The OF Blog: Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings

The first case of which any record survives was reported in a small-town daily in upstate New York. Tabitha Van Order, the brief item reads, age five, was brought into the county hospital's emergency room with "strange markings" on her face and hands. "She was playing with the newspaper," her mother reported. "I thought it was just the ink rubbed off on her." But the marks did not respond to soap or turpentine. At the hospital, initial examination determined that the marks were subcutaneous, and the child was admitted for observation. They looked, according to the triage nurse, as though someone had been striking the child with a large rubber stamp. "They look like bruises," the emergency-room physician told the Journal reporter. The department of social services was looking into the case. (p. 11)

The opening story to Terrence Holt's debut story collection In the Valley of the Kings, " 'Ο Λογοσ", serves as a represenative piece. The opening paragraph quoted above sets the stage for an apocalyptic tale to follow, as one by one, "word" by "word," people are infected with a new plague that is carried not by microbes, but instead by the etching of "the word" on their flesh. Holt's matter-of-fact, clinical prose (he has alternated between being a writing instructor, medical doctor, and storywriter for the past 15 years) is all the more chilling here because the reader knows something dreadful is happening, but the prose purposely understates this in order to allow the reader's imagination to create more and more dreadful consequences for what is transpiring within the story. By the time the final paragraph is reached, the tension has built to the point that one begins to wonder if the narrator has gone mad...or if we will.

The second story, "My Father's Heart," is much shorter (5 pages compared to the 16 devoted for the first story), but it too contains an unsettling image:

I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Blooksucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping raffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up. (p. 29)
The imagery would have been at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story; the juxtaposition of the mudane (taking the bus) and the unreal (the heart being sentient and prone to outbursts) serving to underscore the strangeness of the situation. The resolution to this story is emotional, not as it was in the first, but in a way that reminded me of how family members, whether or not their hearts literally act for themselves, clash and bond over crises.

The third story, "Charybdis," takes the story of Oddysseus's shipwreck and transports it to a futuristic Jupiter mission. The prose here is very evocative, as Holt creates a sense of loss, bafflement, confusion, and boredom, as this paragraph reveals:

I have been floating here in silence since, thinking of my alternatives, to stop at Jupiter or travel on: the journy outward, into silence so thick as to become something: a pressure, a presence here with me. As weight surrounds a mass, so silence would fill the air around me, falling in, rising from blood rustling in my ears to become a whisper, a word spoken, a cry, the roar of burning and finally the crash of everything that falls. Beyond Pluto, silence would be more than absence of speech: even zero has meaning, but what is zero taken to an infinite power? And on what fingers do I count it? Thought I could hear the singing of the sphere, see colors off the spectrum, touch nothing: how could I tell? and whom? (p. 40)

From this, Holt constructs a tale that is as much about the effects of passivity as action. What are the effects of pressure, real and imagined? How would we break if put into such a situation? Would it be a glorious thing, or a tedious one? The questions raised from reading this story added to its written prose.

"Aurora" is in many ways a complementary piece to "Charybdis." Set in the rings of Saturn, the story again plays with the notion of transcribing human experience with the near Sublime. But whereas "Charybdis" captured a darker side, "Aurora" tends to focus on the lighter, more numinous qualities of a rapturous moment:

On another revolution I see it rise again out of the Ring before me. On its long outward reach, as it dwindles to a star it seems to slow; it seems to stop; it is not falling. It is motionless against the stars. I am aching with envy.

I know it must be falling.

It hangs, as if motionless, but holds its station, high above and far ahead. It is falling. I stare at it, my cameras resisting commands to turn to the ice. I am fascinated. Why has it climbed so high? What is this within me that yearns? (p. 68)
"Eurydike" refers not just to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also to the haunting nature of some of our innermost desires. As with the other tales, Holt uses a first-person narrative to create the sense of bafflement and intrepid curiosity:

I looked: only the corridor receding into deeper shadow, the light flickering, and in the walls everywhere vague shapes were shifting, like frescoes long since painted over struggling to return. I shuddered, and as I did the shapes within the walls all shuddered too. The cold was coming back, the systems continuing their fall toward equilibrium. A wave flowed down the corridor, beckoning. The figures writhed. (p. 98)
The centerpiece of In the Valley of the Kings is the eponymous novella that comprises 1/3 of this 224 page collection. In it, Holt touches upon several of the themes alluded to in the comments above and he expands them into an exploration of the concepts of immortality. Using the Eyptian pharoanic tombs as a setting, Holt crafts a first-person narrative that is superb. The feel of the narrator's desire to uncover the mystery behind an unnamed pharoah and his tomb, the quest to discover if that pharoah had uncovered a mystical Word (perhaps a reference to the first story in passing?), the desire to possess something of immortality - these elements strike near to the heart of several human motives in life. In many ways, these motives in our lives come close to the narrator's, as he describes them:

At first, I ignored it. At night, as I tried to sleep, it would pulse faintly, tinged with red at its borders. At times it disappeared entirely. Now it is always before me, always there at the center of my vision, a pool of ink, a hole opened in the world, a tunnel toward which I constantly move. I know already where it leads. (p. 118)

"Scylla" is the second-shortest story in this collection at ten pages. It is in many ways a reflection upon "Charybdis," in that instead of being sucked into a maelstrom, the character passes perilously close to the insatiable claws of what is referred to as "the Law." The narrator experiences a loss to this "Law," only in which this entity (being?) bears the inevitability of Loss and perhaps Death:

And so this was what the Law must be, I told myself, and felt already the strength of its claim on me. I felt it in the easy acquiescence to the loss of my ship, a ship I had not even had the chance to go down with. At low tide, I prowled the breakwater, but not a mast stuck out above the glassy harbor. A flock of pigeons broke from the steeple, wheeled once above the seaward channel, and I knew then that my ship had gone that way, and I remembered suddenly that none of us, in our eagerness for shore, had bothered to secure her. She had simply drifted out to sea. And this, I knew, must be the Law as well - not the tide, but our forgetting of our duty. (pp. 195-196)
The final story, "Apocalypse," presents readers with a look at what follows when the party is over, when the anguish, grief, love, despair, confusion, hope, and desire have played their courses. It is in some respects about coping, about reconciliation, and of course, about the ancient meaning of the word "apocalypse":

Part of me feels certain this cannot be, that all of us are in a dream, a mass psychosis: the second week of January will come after all, and we will waken, grinning at ourselves. The other part of me feels the emptiness in those words. (p. 206)
But the end of dreams and self-delusions is not necessarily bad. In many respects, the final paragraph to "Apocalyse" could serve as the epigraph for In the Valley of the Kings:

But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what wwe would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars. (p. 223)
Through it all, In the Valley of the Kings is a true tour de force of exploring the human condition(s). At times, I was reminded of the best of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Holt's prose tantalizes. It hints, it promises, but at the end there are no true revelations within the text itself. It is up to the reader to fill in the spots purposely left blank. It is up to the reader to provide meaning, to establish hope, to ward off despair. Holt's collection simply is great, provocative storytelling at its best and it deserves serious consideration for any and all awards for which it may be eligible.

Publication Date: August 2009 (US). Hardcover.

Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company


Terry Weyna said...

Wow, I absolutely need to read this book. Thanks for the well-written and well-considered review, Larry -- I would otherwise have missed this book.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm lucky someone on a forum I visit made me aware of this collection. I browsed through the description, realized that I probably would love it, and I did. Glad you enjoyed the review, Terry :D

hysterical paroxyms said...

Terrific review. I discovered Holt after reading an excerpt from 'Scylla,' and it sounds like the rest of his collection is just as captivating. Cheers.

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