Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Monday, January 26, 2009

Quick Thoughts on Charlotte Armstong

A Dram of Poison
The Witch's House
The Dream Walker

It was opportune to stumble into Ms. Armstrong – she sums up a lot of where we've gone so far on this blog.

For instance:

The Literary World is ruled by Authority.

Before I started this blog I had the half-assed idea that critical judgment was important in the “highbrow” world, that it was there that opinions were formed, consensuses were reached, and judgments were levied that affected the reputations of various authors – but that it mattered much less in the “popular” world, which, I felt, was governed mostly by fans.

I don't think that's true at all, anymore, and Charlotte Armstrong is a good example of why. Anthony Boucher in the 1950's rather idly compared her to “Cornell Woolrich and Shirley Jackson”, presumably because she wrote thrillers and those were the first two names that dropped off his tongue, and amazingly that reputation has stuck, with Ed Gorman somewhere mouthing the same opinion as though it were received wisdom on high or something.

Except that it's not true. Armstrong doesn't resemble Woolrich at all – Woolrich wrote basically poetic paranoid pieces, there's no paranoia in Armstrong's work. Most of her characters are just ambling along until an anvil drops on their head, metaphorically speaking. As for Shirley Jackson – an interesting writer who I may deal with here at some later stage – well, she's female, yeah, and wrote some stuff that maybe you could call “thriller”, if you really stretched the point (although I don't think a reader today would class Armstrong and Jackson in the same genre at all), but Armstrong doesn't have the distance that I see in Jackson's work, the impersonality of it. If anything, Armstrong is rather resolutely maternal.

It strikes me as odd that nobody, in talking about A DRAM OF POISON, has mentioned what is the rather obvious influence, which is G.K. Chesterton. Not the Chesterton of the Father Brown stories so much as the Chesterton of the (to my mind) rather middling novels, especially THE FLYING INN and THE BALL AND THE CROSS. For one thing, it relies (as those books do) on paradox – the situation that is presented turns out not, at all, to be the situation as it really is. For another, there's a certain beneficence at work here, a certain notion that people, despite their certain differences, really at heart are very similar. As with Chesterton it's a very optimistic view of the world and of life. And most of all, the novel sets up a situation that essentially resolves itself into a theological debate, with various characters acting as spokesmen for varying points of view.

Chesterton is not read as much as he should be nowadays, and I can to some extent understand how currently people could miss this. I'm less clear how Boucher, who presumably knew what the hell he was talking about, could miss it. I am also interested that Boucher's claims were simply repeated as though they came from on high, without anyone taking the time to look at the matter themselves. Again, all literary worlds are ruled by authority – somebody's authority. Maybe – likely – out of inertia, why establish a viewpoint of your own when there's a preformed one waiting for you to put on? Here Boucher's opinion simply became “the” opinion, presumably because he was Anthony Boucher.

Never trust the critic who tells you critics don't matter – he's being disingenous. Critics always matter, especially for posterity.

As for DRAM itself, rather too redolent of Chesterton for my taste.

It's Not Who Has The Idea First, It's Who Does It Best

Knowing Stephen King like I do, it wouldn't surprise me in the least that he absorbed THE WITCHES HOUSE at some early point only to spit it out later in MISERY, as the basic premise (innocent guy laid up and imprisoned in crazy older woman's house) is exactly the same. But it also ought to be said that he just does a better job with it – this is one of his best later books, and he works in a very neat looking-glass sort of effect here, as the book is that rare thing, a thriller that actually is something more, a kind of inside look at the process of writing that it quite original. But this is a commentary on the Armstrong book, not the King, and the point here is that all the while I read this all I could do is think about the King, even though this is a smooth professional job. Such is the way of things in the popular world: like it or not ideas do matter here, and if you're especially trying for the shock of novelty as an effect, know that it all depends on what the reader encounters first. There are plenty of popular “classics” out there that have simply lost their effect because so many writers have copied them. “But I was there first!” they argue, and correctly so. Unfortunately that's just not enough.

There Is Such A Thing As A Woman Or Male-Oriented Book

By which I mean there is such a thing that is possible to have a quite good book that is so written from one sex's perspective that it's impossible for the other to get into. I think this doesn't happen all that often, more rarely than you might think, in fact, but it does occur – and I think it's the kind of thing only the other sex can really speak to. Which is a long-winded way of saying that as much as I admired and even respected MISCHIEF, a book about a crazy babysitter (it has one of the more convincing depictions of insanity that I've read in some time – the girl here is both completely pathetic and completely terrifying), it is so focused on a particular female instinct – the maternal instinct, and the feelings that involves and the threats one has to face down to protect one's cub – that I think it's just closed off for male readers. Yes, of course men love their children too, but I don't know how to put it into words...it's just conceived of in a different way. This is peculiarly a female book, and I would be very interested to hear female takes on it.

To not give every Armstong a down opinion, I very much liked THE GHOST WALKER, a peculiar little book that very cannily understands the media bubble of today's world, and what kind of threats it poses. A beloved Washington eminence (is there such a thing nowadays?) is threatened by a smear campaign who's essential pointlessness and banality makes it all the more plausible, at least to these jaded eyes. Also does a good job of that old standby “I hate you/no I love you”, and there's a really wonderful climax here, which is carefully plotted and foreshadowed and is all the more effective for that.

All the above suggests I on balance dislike Armstong – but actually I don't. MISCHIEF and THE WITCHES HOUSE are not bad books, they're simply unlucky books, one by being limited by sex, one by being limited by time. A DRAM OF POISON is, in fact, sort of a mediocre book (of course it won the MWA award that year) but it's interesting in some ways nonethless. I certainly would check out other Armstongs, and would suggest you do as well.

Oh, and contra Boucher, who's lazy opinion of Armstong's work has irritated me all through these short notes. I haven't read widely enough yet to really sense all of Armstong's influences, but I would lay money more on people like Mary Roberts Rinehart (humble women in peril), Dorothy Sayers (to my mind one of the great unacknowledged literary influences of the twentieth century, so much comes from her – in particular her use of mysteries/thrillers as a device to make social commentary, as is done here) and maybe a bit of Daphne Du Maurier (the slow turn from sensible domesticity to...something else.)


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