Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Leonard Cline Reviews CHALK FACE (1924) by Waldo Frank

Cline's review of Waldo Frank's odd novel Chalk Face appeared on the book page at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while Cline was on the staff there, on 18 October 1924. 

Waldo Frank Essays Modern Ghost Story

There is a sense of madness and at the same time a drug-like ecstasy always in the strange style of Waldo Frank. His sentences come twisted in baroque convolutions, with ellipses that have the effect of suspending one in the folds of mist. His mental processes, too, are almost convulsed; his associations are strained and chaotic and lead to traumatic metaphors. Ordinarilly, as in Rehab, one can hardly follow the story because one is absorbed in the style; but when, in Chalk Face, he attempts horror, style and matter are in agreement.

Chalk Face is a striking book. Here is a ghoulish thesis: that  a man by the creative force of his own passions can create a “larval man,” a monster with hands material enough to plunge a blade and yet with body spiritual enough to “plane” horribly through the air “like a bird of prey”; and that this man will go about through streets and corridors to do murder. “Chalk Face” is such a man, a modernist ghost.

On this foundation is built the chronicle of the struggle of Dr. John Mark. Two inexplicable murders, each of them calculated to further his own interest, throw him, already tortured mentally by a baffled love, into morbid brooding. On the suspicion that the murderer is something psychic, Mark determines to pursue him by psychic means, He shuts himself in his rooms, he denies himself tobacco or stimulants, he eats frugally of vegetables and fruit and he compels his feeling brain to thrust out the body into whatever spiritual plane of existence there may be. It is a curious chapter. Just so do theosophists discipline themselves to expect the hallucinations that surely must follow. And so, in the end, Mark confronts the murderer.

Of the stock articifes of the writer of horror stories, Waldo Frank uses several with success. There is gripping suspense after that interview of Mark’s with Mrs. Landsdowne, the clairvoyant, when she recoils from him, terror-smitten, and whispers, “What are you doing now?” The setting for the final episode with Chalk Face, the dreary ploughed field sloping to the slime of a lime kiln, is as grewsome as Poe’s dank tarn of Auber.

Chalk Face will serve at least as an introduction for Waldo Frank into the company of the really great writers of horror who are publishing these days. It is hardly as original a conception as the revolt of the beasts in Arthur Machen’s The Terror, or as that furtive thing of the Canadian wilderness in Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” But it is certainly an achievement , and will find an interested audience, particularly among students of psychology. (Boni & Liveright.)

I read Chalk Face several years ago  Here is the main thrust of my review, which is more critical than Cline’s. It appears in my collection Late Reviews (2018):

I found it irritating and long-winded, with a central idea that might have been interesting if handled very differently. It is the first person narrative of one Dr. John Mark, who is writing his story in order to escape from his own “eternal Twilight” and to “dwell once more in the innocent world of men: in the world where the sun is luminous because the night is black, where life seems good because death is real.” This novel is filled with page after page of this kind of blather.

John Mark is a self-absorbed bore who pines after the woman of his dreams, Mildred Fayn. When he divulges his love to Mildred, she tells him of another suitor for her hand, Philip LaMotte, who is subsequently found dead, stabbed by a white-faced man. John Mark’s wealthy parents refuse to give him money to wed Mildred, and then they die in an auto accident, after which it is discovered that a chalk-faced man has interfered with the repair of their vehicle at the car shop. What this leads up to is that John Mark is so ambitious that his own will has embodied itself and killed off the people who would stand in the way of what his intellect wants. Mark slowly learns this, and then tells Mildred, who rejects him and believes him to be insane.

What makes this novel even more confusing is that most of it is written in an annoying present tense, though in many places it slips back and forth clumsily between the present and the past. This could possibly have been an interesting novel, but it is crippled by the style in which it is written, and the form in which the author chose to tell it. (p. 71)

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