t be a matter of content. It can also be one of style, approach, apperception; or it may be embedded thematically, in narratives of characters who realize they are becoming, or have become, ghosts of a kind. While some variant on “the fantastic” – the term used by structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov in his 1970 study of that title – might do for taxonomic purposes, I’ve always preferred to call this undeclared subgenre simply “the ghost story without ghosts.”

Discoverable in any creative form, its boundaries ill-defined, the category bulges with potential occupants. What matters most, perhaps, is that the work – be it novel, story, film, piece of music – originate in a sense of the uncanny, an apprehension of mysteries that are not for solving. In fiction, I’d designate, along with much of Hawthorne and most of Poe, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892); Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War stories; The Great Gatsby (1925); the Thirties thrillers of Ethel Lina White; the early fiction of Truman Capote; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955 – and don’t forget the Kubrick film); Daphne du Maurier’s Not After Midnight (1971); and Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy (1970-75). In film, there are Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1927), with Lillian Gish (though really any silent film, even the comedies, will be cloaked in the ghostly); The Night Has Eyes (1942), a Gothic thriller starring a very young, very creepy James Mason; Maya Deren’s experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon (1945); Bergman’s Persona (1966); Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1967) and The Passenger (1975); certain Altman films, particularly Images (1972), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), and 3 Women (1977); David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1995) and Mulholland Dr. (1999); the CoensThe Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); and Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009), and Amour (2012). The spirit is more elusive in music, but it lives in places as various as the Jaynetts’ “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” (1963), the Beatles’ “Long, Long, Long” (1968), Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” (1968), Fairport Convention (1969), Shona Laing’s Whispering Afraid (1973), and Antony and The Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now (2005). I could go on, and someday I probably will.

The Twilight Zone (1959-64) was full of ghost stories without ghosts – and that show, archetypal as it proved to be, didn’t come out of nothing. As much as any literary tradition, it came out of a post-World War II period which responded to the fantastic as an imaginative comprehension of public and private lives; lives that had been rendered unreal (or “absurd,” in the Sixties term) by a global trauma that began with genocide and ended with an atomic bomb. No wonder that post-war fiction was infiltrated with characters who moved about like ghosts, lonely and estranged, always thinking but seldom speaking, less than fully present in their worlds – and wondering, sometimes, what other worlds might be out there, or around the corner.

On November 1, 1947, a story titled “The Hour After Westerly” appeared in The New Yorker. It was by Robert M. Coates, who had published dozens of pieces in the magazine over the previous 20 years, not only short stories but also “Talk of the Town” entries, humorous essays, and art criticism. It was not uncommon, after the war, for The New Yorker and other mass-market magazines to print what were basically realistic stories twisted or tinged by fantastic elements (see Amelia Beamer and Gary K. Wolfe’s “The Exile of the Fantastic in the Postwar American Short Story” for some of the others). None was finer than “The Hour After Westerly.” Ray Bradbury gave it the lead position in his classic anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow (1952), and five years later it was the title piece in a collection of Coates’s own; but unlike certain of its fantastic contemporaries – Capote’s “Shut a Final Door,” Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” – it faded rather quickly from the shared literary memory, along, eventually, with Coates himself. (Mathilda Roza’s Following Strangers: The Life and Literary Work of Robert M. Coates [2011] gives the lowdown on this confoundingly versatile, improbably interesting writer.)

The protagonist is a commercial traveler named Davis Harwell, who embarks on the usual three-hour drive from his beat in Providence, Rhode Island, to his home in New Haven, Connecticut. A little more than halfway there, he realizes it’s far later than it should be. An hour of his life has somehow disappeared, leaving him no recollection of the interval – only the vague memory of a country crossroads with several small houses nearby, a steeple with a clock, and a dirt road. “For a moment,” says the omniscient narrator, “he had an odd, frightened feeling, in itself quite illogical: Was he even the same person now that he had been, leaving Providence?” Weeks later, Harwell makes the same trip again, this time searching for the vaguely recalled landmarks, but failing to locate them. On a third attempt, he leaves the Boston Post Road for an alternate route and, just beyond the Rhode Island town of Westerly, is stunned to find the houses, the steeple, and the road right in front of him. Though he has never been here before, every detail of the scene “now fell instantly into a remembered pattern.” He follows the dirt road – and what he does and doesn’t find there, beyond the crossroads, forms the unaccountable, irresolvable heart of the story.

It may be that the entire event, with its implication of an alternate or parallel reality, projects a suppressed wish of Harwell’s. (Other Coates stories of a fantastic or semi-fantastic nature, like “In a Foreign City” or “The Man Who Vanished,” offer variations on that theme.) Harwell has children of unidentified number and ages, and a wife, Edna, who is a voice on a phone, and with whom he communicates poorly (“she was always getting wrong meanings”). But domestic discontent is only thinly implied, and a reference to “business necessity” taking precedent over emotional responsibility hardly registers. Social or economic critique are likewise implicit, perhaps, but they don’t interfere with the story’s real business, which is to evoke “that feeling of blank unbelongingness that sometimes comes with a sudden awakening.”

Obviously, the substance of “The Hour After Westerly” lies in what doesn’t happen, what isn’t explained, or even expressed. Rather than spiraling fear, the narrator’s tone is one of sympathetic wonderment, a sincere desire to rationally parse a phenomenon that falls outside the rules of logic and causality. Just enough anomalies arise to confirm that Harwell is not suffering from common confusion, amnesia, or other known lapse of consciousness. Yet we’re unable, given the few fleeting clues, to assemble the parameters of his “alternative” life, or, in fact, to know if his real life – Edna and the kids – is the alternative one. (If this were a Twilight Zone episode, the question would be answered definitively, and, in all likelihood, diminished.) The story is, as much as anything, an object lesson in the creative use of negative space: that is to say, absence. Absence is a form of distance – and if I had to propose a single thing that all great ghost stories share, it’s that they occur at the proper distance. Think of the second-hand narration that frames many Victorian tales; the figure of the dead governess across the lake in The Innocents (1961); the revenants and horrors of The Shining (1980), which are never seen up close, or for very long. In the principle of distance lies the essential lure, the puzzle and problem, of the ghost story, which is that the larger explanations of death and life will, like the visitation itself, remain always out of reach.

“The Hour After Westerly” has the perfection of something both naturally occurring and consciously crafted. You can’t help but turn it over in your mind, examining it from all sides as if it were an artifact, or a toy. But it’s not trivial like a toy, nor cold and contained like an artifact. It’s quite alive. Far more than most proper ghost stories one reads, it sends that otherworldly tremor through your imagination. It confers that benign curse. It haunts.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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