But which of these professional daydreamers is GREATER?
Clearly, there is only one way to settle this question once and for all.
That way is to compare and contrast these 2 books:
|I realize this is a terrible photo, despite a handsome cat; let's just move on.|
After The King, Ed. Martin H. Greenburg, and Cthulhu 2000, Ed. Jim Turner.
From time to time I'll be dipping into these mighty texts to ascertain which festschrift makes the stronger case for its chosen auteur.
Let us begin this momentous task.
Representing J. R. R. Tolkien, Samuel R Donaldson presents Reave the Just (Trigger Warning: Rape and abuse).
In this story Jillet, an affable town fool, falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy widow, little knowing that she is being held prisoner in her own home by an abusive rival suitor. As part of a desperate multi-phase wooing scheme, Jillet claims kinship with Reave the Just, who is basically Objectivist Batman, which is the worst kind of Batman. Jillet ends up imprisoned by his rival, until Reave the Just gets wind of this kinship claim and appears in the home/prison to figure out what's going on. He turns out to be Reave the Victim Blamer, telling the widow, who remains unnamed and is regularly raped by the villain, "Why have you not helped yourself?... Why do you not resist him?"
This invigorating pep talk turns out to be exactly what abuse survivors need to encourage them to bust loose and defeat their abusers. Yay happy endings.
The story seems like a folk tale reworked in a 19th century style, with an ironic, nearly all-knowing narrator glossing his characters', uh, character. It's a skillful pastiche that bears its length well, and is sprinkled with fun all-knowing-narrator style character insights. Still, at the conclusion one realizes that one has basically been reading a Batman story in George Eliot drag.
In the other corner, playing for H. P. Lovecraft, F. Paul Wilson unloads The Barrens.
A woman who grew up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens region reconnects with an ex-boyfriend who claims to be researching The Jersey Devil. He enlists her help in getting tight-lipped rural folk to talk with him, but it turns out he's really more interested in pine lights, some kind of natural (OR IS IT?) luminescence. As the twosome work themselves deeper and deeper into the forests, and deeper and deeper into rural stereotypes (moonshine and inbreeding, etc.) they find a creepy barren patch which is the guy's real objective...
This story is WAY longer than it needs to be, written in a careless, bland prose. It doesn't help that I was reading a Mary Gaitskill story at the same time; Gaitskill embeds backstory in the midst of her tale with concision and effect, like hyperlinked koans, while Wilson pounds everything out with tubthumping obviousness. Wilson is better with location, creating a piney wilderness that feels welcoming and forbidding in equal measure.
Spoiler warning: the tale ends with the guy being physically transformed into We Know Not What, but, in a grace note so understated that I'm not sure Wilson (who shows little interest in understatement) intended it, the hero may be transforming into a Jersey Devil.
Tolkien, as represented by Donaldson, is the greater stylist, with a defter touch at characterization, and a more complex approach to storytelling. He plays with the timeline of the tale and lets the narrator, though third person, emerge as a central character.
By contrast, the female first person narrator in The Barrens feels more like a spectator to the action. Her emotional journey mostly consists of announcements about her feelings for the male character. The Barrens does end with an authentically Lovecraftian conclusion, though, insofar as the protagonist has come to a drastic realization (to paraphrase: "Now that I know this barren field is a portal to a mysterious place where people get physically transformed into something gross, I MUST KNOW THE TRUTH about it, so I'ma gonna go back to it and get myself disgustingly transformed, because I MUST KNOW THE SLIMY TRUTH") that she insists follows logically from the story's events, but which, in fact, doesn't (see also Dagon by Lovecraft, which I addressed somewhere in the middle of this characteristically overlong post).
However, in a stunning upset, Tolkien (via Donaldson) is also more problematic, what with the mansplaining about how abuse survivors should go all Ms. 45.
I think a triune rubric is revealing itself:
- Prose, richness of.
- Thematics, sophistication of.
- Problematics, problematicness of.
Round One goes to Tolkien!