American Literature, Book review., Books, Bourgeoisie, Elitism, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Horror, If You Could See Me Now, Literary criticism, Miles Teagarden, Peter Straub, S.T. Joshi, Stephen King, Unreliable Narrator, Weird Fiction, Wisconsin
[The following contains spoilers.]
There is no doubt that Miles Teagarden has been distilled from the psychic juices of his creator, Peter Straub. Perhaps Straub had applied hot cups and drained off several pints of excess black bile. Both Straub and Miles, the hero of the former’s 1977 horror novel If You Could See Me Now, grew up Wisconsin and they were/are both required to write dissertations on D.H. Lawrence as adults. Both are ready outsiders. Miles might as well grunt at the residents of Arden, Wisconsin – where he has retreated to write his dissertation – since his silver tongue proves superfluous when it comes to communicating with them. Two years later, Straub tried to make a home for himself in Westport, Connecticut, only to find that Miles had been scouting ahead of him:
Our neighbours… might as well have been Martians. They spoke in flat, uninflected voices about banalities, endlessly. No one had anything like a sense of irony, irony was a foreign language, an unhealthy affection. Sincerity was the real deal – you were supposed to grip the other fellow’s hand, look him in the eye and be as sincere as you could damn well pretend to be… (Interview with Infinity Plus, 2001).
The author of his own misfortunes in more ways than one, Straub would encounter the same incomprehension within the world of fantasy and horror fiction. He was famously welcomed to the genre by the author Stephen King, with some goofy Zack-ish enthusiasm, but a subsequent array of non-supernatural or only half-supernatural novels seemed to confirm that Straub was too ironic, too sophisticated and too complicated to be accepted by the horrorati.
The leading scholar of “weird” fiction S.T. Joshi would attack Straub for being “tiresomely and self-consciously literary” and “irksomely smug and self-congratulatory.” Wandering from horror has led Straub to write novels which are “wordy and rambling beyond belief and tolerance.” Straub has “with a certain arch arrogance, always considered himself a mainstream writer.” The community should be wary – Straub does not belong here.
This guard dog’s barking serves only to articulate who his master is. Although conceding that If You Could See Me Now may be Straub’s “best supernatural tale,” Joshi warns that, “Nearly 60 years prior to Straub’s writing, Lovecraft jotted down the core idea in his commonplace book (and it was not new to him).” I have been reading Joshi long enough to know that any writer who is not H.P. Lovecraft is fundamentally incomplete.
Aside from Joshi’s substantial analysis, there are startlingly few reviews of If You Could See Me Now available on the internet. Nathaniel Katz concedes that the novel is a “classic” but he otherwise tries to make a virtue out of his inability to engage imaginatively with it. Bryant Burnette is a good deal more appreciative, but he finds that it is, “by no means a perfect novel” and that “the novel works emotionally in the places it briefly stops working logically.” And that is it.
Regardless of how smug Straub may be or how exasperating his defiance of readers’ expectations, one should not try to confiscate what he has earned. If You Could See Me Now is an outright masterpiece. Joshi dwells upon the inadvisable starting point of Straub’s enthusiasm for Lawrence and Henry James, but the context of the 1970s deems If You Could See Me Now to be wholesomely, or even idealistically middlebrow. With its rounded Dickensian characters, orderly ambiguities, and elegant modernism, this novel makes its appeal to suburbs of sensible readers. It is comparable in this respect to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969), which was consciously aimed at the mass market after the author had, like Straub, submitted two very worthy but unprofitable novels. In misappropriating a cast of familiar comic characters (the grumpy teenager, the petulant redneck, the hypocritical preacher) who between them manage to be peculiarly unfunny, Straub also matches Robert Aickman’s commitment to the uncanny.
Only half-heartedly highbrow, Miles comes to be haunted by the spectre of the elite writer, the loneliness and social uselessness of one such as D. H. Lawrence. We might almost imagine that it is Lawrence who is watching Miles from the skirts of the forest rather than his daemon lover Alison Greening. It is our loss that M. Teagarden’s Guide to D.H. Lawrence is never finished. Miles is often a shrewd judge of character and his time amongst the plain-speaking folks of the Midwest might have led him to author a smarter book about Lawrence than many of those which I was forced to read during my education. Yes, let’s stick with literature for a while. Straub cites it time and again in If You Could See Me Now as a symbol of belonging and authenticity.
Part of the dread of this story is that Miles’ words simply do not work. He is unable to ever really connect with Arden’s townspeople, and he has even less success with his only fan Zack and his cousin’s daughter Alison Updahl, with whom he has a businesslike fling. We, the readers of his narrative, may be the only people who remotely understand him in the end. Miles has always been an outsider in Arden and he may only identify with literature because it is as unpopular as himself. How fitting that his Muse, Alison Greening, has been similarly exiled from the land of the living, albeit in a literal rather than a literary sense.
Arden initially seems to be immensely more sinister and uncanny than Alison, whose spectre is virtually as featureless as a white sheet. To Miles, the community often appears to be using the murders to trumpet his own lack of belonging, whilst they take no practical steps to protect their young people from the murderer. Arden at times becomes as hokey as Lovecraft’s fish-dystopia Innsmouth: “It was as though some evil visitation had drawn everyone in Arden inside behind locked doors.” The town’s preacher Bertilsson assumes a sinister omniscience in knowing about Miles’ kleptomania apparently by instinct.
Arden was never likely to extend a hearty welcome to Miles, but their reaction to this suspicious outsider is actually remarkably liberal. A serial killer is thinning the youth of the town and Miles is the most compelling suspect. There is already one death to his name and his present behaviour is erratic and at times hysterical. The police investigation is almost comically unhurried and undermanned. In many communities, the parents’ determination to guarantee the safety of their children would dictate that Miles be promptly strung up.
Moreover, in what the pervert Paul calls “a society that makes being normal the most virtuous quality of them all,” Miles is bent upon remaining conspicuous. It never occurs to him that a rural community might be naturally contemptuous of somebody who spends several weeks doing no work. The means of slipping into conversation and blending into society continue to elude him. He appears at Bertilsson’s church both overdressed and stripped bare before the town, sweltering with discomfort but struck cold. He is like an awkward yuppie who has arrived at the party early. The 1980s have not started yet. We are still in an age when American consumerism was orientated around practicalities. Everybody drives the same cars and they drink generic beer.
The same finding is reiterated beyond any doubt: Miles and Arden are irreconcilably different. Duane tells Miles that, “You wouldn’t know a gearbox if you saw it outside of Shakespeare.” Miles tells Arden (in the form of an anonymous prank caller) that, “You have pigshit where you should have an imagination.” Duane rages that, “You always think that what you want to talk about is important. You think that what you want to say is like some kind of god-damned present – huh? – to people like me.” Yet Miles is conceivably in agreement with him when admitting that, “Intellectual labor is a common technique for the avoidance of thinking.”
Miles is probably just as lonely and misunderstood amongst the intellectual laborers of New York as amongst Arden’s ordinary folk. He complains about his New York wife that, “My favourite movies had people shooting guns; hers had people speaking French…” Standing out against any background, he no doubt comports himself as a country bumpkin in superbourgeois New York, whilst remaining aloof and impractical before the rustics of Arden. Rather than seeking rural tranquillity, he seems to have fled the boredom of New York to recapture the excitement of the countryside. New York has apparently floated out of his memory, leaving no reportable trace. A true professor of literature would relish the prospect of weeks of uninterrupted reading. Yet Miles lives like a teenager or an outlaw, roaming the streets and hanging out in his empty house.
The banality of everyday life in Arden may give credence to Zack’s conviction that the Midwest “was where reality was thinnest, waiting for truth to erupt.” Yet New York seems to be equally banal – Miles steals both Professor Maccabee’s fatuously exquisite book and its authorship, before recognising that they are worthless: “I wrote this book and I just decided it’s terrible… Can’t a man even tear up his own book in this bar?” Miles has not even written his own book and he is already tearing it up in proxy, whilst he dismisses a book akin to the one that he aspires to author as, “unreadable… unbearably trivial.”
Perhaps all literature is inauthentic. Miles’ abandonment of Lawrence voices a dismissal of all literature and not merely the hifalutin. As a child, Miles was hated in Arden for being a thief – as an adult, he is hated for being a writer. Perhaps writing is merely a maturer form of theft – one which robs from reality and counterfeits it. If Alison’s “evil” (if that is what it is) can be construed of as pure reality, Miles finds himself fobbed off with something altogether inferior:
At that moment I had an essentially literary experience, brewed up out of Jack London and Hawthorne and Cooper and Disney cartoons and Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm, of panic which quickly passed into fear. The panic was at being lost, but the fear which rushed in after it was simply of the woods themselves, of giant alien nature… It was the most primitive apprehension of evil I had ever known.
For his readers, of course, this experience remains just as “literary” as Shakespeare. Miles initially assumes that he has lapsed into a “betrayal of Alison and betrayal of spirit. I had been spooked, and spooked by literature at that.” He will later change his mind: “at the time – that was important, at the time I had sensed nothing literary but instead the pure and overwhelming terror of evil.” Yet this is not an epiphany but a decision. Authoring Alison’s “evil” in such melodramatic and quite undeniably literary terms will light out to the same territory as Lawrence: inauthenticity.
It eventually becomes apparent that the police investigation is ultimately serving Polar Bears’ interests rather than those of the town. Miles ceases to regard Arden as an amorphous tribal community and he no longer pines for its acceptance. He is no longer inhabiting Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” and finding himself the target of rocks on the streets of Arden.
Miles had previously despised Arden for not having the imagination to believe in him and look beyond the fantasy of an outsider which they had themselves largely authored. His now apparently instinctive belief that he is “on the verge of being crushed by immense forces, by forces of huge and impersonal evil” leads him perilously towards the “pigshit” which he had previously condemned Arden for having instead of “imagination.” Perhaps Alison is as difficult for Miles to comprehend as Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be for the plain folk of Arden:
Evil is what we call the force we can discover when we send our minds as far as they can go: when the mind crumbles before something bigger, harder than itself, unknowable and hostile. Had I not courted that evil, by willing my cousin back into life?
Evil, in other words, is authenticity – something beyond the knowledge contained or reflected in the mind. Yet if Alison returns to this world to deliver a gospel of death, something unexpected happens. Far from exemplifying beauty and perfection, it suddenly turns out that Alison looks the same as at least four of Arden’s existing young women. Alison fades into detail and she is no longer “unknowable.” If the author thieves from reality to produce endless counterfeits, it seems that Alison has been likewise robbed of her authenticity. Miles will even have sex with a substitute Alison by accident.
A writer who views authenticity and evil as one and the same may be too philistine to author the whole truth. There remain outstanding uncertainties over Alison’s means and motive. For a start, Alison’s vengeance is disappointingly banal. If Zack was the killer, his bloodlust would be unutterably banal, but perhaps more disturbing because of its plausibility. Although we were only acquainted with Alison in the preface, it seems unlikely that such a classy girl would degenerate into the squalid vulgarity of torturing girls out of such a petty motive as revenge.
The case against Alison hinges upon timing: the girls are murdered in 1975 because Alison has returned on the anniversary of her death. Yet Miles’ own return to the town may equally trigger a dormant murderous instinct in Duane or Polar Bears. If Alison was the killer, she would surely leave her namesake and the daughter of her enemy until the climax of her vengeance. If Duane was the killer, however, it would be easier for him to kill women who were not his daughter.
Miles will learn that Alison can possess living men: “beneath my animal terror, I felt her hatred and jealousy… It was punishment for that last sad copulation, that spiritless animal joining.” Why this psychic invasion should represent “punishment” rather than loving intimacy is never really explained. Miles explodes with diarrhoea, but if he had a similar allergic reaction to eating strawberries this would not make strawberries “evil.”
Alison may possess Zack during the inconclusive and possibly mischievous frolicking in the quarry. She may possess Alison Updahl when she slips into Miles’ bed. She may likewise possess Zack to kill Duane and Polar Bears, when they perish offstage like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She may possess Zack to kill the “three girls who had an accidental resemblance to her.” Or Duane and Polar Bears may kill these women, just as they had killed and raped Alison herself.
To the local police chief, rape is “almost a normal thing… the way some girls look is an incitement to rape.” Miles will even chase the idea that Duane had invited him to Arden to serve as a decoy. We may not be ready to exclude Miles from our own list of suspects. The psychic Auntie Rinn, supposedly a figure of wisdom, in this respect adds to the confusion. She appears to affirm Miles’ intrinsic goodness, but she and her spirit allies wrongly believe that he had “killed” Alison Greening. It would be surely natural for somebody in the vicinity of Arden to be emotionally affected by the hideous deaths of its young women, but the murders cannot seem to stick in Miles’ mind. It does not occur to him to ensure that the unpredictable Alison Updahl is taking steps to protect herself from a violent death in her lonely farmstead (it does not occur to her either). Miles seems to be missing some unspecified but important faculty, and to our minds this may tick several boxes of the textbook psychopath.
With gross insensitivity, Miles will flatten this labyrinth to achieve a single and not wholly convincing conclusion: Alison is “evil.” Yet Alison returns to Earth as the traditional impassive apparition, to do nothing other than soundlessly watch over Miles. He admits that, “She seemed utterly normal; she looked like an ordinary young woman.” During Alison’s pseudo-exorcism, her appearance is described in curiously neutral terms: “She was not smiling, but it was as if she were. Her gravity encompassed and suggested all feeling.”
Face to face with Alison, Miles reports that, “I understood that she would rather have me dead, but that Duane’s daughter, her namesake, was the reason I would live.” From the perspective of the sentient dead, it might seem unimportant whether Miles lives or dies, but Alison here seems to consent to the death of her authenticity. She will live again in the person of Alison Updahl and in the pages of Miles’ “memoir.” It seems unlikely that an immaterial being with demonic strength would be repelled by fire, but having authored the most simplistic story in which a hero kills a demon and gets the girl, Miles drives off towards the magnificent open road. Reality triumphs: his car breaks down.