Monday, May 12, 2008

On fiction, formats and forgotten gems: Millipede Press revives The Deadly Percheron, The Tenant

When we talk about vintage pulp fiction, we talk about how it’s presented. We actually refer to it by its published format. There are purists who scoff at the re-packaging of pulp fiction in prestige editions, the idea being that you’re not getting the full experience if you read Rendezvous in Black or The Postman Always Rings Twice or Dark Passage on acid-free paper bound in leather. The argument is simultaneously compelling and degrading. There is indeed something appealing about consuming material deemed lowbrow or excessively sanguine by the elite in the same cheap, disposable paperbacks as their original consumers. But those original paperbacks now sell for luxury prices. Ironically, they are now valuable antiques. Furthermore, if this material is worth revisiting, if it may even be great literature, then why shouldn’t it be reprinted in formats designed to endure? Why let these books perish in the literary ghetto?

I discovered the great hard-boiled pulps I’ve grown to adore in the gaudy but sturdily bound Black Lizard trade paperbacks of the 1980s and 90s—editions that have now also become collector’s items. I still regularly scour used bookstores trying to hunt down some new-to-me title in this noble imprint, only to balk at the price. In the end, all I really care about is being able to actually read these books, to have the opportunity to find forgotten gems and keep the established masterpieces available to all. So I was very happy to recently discover Millipede Press, a publisher out of Lakewood, Colorado, who’ve been resurrecting some superb crime fiction in editions that run the gamut from limited edition deluxe boxed hardcovers to trades that’ll only put you out about $13.

I’d never heard of The Deadly Percheron, not of its author John Franklin Bardin. It was Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the new introduction to Millipede’s reprint, and that got me intrigued. The Deadly Percheron, originally published in 1946, is a masterwork of amnesia fiction, a genre Lethem coined and defined in The Vintage Book of Amnesia, his anthology featuring the likes of Nabokov, Murakami and, of course, Lethem's beloved Philip K. Dick. Lethem wanted to include The Deadly Percheron in the anthology in its entirety, but for obvious reasons this proved impractical. Thanks to Millipede however, it has a new life.

A psychiatrist interviews a new patient who tells him of leprechauns who pay him to perform strange antics. The psychiatrist accompanies the patient to a bar to meet one of his employers, who turns out to be, apparently, nothing more than a fanciful midget. But that very night an actress is murdered and the patient becomes a suspect. The psychiatrist tries to help, but soon finds himself led into the New York subway and knocked unconscious. Next thing he knows he’s in a mental hospital, badly scarred, and taken for a tramp. Months have passed. The man he used to be is reportedly dead, his widow moved away. Gradually the one-time shrink comes to accept his new identity and lives an exceedingly humble life as a soda jerk working the graveyard shift in some Coney Island joint. He’s oddly content. Until his past catches up with him…

The finale is a little too wrapped up, disappointing in the way the finales of a lot of great film noirs are disappointing—but the getting-there is more than worth it. I can recall very few stories where the labyrinth of amnesia is more fraught with strange detours of multiple meaning. The scene in which the hero feels he’s being chased down a dark street: is he being chased by his past self? The rumpled nighthawk with whom this once respectable professional takes up with: is she really just another factor in his transient life or in fact the embodiment of a repressed desire to flee his “real” life? The Deadly Percheron feels less like conventional crime fiction than a precursor to the films of David Lynch.

Roland Topor’s The Tenant, originally published in 1964, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I first saw Roman Polanski’s wickedly disturbing film version, has also received the Millipede treatment in an edition featuring the author’s enigmatic illustrations, some long out-of-print short stories, and an introduction by Thomas Ligotti. It it’s way, The Tenant is also a sort of amnesia tale, its protagonist gradually losing his sense of identity until it becomes fully fused with that of the suicidal woman who’d previously inhabited his two-room Paris apartment. Written with cool detachment, the narrative trajectory recalls Paul Bowles’ ‘A Distant Episode,’ with the considerable difference that the true culprits behind the protagonist’s psychological breakdown remain entirely ambiguous to the very end.

Our protagonist initially seems exceedingly normal, only slowly revealing Kafkaesque tendencies toward self-appointed guilt and sexual anxiety. The imagery surrounding his sense of being persecuted is uniformly vaginal: the oval bathroom window he watches from his apartment; the single eye visible on the face of the heavily bandaged previous tenant, and her screaming mouth; holes hidden in walls and doors with doors; everywhere cavities await and threaten. Topor’s narrative feels at once inevitable and lined with shock, a chilling exploration of mental corrosion and how we come to terms with what constitutes self. In an inspired choice, Millipede’s edition features a Topor illustration of a figure without a face.

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