Some time back, I was reminded of books I had read a long time ago, borrowing them from Didsbury Library. It was thirty years and more since I had last read them, and I was curious as to how I might react to them now, whether they would give me the same pleasure to re-read, and to what extent any enjoyment they might give me could be divorced from simple nostalgia for the times they represented.
Originally, there were Three Books, but memories keeps playing its tricks and this is now an indefinite, occasional series.
The latest such is Who made Stevie Crye? by Michael Bishop. It was a later read than most to date, from the late Eighties, in the final couple of years that I regularly visited Didsbury Library before moving across South Manchester to Reddish, in Stockport. I can’t recall what caught my attention, because this is a horror story, and horror is not often my thing.
Bishop, who happens to be one day over being exactly ten years older than me, is a well-respected and prolific author of mainly SF, best known for the Nebula Award-winning No Enemy But Time. Who made Stevie Crye? was his next novel, published in a limited, illustrated edition in America in 1984 and never re-issued in a mass market edition, which appeared in the UK in 1987. I think I only read it once, but certain details, and certainly one scene, stayed in my memory where hundreds of once-read books have sunk without trace.
Stevie Crye – more properly Mary Stevenson Crye, never referred to as Mary, always Stevenson Crye or Stevie, no maiden name given – is the centre and subject of the book. She is a 35 year old widow, who lost her husband, Ted Sr., eighteen months to two years ago. She is bringing up two children, Ted Jr., aged 13 and Marella, aged 8, in a small Arizona town, from the limited and precarious income she makes as a freelance writer. At the beginning, she is preparing a proposal for a book collecting and expanding on her columns about life as a young widow, to be called Two-Faced Woman. The action begins with her electric typewriter breaking down, four paragraphs from the end of her latest column.
The essence of the story is that Stevie, unable to afford the official call-out charges under her Service Agreement, is directed to a local company, where her Excelerite is repaired by a creepy young man. Who causes it to become possessed by a demon.
Ok, time out here. Like I said, I am not an aficionado, nor a devotee, not even an average to moderate reader of horror fiction, so I am operating from a position of ignorance as to the parameters and tropes of the genre, save that I have Stephen King’s extensive meditation on the form, Danse Macabre. But to me, a haunted typewriter spells only one thing, and that is Spoof.
That, according to all the responses the book has drawn, and indeed the development of the situation, is far from Bishop’s intention, but the set-up is, to me at least, inherently absurd, and it puts Bishop to the task of overturning that instinctive response, and make us take seriously the idea of a writer’s life being taken over by a haunted typewriter. Does he succeed?
So, back to the story. Stevie’s Excelerite snaps a cable, she can’t afford the call-out, and her friend, almost-mentor and constant presence Dr Elsa points her to a local firm for a cheap repair. This brings her into contact with Seaton Beneke, the owner’s 26 year old son, who is exactly the kind of half-formed, socially inept little weirdo that you expect to instantly turn into a stalker, sexually fixated on a lonely older woman. He is exactly that, though not in the sense that you anticipate.
For the moment, it’s the inherent creepiness of his knowing her name, professing to follow her work, thinking she should dig deeper, be more serious. He promises her that he’s put in a little something extra for her. Stevie finds out what that it that night, when the typewriter starts writing for itself.
At first sight, this is a basic horror setting. The typewriter appears to be laying bare Stevie’s dreams, or rather her nightmares. There’s a particularly vivid one to start with: Stevie wakes up hearing Marella, an illness-prone child already, complain of burning up, and when she pulls back her daughter’s bedclothes, Marella’s body has melted away to a skeleton. The highly effective manipulated-photo illustrations by J. K. Potter made that one a queasy affair.
The next one is a little less obviously a nightmare, involving Ted Jr., who turns up, half-naked and impervious to the Arizona winter, in his mother’s bed experiencing a 13 year old’s crisis of future masculinity. He really needs a father’s reassurance, but he’s only got a mother, so Stevie reassures him by mounting him and shagging him, seemingly under the impression he’s Ted Sr., restored to her. How real this is is made obscure by Stevie waking convinced it was a wet dream, but Ted Jr., words in the kitchen at breakfast are sufficiently ambiguous to cover a multitude of sins, incest not excluded. Besides, there’s no suggestion the typewriter had anything to do with it…
Call me excessively sheltered if you like, but this was probably my first introduction to the notion of mother-son incest (Oedipus doesn’t count: all that classical stuff is too far removed from real life, and anyway, it’s not like either of them knew that Jocasta was that literal a MILF). This was the one part of the novel that seriously stuck in my memory over thirty years.
However, Bishop then consigns this deliberately enigmatic episode to the dustbin, with no subsequent reference, consequence or effect, which makes the whole thing come over as just a prurient curiosity, an Obligatory Sex Scene of pointless perversion.
Now that the sinister typewriter has been established, Bishop brings in the unprepossessing Seaton to stalk in person, and introduces his familiar, his pet capuchin monkey, ‘Crets (this is short for Sucrets, which constitutes the monkey’s entire food supply, that and blood sucked from Seaton’s finger.)
Ted Jr. and Marella are hooked on ‘Crets instantly, whilst Stevie objects to the creature but is barred from saying this due to basic politeness. And Seaton, employing his natural inability to respond appropriately to social situations, is deliberately obtuse about buggering off out of it as Stevie is signalling.
By now, it’s evident that Bishop wants us to read this novel as a metafiction, a symbolic exploration of the relationship of a writer to her tools. The typewriter is gradually taking over Stevie’s life, making her into a figure of fiction in her own level of reality, to which a great many reviewers have responded enthusiastically. But its effectiveness depends upon the reader remaining interested in Stevie and her predicament and actually caring if she is a real woman or a metafictional construct and at least one reader simply didn’t.
Nor is it helpful that Bishop’s denouement involves pulling an in-story quasi-rational explanation out of his back pocket. By an implausible coincidence, it turns out that, a decade before, the late Ted Crye Senior conducted an affair with Lynette Beneke, Seaton’s actual MILF mother, Seaton, who not only witnessed their fucking in the flesh but also took so many pictures you could construct a feature film from them, is taking his revenge by punishing Stevie.
Unfortunately, the motive makes no sense, either realistic or stalker-twisted, and the introduction of a concrete grudge flattens what remains of the mystery of the ending, in which Bishop’s sting in the tail is that the supposedly-reformed Seaton has added an army of demons to an entire range of manual typewriters acquired by Stevie on the cheap. The two notions simply do not gel.
Basically, Who made Stevie Crye? does not work for me. I can see what Bishop is aiming for, and that the intention of the book is to make the reader re-read it’s title, and interpret it as ‘Who made Stevie Crye?’, introducing an ambiguity as to the exact nature of the author’s role. Thirty years or so ago, I think that I may have been more impressed by the ambition but in 2016, I am unable to summon any interest in whether Mary Stevenson Crye is a ‘real’ character undergoing an unusual and readworthy experience, or an author’s overt puppet with no autonomous function.
Whatever conclusion I came to in the Eighties has vanished with the more detailed recollections of the book. I know that my present day opinion is exceedingly low.
Charity shop, here we come.