Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Moon Lamp by Mark Smith (1976): Whose Barn? What Barn? My Barn

Often reading bad or mediocre books can hone your reading skills and critical acumen just as much as reading a good book. God knows I've read plenty of the bad and the mediocre, and unfortunately, that's my conclusion of The Moon Lamp, an ostensible "ghost story"  that at times almost casts a bewitching spell of spooks and eeriness, but more often than not veers off into insubstantiality, just like the purported "ghost(s)" of the tale itself. First published in hardcover in 1976, the foil-covered paperback was issued in June 1977 by Avon Books, replete with copy and blurbs that identify the novel as a "classic horror story." How am I still taken in by this kind of publisher swindle?! Honestly, I think it's because Avon generally published work of relative high quality. Also, shiny silver!

Author Mark Smith (b. 1935 in Michigan), with whom I was unfamiliar prior to reading this novel—although I had come across its cover before, and which I featured on a long-ago blogpost—had also published, just a few years prior to Moon, another new-to-me novel called The Death of the Detective, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1974. Further research revealed the 1975 paperback edition of that book was also issued by Avon and also boasted an eye-catching Mylar cover:

I mean, kinda cool, right? This 700-page (highly-lauded) tome is one I've never seen in all my years of haunting used bookstores; nor have I come across any other of Smith's work, which—wait for it!—also includes in their similar design that glowing font, the better to ensnare the unwitting browser and turn him into the prospective buyer. The Middleman and Toyland (below, both 1977 Avon paperbacks) display distressed faces squoze into that typeface, promising suspense, terror, and madness, but after buying and reading Moon because of an unsettling spirit visage and the attendant critical blurbs, I am enormously disinclined to look further into Smith's ouevre, despite, as I'll get into in a moment, his more than capable aptitude for character detail, dialogue, and overall general insight into various sectors of class, ambition, and the vagaries of married life...

In full, Moon Lamp is not a horror novel in any way, nor is it much of a thriller; it's a character study put into motion by spirits of the past. Whether those spirits are imagined or part of the warp and woof of consensual reality make no difference, neither to our main character, nor to the reader. The Lindquist couple, middle-aged Winnie and Gene, have, in the time-honored vintage horror tradition, thrown off the shackles of city life (here, suburban Chicago) to land free and clear in rustic New England, purchasing a Revolutionary War-era home and barn. The setup seemed ripe for a cozy, down-home kind of horror that is quite agreeable this time of year, so despite some narrative awkwardness at first (more on that later), I settled in.

Homesteader wannabes who take up the mantle of the local past more than even the present locals whose families have lived in this town for centuries, the Lindquists enjoy "putting on" dinners and cocktail parties, complete with old-timey recipes, clothes, and of course furnishings, showing off their adopted house, attic, and barn... and the attitudes that go with them. And ex-high school theater teacher Gene enjoys spinning yarns before the fire, imbibing grog and regaling his rueful, amused guests with ghost stories.

The interest of these Lindquists in the house we understood. Or thought we did. But the interest in the ghosts was something else, a fascination far more complicated than it seemed. It was probably no more than the theatricality of the subject that attracted Gene. But what was there about the character of Winne that would explain her interest in the things? 

Penelope, the Lindquists college-age daughter, also partakes in these period recreations, when she's not away at school or canoodling with her boyfriend, Dwight. Dwight is a type that Winnie has seen "already around these parts, college kids who mixed a blue-collar or artsy-craftsy life of old New England with the spirit of Buddha." Dwight says things like "Why should the scientific method be the only way of looking at the world? Why should its laws be the only laws?" which are 100% late-night dorm-room convo questions. Fair enough, because that's exactly who Dwight is. Once Winnie becomes convinced the homestead is the site of at least one spirit, she and Dwight discuss in academic terms telepathy and other paranormal phenomena. *yaaawn*

Now for an actual—or is it?!—ghost, which Winnie thinks she sees while she's walking in the fields near the house, a man hobbling over a small stone wall, straddling it, virtually floating over it, unsure of which side he wants to be on...as if an "some mysterious power or invisible hand had picked him up by the back of the belt while his legs made the motions of walking through air." This sequence is one of the very best in the book (which isn't saying much)... but it comes 40 pages in and there's not very much after that, because now Smith is writing about another aging woman who has to confront what her marriage, her life, her very self have become. Winnie and Penelope develop a somewhat contentious relationship, leading to one of those long conversations between mother and daughter about disappointment: "Life is awfully strange, awfully cruel, and it doesn't make an awful lot of sense."

We learn that Winnie was previously married, and Smith takes a long detour to give us the whole story of her first husband, a man called Sneevy. This section of Moon Lamp reads like The Adventures of Augie March, rich and lusty and overstuffed to the point of exhaustion about a knockabout kinda guy in Chicago—Chicago, that somber city—always looking for the good money, the next adventure, sprawling through the middle of the century, military service, working hard in various jobs, palling around in a beloved car, drinking whiskey, playing penny-ante poker and chainsmoking, blowing money with his best gal, his buddy, and his buddy's gal, what a cock of the walk that Sneevy was on Friday nights! She begins to moon over him, comparing him and Gene, wondering where Sneevy is today, surely he'd have been more ambitious than Gene (who she suspects, but doesn't really care, is having an affair). Oh, how she had loved Sneevy, why had she ever left him, could they communicate... telepathically...? Is he trying to send her messages through some ghostly intermediary...? *yaaawn*

Smith's style is an odd one right from the very first sentence: "We all knew the same thing about the Lindquists." Sounds like country folk gossiping at the general store about the odd yet endearing new couple in town, but I wasn't really digging it; forced and unclear rather than illuminating. The reader never learns who this "we" is, or rather why it is, and eventually Smith turns traditional omniscient narrator because the story turns interior in a way not not visible to townspeople (there needed to be more contrast between styles). Smith's not very sympathetic either: "Winnie and Gene had no stake or interest in the land itself, had not much more feeling for it than the city people spending weekends in the country." I feel like he could've utilized some subtle ghostly vengeance on the Lindquists, like embarrassing them at one of their poser parties or something, but alas, no.

Smith is a classic over-writer, a writerly-writer, writing not just what's happening, but also what isn't happening, like Winnie's daydreams and impressions and wishes and wonderings and who the ghosts were in their previous lives. So much energy put into detailing events that are not even occurring, god, the literary equivalent of a dream sequence or the fake jump scare—without even a real scare that follows up. 

Which leads me to this: the creepiest scene, with the longest buildup, is simply a fakeout. Winnie watches a flickering light outside in the darkness, and ponders what it could be, imagining Sneevy, but it's not a ghost creeping up on the house, it's the reflection of her fucking husband Gene as he comes up behind her! What a bunch of bullshit. Unforgivable. It's the basis of the dustjacket for the 1976 hardcover, which tells you something of the drama of the scene... but not its utter snuffing out of would could've been a terrific scare.

I don't want to criticize this novel for something it's not, so let me say that I didn't really like what it was.  Despite some engaging cultural observations by Smith about trying to fit into a new community, about American class and economic mobility, about the interior lives of married people or the unsatisfied self, The Moon Lamp simply doesn't hold together as a novel. The climax is muted, confusing, not even close to a powerful wrap-up of disparate events. Why did Smith even use the ghost story/haunted house as a springboard for his work of marital woes? This book is not a patch on that great work of a year or two later, Siddons's The House Next Door, which approaches many of these same concerns in a much less ostentatious style and much more modern manner—and is much, much spookier and savvier to boot. The Moon Lamp is a major disappointment for anyone looking for seasonal chills and thrills, or anything else for that matter.

The author in the Sixties


C.A. Mehrlein said...

Sounds rather dull, like the author was trying to deconstruct the usual haunted house story but all that's left is a domestic drama we've read a million times. I didn't see it on the right hand side labels, but did you ever come across Kingsley Amis' "The Green Man"? It does the domestic drama meets ghost angles in a much interesting way. It's been a while since I've read it but I remember it being much more lively.

Ron Clinton said...

I've picked up and put back a nice shiny silver copy of THE MOON LAMP at a local bookstore at least a half-dozen times. It looked vaguely interesting and yet, and yet...
Good to know my gut instinct was on the mark.

highwayknees said...

@Ron Clinton: Same here. That cover was intriguing-but the blurb never got my interest. Thanks for the validation and doing all the work for us Will! On the other hand-I do wonder about that TOYLAND...I'm sure I've seen that one a few times. Probably made the right decision there too it seems.

Will Errickson said...

Have a copy of GREEN MAN but haven’t gotten to it yet, good to know!