By Peter Rawlik
Dedicated to Cailin Kiernan, who inspired it.
A Man of Letters by Marcus Theodore Page
Arkham: Witch Hill Press, 20**. $49.95, Hardcover, 400 Pages.
Reviewed by E.P. Fyte
It should be obvious to regular readers of my reviews that I am not a fan of the fiction written by Marcus Page. I found his novel, Dark of Night, pretentious and derivative of the worst parts of Robert Blake and Ward Phillips. I called Page’s A Mourning Shadow, “A solemn letter from a love-stricken teen with an Oedipal complex.” His short story collection, Whispering Shades, was a juvenile exercise in literary hero worship and imitation that, despite its immaturity, likely garnished the kind of toxic attention of which he so obviously was in pursuit. In my mind, Marcus Page had been set on the shelf with Chalmers, Denbrough, Undercliffe, and others who have afflicted the public with their overly dramatic and self-indulgent prose.
So, it came as some surprise when editor Kate Lynn sent me A Man of Letters, Page’s posthumously published account of his last days at Carter House. When I asked why she would send a copy of the manuscript to me, Lynn bluntly informed me that the cover letter to the manuscript conveyed Page’s request that I be the first and only critic to review his final literary work. Written as a reluctant journal, A Man of Letters provides sufficient evidence to suggest Page was slowly descending into what can only be described as a type of clinical depression. Exacerbated by a diagnosed neurological disorder, the associated medication, alcohol abuse, creative process issues and financial concerns, it is clear the isolation of the Carter House and the events that occurred, or were at least presented by Page to have occurred, were responsible for his being crushed under a fallen bookcase. Lynn’s introduction states that Page’s death was ruled an accident, but I have my doubts. That the manuscript was posted on the day of his death makes me think that Page had come to realise that his end in some manner or other was inevitable.
Technically, authorship of A Man of Letters should be shared by both Page and the scholar Jo Shea. Shea spent a considerable time at the estate, while writing her biography of Randolph Carter, and apparently amassed a history of the Carter House, including a record of odd events associated with the property, spanning nearly four centuries. Page incorporated a significant number of these events into his journal, counter-playing them against his own odd experiences while staying at the estate. That A Man of Letters may be classified as fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or history may be meaningful to critics and scholars, many of whom will attempt to pigeonhole it as a Carterian weird tale or a Snellian paranormal apologetic, but in my humble opinion, Page has created a new classic for fans of the weird to marvel at.
Much of this book is about writing and the act of writing; it is also about the limits of the first-person narrative as it relates to the truth. Page reminds us that “tales in the first-person narrative are told from memory and, therefore by definition, are unreliable.” Such is the relationship between the reader and the narrative in A Man of Letters. It is plain that Page, given his mental state, is far from a reliable narrator. Moreover, Page, through his actions, makes us doubt him and all his statements: He refuses to discuss certain past events; he drinks heavily; and he abuses his medication. Most telling, he claims to be unable to produce any fiction while staying at Carter House, but when his partner, the artist Clive Bayer, confronts him with a new story, “Hollow Words”, written in Page’s own hand, Page insists that he has no memory of writing it.
It is in a state of complete distrust of Page that readers are presented with a series of events which may be interpreted as evidence of preternatural forces at work in the house or, more importantly, the estate as a whole. The first of these is an attempt by Page and Bayer to walk from the house to a nearby store, which is just a mile away. That the two men are unable to accomplish this task, a task Page was previously able to accomplish alone, results in a passage reminiscent of Blake’s The Labyrinth of Naught or Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Such tales, in which a simple, mundane task is made fantastic by the apparent intervention of some malignant force that prevents its completion, have become a common literary trope, but Page’s reliance on it here can be excused by the significant discussion that occurs between Page and Bayer, acknowledging the existence of these other works, which may actually have influenced how they interpreted what was happening. Interestingly, when Page offers a plausible explanation for this implausible event, the reader, has by this point, learned that the author’s point of view is simply not to be trusted and is, therefore, ironically forced to side with Bayer and accept that something preternatural has occurred. The reader has been gently tricked into suspending disbelief.
Mirroring several themes from Koji Suzuki’s Ring Trilogy, the conflict, between Bayer’s belief that something supernaturally malevolent is occurring and Page’s unwillingness to accept such a proposition, drives the majority of the narrative, and allows Page to incorporate Shea’s accounts of murder, madness, and strange phenomena associated with the estate. That Page borrows heavily from events related by Shea about famed mystic Étienne-Laurent de Marigny – who, in his papers, tells of receiving a letter from the Carter House in 1922 and then being continually plagued by letters that would turn up, unopened and unread, throughout his home in the most impossible of places for the next five years – is forgiven by the skill with which he describes how Bayer’s studio succumbs to the forces apparently at work in the house:
The room was empty, except for me, and the bed and the art deco dresser, and the letters. They were everywhere, inches thick, like a blanket of moss on a forest floor. They were identical to the packet I had found in my room the month before and identical to the ones I had found in the desk in the study prior to that. They were not the least bit yellowed or brittle with age. The return address, the address of the Carter House, was handwritten in ink, fresh and crisp. The same was true of the delivery address: Mr. Marcus Page, General Delivery, Arkham, Massachusetts. Were it not for the fact that each one bore a postmark from Arkham, dated in the first quarter of the 20th century, they could have been written yesterday and delivered that morning. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. I didn’t make a single sound. I had been expecting this – well, not this exactly, but something. After all that had happened to us, after all that I had read in Shea’s manuscript about the things that happened here in this house, something like this, it was inevitable. I shut the door, went downstairs, and poured myself a drink and then another. It was hours before I realised I had lost Clive, that the house had taken him away from me, consumed him, and erased him from my life, as if he had never existed.
Some will complain that this is yet another example of a writer writing about the angst of writing, but this is only a superficial analysis of the text. Indeed, Page is talking about writing, but he is talking about a form of writing that rarely exists in these days of word processors, spell checking programs and on-line encyclopedias. Page is actually putting words on a page, putting pen to paper, and the process is very different than using electronic media. Indeed, the results are different, as well. The handwritten journal page serves to preserve the raw, unedited and unexpurgated train of thought that flows from a writer, which, in formal fiction, would then be rewritten in a later draft. This manner also preserves the unexpected errors that creep and seep in, such as when Page begins to slowly succumb to a seizure and the text written during this slow failure of his faculties shows its signs. In a novel, the author would describe such events and it would be made plain to the reader what was happening through heavy-handed exposition. In the journalistic style, the breakdown in spelling and syntax invokes a range of emotions in the reader – most notably, a growing sense of frustration that echoes Page’s own, until, that is, the narrative comes to an unintelligible halt, as in Page’s recollection of one of his dreams:
“Bleeding,” he said, as if he had never heard the word before, as if it were from a foreign language.
“You’re bleeding, Clive. There’s blood on your arms and legs, soaking through your clothes. Your bleeding. Why are you bleeding?”
And, knowing that this was a dream, and that this conversation was nothing more than part of that dream, I can still remember what he said to me. Letting the letters fall from his fingers, letting them fall to the floor and settle around his blood-soaked feat, Clive Bayer said, “He cut me, Mark, the Prince, the Sepia Prints cut me, and took my flesh, made me his.”
I try to speak; I open my mouth, to ask him to explain, to tell me what he was trying to say. Thass when I feldt it, the knive inn betwen my shoulders, cutttin, takin mi flesh. Ntil, i cloud knot stann….
If Marcus Page had written his fiction like this, perhaps he would have achieved some better notice amongst the literati.
In A Man of Letters, Marcus Page has written a masterpiece. If there are to be any negative criticisms, it is perhaps one that I have complained about before. Page’s characters are often indistinguishable from one another, even when they are speaking; I have found it difficult to discern one actor from another, finding, instead, that they often meld together into a literary gestalt not unlike the characters in a David Lynch film. However, while that is an issue in his novels, it is not so much a concern in this narrative, as Page clearly acknowledges he cannot ever hope to do more than translate the other characters through memory. Consequently, while Page, Bayer, and the other characters all seem to speak with the same voice, it is because Page is speaking for them. Similarly, just as Randolph Carter’s fiction was mostly devoid of any significant female presence, so is Page’s final work. The only contemporaneous female figure is that of Lara Sing, the owner of Carter House, who only ever intrudes by telephone. There is, of course, Doctor Shea, but she is consigned to the past and we only know what little Page tells us of her. I suspect that Page’s interactions with any members of the female persuasion are significantly edited, not because they are unimportant or unpleasant, but rather because Page himself is incapable of finding their voice. Thankfully, the tale we are presented does not suffer for the lack of women.
My only other complaint – and mind you this has nothing to do with Page’s writing, but rather with the systematic and even malicious manner in which I have been the subject of an abusive viral marketing campaign. It was amusing, at first, and I don’t know how they do it, but I really must protest. These things are in my mail, my office, my home, even my bed. This constant influx of letters from the Carter House, it simply must cease.
Editor’s Note: E.P. Fyte completed this review on March 12, 2008. Three days later, his home in Kingsport, Massachusetts was consumed by a fire, fuelled by his vast collection of books and papers. Fyte’s body was completely burnt beyond recognition and identification was based on the recovery of medical implants. On August 20, 2008 Kate Lynn left her office in Arkham for lunch and was never seen again. The following spring, Lynn’s Volkswagen Beetle was recovered by workers dredging the Manuxet River. While her body was not inside, her purse and identification were intact, surrounded and preserved by the mass of water-logged papers that had swollen to fill the interior of the vehicle. Clive Bayer is a successful commercial artist residing in Partridgeville, where he has been happily married since 1992. He has no recollection of ever meeting Marcus Page. Despite frequent inquiries to the publisher, Marcus Page’s A Man of Letters has yet to be released.
Bio: Peter Rawlik is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Science Fiction, and has had fiction published in Crypt of Cthulhu, Talebones, Morpheus Tales, Dead But Dreaming 2, Horror for the Holidays, and Tales of the Shadowmen, volumes 7 and 8. He has stories forthcoming in HPL Mythos 2: Urban Cthulhu and Undead and Unbound.