There are few things I love more than unearthing an old horror author who has been forgotten. I have discovered a few gems in the dusty bookshelves of a used bookstore (Kansan S.K. Epperson being one of my favorites and one to whom I’ll soon devote more blog space), and I’ve also discovered several authors who are, perhaps, best left unremembered. Thomas Tryon, former Hollywood actor turned author, was one of the true jewels I discovered not on my own, but on some forgotten web post, about a year ago, as I trolled the internet for a new read. There is so much to discuss about Tryon and his work, his use of masks and mirrors as themes, his biography of the closeted gay Hollywood actor who refused to write about himself and yet, I would argue, does just that in every book. Someday I would love to spend much, much more time trying to understand Tryon’s work as a whole, but for today I want to focus on a singular novel of his, Lady.
The appeal to me in older horror authors (and I am referring to those before 1990) such as Tryon is the often slower-pace of the books. The pacing leads, in my mind, to not only a truer attachment to character, but to more genuine scares (think about your favorite horror movie, the scariest scene, and I do not doubt that it came wrapped in layers of build-up and hidden shadows). It is just so in Tryon’s work, in the best of his books anyway, such as The Other.
But the book of Tryon’s which I just completed, Lady, defies any genre-labeling and spends all of its time wrapped in the layers of shadow without really ever revealing a thrill. It is a book, I would argue, that could not be published today but which managed to find its way to the reading public when it was published in 1974. The book centers around New England boy Woody, and his friendship, nay, obsession, with the older neighbor woman, appropriately dubbed “Lady” by the town. Ostensibly, this book’s mystique revolves around the forbidden love story of Lady (I won’t reveal the details here, fellow horror fans. Read it yourself). The book even features a ghost. But what it is really about is nostalgia. Those delicious layers of chiffon that cloak our memory, that, in fact, build with the years even as dust does, dimming the bad times and embracing the good in a dress of such magnificent other-worldliness that they can never be matched by the present.
I am a sucker for nostalgia. No, I am a victim of nostalgia. I will never have a burger as good as the one in the small Kansas diner of my youth, never a date to rival the forbidden hand-holding of my fourteenth summer. Never find a place like my grandparents’ farm as I experienced it as a child–not even that very farm when I step upon its soil today. There are few things that thrill like nostalgia, and in Lady, Tryon unabashedly basks in it. The end of the novel spends 70 pages of a 270 page book simply wrapping things up, simply dipping a last toe of childhood in the autumnal pond before winter approaches. We are left, in the end, with nothing so much as an impression, a feeling of beauty and remorse and that awful, wonderful feeling of time having passed. That feeling that we have all, in our lives, experienced at least once, the moment when we step outside of time and are able to see it unfurl itself, a great, lazy ribbon that goes on and on and on, and on which we try yet ever and always fail, to imprint ourselves.
Author Kevin McIlvoy, a man who I am fortunate enough to call a mentor, often told me that the Western ideal of what a novel should be did not allow for much room in the way of feeling. Certain things must happen, in a certain order, if an American audience is to count the book as a success.
By these standards, Lady is a failure. We don’t have a story that depends on action, but one that rather depends on that last, lingering feeling with which we are left. And it is truly a gift that feeling, one that lasts only a second, one that the reader must wade through 272 pages of less than exhilarating action to discover. But what a gift that last page brings us, what a beautiful surprise that final drop of nectar when we hold the book up to our lips and shake it until it surrenders.