Monday, October 19, 2015

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984)

The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein (1984): The Ceremonies isn't the greatest horror novel ever written, but it may be the greatest horror novel ever written in which the stakes are the survival of the world. There were a lot of those apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic horror novels in the late 1970's and 1980's, during the later nuclear-war-fear years. I'd probably give the edge to The Ceremonies over all of them, 1980's or otherwise, though Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon and Midnight Sun would offer stiff competition.

T.E.D. Klein is a Top-Ten American horror-writing talent despite his meager output: this novel; the four novellas collected in Dark Gods (1985); the novella The Ceremonies is based on, "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1973); and maybe 200 pages of ephemera. Horror readers sit and wait, hoping that second novel announced in 1985 will some day see publication.

The Ceremonies looms large for a number of reasons. It's beautifully written. Its allusions, intertexts, and interpolations of what sometimes seems to be the entire history of horror fiction are fascinating, keenly observed, and essential to the unfolding of the plot. The plot itself is expertly machined, building slowly until the climax explodes in the last thirty pages or so. The characterization of players minor and major is deft and witty and occasionally heart-breaking. The novel follows certain tropes and conventions while exploding others along the way. It's structurally and stylistically complex in an unshowy manner -- its use of three distinct, linked narrative streams in three different voices and tenses, for one, has thematic significance that only dawns on the reader gradually as the novel and its voices accumulate in one's head to increasingly disturbing effect. And it's capable of both cosmic uneasiness and gross-out horror, the latter used sparingly but to great effect, especially in the climactic scenes.

To appreciate The Ceremonies fully, one should read at least some of the texts it interacts with. But if one doesn't do so, one of the main characters labours away on a graduate English thesis on horror fiction throughout the novel. Along the way, we get his thoughts on texts ranging from The Castle of Otranto to The Haunting of Hill House. Some of these texts are important to the novel as a whole. All of the observations are, at the very least, interesting. Some are even hilarious. Because one can certainly agree with the protagonist's view that The Castle of Otranto sucks, or that Dracula stops being interesting once the novel exits Transylvania.

The protagonist of the novel, Jeremy Freirs, takes lodging on a farm near the small New Jersey town of Gilead for the summer in order to finish his M.A. thesis. His landlords are Sarr and Deborah Poroth, members of a small Christian sect that settled in the area more than a hundred years earlier. The sect bears some resemblance to the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Amish, though the Poroths have a truck and indoor plumbing. But it's not the Poroths or their sect or even Jeremy that are the real problem. 

The real problem is something that waited in the surrounding woods for 5000 years to be born again, something that spent centuries clinging to a tree branch in the distorted heart of a section of the forest initially called by the adjacent Native Americans "The Place of Burning." No one ever lived there or near there until settlers started to encroach in the 19th century. Then the thing's waiting ended, along with its life, and the Ceremonies began. And even in the 19th century, the forested heart of darkness sat only about 50 miles from New York City. 

Something beyond all measure fell into or broke through or seeped up into our universe; the novel leaves the thing's means of entry a "mystery." But the novel also suggests that the thing somehow also broke through into human mythology, folklore, rituals, stories, and even folk dances. Fragments of the rituals needed to resurrect the being hide in all these things, waiting to be reassembled and used so that the thing can be reassembled and reborn. Even a Coney Island Ferris Wheel and a grumpy cat fit into the Ceremonies.

One of the keen pleasures of The Ceremonies is its combination of mystery and precision. We're taken through various rituals and preparations and signs and portents. Strange, tarot-like cards are read. Complex ceremonies that must be followed with an anal-retentive attention to detail are enacted. But the mysteries of what awaits, of what will be done to the world and how it will change, remain to the very end of the text. At no time does Klein feel the need to have the ultimate antagonist of the novel deliver an expositional speech. 

And even the acolyte of the antagonist remains vague and refreshingly unglib to the very end. And this henchman, Rosie -- this short, fat, seemingly jolly old man -- is one of the novel's many terrific creations. He's awful. He's also pitiful, but only in terms of what he was before he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, nearly 100 years before the main action of the novel takes place. The third-person description of his thoughts doesn't give us the exterior charm of so many antagonists, from Hannibal Lecter all the way back to Milton's Satan. We see Rosie from inside, a manipulative and remorseless engine of death. Well, death for all humanity. If humanity were lucky. Which it probably won't be if Rosie gets his way. There are worse things than death.

The indispensable references for the novel are several late-19th and early-20th-century stories by the Welsh horror-writer/mystic Arthur Machen. The novel's title refers to three sets of ceremonies named but never fully explained in Machen's (mostly) first-person tour de force "The White People"; Machen's novella is also discussed by Jeremy in the novel itself. A short, cryptic Machen piece called "The Ceremony" also adds to one's appreciation of the novel, as do Machen's "The Novel of the Black Powder" and "The Great God Pan." These are all in the public domain, and worth reading regardless of whether or not you read The Ceremonies

But you should read The Ceremonies. You really should. It's both its own evocative, poetic, ruthless piece of horror and a terrific act of play with what sometimes seems to be every major horror and Gothic work ever written, either explicitly or implicitly. The Ceremonies rewards close and careful reading. It rewards multiple readings. And it has a killer inversion of a horror trope that horror readers will probably associate most with Stephen King's The Shining, as creatures almost never associated with goodness nonetheless ride to the rescue by accident, driven by instinctual fury, even as Nature itself comes under existential assault. Highly recommended.

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