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Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein, and a Question About the Depiction and Significance of Racism in Characterization

T.E.D. Klein is one of those writers whose disappearance baffles many lovers of weird fiction. After his celebrated novel The Ceremonies (which I have not yet read) and his collection of novellas titled Dark Gods, he seemed to go mostly off the radar, and to stay there (unless one was reading the right magazines, I suppose)… until Subterranean put out a collection of his short fiction, titled, Reassuring Tales, about six years ago. (That was a limited edition and I never see it online for less than $200, so I suppose I won’t be reading it till I get somewhere that has a functioning interlibrary loan system.)

Dark Gods is justly considered by many a classic of horror fiction, and discussions of it online inevitably turn upon either bemoaning the scarcity of work by Klein, or discussing which novella in this collection is the best — or, rather, which one is whose favorite.

I’m not sure, personally, which is my own favorite, but I do know I originally bought the hardback when I was living in Canada — and sought out a paperback last year — in order to read “Black Man With a Horn,” an explicitly Lovecraftian story that references (in passing) an image on a John Coltrane album cover, but also tells the story of an aging writer friend of Lovecraft’s who is, in the late 70s, tracking down a man for a series of murders… a man from a Malaysian tribe mentioned to him by a missionary fleeing Malaysia; the connection to Lovecraft being that the tribe is among those monstrous Cthulhu-worshippers mentioned somewhere in the Cthulhu Mythos. Klein does wonderful work here in depicting an aging B-list (if that) horror author doomed to live and die in Lovecraft’s shadow, and also builds up the horror quite well.

That doesn’t mean it outperforms the other stories in this collection. And while I’d love to explain why, my discussion of “Black Man With a Horn” above demonstrates why I shouldn’t do this: it’s pretty difficult to talk about a Klein story without getting into a plot dissection, and  the problem with doing that is that I don’t want to spoil them for someone coming to them for the first time —  since, honestly, I want to recommend this collection to people!

So I’ll zoom out, for this review, and talk about more abstract and general thoughts regarding these four novellas.

For me, style is an important aspect of what Klein does in these novellas. He is definitely writing in a Lovecraftian vein at times, especially in “Black Man With a Horn” but also, I’d say, in “Children of the Kingdom” (I’d swear there was a Mi-go reference in there someplace). And yet Klein’s narrative voice is quite removed from Lovecraft’s, his prose very modern, his characters’ voices very much of their time and place. Klein doesn’t wax florid, doesn’t trowel on the adjectives the way Lovecraft does; his voice is different, and yet he manages to invoke Lovecraft and his cosmic horror aesthetic very effectively.

Their time and place, by the way, is generally New York City in the late 1970s (or maybe the very early 80s at the latest, in one or two cases). Actually, that’s not quite true: one tale splits its time between a plane over the North Atlantic, and Florida — and yet New York seems to come up in each story; in “Black Man With a Horn,” the story that happens up in the air and in Florida, New York turns up only in memories of the times the narrator spent with H.P. Lovecraft there, during his short stay in Brooklyn. As Victor LaValle notes in a brief piece on the book, this is a very urban sort of horror —  three of the four novellas are for the most part set in cities. LaValle notes that this was new to him, when he read it, and while I can’t say the same (when I was growing up, authors were writing horror set in metropoli), I have to say that Klein uses the urban setting to great effect, and it feels very real and lived-in. This is one thing I’ve often envied horror writers — they can write stories set in places where millions of people have really been, and rely on that sense of familiarity to heighten the estranging qualities of their fiction. Especially, in “Children of the Kingdom,” Klein’s use (in 1979) of the Blackout of 1977 as a moment that is horrific in itself — and it really was — but also as supernaturally charged, is a brilliant move. In Klein’s work, the horrors of the real world and the supernatural fantasies are inextricably tied together.

There’s also the complexity of the horror in his tales. I am usually not a fan of the horror tale that features a writer, whether working or blocked (ie. someone suffering from writer’s block), as its narrator — it’s been done and done and I am not interested anymore — but Klein does something interesting with this in the latter two novellas. In “Black Man With a Horn” —  an explicitly Lovecraftian Mythos tale — Klein satirizes the pulpy Lovecraftian pastiche subgenre with a narrator who knew Lovecraft himself, and spent his whole writing life in the man’s shadow. It makes fun with (maybe, rather than of) the very thing that it also does itself. But the narrator here is a man who is no longer writing, whose creativity is gone, and who is haunted by his association with Lovecraft and the mediocrity of his own career. In “Nadelman’s God,” the protagonist has realized he is not a talented poet and also stopped writing — unless you count ad copy — but a crass and dreadful poem he wrote in his youth ends up playing a crucial role in the tale (after, amusingly, being turned into a heavy metal song).

What I find interesting about both these tales is the way that creative, artistic, and literary failures are in some sense powerful — whether in the gnostic sense where the artist is the only person truly equipped to summon up evil, or at least to understand it when it appears. In fact, there is a writer-figure in “Children of the Kingdom” who is in some sense a failure: a Costa Rican who has written and published interpretations of the gnostic text The Gospel of Thomas, but who has failed to get them translated into English and published in America. As in the other stories, this writer gets details wrong, but he is closer than anyone to understanding the true nature of reality for most of the novella.

Given Klein’s very limited output, one cannot help but wonder whether his fascination with failed writers (or writers who fail to live up to their own expectations, and give up) might be linked to his own struggles in writing. As a writer myself, I can definitely relate. But somehow, there’s something also fascinating in itself about this focus on literary failures: nowhere to be seen is the by now stereotypical best-selling author who can’t poop out his latest bestseller, and the book is much stronger for it. A dark power really does lie in one’s failings, in unfulfilled aspirations, and Klein seems to map those over onto the supernatural very effectively, and sympathetically too. (Failure is not judged here as it would be conventionally, and it seems to ring with mystical power in a way like how many think of artistic “success.”)

Race is another interesting thread in the book, especially prominent in two of the novellas — “Children of the Kingdom” and “Black Man With a Horn” — and I have to say, it’s handled in a way that unsettled me in ways I suspect Klein mostly intended, though I think this is one of the aspects by which we get a sense that the book has aged. Not badly, mind; somehow, it works. No doubt Klein is, in his characters’ fear of non-whites (the neighborhood Blacks and Hispanics in the former novella, and the Malaysian tribe known as the Tcho-Tcho in the latter), poking fun at Lovecraft’s notorious bigotries; but he also uses the racism as a kind of leaven in the horror, a kind of unsettling human awfulness that blends with and multiplies the supernatural elements of the horror. In other words, the fear of ethnic conflict, or of the supposedly-exotic, is quotidian, but it is also scary and horrific, in the same way an old house, even sans ghost, can be unsettling and disconcerting.

That said, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like this done more recently. I suspect it would be hard to do what Klein does, effectively, today. I don’t think that there aren’t people who see themselves as liberal and fair-minded, but who harbor, quietly, fairly racist attitudes; of course there are, and I’ve read enough writing by them online, as well as enough responses to them by those who see through the self-justifications, to know that this kind of self-contradiction is rather common. In the narratives we consume today, liberal white guilt mingles with reflexive racism mostly in satirical contexts (I’m thinking of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock) than in being a naturalistic effect in a character; usually, when a character is a racist, he or she is well aware of it, doesn’t feel awkward about it, and so on. That character might be to some degree sympathetic, the way Daryl Dixon manages to become during Season 2 of The Walking Dead, though as he becomes more sympathetic he also seems to become less openly bigoted, with his actions contradicting moments of apparent racism.

(In a similar way, I get the sense that that the narrator of “Nadelman’s God” is a remorseless ad-man was a similar kind of shorthand for evil in the 1970s, perhaps in a way that doesn’t quite compute today unless its carried to a satirical extreme; we like Don Draper, and it takes something as nuts as Thank You For Smoking before we start to see the ad man as truly evil in nature… but remember Bill Hicks’ anti-marketing rant/routine? That sort of disgust seems to have gone out of fashion, now that we’ve decided to hate CEOs and bankers instead.)

I once told one of my classes that one of the things white liberals fear the most is being called racist, or, worse, discovering racist attitudes buried inside their own minds. (I know that I myself have occasionally obsessed about the question, when stupid things pop out of my mouth, forcing me to ask myself where those words came from.) In fact, I recall some discussion online that I read long ago, but can’t find now (was it part of that whole RaceFail thing? it feels like I read it much earlier than that…), which emphasized how it’s more strategically useful to talk about racist ideas than to call someone a racist — in part because white liberals tend to freak out and derail the discussion when they feel they’re being labeled “racist.”

Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong books? Lots of the SF I’ve read is by white males, and so maybe it’s not so surprising that a lot of it doesn’t engage with this stuff. (I am trying to diversify my reading, mind you, but until I leave Korea, I’ll be focusing on reading the books I have on hand. There are plenty of female and POC authors, including some I plan on reading next month, but I’ll admit the SF shelves in my house are in fact dominated by white male authors, and that’s as much a symptom of my trying to catch up on older SF as anything else.) Anyway, I’d be curious to see if this fits with others’ sense of how we use or depict racism in the course of character building.

At any rate, I highly recommend T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods. It’s a classic for a reason, and well worth your time. Oh, and thought it is (as of 29 Jan 2012) incomplete, this review of the book goes into much more depth and hits a lot of notes — such as regarding Klein’s engagement with the canon of weird fiction in general — that I wanted to in discussing the book. I feel the same envy as the reviewer over there, towards Klein’s work.

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