Chomu Press (paperback)
Cardigan is heading east through the night-bleak cities of America and back to confront the past he has never escaped, as a resident of Zimms, an orphanage-cum-asylum and a true palace of dementia. En route, Cardigan meets bounty hunters, ghosts, ghouls, a talking rat, even a merman, and struggles to decide which will lead him from damnation.
Foreword to “The Orphan Palace” by Michael Cisco
In the mid-1990’s, Bob Price used to convene gatherings of weird writers at his Victorian home in Bloomfield, NJ., and this was where I made the acquaintance of Joe Pulver. We would all bring stories and read them to each other. Joe’s zest for poetry was impossible to mistake. He had an unmistakable affinity for tragic beauty, sharp imagery, and phantasmal weirdness, a ravenous appetite for art. It was obvious he could never get enough of these high, dark things, and would overturn every stone, probe into every pool, ferret them out wherever they were. They couldn’t hide from him. The Bloomfield Kalem group eventually went its separate ways, and I lost track of Joe for many years. Now I have his work before me again, and there it is, the same unbanked fierceness. I don’t have to guess he’s been sharpening his knives steadily all this while.
If On the Road had been written about Henry Lee Lucas instead of Neal Cassady, it would have been The Orphan Palace. Out of unfamiliar comic books, rock and roll or whatever you want to call it, horror movies and pulp novels, Joe Pulver conjures a kind of delirious, tantalizing significance, like an immanent pattern that keeps frustratingly dissolving whenever you try to draw near enough to it to make out what it means. Thomas Ligotti once described Nyctalops, a small press magazine released at irregular intervals and edited by Harry O. Morris, as an object of dread in itself. The Orphan Palace lives in the center of the collector’s mania for whatever seems to come into his or her world from outside. While the internet has done a great deal to extend the reach of the collector, it seems to have correspondingly expanded the domain of obscurities as well. Prior to the internet’s development and outreach, the lover of the outre had to compile lists, spend long hours searching, and was rewarded from time to time with an unanticipated discovery. The narrator of The Orphan Palace, Cardigan, is busier with murder and arson, but he is also in search of something that is not found in the pulp novels published by Shadow House so much as something they are pointing towards, the discovery of which, so he thinks, is reserved by destiny just for him.
Cardigan is one of the novel’s horrors. He leaves a trail of suffering and meaningless death, which seems to qualify him to confront a greater evil in a way that kind intentions would not. Goodwill and humanity are alternately depicted as folly or as simply too weak and fragile to hold up in the face of mindless appetancy, inhuman cruelty. The moral bleakness of the novel is at least as pervasive as its unbroken feeling of headlong delirium. The Lovecraftian influence makes itself felt less by name dropping and more in the appalling frailty of humanity, the idea that ordinary life is at best an illusion and at worst a pernicious bait. Lovecraft also had a way of connecting his narrators directly to the horror that Joe Pulver greatly amplifies.
The novel also places an unusual reliance on purely verbal effects. Style is always an aspect of content as well, but prose is typically called upon to relay information modestly and transparently, without calling attention to itself. The Orphan Palace, on the contrary, is a zealously poetic book, infused at every point with the sharp intensity; while it has quiet moments, it has no bland or merely transitional passages. The delirium of the point of view character, who moves through an ordinary world having been fatally estranged from it himself, is an inescapably persistent tonic element saturating the work. It is the single most important aspect of his characterization. Joe Pulver distills the poetics of the lyrics, pulp, noir, film, and comic styles into a coherent form, largely by using Cardigan’s character as a scaffolding or frame. The result is a very fast, headlong novel, with a great deal of action tersely described in brief, telegraphic sentences, cutting back and forth between the narrative present, in which Cardigan is hunting the enemy who destroyed his childhood, ruined his life, threatens the world, and his memories of early torment and rare camaraderie with fellow inmates at the psychiatric hospital. There is gradual revelation or discovery unfolding in both timelines; the obscurity of present events undergoing his bloody investigation, and the obscurity of repressed traumatic childhood events. However, the pattern keeps telescoping outward, getting more complicated and adding new elements, while what would seem to be moments of clarification really add nothing to Cardigan’s practical understanding of his circumstances. This very effectively conveys the idea of insane paranoia.
In this passage, for example, the scene is an otherworldly, anonymous alleyway. After a brief introductory passage in prose, this more poetic sequence occurs:
“Every screen in every blackened window ripped. “
While they have no strict form, six of these eight independent lines begin with a stressed syllable, while the other two consist of a single stressed syllable each, so every line has a hard attack. The opening pair of lines are metrically identical and involve only a single substitution, while all four opening lines are variations on one content, excrement. The longer opening lines suggest an initial gathering of details in a scene, while the switch to shorter words, “scum” and “shit” shows how particulars accelerate into a general impression. The periods don’t slow or stop the movement of the words, but are emphatic, and rule out alternate possible impressions. They also reflect, here as throughout the novel, Cardigan’s state of mind. He is a paranoid man; paranoid people “understand” everything they see, they “know” what everything means. The passage unfolds both logically and sonically: “Shit” bridges into “Litter” by rhyming “it,” and adds an unstressed syllable. “Litter” bridges into “latitude” by paralleling “lit” and “lat,” while the “it” refrain repeats in the second syllable of “latitude.” The observations are becoming longer again. There is pretty clearly a moment of initial disgust, which is framed in simple words, and then a second moment of reopening, acquiring more intelligence, and the transition is handled by gradual lengthening of words. “Shit” and “Litter” are plain, but “No latitude” is abstract. This place is not on a map, it can’t be found, it has to find you. “Something corroded” is also abstract. The corrosion and not the thing is depicted. The spaces between stressed and unstressed syllables dilates more and more. The last line quoted above begins with the repetition of the stressed word “every,” continues with a series of trochees, and ends on a stressed syllable. This use of stress, whether conscious or not, gives the line a solid definitiveness and certainty that again is typical of Cardigan’s way of seeing.
The Orphan Palace continually resets the structure of a novel in place, only to escape from it or attack it. While it has elements of a narrative, plot is not really the main attraction. In many respects, it is more like a full-length prose poem; what matters to it is mood, velocity, unrelenting intensity and emphasis, nihilism, an interminable succession of different metaphors for bitterness and misery. The blank staccato of the language is very effective in generating a suffocating feeling of hopelessness, impotence, and passivity. It’s a strange effect, since it draws a quality of what Burroughs used to call “stasis horror” from constant activity, change of scenery, and movement. Cardigan goes everywhere, and he might as well not have gone anywhere. His story is less an account of what he does or accomplishes, and more about his sadness, inhuman isolation, wretchedness and savage fury.
AFTERWORD: CHASING THE OUROBOROS
“Killing. Running. You can’t get away from you. You can cry, but when you’re done you’re still you.” – From The Orphan Palace.
We know him only as Cardigan (this name no doubt taken from the novel Cardigan by Robert W. Chambers, a literary hero of Pulver’s). Cardigan is on a road trip across the country. Like a shark, he must keep swimming; to stop might be the end of him. And like a shark, he is liable to tear into those who cross his path. Is Cardigan a serial killer, or a dark avenger? For he has been wounded, has Cardigan. Long ago he escaped the orphanage called Zimms, where he was tortured by a mysterious Dr. Archer and his staff. And so Cardigan is on the road back to Zimms, to right past wrongs. Having once run away from Zimms, and now running toward it, has he only traced one great zero?
On the road, Cardigan weirdly seems to encounter the same hotel again and again, with one of a series of oddly identical pulp fiction books in his hotel room in place of a Bible, furthering the sense that he has only been running in a circle – an Ouroboros swallowing its own tail/tale. Running like a rat in a treadmill, really going nowhere…except deeper into his own madness.
Speaking of rats – Cardigan has a friend named D’if: a talking rat. Is D’if some kind of spirit, like the infamous Gef the Talking Mongoose, or an externalization of Cardigan’s insanity? And along his journey, Cardigan encounters much more malevolent entities: ghouls from the universe of H. P. Lovecraft, and cultists of Frank Belknap Long’s Hounds of Tindalos. Again, are these creatures real, or only further manifestations of his paranoia? The people Cardigan kills on his journey – often women – to his eyes are filled with BLACK (and has there ever been a novel so filled with the word black – always written BLACK – like some kind of repetitive chant?), but once more, are his victims truly vessels of evil or merely a madman’s justification for venting his own monumental rage?
Though another reader may feel differently, I prefer to think of these supernatural elements as merely delusion, so effective is the novel in immersing us in the mind of a dangerous, tormented man. Cardigan is Travis Bickle without a taxi. Not since American Psycho have I felt so thoroughly, and uncomfortably, forced into the skin of a deranged person.
Pulver’s style – however poetic and often outright hallucinatory – keeps the forward movement unrelenting, the novel’s momentum hurtling us through page after page. It is a trippy road trip indeed. Its recurring imagery, the nonstop barrage of violence, certain phrases and flashback sequences appearing again and again, put us in an almost hypnotic state as the pages turn. In its voice and presentation, it is almost more a gigantic sustained prose poem than anything else. As with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – another book that broadens the potentiality of the novel form – The Orphan Palace could have been X number of pages shorter, or X number of pages longer. That isn’t to say there is extraneous material, but just that we readers aren’t obliged to follow the neatly outlined steps of a conventional plot, from A to B to THE END. While I’ve just said the novel plunges us along, that doesn’t mean the road is not a crooked one. We are navigating a mile-wide hedge maze with a carnival mirror at every turn, as we charge blindly with Cardigan through seemingly distorted time and space. Tenses change from line to line – something that normally, as with even the great Thomas Harris, sends me into fits, but here it just seems an appropriate part of that disjointed temporality. You are not a passive reader of this book; it pulls you into a greater engagement than that, whether you like it or not. You become disoriented within it…lost within it…orphaned from your quotidian reality. You become Cardigan.
The Orphan Palace is a literary experience quite unlike anything I’ve encountered. It is brilliant, it is dazzling. But don’t get me wrong; it is not a sunny journey, by any means.
It is black. With a capital BLACK.
Guest blog post about THE ORPHAN PALACE, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
by Jeffrey Thomas
In Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.’s THE ORPHAN PALACE (henceforth, for ease, JSPS and TOP respectively), as a young man our protagonist Cardigan escapes from a sinister orphanage called Zimms, where an evil psychiatrist named Dr. Archer subjects his charges to various forms of torture, abetted by his equally loathsome staff. In Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST, having himself survived a horrible orphanage/workhouse, the sweet and innocent Oliver proves a shining example of the imperviousness of the human soul. Whereas Cardigan wants bloody revenge, and will walk right through the hole he shoots through you to get to it, if you stand in his way.
So what does that teach us? Well, both books teach us the truth, really. We all walk through fires. They all scar us. But how we as individuals react to the same trials might be very different indeed.
So TOP teaches us the truth. It is a realistic novel, then, correct?
Mm, yes. It is an abstractly realistic novel.
Are there really sinister orphanages, in which children are physically and psychologically tormented? Nowadays, I wouldn’t think so. In our country’s past, yes, I would imagine there were, and sanitariums where the treatment was even worse. But it’s not JSPS’s point to expose today’s evil practices. At least, not in such a literal sense. The titular Orphan Palace, Zimms, could serve as a metaphor for how we are shaped as human beings in general — whether that Orphan Palace be as small as our own home, or as large as the USA. As large as this whole world of human beings. The Orphan Palace is the forge of all human life. Whether we are truly orphans or even if we have loving parents, ultimately we walk out its doors to fend for ourselves in a world that might not be literally populated with the novel’s ghouls and evil cultists, but the threatening forces those entities stand in for. Beyond counting, there are malignant people in positions of power, whether they be hateful little administrative types or world leaders, for whom we could consider Dr. Archer a symbolic mask.
So for me, JSPS’s novel possesses at the same time a very realistic feel — an uncomfortably realistic feel — and a fantastical, dream-like, hallucinatory quality. And that’s quite an achievement. This is art, my friend. Art can do tricky stuff like that.
The Orphan Palace Fan Edition