Italo Calvino’s writing is probably the furthest from purebred horror (as represented by, say, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot) that we’ll get to this month. The reading was Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, a collection of short writings that ends up giving a sort of slideshow of Calvino’s entire career. Beginning his writing career in Fascist Italy, Calvino’s early writings are little Kafkaesque fables that were among my favorite readings in the collection, usually focused on the paradoxes of wartime animosity. (A particular favorite of mine is “Conscience”, in which a soldier joins the army in order to kill a specific member of the enemy forces who has personally wronged him. Forced instead to kill enemy forces arbitrarily, he feels horrible about this, and when he runs into the personal enemy after the war has ended, he ‘murders’ the man to clear his conscience about the other killings.) Caught in the unpleasant world that was post-WWII Italian politics, Calvino’s writings reflect the problems of a society being drawn into a consumer structure even while trying to remain true to some sort of Communist vision. His more mature works are varied in structure, many of them musings on the nature of society in terms of the processes of consumption and even the nature of the universe. Calvino has a great skill for invoking the individual consciousness in the mechanisms of the cosmos. He is also occasionally obnoxiously pedantic, as with a series of faked interviews with historical figures like Montezuma and Henry Ford. One gets the feeling that this collection was very much cobbled together, with a lot of gems but also a few duds.
So how does this relate to horror? Well, like with Saki, I’m not so convinced it’s a direct fit. (I’ve pre-screened the rest of the readings so this shouldn’t happen again.) However, there is definitely an equally macabre sensibility to Calvino’s writing. This has got me thinking: although we define as somewhat separate the ‘horror’ genre, it seems to me that most literary fiction must on some level engage with the themes of horror. Not just obvious examples like Macbeth—take War and Peace for example. I don’t think anyone would instinctively see the relation between Tolstoy and Tobe Hooper, but there are a number of elements in Tolstoy’s epic—the changing symbolism of dreams and visions, the horrors of the battlefield (and the prison march), the city under siege, the experience of avoiding, and finally succumbing to, death—that are explored more in depth in horror. Unlike, say, science fiction or westerns (no disrespect to either genre), which rely on specific content, horror is available to some degree all over the place—it shares this trait with comedy and melodrama. So in a sense, a horror analysis is more a way of analyzing a work than an analysis of s specific type of work—not unlike a gender analysis or a ecocritical analysis. We focus on how the macabre elements are mobilized, and more important what that use of macabre elements means for the work’s reading of society. With Calvino, you get a reflection of the anxieties of Italian culture at the time—first concerns over the war and its legacy, and then concerns over the immobility of the Christian Democrats and PCA locked in struggle with each other, and finally a lament on the fate of a world that has been apparently unable to resist the temptations of consumerism.
THE LAST CHANNEL
The story starts with the absence of a television remote:
“My thumb presses down independently of any act of will: moment by moment, but at irregular intervals, I feel the need to push, to press, to set off an impulse sudden as a bullet; if this is what they meant when they granted me partial insanity, they were right. But they are wrong if they imagine there was no plan, no clearly thought-out intention behind what I did.”
The narrative of the insane person is a clear sub-genre of horror, running at least back to some truly great examples by Poe. But whereas Poe is preoccupied with others—the old man that was killed, the dead wife, the insulting Fortunato—all we get about the narrator is his absent television remote. This is the obsession of modern society—Lady Macbeth’s stained hands have been replaced with channel-surfing.
We learn that we’re reading a report intended for the appeal court, granting weight to the narrator’s claim to rationality. We then get what is to be expected, a defense of channel-switching. It is not, the narrator claims, an inability to think beyond a few seconds; rather it is an effort to produce an overarching narrative that stretches across all channels, a reaching toward some ultimate truth that rests “out there in the ether on a frequency I don’t know, perhaps it will be lost in space without my being able to intercept it. … Right now the only relationship I can establish with my story is a negative relationship: that of rejecting other stories, discarding all the deceitful images they offer me.”
The remote is the bridge to these realities; the narrator begins to walk the city, pointing the remote out at it in an effort to construct the city and the world as a narrative related to himself, “not the threatening and obsessive malice I have been accused of.” He then lapses into an explanation of his behavior that has been supplied to him by others: he sees everything as homogenous, identical. No, he claims, it’s the differences that matter to him.
The story then develops in an interesting direction: he begins dating one Volumnia, and likes her so much he even “gave the remote control a rest” but soon he “began to wonder whether the small cracks, the misunderstandings, the embarrassments … might not be interpreted as ill omens for our future prospects, that is that our happiness might contain within it that sense of contrivance and tedium you find in a bad TV serial.” I think this is an interesting distinction: he doesn’t delusionally think that life is television; rather, he thinks that it might be as pathetic as television.
“Yet I never lost my conviction that Volumnia and I were made for each other: perhaps on another channel a couple identical to ourselves but to whom destiny had granted just slightly different gifts were about to embark on a life a hundred times more attractive than ours . . . ” So in this spirit he raises the remote right at the pivotal moment of the wedding, and his actions are misunderstood as a rejection, when he only intended them as an affirmation, not just of the marriage, but of the potentially better marriage on another channel.
“Perhaps on that channel beyond all channels we didn’t break up.” Here, she doesn’t understand his actions. Everything seems off. He wanders the city. “I had realized that I must begin to work from the top down: if things were going wrong on all channels, there must be a last channel unlike the others where the leaders, perhaps not so different from these here, but with some small variation … were able to stop the cracks that open in the foundations, the reciprocal distrust, the degeneration of human relationships”. A parody, perhaps, of the assumption that all life’s problems can finally be traced to politics. Of the belief that an ideal politics is possible.
But naturally the police have been watching this strange man with the remote for a while, and as he moves on the Heads of State they grab him, “despite my protests that I didn’t intend to stop the ceremony, only wanted to see what they were showing on the other channel, for curiosity’s sake, just for a few seconds.”
This story definitely creeps me out, and I think what’s most disturbing about it is the religious conviction of the narrator, the idea that there is something being accomplished by his actions, that by changing how he’s viewing he’s actually doing anything. The story works off the all-too-real problem that viewing takes the place of action in certain kinds of visually-oriented societies, by taking it to a hyperbolic extreme.
Overall, there’s not much to say, because Calvino doesn’t do anything new with the horror elements of his stories, he simply uses them. His writing is generally impeccable, his ideas are new, and his plots are fascinating. In terms of the general metrics of literature, both books I’ve read by Calvino are great, and I’ve every reason to believe he’s a consistently stunning author. In terms of horror, he has little if anything to contribute.
Tomorrow we return to genuine horror fare with another one of the turn-of-the-century set: Arthur Machen.
All quotations from Numbers in the Dark by Italo Calvino, English translation copyright 1995 Tim Parks.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.