03 March 2004

"Melungeon Moon" by d.g.k. goldberg

Melungeon Moon is a story fully deserving the designation tour de force. Nick Mamatas mentioned he is voting for it as his third place choice in the Stoker Awards preliminary ballot, so I decided to read it, since I've hardly read any of the stories on the ballot (though I did read Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds", in Mojo: Conjure Stories, and liked it a lot -- a story which is more subtle than it seems at first.) I'll read Nick's first choice, "You Go Where It Takes You" by Nathan Ballingrud soon, since Nick knows the horror field far better than I, and he seems to have excellent taste.

"Melungeon Moon" is a stunning tale for many reasons, not the least of which is its viewpoint shift halfway through, a technique which I would be immensely skeptical of had someone told me about it, but which works quite well within the context of the story.

Other qualities which make this a story worth reading are its rhythmic, lyrical prose; its willingness to allow the actual meaning of the plot to remain not-quite-clear until the last paragraph or so; and its brave mixing of a huge swath of history into a personal story. (It's also got a lot of sex, though it's hardly good or pleasant sex.)

Someone believing in the equation: horror fiction = Stephen King et al. would have a bit of trouble with "Melungeon Moon". It would be fun to watch such a person read this story -- the effect would be similar to that of the old "Far Side" cartoon where a dog is staring at a blackboard full of equations, and one scientist says to another, "Isn't the look on Sparky's face cute when he tries to comprehend quantum mechanics?" (I'm paraphrasing horribly from memory.)

While reading "Melungeon Moon", I felt unmoored, uncertain, confused, bewildered, frustrated, and fascinated. Not a bad effect for a story of roughly 4,000 words to have, particularly one where those feelings are exactly the ones felt by various characters. The structure of the story is based on accumulation -- it comes close to being collage -- and each bit of detail, each hint and gesture, floated through my mind, in search of something to latch on to. The images, scraps of history, bits of dialogue, and suggestions of the supernatural all ultimately attached and came together in a single unit, giving the story a coherent meaning, but it takes the entirety of the tale to get there. As it should. Why should a reader put less imaginative effort into a story than the writer does?

The prose itself is worth looking at, too. Consider these two passages:
Most lies hold the heart of the truth beating in the palm of their hand, one squeeze, a bit of pressure and the truth is dead, but, cautious, soft as dawn and the truth stays, blood dripping down my unscathed wrist.


Her mind rushed ahead to those thick fingers touching her, pushing her outside of her skin. She had looked into his tombstone eyes. She'd said no too many times that evening. He'd taken her at her word. He'd given up. He hadn't wanted her enough. Damn.
Look at how goldberg uses the lengths and rhythms of the sentences to suggest meaning, tone, and layers beyond the denotative. The first sentences moves along with strength and energy, elaborating the idea, until suddenly it stops with "but" and then "cautious" spins the sentence around on itself. (It's not a perfect sentence by any means -- with the odd "and" there, I wonder what "cautious" really refers to: truth? lies? the narrator? -- but nonetheless it is an effective and alluring sentence. Such sentences do not require grammatical or syntactical perfection, they only need to do something, and this one does a lot through its back-and-forth movement.)

The second passage demonstrates the erosion of the character's thoughts, as the sentences become shorter, finally ending with the single, nearly-meaningless word "damn", which as a sentence and an expression unto itself seems to suggest a momentary defeat, an inability to reason or refer.

I haven't mentioned one of the major elements of the story: seemingly disconnected bits of historical material which, as the story progresses, inch toward connection, until in the end we realize they were not decoration, they were not random bits of filler, but were actually elements of the plot and (literally) characters. It helps to know what the word Melungeon means, and helps even more to know a bit of the history, but it isn't entirely necessary -- the story is (at least after you've read it once) a clear presentation of such information.

The "horror" in this story has many sources: it is the personal horror that is degradation, it is the social and political horror that is marginalization and oppression, it is the historical horror that is forgetfulness. There are vivid, painful passages in this story, but the real pain, the real terror lies between the lines.

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