Mimesis

6 May

Philo Bond had not expected so personal a criticism of his just published horror novel.

The reviewer was a Professor of Literature named Jeff Nepry who described the work, “Beyond the Misty Bay”, as an imitative copy of the works of the 1920’s writer now mostly forgotten, Brian Thenan.

The final paragraph of the review was especially galling and poisonous to the author.

“Every day I see works by writers who obviously have been influenced by either classic or best-selling novels. It is normal to absorb by almost osmosis from those writers we admire or enjoy. Even the best of literary stylist finds predecessors worthy of conscious or unconscious imitation. But in the case of the writer who signs his work Philo Bond, there appears to be an absolute absence of any originality of content, method, or any other ingredient of creating readable literature. There is not one new idea anywhere in these dismal pages, nor the hint of one.”

Philo fell into a funk that went on for over two weeks time. The short, muscular young man considered finding the hostile literary critic and either telling him off or punching him in the mouth. Or perhaps both.

But instead he decided to start on a new project, again in the area of supernatural horror. The insulted author justified his refusal to accept any of the attacks leveled at him by the high-brow called Jeff Nepry. Who are the reviewers and critics? In all probability, unsuccessful and untalented writers in their own lives. Losers who take out their personal frustrations on those who have found a publisher willing to bet on them. That’s it, Philo finally said to himself: that nasty, unfair, malicious review was the result of jealousy in a distorted personality. There was not an ounce of truth in any of the lies and accusations against him and his novel.

I shall go ahead and write what I want to, in my own personal style.

Nepry and those who agree with him can lump it, the wounded creator told himself over and over.

Philo went into total isolation for the next four months with his word-processor and ended up with a second novel in the genre of horror. He gave the comparatively short work the title “Out of the Clouded Darkness” and sent it at once to the publisher of his first book. He had submitted both works without a professional literary agent. His hope, that lightening would strike a second time on him, came true. In only a few days, a contract was sent to him. Finding its terms highly satisfactory, the happy author signed it and waited for printing and distribution. He had to make only three corrections in the galley edition sent him for approval.

The tired, exhausted writer visited several book stores in the world-class metropolis, if only to make sure that this second novel of his had favorable shelf space and enjoyed noticeable prominence among its rivals and competitors.

Philo then waited to read the newspaper, magazine, and on-line reviews by the well-known genre and general literary critics. How was his novel going to be received?

Once again, it was Jeff Nepry who was assigned to carry out a hatchet-job on what he had composed for the reading public. And this time, the cynical sarcasm was even crueler and more merciless.

The novelist read the evaluation of his new creation in the book section of the leading Sunday journal with a sinking heart. His sense of unjust, slanderous abuse grew deeper with each sentence, culminating in the final personal attack upon his individual character.

“What can we make of a writer who is an obvious imitator, such as this one? The characters, setting, and plot line that one finds in this tale go far beyond the definition of a literary pastiche based on the 1920’s writings of the beloved Brian Thenan. What we have here goes beyond traditional mimesis, for the offense is committed without art or dexterity. This book falls to the level of an amateur duplication, done without seriousness or imagination.”

Feeling the flaming rage boiling inside himself, Philo decided that if he was going to have a future in his profession, he had to get back at Jeff Nepry, a man he had never met. How could he confront and challenge the despicable twerp?

The field of thrillers, horror stories, and the weird had its annual convention in the metropolis the month after the negative review of the second novel. Philo made a point of being present at all the meetings and occasions connected with the worldwide event he was able to attend. He was actively on the lookout for the enemy of his standing and reputation in the genre.

A golden opportunity to exact a measure of revenge suddenly appeared. His nemesis was scheduled to appear on a panel that dealt with a subject of profound interest to Philo: the contemporary concept of re-incarnation in recent horror tales. He would try to get himself in as a questioner in the discussion period after the three major participants had had their say. Yes, he could present a stiff rebuttal to Nepry in the form of an innocent-sounding question during the question-and-answer period.

I will challenge and embarrass the rat, said Philo to himself with relish.

The hotel hall dedicated to this particular meeting was packed with curious, enthusiastic novel-readers and genre fans. Supernatural horror was in current favor, booming in sales and popularity. This promised to be a time and a place where Philo Bond might make a public sensation by confronting his number one critic. He took a seat near the rear of the overcrowded chamber, but from where he hoped to be clearly heard by everyone in attendance.

Jeff Nepry was the last of the trio of speakers to present his personal views on the question of the place of re-incarnation as a central idea in the horror genre. He spoke in a clipped, fast tone, as if in a small group holding a cocktail party conversation. His ending sounded like a clever, humorously droll display of personal wit.

“So, I must conclude that re-incarnation as a plot element has been grossly overworked and must no longer be used as a support of otherwise lifeless plotting. It is a concept that has outlived its former prominence in our genre and should be granted a respectful burial in the cemetery of the outmoded and passé.”

Polite but limited applause followed Nepry as he went back to his seat in front of the audience of fans and followers of horror and weird literature.

The moderator then took command of the narrow lectern and announced that the floor was open to questions to any or all of the speakers from those who had listened for the last hour or so.

The first person in the audience to stand up was Philo Bond, who began to make a prepared declaration in a loud, impassioned tone of voice.

“Let me say, first of all that I myself am a writer of supernatural horror tales, and my question to Mr. Jeff Nepry is in reference to the statement he made only minutes ago concerning the place of the re-incarnation idea within the modern genre of horror. As we can all recall, he denied that the concept of return of individual spirits or souls had any value left in the literature being produced today, in the world of the present. The idea of metempsychosis or re-incarnation was characterized as having become obsolete and out-of-date, no longer usable in the plots conceived of by worthwhile novelists. Is that your considered opinion, Mr. Nepry?”

As soon as the latter answered “Yes”, Philo immediately cut off any further comment or elucidation by his enemy, plunging forward with what he had thought up while listening to Nepry denigrate the possible use of that specific literary trope or device.

“I think you are making a terrible error, sir, because we are dealing with one of the central concepts in the horror kind of fiction, one that is irreplaceable and always vital in the inspiration of our kind of writing. Let me explain.

“I, Philo Bond, confess before all of you that I happen to be the re-incarnation of my predecessor, the horror writer of the 1920’s named Brian Thenan. How do I know that to be true, and how can I prove it? I point to your reviews and critiques of my two novels, Mr. Neprys. Do you recall what you wrote about them? How you stigmatized them as poor imitations of the works of that long dead author, Brian Thenan?”

The audience, excited and enthralled by what was occurring, made noises that sounded like awes and moans of unusual natures. Philo continued his astonishing statement about who he was.

“Yes, it may be hard to accept at first, but think about what I am saying. If my novels echo so much of Brian Thenon, why is that so? How did it come about? Can anyone here prove it an impossibility?

“We who are present for this genre conference on horror, thrillers, and weird literature must have an open mind when an individual writer like me makes the claim that I am a supernatural re-incarnation of my predecessor, Brian Thenan. If he is recognized by all of us as a master who helped establish the classical form of horror in the twentieth century, then that must surely be taken into consideration when my own novels are judged.

“So, I ask you, Jeff Nepry: what would you think of my two books if I had signed them as works of Brian Thenan and omitted my present-day identity completely? Would you have thrashed them the way that you did?”

The critic stood by the lectern, gaping silently, his mouth wide open.

A buzzing noise resembling a hive of agitated bees filled the conference hall. No one dared say anything more. The meeting broke apart and disintegrated in disordered confusion.

Philo slipped out of what approached a literary bedlam.

Had he made a fool of himself among the people concerned with his genre of fiction?

Could he live down the embarrassment of voicing unsubstantiated, fantastic claims about himself?

Despite all the qualms that he felt, the novelist had a long, full night of serene sleep and recuperative rest.

Whatever the social results of his daring declaration of re-incarnation, he knew he would have to accept them, Philo realized.

But when he checked the overnight e-mail on his message computer, the writer discovered something he could never have anticipated: a terse, aggressive challenge that came directly from Jeff Nepry, the critic with whom he had contended at the horror fiction conference.

“Mr. Philo Bond: this is to inform you that I intend to make a public wager against you. I will bet that you shall never be able to prove your assertion that you are the personal re-incarnation of the late, celebrated author named Brian Thenan. If you were to win, then I would be obliged to make an apology to you for all past statements of mine and accept your own evaluation of your novels. On the other hand, if you are the loser and cannot prove any connection to Thenan, then you must apologize to me and take back all your wild accusations against me. Please inform me at once whether you agree to the terms of the challenge. Signed, Jeff Nepry.”

The writer reread this several times, deciding to send back a reply at once.

“I accept and will prove myself right and you wrong.”

There could be no going back now. It would be either the shame of defeat or the exaltation of victory.

Philo was surprised to find a committee of three friends of Jeff Nepry at his door early the following morning.

“We are here to present to you the plan that Jeff is proposing for the testing of your claim to be an incarnate avatar of our comrade,” said the leader of the trio, a sickly smile on his angelic-seeming face. “If you agree to the full complement of them, then it will be your responsibility to prove to a jury of twelve jointly chosen horror writers that what you say about yourself is the truth. It would expedite the matter if you would give your reply to us immediately, this very morning.”

The writer grinned. “There is no need for any sort of waiting or delay. I agree to any terms that the cowardly punk wishes to set down before me. Let’s get on with it at once.”

The leader looked taken aback by Philo’s speedy assent. “Okay, if that is all, we will take what you have said back to Jeff. The next step will come when the committee of judges contacts you for the details of how you decide to present evidence of your claims to them. You do have evidence available, don’t you?”

Philo gave an enigmatic nod. “They will be able to see all of it in good time,” he declared, raising his jaw a little.

An agreement on where and when he was to meet with the referees who would judge the validity of his claims occurred quickly. They would assemble in the Literature Department of the great metropolitan university. Philo was to present his argument for having proclaimed himself to be the re-incarnation of the late Brian Thenan to a group of psychologists, philosophers, and classic literature scholars. Will I be capable of convincing so many learned individuals of varying disciplines? the novelist asked himself with growing trepidation.

He foresaw that his foe, Jeff Nepry, would be present, and permitted to ask him pointed questions about the arguments that he made to those considering the matter at issue.

Philo smiled, picturing himself using the reviews written by Nepry as evidence that his own novels were so much like those of those of Thenan. How else could anyone explain such perfect similarity? The critic had referred to the presence of mimesis. But his own counter-argument would be that it was identity, not imitation, that was the reason for the uncanny likeness.

The novelist became nervous about what the outcome was going to be. He had difficulty falling asleep the night before the group was to question him, with Jeff Nepry present to participate in his interrogation.

Only in the hours just before dawn did Philo finally lose consciousness and fall into deep slumber.

His habit had always been to forget any dreams he experienced through self-censorship and instant forgetting as soon as he awoke in the morning. But this time something different happened. A vision that could not be erased struck the unconscious Philo Bond.

The face in front of his mind’s inner eye was one he had seen in old photographs from the 1920’s.

He recognized the features at once as those of the man he was going to claim he was, the one he himself re-incarnated.

The mouth of Brian Thenon opened wide and words sounded from deep in his throat.

“You must deny what you have told the world. My connection to your mind and spirit must not be accepted by those who shall be your judges tomorrow. It was all a mistake, it was a fiction, a lie to claim to be my re-incarnation. Such things do not happen, they do not at all exist anywhere. Re-incarnation of one writer in a later one is an absurd idea because it is impossible.

“You must ask to be forgiven for having tried to mislead those who heard your insane attempt to make yourself become me. It was an evil deception that you attempted to foist on the horror and weird genre and those connected to it.”

The voice faded and the old-looking face disappeared.

Philo immediately awakened in a painful sweat. He knew now what he had to do the coming day.

The session with the panel of judges and Jeff Nepry was a short one. Philo astounded everyone who was there with his embarrassing confession and his plea for their mercy.

“I have been deeply dishonest toward all of you, and I beg to be forgiven. I have made statements that I knew were false and misleading. My claims concerning re-incarnation had no foundation in fact or reality. They were a cloth of fictions meant to justify the imitative nature of everything that I have ever written or published.

“Please allow me to withdraw from this panel and put an end to my unethical behavior. That is all that I have to announce at this time, as I withdraw and leave.”

Philo turned about and walked out, leaving all who were present in temporary shock, eager to leave and disappear as fast as they could.

There was no need for the disgraced novelist to say anything about his own future. He was done with all writing, because his belief remained that what he had published had been produced by the re-incarnated Brian Thenon.

Philo never was able to make peace with what he knew was within him.

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