REOPENING THE ASTONISHED EYE
AND FINDING TRACE ELEMENTS
Since its birth, I’ve regarded my novel The Astonished Eye as a beloved offspring who left home with an eloquent wave, disappeared quietly into the world, and made a few good and lasting friends wherever it traveled. A good life, all in all. Originally published in 2001 as a signed limited edition by Peter Crowther and PS Publishing, later as a US hardback from Five Star, The Astonished Eye may never have made the cultural or economic splash that a few predicted, but has remained a kind and valuable descendent. And it again has found life.
When Stark House Press recently republished The Astonished Eye as a “Stark House Fantasy Classic,” it not only allowed the novel another opportunity to trundle the world and make friends, it also permitted me a nice period of reexamination and appreciation, even of the little things: How a chance visit by a movie Munchkin to the area where I live (to attend an autograph session at a tire store, remarkably enough) transfigured into Almo Parrish, one of the primary characters; how, unaccountably, the Firesign Theatre’s David Ossman gave voice and physical form to inveterate inventor Chandler Quinn; how my childhood—both real and imagined—informed every paragraph, every page. If nothing else, I produced a story that represented me to me. Happily, others found meaning in the tale; perhaps it tickled memories of their own childhoods, for several reviewers referenced the sense of childhood wonder we all experienced, and which suffuses the novel.
Stark House’s publication of The Astonished Eye also allowed me to appreciate what I’ve learned about life in the ten years since its original publication. Mercifully, as one ages, one’s insights about life and all it includes become simpler rather than more elaborate. A primary facet of life I appreciate—primarily through my work as a psychotherapist, but also from writing fiction—is that human beings are not collections of neurons and sparkling synapses, or clusters of knotted conflicts, or bouquets of irrational beliefs. As I wrote in the Introduction to the new edition:
“Human beings are, above all else, embodied stories. We spend every conscious moment (not to mention our dream states) engaged in the creation, enactment, and exchange of stories, each of which serves to clarify fragments of our lives, simultaneously uniting us with our fellow travelers. The stories we tell—especially those we tell ourselves—are the legacies we live and we leave. Beyond our presence on Earth—when we transform from subject to object—we continue existing as stories, as incarnate insights we uncovered about what it’s like to be alive, even as years pass and our names secede from the stories, like autumn leaves from their mother tree.“
Human beings as embodied stories—and stories as embodied humanness—also came clear when I opened Perfect Crime’s edition of Trace Elements, my first collection of short stories. Prior to John Boland of Perfect Crime expressing interest in a collection, I held few hopes of my stories being collected, since genre-wise they were all over the map: mysteries, suspense, science fiction, westerns, horror. Absent an orienting genre, I had difficulty picturing how the book would work. Nonetheless, I selected thirteen tales and assembled them into reasonable sections: The Human Mystery, Darkness & Light, and Beyond Human. It wasn’t until I read the Introduction that Ed Gorman kindly provided for the collection that the invisible cord holding these stories together came clear. Ed observed that my stories tend to be examinations of outcasts, outsiders, no matter the genre. I stopped when I read that because, although it had never clearly occurred to me, it was absolutely true. And Ed’s observation was reinforced when Trace Elements was recently reviewed by David Pitt of Booklist, who wrote:
“Genre author Knight, who has written both science fiction and westerns, offers 13 short stories that focus on people who are either damaged, marginalized, or both: a man who loses his mind every Father’s Day; a ‘cat lady’; a former stage star, now living in a nursing home; an elderly dementia sufferer; a war-veteran
recluse; a young woman with cerebral palsy. Knight, a clinical psychologist, takes us deep inside his characters, letting us get a good look at what makes them tick. These aren’t just character studies, though; they’re compelling pieces of short fiction, with gripping, often unsettling tales to tell.”
It was enormously gratifying to encounter this overarching meaning that united my novels and short stories, since I believe that in fiction—whether or not by design—writers provide their readers glimpses into how to be human. Besides appreciating the narrative qualities of life, Trace Elements also offers one such glimpse. In the end, despite our earnest, ongoing efforts to matter and to belong, we are—all of us—outsiders.