Monday, July 8, 2013

Fiends - John Farris (Novel)

I'll be honest with you, dear reader, I'm having trouble starting this review. I'm tempted to tell you everything I know about Mr. Farris as a way to set the stage for my conflicting feelings about him, but as I began the task I realized that he's a difficult man to write about.

He's in his late seventies now, presumably not dead, although his Wikipedia page is rather unhelpful. If you were to go to a used bookstore right now and thumb to the "Also By John Farris" page near the front of whichever of his books you may find banished in the basement you might be lead to believe that his first novel was a shortish thriller/horror called "All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By" published in 1977. That would seem to make sense. His books would appear to fit nicely in the Horror genre, and a shortish novel is par for the course for an author's first book. There's just a small problem with that, though: by 1977 John Farris was already an established author, known for his Southern Gothic novels. His work actually spans back to the mid-fifties, having finished his first novel, Harrison High, (a fairly massive work tackling the then fledgling issue of crime committed by middle-class American youth) at the ripe old age of eighteen.

I guess what I'm trying to say--or at least cleverly illustrate--is that there's more to the professional Farris than a quick perusal of his work on the shelf will show. I could go on--oh, believe me I could--and tell you all about his various impacts in the industry (Stephen King practically wanted to be this guy when he grew up), but I think for my purposes that is enough. Obviously, reading a book or books by any given author is not enough to really "know them," but a reader will at least get a sense of the writer through their work. We understand a little bit about how they see the world, where injustice, excitement, and triumph lie on their personal maps, but with Farris I'm confused. One moment he seems filled with humanity, a great love for people, perhaps even a trust in people, the next moment he throws down a block of gory, detached, almost hateful prose as the characters we have grown to care for are torn apart without even the faintest feeling of sadness. On this page his politics seem conservative and rural, the next he is as liberal as a lesbian abortion specialist. Consider two passages, both from novels by Farris:

"That was a good summation you made at the school, Amy. You put together what we knew, and what we suspected, and what we hoped was true, you put it all together beautifully and it sounded good. But it wasn't the whole truth, because the truth is even more grotesque. We have to let it out though, Amy. We have to let it breath."

Do you hear the power of his writing? The simplicity and honesty of it? Now, the same man wrote this. The girl in the passage is fifteen, the man is in his thirties. They have never met before, but he knows who she is and is there to rescue her. She is wearing a hospital gown, so she is all but nude:

"[She] struck at him, then flinched when he brought his hand back. He kissed her instead, tenderly and with as much lust as he thought she might be familiar with at her age. [She] found this new approach confusing, shocking and indefensible, and as she grew slack in his arms gradually the kiss became a comfort to her. With his own eyes closed [He] readily lost awareness of her youth; the snug pressure of her uncovered c*** against his body was mature enough, even insinuating."

Ummm, what? Really? Really? That's how he's deciding to deal with this scene? Confusing to say the least.  Perhaps most jarring is his polar interest in literature and spectacle. What does he want these books to be? Page-turners? Allegories? Transcendent compositions? I'm really not sure. Some of the books are transcendent (and we'll get to one of those in a moment), but others...others seem only to exist as vehicles for action and weird ideas.

I realize The Fury was a big hit when it came out, but against his other books I'm happy to see the romp disintegrate into the past. It is a book I read then promplty disposed of mentally. It didn't touch me. It didn't even seem to try. I'm confused by its success, where so many other books of his are largely unknown.

I have no right saying this, as I know the man not at all, but I feel like even he does not have a clear vision of what he's trying to achieve. In this, I think, he is not so much an artist as a creator. There's certainly a connection between the two, but the difference (at least for my uses now) is that the creator creates in order to create, whereas the artist creates in order to have great art. Are his books great art? Yes, at least some of them. Is that the point? Maybe not.

This is much better than the cover of the version I have.
This brings us to one that was great: Fiends. The worst thing about it, regrettably, is the melodramatic title, but I guess that comes with the territory. As I read Fiends I was touched. Not just by the plight of the characters, though I was drawn in completely by them, by also by the possibility the art itself presents. This is art. Real art. Perfect as Horror, but equally compelling as pure fiction. Fiends is not about anything you typically find in a horror story, but there is a familiar sense to the creatures here. The huldufรณlk are from Icelandic myth, and are--as presented here--terrifying. 

This is an usual book. I've read a few reviews of it in which readers were disappointed, having expected something else. I'll tell you what you should expect going in to Farris' Fiends: nothing. Take the high road in your reading for this one. View it as a performance of writing and story-telling more than as some kind of packaged plot. Let our protagonist, the overweight, confident, and strong-willed Marjory, take you into her private self and through her nightmare journey beginning with the kindly--if confused--old man, Art.

This is a book to take in slowly, thoughtfully. That's not to say it isn't exciting or that it doesn't beg you to turn the next page, because it does. What I'm saying is that there is something here beyond the typical. Beyond trying to scare you or excite you or turn you on. I know I have a tendency to exaggerate the quality to work reviewed here, but I'm not going to apologize or even try to correct it when I say that I can't find the words to describe what I find so brilliant about this book. It is, to me, a secret gem buried in-between the passages. I only hope by giving instructions for reading that what I found in it will also reveal itself to you.

My final word to you on this is one I've expressed before: many of the best works ever created are not about what happens next.

-MA 07.08.2013

PS - And yes, I know I've talked about Farris before on this blog, but I chose not to refer to it as I've expanded my knowledge and feelings about his since then, and I feel that my review of Endless Night was inadequate to say the least.

1 comment:

  1. In the book "Fiends" I really wish he would have gotten more deep into the lore of Iceland and gave more explanation about the origin from different perspectives other than the "Unclean children of Eve" because according to all the stories that were told regarding Adam and Eve, this does not make any sense. I also thought it should have mentioned how the belief in the huldofolk impacts the Icelandic society today or at the time the book took place and got more into an investigation of them.