Monday, October 9, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Exit to San Breta"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

“The Exit to San Breta”
Fantastic, 1972

The early 1970s were a time of immense creativity and increased production (and publication) for Martin, and the way he describes the period from about 1971-1973 makes me wildly jealous. One of the stories to come out of that burst was “The Exit to San Breta,” an interesting mix of sci-fi and the Gothic supernatural. It’s not quite horror—there’s nothing particularly scary about it—but it is a ghost story and sci-fi . . . both at the same time. As mentioned before, Martin has pretty much no respect for genre boundaries, and I think that makes him a stronger writer. Genre is less important than the story, the characters, and the setting; whatever “genre” lets him tell the best story he can is where he’ll end up.

In “The Exit to San Breta,” cars are pretty much obsolete due to transportation technology yielding personal helicopters, hovertrucks, and “grav packs.” Only collectors really own cars or drive anymore, so the roads are falling apart and for the most part empty. Our hero (who I don’t think has a name; if he does I didn’t spot it) is out driving one night, deep in the desert of the southwestern United States, when he comes upon another car—an Edsel—gets in a wreck with it, and it disappears. Dun dun dun. Of course, he talks to someone at a rest stop and he’s told that motorists have had the same story going back forty years, that it’s a ghost car, a remnant of a horrible crash that killed an entire family.

This sort of thing is a fairly standard ghost story now, though I’m not sure how typical it was back in the 1970s. Many American urban legends have this same structure—a horrific incident that involves violent death sends ripples through the fabric of space-time, echoing over and over, with people occasionally coming into contact with the echoes. Sometimes those people get away unscathed, as our “San Breta” hero does, and sometimes they die horrible deaths. Nearly always, though, there’s an older person (a father, a grandfather, the wise old sage of the town) who relays the original story and tells the protagonist that they’ve just had an encounter with a ghost. Supernatural was all about this kind of story back when it started and was still mostly doing monster-of-the-week, and Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road has a hitchhiking ghost as a protagonist.

What’s particularly interesting about blending sci-fi into a ghost story is that the Gothic, nostalgic element that is required for the story to work is centered on now. The setting is fifty or sixty years in our future (okay, fifty or sixty years in the future of 1970, but since we still aren’t at personal-use helicopters, hovercars, or grav-pacs, we can still read it this way), so the incident that caused the ghost wasn’t in our past, but in our present (again, ish. Go with me here). Instead of looking back to a time before us for the ghost, Martin is looking “back” to now, imagining a society that’s as far beyond us as we are beyond the usual times for our ghosts to come from—50 to 100 years in our past. The wise-old-sage character who explains the incident to the hero also explains to us why there’s this particular ghost:

Violent death, that’s what. Ghosts were the products of murders and of executions, debris of blood and violence. Haunted houses were all places where someone had met a grisly end a hundred years before. But in twentieth century America, you didn’t find the violent death in mansions and castles. You found it on the highways, the bloodstained highways where thousands died each year.

America has its own history and its own folklore that don’t rely on the medieval or Gothic traditions of Europe. Neil Gaiman once pointed out that magic doesn’t really have a place in America, and I think that shows here. This isn’t fantasy-horror, after all; it’s sci-fi horror. The only magical element is the ghost, and everything else is advanced science. He doesn’t go the late Gothic route of explaining away the ghost as some sort of natural phenomenon—it’s definitely a ghost—which I appreciate because I’ve always felt that that sort of thing is a horrendous cop-out on the part of the writer.

“The Second Kind of Loneliness,” which I’ll be covering next week, is also sci-fi/horror, but in a different way; it’s a psychothriller instead of a supernatural ghost story.

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