Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Twilight Candelabra

Twilight Candelabra, by William J. Craddock
January, 1972  Doubleday

William J. Craddock (1946 - 2004) was a gifted writer who only published two novels in his lifetime: 1970's Be Not Content and this novel, Twilight Candelabra, from 1972, only published in a trade paperback edition. He wrote several other novels, including a sequel to Be Not Content, but none of them were published. I assume this was due to publishing house politics, as Craddock's books, despite not racking up the sales, were at least well-received by critics. Be Not Content was given a favorable write-up in Rolling Stone, and it was influential to several writers, among them Rudy Rucker and William Gibson. 

Be Not Content was an autobiography posing as a novel, the ultimate sixties counterculture novel, about a former biker getting involved in the brand-new LSD scene. It was filled with memorable characters and imaginative "tripping" scenes, a sense of reality - you knew Craddock had experienced all of these things first-hand. Twilight Candelabra is a different beast. This book is darker, shorter, harder edged, and not nearly as good. It has a lot of problems, but a lot of redeeming qualities as well. In short, it shouldn't have been Craddock's last-published novel. It should've been his Crying Of Lot 49 his second-novel "misfire" (as Pynchon considers Lot 49), a stopgap between Be Not Content and its sequel Backtrack (still unpublished, but according to Craddock twice the length of Content). 

Twilight Candelabra is like a counterculture Exorcist. It rides on the occult vibe that swept over the US in the early seventies, namedropping everything from the Goetia to Crowley's rumored last words ("I am perplexed." Though, according to the Crowley bio Perdurabo," this rumor is hogwash). Spliced in with the occult "readings" and demon talk is a lot of stoner wisdom, drug usage, psychedelic trips featuring Burroughsian stream-of-conscious writing, cops getting killed, kinky sex, and a bunch of characters ending all of their sentences with "man." 

The book opens with a rambling, stream-of-conscious "Preface" in which Craddock mentions how everyone thinks he should get a "real job" and not try to write for a living. He then claims the novel is overly offensive and warns away sensitive women. As if to prove this, the novel itself begins with twenty-four year old hero Damon Dusk sodomozing a young boy, then pulling a .45 on the kid and telling him he's "morally obligated" to kill him. 

The core problem with the novel is Dusk himself. A bad-attitude guy with shoulder-length black hair and a full beard (suspiciously much like the photo of William Craddock on the back cover), Dusk has gotten over his head in some serious occult business. The novel covers only a few weeks of action; Dusk - a new name, as the character re-invents himself periodically with a new name and background - suspects two demons are on his tail, and tries all manner of actions to get rid of them. But the thing is, Dusk is too inhuman a character to like. He's like those superhuman characters Arnold Schwarzenegger would play in the eighties - always two steps ahead of everyone, perfect in all ways, unstymied by such simple human troubles as worry and fear and compassion. We watch dumbstruck as Dusk exploits any and all characters he comes across, abusing them physically and verbally, engendering the deaths of innocents, ruining the lives of many, yet never once feeling any remorse. This would work if Dusk was an anti-hero, a villain in the starring role, but he's not; Craddock presents Dusk to us as the hero of the tale. 

Instead of a cohesive plot, the book follows Dusk as he tries to figure out what's pursuing him, going from person to person. In this way the novel is much like early Don DeLillo. As stated, Dusk is always at least a step ahead, and unfortunately this includes the reader. So we have no idea why Dusk does the things he does, plans the things he plans, because Craddock won't let us in his head to find out. Instead, we are spectators, and this reduces the novel to the level of a film, where you can only watch the characters but never experience their feelings directly. 

The majority of the scenes take place in the dilapidated house of Herwoman, a 400 pound witch who gives Dusk readings, provides him with grimoires, and in turn uses his body to serve her womanly needs. It's at Herwowan's house that the novel's first extended drug trip takes place; Dusk drinks a concoction of Herwoman's which contains a cornucopia of drugs. As in Be Not Content, Craddock uses the drugs angle as an excuse to go wild with his writing, tossing in non sequitirs and turns-of-phrase that would have William Burroughs red with envy. Despite the drugged voyage into innerspace, Dusk receives no answers, so is still clueless about his shadowy pursuers. So he arranges a drug deal. Why? No idea, he just does. He takes advantage of the hero worship a young guy has for him by commandeering the guy's place, putting his life in jeopardy, and having him arrange this drug deal. Then Dusk takes advantage of the guy's fianc√©...right in the guy's bed. After which he tells the girl to get herself together and keep her mouth shut. Yep, that's our hero. 

The drug deal turns out to be a scam, as Dusk sells his criminal customers battery acid rather than bona fide drugs. Again, why there's even a drug deal is a question the novel doesn't bother to answer. I can only assume it's because Emma Oyama, a disfigured Japanese businesswoman who's really a demon in disguise, is an associate of the guy Dusk wants to screw over in the deal, and Craddock wanted to introduce her in an action-packed way. Regardless, the deal only serves to set up a few action scenes, none of them resolving much of anything. 

After this Dusk suddenly decides he wants revenge upon a former acquaintance, a fellow dabbler in the black arts named Sampah. Why? You've got me. I figure it's because Dusk assumes Sampah has set those elusive demons on Dusk's back. In order to achieve this planned murder, Dusk first meets a group of revolutionaries, buying some bombs from them. Here Dusk tells the revolutionaries their future, informing them in flat tones what exactly will happen to them if they proceed with their plan to blow up a factory. He even reveals that one of their members is an undercover agent; they frisk the guy, and sure enough he's got a "signed photo of J. Edgar Hoover" in his wallet. How Dusk can predict the future and how Dusk knows all is again something Craddock doesn't explain. 

After reuniting with a former girlfriend and witnessing the suicide of another former acquaintance, Dusk heads out into the desert where he frolics with a commune of wild women and their Herculean master who torture and then murder a cop. The commune is near Sampah's guarded encampment; after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, in which Sampah escapes with his life, Dusk is a man possessed (so to speak), finally alive, finally with a goal to achieve. This serves to make the character more human, but it's too little, too late. 

As the novel races for its conclusion (the only conclusion it can have, given its hero's actions throughout), Craddock piles on the dark humor. One chapter features an extended sequence of Dusk about to face death from an armed pursuer, only for the pursuer to be killed by yet another armed pursuer, who in turn is killed by another pursuer right before the coup de grace, and on and on. It's almost Simpsonsesque, but jarring in the context of the book. The final chapter salvages things somewhat, a metaphysical look at life, death, and reincarnation, but I can only wonder how much better it would be if the novel preceding it had packed the same amount of emotion. 

Again, it's a shame this is all we ever got from Craddock. Despite my problems with Twilight Candelabra it does have some great writing. I'm convinced it influenced Pynchon; parts of the drug trips seem identical to those fractured bits at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, when Slothrop steps outside of the narrative. Craddock's writing is strong, literary yet accessible. My only complaint is his use of adverbs; the writer in me hates the sight of them. They're strung throughout the book, augmenting verbs that would do just fine on their own. He also has a tendency to break up dialog with unnecessary modifiers; lots of "Dusk said" and "she said" after every line of dialog, even when there are only two characters speaking. 

Special mention should be made of the packaging. The book sports a blacklight-poster-in-waiting cover of a Day-Glo demon ripping open its chest to reveal an angel inside (a clue to the novel's moral). Even better is the appendix. Craddock has a series of questions and revelations at the end of the book, my favorite being: 

A Suggested Question Concerning Twilight Candelabra: Why? 

There's also a list of "Sixteen Sexual Acts Performed Or Mentioned In Twilight Candelabra," as well as "Nine Causes Of Death To Be Found In Twilight Candelabra." It all reminds me of the Appendices in RAW/Shea's Iilluminatus!, only a bit more revelatory in some aspects (perhaps foreseeing that his book would be ignored, Craddock took it upon himself to give Twilight Candelabra a critical analysis, pointing out "Some Suggested Considerations"). In other words, the sort of thing which should've guaranteed the novel a cult badge of honor, but it was ignored, as was its author.

1 comment:

Felicity Walker said...

I liked Crying of Lot 49!