Critic John Clute looks for Lovecraft and Leiber in Empties

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Any difficulty in reading Empties (Golden Gryphon Press, $24.95) is, I am really quite sure, intended. I thought at first I was in the grips of a book whose author had gotten blocked and who was pounding his forehead against the stone blank face of the next unwritten word. But then I began to realize that George Zebrowski's protagonist was the blockage, and that a paragraph like—

There was no way to continue the investigation. Brainless, it was difficult to judge time of death accurately. The corpse might have been in cold storage a long time in preparation for the prank.

—actually represents the way Detective Benek, caught in a deadwater cop job in a frozen-spirited Manhattan with the puzzle of a decorticated corpse to solve against the torpid indifference of his superiors—actually does think: the tooth-jerking dangler; the exquisitely inappropriate use of the word "prank" to describe a scene of desolate and (as described in Zebrowski's more normal, more fluid voice) genuinely distressing horror.

This sort of language either signals an author out of his depth, or on his uppers, or one as determined as Edgar Allan Poe, or Joseph Conrad, or William Hope Hodgson, or H. P. Lovecraft, or even David Lindsay, to articulate something else entirely: that true horror is a novum, perhaps—that each iteration of true horror speaks of something new to our perception of the planet—and that true horror is therefore very hard to utter.

Which is not to suggest that Empties is written at the high pitch of the best works of Hodgson or Lindsay, because Zebrowski's new novel is both too small and too modest to do more than point sagely when the true untellable vacancy of the world is glimpsed. But the gaze of this book is directed toward that emptiness within the skull of all things.

There is nothing populous in Empties.

Zebrowski does briefly attempt to lead us astray—fortunately in an afterword entitled "Fritz Leiber, a Remembrance" that should indeed not be read until after—by suggesting that Empties is in some useful way a companion or successor or homage to Leiber's Conjure Wife (first published in 1943 in Unknown Worlds). Both novels, it is true, invoke stomach-knotting fugs of paranoia; both gnaw uneasily at some blockage that lamingly separates the sexes; both describe some sort of psychic power-at-a-distance (the distaff version of Popular Mechanics, one supposes) exercised by a female of the species (in Empties it could easily be called telekinesis); both work on the fear that other people are pods who kill you. But Conjure Wife, written long long ago, emplaces these apprehensions with a the full busy ambience of a social world; while Empties takes place in a Manhattan as vacant as Lot's wife. Conjure Wife ends in a state of ambivalent but in fact restored marriage; while Empties has nothing left to end with. And Conjure Wife is written with all the fluent menacing geniality of Fritz Leiber in his early prime; while Empties, as we have seen, is surely not.

The sense of vacancy that exhausts the characters and drives the story of Empties is only increased by a sense of entrapped belatedness given off by the mise-en-scene. This may not be entirely deliberate on Zebrowski's part—his afterword makes it clear that he'd done some sort of draft of the tale before Robert Bloch (to whom he described it) died in 1994—but this may not really matter. Fortyish Detective Benek may have memories of the New York of his youth—Penn Station still standing, the used bookshops south of Union Square still undemolished, the Bronx still seemingly stunned by Robert Moses (one of the twentieth century's great builders of civic horror, which is to say the cenotaphs Jane Jacobs finally had to flee)—memories that place his internet-less life in Empties somewhere a decade or so short of 2009; but this absence of gear and gonzo only focuses our minds more chastely on the vacancy Empties explores.

A decorticated tramp is found (see quote above) by the East River; in his pocket, there is the business card of Dierdre Matera, who owns an apartment building on Tenth Street. A solitary, unsocial, paranoid, misogynist failed detective named Benek—whose diction of refusal Zebrowski renders into syntax as unwilling to speak as Benek—takes on the case. Within pages—partly because her ice-gamin sexuality both arouses and terrifies him—we know that she is involved in the tramp's death; after a few more pages, when she forgets herself at the moment of orgasm while having sex with the flummoxed Benek (he has just awoken from drugged sleep bound naked to her bed), she shows him the exact nature of her power, by decorticating an intruding rat at a distance, telekinetically, sucking its brains out through the walls of flesh and self, and allowing them to plop on the floor like cottage cheese.

This is obscene (Zebrowski applies throughout just enough splatter to ensure strong affect), but not only because of its visceral impact; it is particularly disgusting for Benek because Dierdre has demonstrated a mysterious female power to corrode the walls between one empty human self and another, between one solitary cop and the neighbours he shuns, between the walls between the walls of the vacant walls of Manhattan, all the walled cenotaphs of the world. For the rest of the book, erotically locked into folie a deux gyrations during the course of which most of the rest of the cast is "cored" (his term for what she does), Benek and Dierdre circle one another through these vacancies: each penetrating the other, each horrified at the thought of penetration.

Much later, much too late, Benek finally utters the truth that governs him, speaks the truth out loud—but not really aloud, not really words that tell the tale of the world before witnesses, because he is in fact dreaming:

"Walls!" he cried. That was the word. "We need more walls!" . . . The desperate need for walls was the only truth worth knowing and shouting, as the walls between people fell down all around the world and brutality tore out reason, as Dierdre's way swept the world in a plague of debraining wars . . . .

As far as the world is concerned, however, there is only empty silence.

It may be that Zebrowski's iteration of this insight is just slightly bathetic, and it may be that it comes too late in the novel to shape our perceptions properly; but it is absolutely necessary that Benek and his folly be exposed to the claws of vision, even if that vision does not in fact shape Empties.

What shapes Empties seems to be something more profound than that: the vastation that shapes Conrad and Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy: a vision that sees walls as nothing more than fake skin draping a mannequin. Only at one moment—in a passage Zebrowski lets stand alone but that we do not forget—does Benek step outside the psychotic vacuum within. It is, of course, "only" another dream:

Seasonless lands, empty of people, lay before him. Vast oceans washed across inland deserts, mixing sands and dissolving salts, reanimating long suspended life. He had always been asleep, dreaming his life.

In the end, Empties is about the core of things.

John Clute is a writer, editor and critic. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and wrote Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in various journals in the UK and America. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes most of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Canary Fever: Reviews, which is due later this year, will contain most of the next 70 or so "Excessive Candour" columns, plus other work. The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006; he is working on a much enlarged third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2009 or so.