Monday, February 11, 2013

One Could Wait Forever For It To Drip: A Review of "The Glass Floor"

One of my goals for this blog is to write in-depth reviews of all of Stephen King's books and movies, as well as his short stories, major pieces of nonfiction, comics, and whatever else I decide is review-worthy.

This is going to take a while.

I'm cool with that, because after all, it's fun, and having fun is the best reason to spend the required time on a project that's apt to take (by my calculations) a decade or more.

In any case, we're going to be starting the short-story component of the project in earnest with this post -- this very one! -- before your eyes today.  The reason for that is simple: "The Glass Floor" was King's first professionally-published story.  Where else would you start, if not at the beginning?

Some people would probably argue that I should start with "I Was A Teenage Grave-Robber" (also known as "In A Half-World of Terror"), which is sometimes listed as King's first professionally-published story.  That story, however, was published in a fanzine, which is by definition not a professional publication.  That's not to say that there are no quality fanzines, nor is it to say that "I Was A Teenage Grave-Robber" is entirely without merit.  Neither of those things would be true.  But they'd be mostly true; the vast majority of fanzines I've ever run across are shabby as hell, and having read "I Was A Teenage Grave-Robber," I can say that it is best viewed as a piece of advanced juvenilia.  Not an uninteresting piece, but certainly not what I'd consider to be a good story in comparison to the rest of King's career.

So for me, King's professional career begins with "The Glass Floor."

Let's us begin (he said, Cajun-style) with a brief recap of the story's publication history.  The story's first appearance was in a magazine called Startling Mystery Stories.  Specifically, it was in No. 6, which was the Fall 1967 issue:


Some day, when I have money, I shall obtain one of these, oh, yes, I shall...


Though it would have been natural for the story to appear in King's first collection, Night Shift, "The Glass Floor" did not make the cut, nor did it make the cut for the by-then-superstar author's second collection, Skeleton Crew.  Evidence indicates that King simply didn't think very highly of the story, so odds seemed good that it would remain buried.


In 1990, however, King granted permission for Weird Tales to reprint the story in its Fall issue.  King even supplied an introduction, and said that'd he'd made a few minor corrections (of vocabulary and line-breaks). He also said he'd softened his opinion a bit, and found the story to not be as bad as he had previously thought it was.  



 
This led to the expectation that he'd probably include the story in his next collection.  That collection turned out to be Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and "The Glass Floor" was nowhere to be found within its 816 (!) pages.  It didn't show up in the next one (Everything's Eventual), either, nor the next next one (Just After Sunset).

So along comes 2012, and Cemetery Dance breaks the news that they will be reprinting the story in their magazine.  And so it came to pass that in December of 2012, the Mayan Apocalypse failed to show up, but "The Glass Floor" was suddenly obtainable again.  Still is, as of the time this post was written.




Might this mean that there is still hope that the story will someday be included in one of King's story collections?  Well ... I have my doubts, frankly.  Though there are certainly elements in it that ring true as having come from the pen of "Stephen King," it's also a rough piece of work that reads like exactly what it is: the product of a young man struggling to get a foothold, any foothold, in the publishing world.

Put another way: "The Glass Floor" simply isn't a very good story, and if you were to haphazardly insert it into King's next collection alongside modern stories like "The Dune" and "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," it would stick out like Carrie White at the prom.  Heck, it wouldn't even really fit in with some of King's other uncollected chestnuts, like "The Crate" and "Weeds."

Odds are good that King knows this, and so if I were you, fellow Constant Reader, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for "The Glass Floor" to be collected; I sense that it is unlikely to happen any time soon.  My advice: follow that link and buy the latest issue of Cemetery Dance.  Buy two, if you've got the money; it might be collectible one of these days.

Let's move on to a discussion of the story itself.  First of all, a warning: as will all future reviews in this chronological coverage of King's short stories, this will be a no-holds-barred spoilers-included review.  It feels weird to issue a spoiler warning for a story that is nearly 46 years old, but I don't want anyone getting all butthurt about it.  So spoilers ahoy, y'all!

To provide some cushion, here is an image I stole from somewhere:



*****

THE PLOT:  A man named Charles Wharton shows up at a creepy old mansion, where his sister Janine lived until recently with her husband, Anthony Reynard.  Janine died, supposedly in a fall from a ladder, and Wharton suspects ... well, he suspects oddness, if not foul play.  He questions Reynard, who tells him that she fell while dusting in a room that has a mirrored glass floor.  Wharton demands to see the room; Reynard tells him that it is has partitioned off, sealed behind plaster.  Wharton insists, and Reynard reluctantly gives him a trowel and points him to the door.  Reynard enters, is overcome by a sense that he is not standing on a floor at all, but that he is dangling in space, pointing down toward the floor (which he imagines the reflection of the ceiling to be).  He shouts that he is falling, and the next thing you know, Reynard is using a hooked pole to extract the body from the room.

*****

THE VERDICT:  Well, I rendered that already, but I suppose restating it wouldn't hurt.  Put simply: this is not a good story.  The prose is rough as hell in some spots, though there are also some good descriptions that show King to be a talent; a still-developing talent, but a talent nonetheless.  However, the severe lack of polish makes the story hard to enjoy in any way other than as a historical oddity.

*****

ANALYSIS:  Looking back on things, I'm a little surprised that Startling Mystery Stories published "The Glass Floor."  It reads a bit as if it were the work of a kid who hadn't figured out how to put a tale together yet.  It might be that editor Robert A.W. Lonwdes saw a nascent talent that he hoped to work with in the future; it might be that Lowndes had a hole in his then-current issue that was approximately the length of "The Glass Floor"; it might simply be that Lowndes liked the story more than I like it.  Who can say?  Given how King's career has turned out, I suppose we'd all better send a silent "thankya" to Lowndes for being a part of it at a crucial moment.

The story begins thus:

Wharton moved slowly up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck back to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister had died in.

That's a decent hooker of a first sentence; it lets us know that we are visiting a creepy house (probably a mansion), and that the main character's sister has died there.  As far as first sentences go, it's not flashy, but it gets the job done.  It also ends in a preposition, so we know that we are perhaps not in the hands of a seasoned author.  
 
Now seems like a good time to admit that I have a fondness for ending sentences in prepositions, mainly as a fuck-you to the system.  Yes, that is indeed what passes for rebellious behavior in my book.  Speaking seriously, though, I find it to be a rather silly idea that one should never end a sentence in a preposition.  Let's consider this for a moment.  Take the following imaginary conversation as an example:

Bob: "Once -- this was in 1987 or so -- I told somebody a lie: that I voted for Walter Mondale because I thought Geraldine Ferraro was hot."

Ted:  "Who did you say that to?"

Now, if we were to follow the no-climactic-prepositions rule, we'd be forced to write the conversation like this instead:

Bob:  "Once -- this was in 1987 or so -- I told somebody a lie: that I voted for Walter Mondale because I thought Geraldine Ferraro was hot."

Ted:  "To whom did you say that?"

Written that way, it makes Ted sound like a grade-A dork.  Who the fuck actually speaks that way?  Dorks, that's who.  Sometimes, especially in verbal communication, ending a sentence in a preposition gives the sentence an emphasis it would otherwise lack, because in order to convey the same information without breaking the supposed rule, you have to twist your language into unnatural knots.  So, kids, the next time your English teacher tells you to not end a sentence with "at," or "with," or "from," or "in," you tell him The Truth Inside The Lie told him to go fuck himself.  That's where this blog is comin' from.

(By the way, if you'd like to honor your teacher's law without twisting your language into knots, you can simply add "dude" to the end of the sentence.  Example: "Who did you say that to, dude?"  Or "Where is the mustard at, dude?"  Or "Where did Carly Rae Jepsen come from, dude?"  It will virtually always work, and even when it doesn't ... you will sound cool as hell.)



Let's get back to "The Glass Floor."  How could Stephen King have improved his opening sentence without ending in a preposition?  I'd suggest this:

Wharton moved slowly up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity where his sister had died.

Not a perfect sentence, but a marginally improved one.  And yes, I am keenly aware of how ridiculous it is for me to be editing Stephen King.  But that's part of my point -- one I am going to make multiple times in this post -- about "The Glass Floor"; it's simply not up to snuff in terms of what we expect from King, and therefore might be best if it continues to be excluded from his collections.








From there, King continues:


It wasn't a house at all, he reflected, but a mausoleum -- a huge, sprawling mausoleum.  It seemed to grow out of the top of the hill like an outsized, perverted toadstool, all gambrels and gables and jutting, blank-windows cupolas.  A brass weather-vane surmounted the eighty-degree slant of shake-shingled roof, the tarnished effigy of a leering little boy with one hand shading eyes Wharton was just as glad he could not see.


Let's dig into these three sentences; there's some meat on them bones, some of it not quite cooked.

I like the bit about the house growing out of the hill "like an outsized, perverted toadstool."  That's a solid description no matter where you are in your career as an author, and it's especially good coming from a nineteen-year-old.  However, I have never known a toadstool to be comprised of gambrels and gables and cupolas, which is what the placement of King's words seems to indicate.  The word "toadstool" should have ended the sentence; it would have done so strongly.  Then, another sentence could have conveyed the presence of the gambrels, gables, and cupolas.
 
II'd like to think that that sentence would not contain a phrase like "blank-windows cupolas."  What does that even mean?  Clearly, "blank-windows" is functioning as an adjectival phrase, and indicating a cupola with blank windows.  I don't know what a blank window is.  Aren't pretty much all windows blank?  Wouldn't the sentence have been better off without the "blank-windows" part?  If King HAD to keep it, wouldn't it have been better changed to "blank-windowed cupolas"?  The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

(I must confess that I had no earthly idea of what gambrels, gables, and cupolas are, so I took to the Wikipedia to find out.  And my reaction is to think that gambrels and gables don't exactly go together.  I am not certain of this, though; it's just my knee-jerk reaction.)

I would also point out that since the first sentence informed us Wharton is already on the steps, it is sloppy for King to now be stepping backward to tell us that the mansion is growing out of the hill like a toadstool.  It's a great description, but it isn't consistent with Wharton's viewpoint.  You might not notice it consciously, but if you are an experienced reader, you will likely feel a half-second of disorientation; you'll move through it quickly, but if the story throws too many of those moments at you, they start adding up.  Quick.

Right about now, I imagine some of my readers throwing their hands into the sky and wondering "Is this asshole going to go on like this?"  The answer is, yes; yes, I am.  I'm going to toss in the occasional profanity to liven things up, but the truth is, I'm goin' micro on this motherfucker.

"Why would you do that?!?" I imagine you protesting.

The answer is simple: because the vast majority of King's work can stand up to it.  His prose matters, because it is, nine times out of ten, very, very good.  Harold Bloom might disagree with that.  At the very least, King's prose tends to be efficient, and communicates effectively.  If you think for one second -- literally, for even one -- that that facility for prose isn't a massive part of his success as an author, then you and I are simply not on the same page.  It is front-and-center of that success, because without it, King would have gotten nowhere.  Saying otherwise is like saying that the shell is unimportant in the success of a taco.

In any case, it is the position of this blog that the prose definitely matters, and when it seems interesting and/or instructive, I want to take the micro view of it.  These short-story reviews will provide ample opportunities for that.

And it won't be all negative, not even in this review.  Example: the final sentence of that section I last quoted is excellent, and sounds a bit like poetry.  "Shake-shingled roof" is a nice phrase, even though (again) I had to Wikipedia it to have any clue what it meant; the repetition of the "sh" sound works very nicely, and pops up a couple of other times -- "tarnished," "shaded" -- to hammer the sound home.  The following sentence ("Then he was on the porch, and the house as a whole was cut off from him.") works some of the same ways, with "Then he" providing two quick one-syllable "h" sounds that are echoed in the second half of the sentence with "whole" and "him."  
 
There is also something poetic and interesting going on metrically with the phrase "the house as a whole was cut off from him."  The HOUSE as a WHOLE was cut OFF from HIM.  Hmm ... there's something there, I'm just not quite sure what.  It's also interesting just as a description in and of itself, because it suggests a sort of reverse of the type of description you might expect.  What King is saying there, literally-speaking, is that Wharton has lost sight of the bulk of the house by reaching its front door.  In a way, it is as though the porch has swallowed him; but, since Wharton is still in command of his reactions, it is not phrased that way.  It is instead phrased with the emphasis not on the "actions" of the house, but on the perspective of Wharton.

From here, Wharton rings the doorbell, which he hears echoing through the cavernous house.  We then get this sentence:


Tomb is right, he thought.


About this sentence, I would say two things: 
 
(1)  The sentence ought to read "Mausoleum is right, he thought," given that Wharton has just been thinking of the house as a mausoleum, not as a tomb.  The word "tomb" has not been mentioned, and Wharton's sudden thought that he was correct to think of it as a tomb is wrong, by virtue of the fact that he hasn't thought of it as a tomb; he's thought of it as a mausoleum..  (The preferred solution would actually have been for the word "mausoleum" to be replaced by "tomb" in the foregoing sentences, but either way works, as long you have a consistent approach.)
 
(2)  Personally, I'm a fan of italicizing character's thoughts.  It makes it absolutely clear that they are, in fact, thoughts.  Example: "Tomb is right, he thought."  Doesn't that communicate more effectively?  King's most recently published short story, "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," which appeared in Harper's, goes the non-italicized route.  On the other hand, King's most recently published novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, uses the italicized approach.  Hmm ... perhaps the non-italicized way is a magazine thing?  This, of course, is of no interest to 99.999999999996789% of the population, so I'll stop yammering about it now.

Moving on, let's examine this section:


The door suddenly swung open.  "Yes, sir?"  The housekeeper stared out at him.  She was old, hideously old.  Her face hung like limp dough on her skull, and the hand on the door above the chain was grotesquely twisted by arthritis.

"I've come to see Anthony Reynard," Wharton said.  He fancied he could even smell the sweetish odor of decay emanating from the rumpled silk of the shapeless black dress she wore.
"Mr. Reynard isn't seein' anyone.  He's mournin'."


These descriptions of the housekeeper are strong, and this particular character -- we'll soon find out that her name is Louise -- emerges from the story as the best-drawn character.  However, King has made a crucial mistake in terms of where he places Wharton's declaration.  He's made the unfortunate choice of interrupting the exquisiteness of his description with a piece of bland dialogue.  Check out this edited-by-Bryant revision (which also includes additional paragraph breaks), and tell me it doesn't read more strongly:


The door suddenly swung open.  
  
"Yes, sir?"
  
The housekeeper stared out at him.  She was old, hideously old.  Her face hung like limp dough on her skull, and the hand on the door above the chain was grotesquely twisted by arthritis.  Wharton fancied he could even smell the sweetish odor of decay emanating from the rumpled silk of the shapeless black dress she wore.

"I've come to see Anthony Reynard," he said.

"Mr. Reynard isn't seein' anyone.  He's mournin'."


As published, the description of Louisa is robbed of some of its power, which seems like a shame to me.  That said, let's not rush away from the description itself, which is very good.  The phrase "like limp dough on her skull" is great in a horrible way, and the idea -- even if it is imaginary on Wharton's part -- of Louisa reeking of rot is a stomach-churningly effective one.

*****

Annnnnnnnd I'm back.  You didn't even know I was gone, didja?  Well, I was -- for two whole days, too.  The fact is, it frequently takes me multiple days to write these posts, and sometimes it's difficult to immediately get back into whatever groove I was in at the time I left off.  So it is tonight.  I figured hey, why not just call attention to it?  It's background, but if finding the foreground again is the problem, why not just turn the background into the foreground for a few moments and see if that knocks the dust off the ledge?

Anyways...

When we paused, we left Wharton on the front porch with the rather hideous old housekeeper who smelled (if only in Wharton's imagination) of spoiled meat.  He had been told that the master of the manse, Anthony Reynard, was mourning, and was not taking visitors.

Wharton informs the housekeeper that he is Janine's brother, and before long Reynard appears:

A tall figure materialized suddenly out of the gloom, slope-shouldered, head thrust forward, eye deeply sunken and downcast.

Anthony Reynard reached out and unhooked the door-chain.  "Come in, Mr. Wharton," he said heavily.

But...  Wait, wasn't the door open?  Let me consult the story...  Hmm...  Yep, says right there: "The door swung suddenly open," it says, when the housekeeper comes to the door.  There's no indication that the door is on a chain while she and Wharton are talking, nor is there an indication that she puts a chain on when she goes off to inform Reynard that his dead wife's brother has come a-calling.  So what gives?  Why is Reynard unhooking a door-chain that, so far as we know, has not even existed prior to this?

I'd speculate that the answer was that King had a scenario in his head, was so tied to it that he was convinced he'd actually written it, and then never noticed that the actual text didn't quite add up.  That's speculation and nothing more, but it's got the ring of truth to it, at least to my ears.  It's the sort of gaffe that makes me wonder, again, if the editorial staff of Startling Mystery Stories spent most of their workday smoking weed; it's a rookie mistake, which is acceptable and understandable from a rookie (e.g., King).  What's the editor's excuse?

Let's get another look at Reynard:

Wharton stepped into as vague dimness of the house, looking up curiously at the man who had married his sister.  There were rings beneath the hollows of his eyes, blue and bruised-looking.  The suit he wore was wrinkled and hung limp on him, as if he had lost a great deal of weight.  He looks tired, Wharton thought.  Tired and old.

(A)  What is "vague dimness"?
(B)  King is a noted hater of adverbs, which perhaps explains why he used "limp" instead of "limply."
(C)  I'd be a lot happier if those thoughts of Wharton's were italicized.  So sue me.

Apart from nitpicks, let's consider Reynard himself.  What sort of person do you see in your mind when you imagine what he looks like?  I've got two mental images:


Julian Beck as Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man in Phantasm

Yep, either one of those seems about right.

I'd like to now quote from The Lost Work of Stephen King, a 1998 book by Stephen J. Spignesi.  The author summarizes "The Glass Floor," and the summary begins thus:

Janine, the sister of Charles Wharton, has died mysteriously.  Apparently against her brother's counsel, Janine had married an elderly man named Anthony Reynard and moved into his hulking "Victorian monstrosity" of a house.

You will notice that Spignesi describes Reynard as being "elderly."  However, you will find no such detail in King's story; Reynard's age is never given.  The closest we get to it is that thought of Wharton's that Reynard looks "tired and old."  Looking old does not necessarily equate to being old, however, and it's worth pointing out that most people I know don't describe old people as looking old; they simply describe them as old.  When most people I know say something like "He looks old," they are referring to someone who appears aged beyond their years.




I bring this up not to criticize Spignesi's summary, and here's my proof of that: I read the story only a few days ago, and yet if you had (prior to my writing this post) put a gun to my head and told me to describe Anthony Reynard from the short story "The Glass Floor," I would have described him as looking like one of those two gentlemen pictured above from Phantasm and Poltergeist II: The Other Side.  So no, I'm definitely not slagging on Spignesi for describing Reynard as elderly, because in my mind, that's how I see Reynard, too.

What interests me is why that's what Reynard looks like in my brain.  The story has primed the pump a bit in that regard by virtue of Wharton's "tired and old" assessment, but I don't think that's the totality of it.  The age of the housekeeper has planted decrepitude in our minds, so that's maybe one factor at work; but there's more to it, I think.
  
It also has a lot to do with expectation.  And while I cannot say why it seems right to expect the owner of a house like the one in "The Glass Floor" to be an old man, I can say that it definitely seems right (if only to me) for that to be the case.  Imagine yourself, parking your car in front of a house you think of as a "Victorian monstrosity" (i.e., a relic of an age so far past that you've never even known anyone who was alive when the house was young); you walk toward it, its shadowy bulk seeming to stare at you with the cold indifference of a god staring at an animal it is considering uncreating.  You go to the door, and press the bell, and steps come toward you.  The door creakily begins to open...

I think that if, in that moment, a telepath were able to peek into our brains with the intent of finding out what type of face we were expecting to see momentarily, ninety-nine out of a hundred of us would expect to see an elderly one.

Why?

I think it has something to do with the idea that an old house reminds us of death, and age and death go hand in hand.  There's probably more to be said about that, but I find myself not quite up to the challenge of being the one to say it; I'll settle for merely posing the topic.
  
In any case, I think King is playing with those expectations; I don't think he's doing anything particularly interesting, but hey, cut the kid some slack, and give him credit for even knowing which expectations to play with at this stage in his life.  He was on the right track, and it obviously paid off for him handsomely the further down that track he got.

*****

Reynard lets Wharton in, and confirms the brother's suspicions that his sister has already been buried.  He tells Wharton he is sorry.

He seemed about to add more, then shut his mouth with an abrupt snap.  When he spoke again, it was obvious he had bypassed whatever had been on his lips.

I'd like to focus for a moment on the use of the word "bypassed" there.  The word itself is typically used in the sense of something being rerouted around an obstruction.  For example, in a heart bypass surgery, blood flow is rerouted around blocked or narrowed veins, sometimes by grafting new veins that are taken from other parts of the body.  A highway bypass is similar; a highway will be rerouted around some area that is either undesirable or difficult for traffic to go through.  "Bypassing," then, is a conscious, directed activity, one taken by an individual or group in an effort to makes things -- be they blood or traffic -- proceed more smoothly.

Here is an alternative way King could have written those sentences:

He seemed about to add more, then shut his mouth with an audible snap.  When he spoke again, it was obvious he had choked off whatever he had been about to say.

And another:

He seemed about to add more, then shut his mouth with an audible snap.  When he spoke again, it was obvious he had swallowed his words rather than spit them up.

All three versions function in the same way, presenting the unspoken words as something Reynard is consciously avoiding speaking; but all three subtly impart different information about Reynard himself, and about his motivations.  The one that uses "choked" implies that Reynard is fighting the words; the words want to get out, but he is subduing them, denying them the escape they crave.  The one that uses "swallowed," on the other hand, implies that the words are something vile and distasteful, and that Reynard is ashamed of himself for even having the reflex; his body is trying to vomit them up, but he'd rather swallow them again than let them out into the world.

Those, of course, were my embellishments, and I only wrote them so as to draw attention to the choice that King himself made.  When he specifies that Reynard has "bypassed" the words, it implies that Reynard is trying to keep the conversation smooth and untroubled.  Whatever words he has been so close to saying that he snaps his jaw shut abruptly so as to not say them, Reynard feels -- according to King via his vocabulary -- that it would prove to be an obstruction to the conversation.

My gut reaction was that the use of the word "bypassed" made me grumpy; it seemed like something King had used merely because he was straining for effect.  I'd intended to be critical of the choice here, but as I contemplated the way the word was functioning, I decided it worked better than I'd considered.

That said, I think it needed slightly better presentation; it's phrased a little awkwardly.  I'd suggest that this would have been a better way to phrase the thought:

When he spoke again, it was obvious Reynard's lips had bypassed something on the tip of his tongue.

There I go rewriting Stephen King again.  It's a fool's pursuit, which explains why I'm doing it, I suppose.  Still, my quibbles about the exact phrasing aside, I think the use of "bypassed" in the context King used it indicates a significant talent in the making, one who was capable of producing work that could continue to function even when looked at in micro detail.

Not consistently, though.  Take a look at what happens next.  Reynard asks Wharton to sit, and states that he must have questions.

"I do."  Somehow it came out more curtly than he had intended.

We looked at "bypassed" above, so let's now turn our attentions to the use of the word "somehow" here.

"Somehow" is an adverb which indicates that an action has been completed in a manner that is unknown, unspecified, or mysterious.  It can be -- and frequently is -- used sarcastically.  For example, if a friend owes you twenty dollars, and as a partial payment he gives you a single dollar and then issues that ole chestnut of a platitude, "Don't spend it all in one place," you might well find yourself replying by saying, "Somehow I don't think that'll be possible to avoid," in which case you have used it sarcastically.

Do we think that King means it sincerely or sarcastically as used here?  I come down on the side of assuming sincerity to be the intent.  In fiction, the sarcastic form is typically reserved for dialogue, or for a character's thoughts.  It might be employed by a sarcastic narrator in a first-person perspective, but this is a third-person omniscient perspective, and King sticks to it closely, offering no opportunities to step outside of it.  Nor is he phrasing the sentence as a thought on Wharton's part; the statement is instead a revelation of Wharton's mood, which is one of awareness that he is edging toward uncivility.

King must, then, intend it to be a literal expression of Wharton's recognition that he is losing control of his emotions.  We get that from the context, though; the "somehow" adds nothing to that idea, and in fact only muddies the waters.  Wharton would be aware of why he was speaking curtly; it might surprise or distress him to do so, but he would be aware that it was because he feels Reynard is withholding information from him.

I'm certainly no model of writerly perfection; I'm a cornhole with a blog, and that's all I'm likely to be ANY time soon.  That doesn't mean I can't offer the occasional object lesson, though, and if you take anything away from all this gazing into the micro, let it be this: words matter.  They matter on an individual basis, not just sometimes, but every time.  This is true in all forms of communication, but is especially true when it comes to the written word.  We should all be very careful that what we say is actually communicating what we intend for it to communicate.  That's a lesson that seems to be going increasingly untaught, as we permit textisms and 'netspeak to increasingly pervade our language.  But stand fast, sisters and brothers, and if you must descend into those murky depths, do so empowered and aware.

Thus endeth the lesson.  Woot!

lol
 
*****

Wharton accepts Reynard's offer to sit down, and takes the seat proffered by his former brother-in-law:

Wharton sank deeply into it, and it seemed to gobble him up rather than give beneath him.

That's quite good, there.  I like the imagery of Wharton being consumed by the house, with this chair serving as its mouth.  I imagine many people have had the experience of sitting in an armchair that is slightly too big, or sits a bit lower than expected, or has a seat that seems almost like quicksand.  I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a universal feeling, but I think that for a great many people, it's relatable.  As a result, here it sides us with Wharton to an even greater extent than we already were.  It's a minor thing, I suppose, but it works.

That's more than I can say for this next bit:

Reynard sat next to the fireplace and dug for cigarettes.  He offered them wordlessly to Wharton, and he shook his head.

He waited until Reynard lit his cigarette, then asked.  "Just how did she die?  Your letter didn't say much."

Count the "he"s there.  Three of 'em, in two consecutive sentences. One pronoun, but referring to two different characters.  The first one obviously refers to Reynard, since it immediately follows an action he takes.  The use of the word "and" before the second "he" indicates that it is referring to the same "he" as does the first part of the sentence; in other words, it conveys the same information as would a different form of the same sentence, one which read something like "He offered them to Wharton wordlessly, shaking his head."  Why would Reynard be offering cigarettes and shaking his head as he did so?  Out of contempt, perhaps, or regret, or denial; such an action could indicate one of several emotions.

However, the context of the story indicates that Wharton does not accept a cigarette; he is never mentioned as smoking, at least.  This makes it a near-certainty that what King was trying to convey with that second "he" was that Wharton was refusing Reynard's offer of a cigarette; the sloppiness of the writing, however, makes it necessary to stop for a moment to figure out what, exactly, is being conveyed.  It will take most readers only a second or two to parse the meaning, but others might have to work at it a bit longer, and others will simply fail to notice that something awkward has happened, and will proceed with the false assumption that both men are smoking.

Is that a big deal?  Not really.  It has no impact on the story, per se, except to possibly cause some readers to think that the conversation between the two men is more convivial than it actually is.  You will, however, note that instances in which King has failed to properly communicate in "The Glass Floor" are beginning to add up quickly.  And it's worth pointing out that we are not even a third of the way through the story yet.

In the interest of saying something nice, I shall now point out that I think the first sentence from that quoted section with all the "he"s works; the use of the word "dug" is a nice detail, implying that Reynard is having to work a bit to locate the cigarettes.  That also subtly reinforces a detail from earlier in which Wharton noted that Reynard's suit "was wrinkled and hung limp on him, as if he had lost a great deal of weight."  Reynard seems slightly lost inside that suit in the same way Wharton is lost inside the chair upon which he has just sat; it's almost as if Reynard is digging for the cigarettes because the pocket is deeper than it ought to be.  Again, this is evidence that King was, even as early as 1967, capable of using a single word to achieve layers of meaning.

Following Wharton's statement that Reynard's letter didn't say much, we get this:

Reynard blew out the match and threw it into the fireplace.  It landed on one of the ebony iron fire-dogs, a carven gargoyle that stared at Wharton with toad's eyes.

Adjectival overkill much?

The fire-dogs are "ebony" and "ivory" "iron," in the form of a "carven" gargoyle that has "toad's" eyes.  This is too much; I'd have suggested that he eliminate both "ebony" and "carven," and replace "toad's" with a better choice.

Reynard answers Wharton's question by telling him that Janine fell while dusting.  The Reynards had been planning to paint, and this particular room would apparently need to be well-dusted before painting could commence.  "She had the ladder," Reynard says.  "It slipped.  Her neck was broken."

Wharton asks,

"She died -- instantly?"

"Yes."  He lowered his head and placed a hand against his brow.  "I was heartbroken."

The gargoyle leered at him, squat torso and flattened, sooty head.  Its mouth was twisted upward in a weird, gleeful grin, and its eyes seemed turned inward at some private joke.

Notice the continued difficulty King is having in figuring out how to make pronouns work for, rather than against, him?

What follows next is that Wharton demands to see the room where Janine had her accident; Reynard says that he can't, because the room has been partitioned off from the rest of the house.  It has been plastered over and is inaccessible.
  
At this point, the story evolves a bit, and some of the mystery at its heart walks into the open.  Or at least, that's what should happen next; instead, King farts around and doesn't get to it for another half a page or so.  Wharton speaks:

"I'm beginning to wonder if you don't have something to hide in there," he said quietly.

"Just what are you implying?"

Wharton shook his head a little dazedly.  What was he implying?  The perhaps Anthony Reynard had murdered his sister in this Revolutionary War-vintage crypt?  That there might be something more sinister here than shadowy corners and hideous iron fire-dogs?

"I don't know what I'm implying," he said slowly, "except that Janine was shovelled under in a hell of a hurry, and that you're acting damn strange now."

That's a tedious conversation, and part of the reason it's tedious is that Wharton isn't asking the right questions.  Reynard has told him, "The room has been partitioned off.  That should have been done a long time ago."

If I'm Wharton, I respond to that by saying something like Why, pray tell, is that?  And if so, why did you fail to do so before my sister broke her neck there?, which is what the reader is certainly wondering.  Wharton responds in about as dull a fashion as possible: "I'm beginning to wonder if you don't have something to hide in there," he says.  Well, no shit, asshole!  Of course he's got something to hide in there!  He's already fucking told you he's hidden it!  Ask him what it is and why he didn't hide it sooner, why dontcha!  Stop making me use all these exclamation marks!

King also fails to make anything interesting out of the idea that Janine was buried quickly.  Wharton seems very angered by this, although he never find out how quickly she was buried, nor do we find out why Reynard couldn't wait a bit so as to give Charles an opportunity to see his sister one final time.  Frankly, it doesn't make any sense.  We know based on what happens to Wharton once he gets in the room that he isn't mangled, or turned into a vampire, or disfigured; he receives a quasi-supernatural neck-breaking, and that's that.  Nothing happens that would prevent the body from being viewable, and I think we can safely assume -- based on the implication that Reynard knows exactly what will happen to people who go into the room -- that Janine's death happened exactly the same way.

So why would Reynard rush her burial?  If there is a reasonable character motivation for doing so, it is not given to us.  It isn't even hinted at.  The likely explanation is simply that that was what King needed to have happen in order to give Charles an excuse to show up at the house already angry.  In realistic terms, all of this could have been avoided.

In fact...

Explain to me again why Reynard permitted Janine to go into the room if he knew what would happen to her once she got in there?  Is there a persuasive reason for him not to have said, "Look, Janine, you're going to think I'm crazy, but ... well, see, the thing is, there's some sort of weird illusion that happens in that room, and it makes people's necks break.  So don't go in there.  Because, like, I love you and stuff, and don't want you to die."  If it's absolutely necessary, send in the housekeeper to prove your point.  Do whatever you've got to do, man, but DO NOT let your wife go in!  Reynard later says that he warned Janine about the floor, but if he didn't do a better job of warning her than he does of warning Charles, then it's easy to see how the Wharton siblings ended up with cracked necks.

We learn, via Louise, a bit more:

"Mr. Reynard didn't like no one goin' in the East Room.  Said it was dangerous."

"Dangerous?"

"The floor," she said.  "The floor's glass.  It's a mirror.  The whole floor's a mirror."

Wharton turned to Reynard, feeling dark blood suffuse his face.  "You mean to tell me you let her go up on a ladder in a room with a glass floor?"

"The ladder had rubber grips," Reynard began.  "That wasn't why..."

"You damned fool," Wharton whispered.  "You damned, bloody fool."

And finally we get to the titular glass floor.  I have to confess that I was initially a bit confused as to why Wharton would be so upset by this.  I am a lowly sort; I ain't never been to no hoity-toity mansion with no high-and-mighty glass floors, and, rubelike, I did not immediately understand that Wharton's distress was related to the idea that the floor in such a room would be slippery, and would cause the ladder itself to fall.
 
Once I picked up on that idea, I was still confused, because I was picturing an A-frame ladder:



King was likely picturing this, instead:




It makes more sense with the proper type of ladder in mind.  But really, was the danger of the ladder sliding across the glass floor ever really a concern, even in the theoretical sense?  With rubber grips, certainly not.  Without them, if the floor was slick enough to promote slippage, then I would think that a person would be unable to even scale it; it seems to me that the mere act of stepping up would cause the thing to go scooting out from underfoot.  Like I said, I've never tried to climb an unshod ladder on a glass floor, so maybe I'm assuming too much; nevertheless, I am assuming that it would basically be such a problem that it wouldn't even be a problem, because you wouldn't be able to get far enough for it to become a life-threatening issue.

Does Wharton know more than I know about ladders on slippery surfaces, or is he just bent out of shape because Stephen King wants him to bent out of shape?  Neither answer would surprise me, but given how sloppy a story this is, I'm going to choose to believe in myself.

*****

My enthusiasm for writing about this story is waning quickly, so let's make a push toward the end and be done with it.  Wharton demands that Reynard let him into the room, and Reynard stupidly grants his request.  Now, if it were me, I'd just refuse.  "No," I'd say.  "We're not ruining my nice new plaster wall, Mr. Wharton.  Adios, muchacho."  And then I'd boot him in his ass and send him yipping up the street.  Then again, I'd've never let my wife die in The Cursed East Room, because I would be a kind and considerate husband.

Reynard is a moron, though, so he lets Wharton tear down the still-fresh plaster and go into the room.

His own reflection hung suspended below him, attached only by the feet, seeming to stand on its head in thin air.  It made him dizzy just to look at it.

That's a nice description, and I suspect that it was that image which prompted King to want to write the story.  If not that specific image, then perhaps this one instead:

He wasn't standing on the floor at all he fancied.  He was poised in thin air halfway between the identical ceiling and floor, held up only by the stupid idea that he was on the floor.  That was silly, as anyone could see, for there was the floor, way down there...

Despite the comma that is missing from the first sentence, that is a strong image.  It imparts an idea which cannot help but make you feel a bit rumbly in your tumbly: the real you is NOT the real you.  It is instead the reflected you that is the real you, and that you is hanging upside down, pointed downward, ready to fall the moment you accept the reality of things.  As the illusion -- which is in fact not illusion at all, but reality -- crystallizes, you fall.  Snap goes the neck, and just like that, you are an ex-person.  You are a slab of meat.

It's a cool idea, but King ruins it by tagging on a bit of dialogue:

"Reynard!" He screamed.  "I'm falling!"

Terrible.  That's the equivalent of having someone get shot, and then showing them stagger about for a few seconds, groaning and saying, "You got me!  I'm... dying...!" and then falling to the ground and emitting the longest death-rattle you ever heard.  Pretty bad, and it does this story no favors at all.

The final bit involves a totally unsurprised Reynard using a pole with a hook on the end to retrieve the body from the room.

Not for the first time he wondered if there was really a mirror there at all.  In the room, a small pool of blood showed on the floor and ceiling, seeming to meet in the center, blood which hung there quietly and one could wait forever for it to drip.

That's somewhat awkwardly-phrased, but it's a strong way to end the story.  I cannot help but think of two later, better King stories that explore the idea of a seemingly ordinary object that turns out to be ... something else.  In "The Raft," something that looks like an oil slick is on a lake, and touching it means death.  Similarly, a nondescript car in "Mile 81" might in fact be some sort of life-stealing entity that merely looks like a car.  Mentally, I classify this glass floor the same way: it looks like one thing, but is in fact another thing entirely, a thing that is hungry for death.

*****

In closing, let me just toss in a few quotes from the story that I didn't touch on yet:

  • Louise shuffled slowly back into the room, her loose tongue slopping wetly over her lips for a moment and then disappearing.
  • Wharton was dimly aware of Louise staring greedily at them, storing up gossip like a squirrel stores up nuts.
  • Wharton felt a quiet chill steal over him.  His gaze skipped from the grinning fireplace gargoyle to the dusty, empty-eyed bust of Cicero in the corner to the strange wainscoting carvings.  And a voice came from within him: Go away from here.  A thousand living yet insentient eyes seemed to stare at him from the darkness, and again the voice spoke...
  • "Very well."  The words were like the faraway tolling of a churchyard bell.  "Come."
  • The door swung ponderously open, shedding plaster like a dead skin.
  • He stopped at the door's threshold, staring in at the Siamese twins staring at each other in the middle of the two-roofed, no-floored room.
There are some nice bits in there.  It's a weak story overall, but not without notes of excellence.

Finally, I'd like to point out that the idea of a glass floor popped up again in King's work, nearly four decades later, in the movie Rose Red.  The mansion there, which is malevolent in the extreme, has room (called the Mirror Library) with a glass floor.  One character mentions not wanting to go in because he's afraid he'll fall.  Clearly, the idea that generated "The Glass Floor" stuck with King.

Sadly, Rose Red has plenty of problems of its own.  We'll get to those some day, but not this one.

I would, however, like to leave you with a few screencaps of the mirror library from that movie, and its glass floor.








And with that, I bid you adieu.  Be back soon with a look at the most issue of Marvel's Dark Tower comic.

10 comments:

  1. wow, that was. . . great. . . and possibly longer than The Stand.

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    1. I'm going to be rereading "The Stand" pretty soon. I hate to think how wordy my posts about that are going to be!

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  2. Rose Red has some beautiful visual design, to be sure. It's a shame the story around it (and some of the casting) doesn't supplement it as well as it should.

    It's disorienting to see a short story from King that has these moments you (commendably) isolate. Like you say, it's the work of a writer trying to gain a foothold in the world of published fiction. Still - compared to the short fiction that was to come in his career, it's remarkable how differently this one reads.

    I particularly like, here, how you suggest alternatives to the sticky sections, like interrupting that description of the housekeeper for Wharton's remark. Good eye on all counts. It's clear you're not just rewriting King / editing King for the hell of it or to indulge yourself, you're making a very graspable point. Short fiction and its construction fascinate me, so stuff like that is always a pleasure to see.

    I'm really struck at the difference in quality, here, between something like this and (so many examples but) "The Man in the Black Suit" or even something like "Battleground" or "Trucks." Those Night Shift stories are a lot closer to "The Glass House," but seem a thousand times tighter.

    If you bring this level of analysis to each and every King story, we're in for a long haul here! But a very gratifying one. I'll see you at the finish line, sometime in the 2060s.

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    1. "The Glass Floor" was published in '67, and just a year later King published "Strawberry Spring." The difference between the two quality-wise is massive; clearly, at some point between the writing of those two stories, something clicked into place for King.

      I suspect that I will not be bringing analysis this extensive to each of my story reviews, partially because there won't be as much to nitpick, but also because it simply isn't feasible. I say that now; who knows what'll actually be the case. It's gonna be a while until we find out, though: I'm going to be working my way through "The Stand" first, and goodness knows that's going to take me a while.

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  3. I haven't read "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" yet, but I bet you're right about the lack of italics being a result of the application of an in-house editorial policy. If King had had his way, I'm sure they'd be there.

    I guess I just don't really see the need for italics in denoting the thoughts of characters in stories. It's a stylistic tic. And I believe King's use of italics highlights something that bothers me about his writing: those voices that always seem to be speaking inside his characters' heads. I find it jarring for a character to suddenly hear a loved one's or an enemy's words streaming through his/her mind. In italics.

    But maybe it's just me, he thought.

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    1. It's definitely not a big deal either way, provided a consistent approach is used. After all, context will typically give you all the info you need.

      My rationale for preferring them is simply that there can be occasions when it might not be clear whether a particular line is something actually being thought, or whether it's part of the narrative. This can happen in a first-person narrative quite easily; the italics help clarify.

      But I know they drive a lot of people nuts, too. I guess all readers have their own little quirks and bugaboos as far as that sort of thing goes. Lord knows I do!

      Thanks for reading, Robert!

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  4. "I am keenly aware of how ridiculous it is for me to be editing Stephen King. But that's part of my point -- one I am going to make multiple times in this post -- about "The Glass Floor"; it's simply not up to snuff in terms of what we expect from King."

    HAH! That's what I been sayin' all along!!!!!!

    Seriously, though, it is interesting in the sense that long time readers build up an idea of the pro-typical King style and story, and yet that very idea might mean different things to different people in terms of what kind of standard they hold King to in terms of his own works.

    I personally hold him to the standards of works like It (what else), Hearts in Atlantis, Green Mile and The Shining (yes that bloody well includes the Garris verion) along with the Body.

    Technically what that says about personal taste could be taken as a a liking for high art with an undercurrent of the low running through it.

    Others however might hold him to the standards of his early novels up to The Stand and no farther, and yet others hold him to no standard because it might not be stories or books (even movies) they are interested in so much as a diversion in the loosest sense of that term, some way of killing time in other words.

    Still, I agree with what you say here about grammar, in fact one correction I remember I would give to a sentence was:

    Wharton moved up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck back to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister died in.

    That rewriting, in a way, is an indicator of my idea of stylistics, more declarative and blunt (though maybe there's a fault in that as well) along with noting King's dislike of adverbs (slowy).

    However, another way to do the sentence could be:

    Wharton moved slow up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck back to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister died in.

    Or:

    Wharton moved slow, up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck back to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity that his sister died in.

    Finally:

    Wharton moved slow, up the wide steps, hat in hand, craning his neck back to get a better look at the Victorian monstrosity his sister died in.

    Note the basic removal of simple small words which (to me) seemed all was needed. To be fair, I don't know how those sentences would read to others. They all seem fine to me however it might not seem that way to others.

    ChrisC

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  5. Of your four sentences, the first is the best. I'm not a fan of the phrase "moved slow," because it's awkward-sounding. "Moved slowly" works much better. King might hate adverbs, but they do have their uses.

    I dig what you're saying about the fact that King readers have different levels of expectations about what his work sounds like when it's working, and what it sounds like when it isn't. One of the things I'm looking forward to exploring in-depth over the course of my future blogging is the evolution of his style. Or devolution, depending on how you look at it. (Spoiler: I think there's been a bit of both. Additional spoiler: I think it's mostly been evolution.)

    I certainly don't want to do a huge amount of the sort of grammatical autopsy that I engaged in with this review, but it seemed instructive, and I had fun doing it. Future stories, of course, will provide MUCH more room for analysis of the stories themselves. With "The Glass Floor," I don't know that's there a heck of a lot to say other than pointing out that it doesn't work.

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  6. And you kiss your mother with that mouth?

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    1. No, but I do tell people who annoy me to fuck off with it.

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