thomas owen, the house of oracles.

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I have just finished Iain White’s translations of Thomas Owen’s short fiction, The House of Oracles and Other Stories, published by Tartarus Press in 2012. White did a marvelous job for Atlas Press with Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis, and Owen’s prose flows smoothly in this collection. I am unsure if it’s a stylistic similarity born of Owen and Ray being Belgian writers of strange fiction (in the so-called Belgian School of the Strange, including others like Franz Hellens), or if it’s that White’s prose translation is consistently marked with his own brand of evocative, but precise and restrained sentences. If I had to guess, I would imagine the similarity is due to Owen and Ray being literary compatriots – after all, they are the two biggest names in the L’École belge de l’étrange. Both occupy a sort of middle ground between popular writing and what White calls “art writing,” and both have a love for obscure epigraphs (as with a lot of Francophone writers, this is probably due to Poe).

Owen’s epigraphs come from all manner of sources: the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the Egyptian-French surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, the Spanish playwright and novelist Fernando Arrabal, etc. Sometimes the unexpectedness of the quotations leads to an underwhelming or disappointed feeling in the tales themselves, when he uses a colorful epigraph to introduce and decorate an unremarkable piece of work.

Edward Gauvin wrote that Owens “[refines] what we might in English call the tale of supernatural horror to an almost anachronistic degree of classical purity.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to say anachronistic, given the number of other writers of the time also at work as specialists of the short tale of horror: Richard Matheson, Robert Aickman, Charles Beaumont, Shirley Jackson, and many others. Though taking into account the broader view of other contemporaneous literary trends – the “New Wave” of science fiction; the art-writing experimentation of Gass, Hawkes, and Barth; L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poetry – any sort of traditional narrative work could be accused of anachronism, and most of all the horror tale and its centuries old lineage.

Gauvin goes on to make a perceptive remark that Owen’s writing felt like a “throwback” even during the time of original publication. He “[stripped] them of time and place until they addressed some eternal, essential condition.” There are a number of recent writers of horror and fantastic fiction who do this, who choose not to embroider their work with the textures of their own time and instead create a literary any-where, an ambiguous vague-scape that could just as well be 1912 as 2016. Ligotti does this here and there, and Marks Samuels and Valentine are two other occasional peddlers of placeless-places. As for predecessors, one could mention M.P. Shiel, Marcel Schwob, and even Poe himself from time to time (“The Masque of the Red Death”), although Poe often worked present day science and cultural concerns into his writing.

This method sometimes comes across as underwhelming to me, and I am reminded of J.D. Beresford’s remark that when writers of the strange all set their works in the past, it is probably because the strange no longer speaks to us, and we have no more to say. I am tempted to suggest this sort of work is not merely traditionalist, because the work we call traditionalist we can often place within a particular time period by inferences from the text (references to gas-lighting, mesmerism, galvanism, cryogenics, suffragettes, theosophy, rotary phones, omnibuses, theories of ether, hysteria, Yellow Peril, and so on.)

For instance, when I think of Machen, I think of fin de siecle London. When I think of Lovecraft, I think of Depression era New England or New York. But conversely, this stratum of strange writing takes traditional structures and plots and strips them nude of all temporal reference, like a mortician undressing a corpse for embalming. And these are sometimes thoroughly embalmbed works, stuffed museum pieces that trade the frisson of engagement with the specific fears of the present for an uncertain, almost Beckett-like nowhere atmosphere. They can be exciting at times, but taken as a whole, as a trend, the stories can come across a little timidly. The most hackneyed and unimaginative realist work at least operates within the present and encompasses all of its mundanities, terrors, and cultural fixations, even when it does so in a banal manner.

(I read a middling Edgar Wallace doppelganger story a week ago, and towards the end it had a section where the protagonist traversed London at night, passing costermonger’s carts chained to walls, passing industrial coal works and puddle strewn lots, and the sequence was remarkably vivid even in the five or six sentences it helped itself to. You can tell it’s Edwardian era England, and a historian could probably pinpoint it to within a couple years of the 1910 that Wallace published it in. I really don’t think this is something to be undervalued.)

(Anyway.)

Sam Szafran (b. 1934), Winding Staircase.

Sam Szafran (b. 1943).

Owen’s work is of a piece with this trend of placelessness, but it has a fair amount to recommend it, and in a number of stories he achieves a brilliance sometimes achieved by earlier “essential” writers like Shiel. There are also several discernible modes he operates in.

One of these is an almost Aickmanesque tale of uncertainty, where explanation is not given and what actually occurs is oblique, arriving at an odd slant (“My Cousin,” “The Lady From Saint Petersburg”). Another is his take on the cruel tale, evidenced in pieces like “The Park” and “The Passenger.” There are even a few creature features, with “The Black Ball” and “The Castellan” (though I’m not certain the latter is really classifiable in that way.) I feel the remainder are rather tired genre exercises, where the ghost is really the protagonist, or a sensual encounter with a beautiful women in a stately manse is revealed to be a sordid liaison with a pickled corpse in a drainage ditch outside Brussels.

Circularity is a theme in Owen’s work. Over and over again, the ending of a tale becomes the beginning, and the tail leads the reader directly back into the mouth (“The Desolate Presence”). Owen summons the olde ouroboros plot often enough it’s sort of like he didn’t listen to the hoary advice given to sorcerors about calling down what they call up. He called the fucking thing up once and it just stuck around. He lost his wand or something, and now it pilfers the fridge and shoves its snout into everything he writes. As with another perfectionist of the supernatural, Basil Copper, Owen is best when he can’t be arsed to follow genre convention and packs his bags for stranger weather. And, for the thimble of mealy millet it’s worth, my own opinion is that no one is likely to top Alfred Noye’s 1940 tale “The Midnight Express” for this species of plot (it’s very, very akin to Borges, yet written over two full decades before Borges was translated into English.)

I would say there are three really excellent stories in House of Oracles. These are “The Sparrowhawk,” “The Castellan,” and “15.12.38”. The first two are a step ahead of the third, and none of them neatly fit with the above arbitrary categories I’ve complacently whistled and then insisted on shoving Owen’s work into. They all have features I love to see put together in horror fiction, and which seldom are: ambiguity and gruesomeness. This marrying of gruesomeness with ambiguity can be seen in a handful of weird writers, but not that many all together. L.A. Lewis, Edward Lucas White, and Ramsey Campbell are the most well known of these writers, off the top of my head. There are others, but the list is not long. Writers who pride themselves on their subtle insinuation and misdirection tend not to go for the overt, bloody image; those who love severed hands and policemen eaten by demonic dogs don’t generally concern themselves with what-ifs and poetic suggestion. The perfect horror writer for me would be someone who could combine something like Oscar Cook’s “His Beautiful Hands” with John Metcalfe’s “The Bad Lands.”

This rarity in mind, I do value these three stories of Owen’s. I roughly categorized “The Castellan” as a creature feature, but it does not really fit that label. If the Castellan is a creature, he is not in any pantheon I’ve ever heard of. Three men are waiting out an inclement, howling storm, when the sound of flute-playing can be discerned through the wind’s terrible racket. Christ in hell, who would be playing a flute in the middle of this gusty nightmare? Let’s not open the door, fellas. And yet the door opens of itself to show a handsome, smiling young man dandily holding a flute in his hands. He sits himself down at their table, near their fire, and introduces himself as the Castellan. He cheerfully inquires into their employment, then makes menacing, veiled remarks to the treasurer sitting in the armchair about how money “burns the fingers terribly.” They begrudgingly offer him some wine, and he begins to take off his gloves…

It was only then that, with horror, we saw the Castellan’s hands. They were hands of a hideous emaciation, like the feet of a bird, corneous, the fingers curved like claws, bristling at all the joints with protuberances such as one sees at the articulations of suits of armour. The nails had grown into long, horny talons…

And how unimaginably fleshless they were! It was as if successive layers of skin and flesh had been sliced away until all solidity, even that of the bones, had vanished. Seen from the side, hands such as these no longer appeared human.

At this point, I was moved to reflect, “Just how much of horror is based upon deformity, disability, cultural and sexual difference? Maybe it’s all awful shit right down to the bottom and we’re all sick bastards for enjoying it.” This of course isn’t quite true in any case, and we are all sick bastards for enjoying it, but the (fascinated) doubts vanished when it became clear that the boyish Castellan is not human. He is instead an entity out of some bizarre folk-tale Owen himself has invented. The situation escalates quickly once the Castellan observes how unnerved the three men are, and takes no small offense. The events to follow are gruesome, brutish, and mysterious. Just how I like it.

“The Sparrowhawk” is both stranger and heavier on the ambiguity. Owen sets up a really wonderful, and apparently naturalistic tale, of horse-traders setting out for shelter in northern Macedonia in preparation for selling their steeds once the worst of the storm (yet again) passes. This is also one of the few tales that has a locale pinned down, although the time period is elusive still. The traders arrive at a homestead on the steppes with the harvest of snow thickening. The bloated, lowering sky unburdens itself, takes its belt down a few notches and lets some of its frozen mass out. Night approaches. It transpires that one of the traders has been mortally wounded, was in fact wounded before they even left, without saying a word. On examining him in the cabin of their reluctant hoteliers, they find a sucking wound in his chest cavity, as if a large portion of it had been scooped out.

How this happened, and why it happened, is hard to explain. The surreal climax, like an even grimmer version of Philip MacDonald’s “Our Feathered Friends,” is once more gruesome and inexplicable. The naturalistic narrative is really a joy to read, and high on the intensity, and once the supernatural element arrives it kicks into even higher gear. There are many fantastic tales that begin naturalistically and then introduce fantasy in a way that cheapens the narrative or appears without point – this is not one of them.

“15.12.38” reads like a Twilight Zone episode until the very end. I am unsure if Owen had watched Serling’s series (this tale, from The Cellar of Toads, was published in 1963, well into the show’s run), but there are a number of stylistic similarities in its spatial displacement and feeling of paranoiac, existential threat. And then the ending comes like a kick in the stomach, a frank boot to the gut, and in its thorough nastiness, it does what the Twilight Zone would never have been allowed to do. Not as strong as “Sparrowhawk” or “Castellan,” this piece is even more inexplicable and malicious than either of them.

There are a few other oddities throughout House of Oracles. The oddest I would say is “The Blue Snake,” a short fragmentary tale which on the first reading struck me as a Kafka-esque father-fable. This is well out of standard genre territory. It’s neurotic, phallic, and appears to have very little logic impeding its disastrous, almost comical course. The only explanation I can arrive at without putting any effort into it is that it’s something of a sexual lament, of human sexuality ruining the innocence of the world. Since it’s two pages long and Tartarus books are pricy (lovely, but pricy), I’ll spell out the plot by telegram: Boy looks at landscape painting Painting very beautiful Live blue snake coiling at bottom frame Boy asks father to kill snake Father storms back firing wildly all over Misses every shot Shame all around. Shame shame shame

Most of the other stories, as I mentioned, are middling and unimpressive exercises buttressed by unusual surrealist epigraphs that left me yearning for something better. But Owen’s prose is precise and suggestive, and here and there a real pleasure to read. An example, from “Portrait of an Unknown Man,” also one of the better stories after the big three:

I threw the thread and those repellent scraps of crumpled paper, the bearers of such terrible secrets of which I had been, in my own body, the unconscious guardian, onto the fire. They made a great, green flame and filled the room with an odour of burning flesh and horn, such as one smells in a smithy when they are fitting a hot shoe on a horse’s hoof.

All right, one last example, from the same story:

If, for example, I wish to leave my room, I find that the staircase has vanished; if I decide to go into the garden, the lawn on which I set my foot is transformed into a lake in which I feel myself drowning; if I open a cupboard to remove some object, not only is the object not there, but the cupboard has no back, and through it, and the intervening rooms, I perceive the sky, with birds flying in it.

If I reason with myself, if I overcome my surprise, attributing it to some illusion, I fall down the stairwell, or am swallowed up in the water, or indeed, in opening the cupboard, I leave the house open to the weather and to thieves…

I wish Owen more frequently left for stranger pastures as those above, and as those found in “The Castellan,” “The Sparrowhawk,” and “15.12.38”.

prying open the casket.

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Donald Pleasance in a scene from Wake in Fright, with shades of Ramsey Campbell’s later “Mackintosh Willy.”

This blog, like my life, has been unfortunately static and poorly applied. In an effort to break up my own rubbery will-lessness, to pry open the casket of my misliving, I’ve embarked on an interview project that will ultimately encompass a handful of friends of mine who are artists, writers, musicians, scholars, and so on. The first in the series is of my friend Steven, an East Bay local, who is a bookseller, painter, horror fiction scholar, occultist, and more. He is someone who got into many of the things I am into now back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and for this reason and plenty of others, I wanted to get his perspective on anything ranging from: weird fiction, illustration, the gentrification of Oakland, British character actors, obscure thrillers, automatic drawing, French avant-garde literature, and magick ritual. I taped about three hours worth of material and have finished the transcription; now it is just left to write the piece around his own words.

In the meantime, I have been thinking back to one of my favorite films, 1971’s Wake in Fright. One particular scene in the film has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever seen (next to the less naturalistic lines of The Sweet Smell of Success, penned by Clifford Odets). It concerns the middle-class school teacher John Grant complaining to the alcoholic Doctor Tydon (played by Donald Pleasence) about his disgust with the poor mining town of Yabba in the Australian outback, a place he has been forced to spend some time in during the summer:

Doc Tydon: All the little devils are proud of hell.

John Grant: You mean, you don’t think “the Yabba” is the greatest little place on earth?

Doc Tydon: Could be worse.

John Grant: How?

Doc Tydon: Supply of beer could run out.

(pause)

John Grant: Why did you say that?

Doc Tydon: Say what?

John Grant: About them being proud of hell.

Doc Tydon: Discontent is a luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve gotta live here, you might as well like it. Why don’t you like Crawford?

John Grant: Jock?

Doc Tydon: The touch of his hairy hand flensed you.

John Grant: Well, it’s the aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people insisting you should be as stupid as they are.

Doc Tydon: It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. Do you want ’em to sing opera as well?

 

It’s unclear to me why this scene keeps recurring in my mind. It could be that it is time on the one hand to attempt to appreciate where I am at and what I am doing, while at the same time on the other I attempt to work on more exciting things. I’ve begun reading Thomas Owen’s “The House of Oracles,” published by Tartarus Press, and will do the full write-up that it deserves when I’m finished. Have finished all of Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories, and may or may not do a brief write up on them, as they have their merits but are heavy on the formula. I sometimes read, but seldom write, and more than anything else buy lots of books – a habit I am trying to stop. The buying of books supplanting the actual reading of books is a clear enough, and banal enough, instance of the triumph of the image over reality.

Around a month ago I began a cycle of poems on the subject of the end of our wonderful Western civilization and the possibilities of love beyond it. It petered out after around eleven poems. But the original poem which is not a part of the cycle, but seemed to suggest it, I think has some interesting qualities. I’ll give it here:

The sad arc light illuminating the western coast sputters out.

The tan stars, sunk in the black sky, peer out – boozy, briary.

The cabbage-rose ocean below, through pint sunk eyelids,

appears to be galloping towards us, like all calamity gathered.

 

Your stomach full of fruit muddled vodka. The sand shifting likewise,

fruitful as bitters in what light remains. Questions shift in time,

like cloudy eggwhite in the nape of the glass. So, a thought:

kisses make a poor finger in the dyke, when the world is determined,

bloodwise, to pour its galloping agony through.

Bronislaw Linke, Sea of Blood. 1952.

Bronislaw Linke, The Sea of Blood. 1952.

the cruelty of Kleist: short stories.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins. 1914.

I have just finished reading the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist on the recommendation of a friend, who mentioned their influence on Kafka. I had previously only read “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” in an anthology by Charles Neider about eight years ago. “Locarno” is the only supernatural tale in the lot, but these short works should be of interest to readers of the macabre and strange, because Kleist’s fiction is a literary delicacy of gratuitous cruelty and misfortune, making it something like German Romantic fois gras, I suppose.

Kleist shot his mistress Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on a beach in Germany in 1811 in a murder-suicide pact. They apparently spent their last hours cheerfully. Most of the eight short stories he wrote depict murder and suicide in a variety of sudden ways, with bits of skull glued to wallpaper with blood like fragments of Ming china, arrows whooshing forth out of darkness, propelled on elegant quivers into the ale-fattened hearts of noblemen. Even the two tales with “happy” endings seem to feature uneasy, pasted-on smiles at their conclusion, as if everyone is expecting to catch on fire at any minute. With Kleist, the bad often get their just desserts, and the good get it even worse. He piles on the injustices perpetrated by church, state, and the average everyday bastard, and it feels like something of a miracle if a character exits a Kleist tale without both lance and poison in their belly at the same time. He wrings outrage from the reader when unassailable countesses are betrayed, but when one of his motley of contemptible shits get theirs, it really is tremendously satisfying.

Kleist uses language as a transparent vessel for delivering plot, characterization, and theme; the words do not call attention to themselves, and are not lush or ornamental by any stretch. The sentences, buoyed along on their glassy, modest phrases, unwind to significant but not extravagant length, as if rooting through the detritus of deception to get to the bottom of things. This circuitousness, of snaking one’s hands on and on through the small intestine of the text to find blockages or tumors, is something that can be seen in Kafka as well. In “Michael Kohlhaas,” the longest tale of the lot, there is an exasperatingly long and intestinal apparatus of bureaucracy that is comically explored, interrogated, and exhausted in order to stop the depredations of Kohlhaas. Kleist, in common with much Gothic fiction, sets his works in the past in order to investigate their flaws and barbarities. It makes a good showing of what historical realist fiction can do in estranging the past, and revealing its assumptions to be contingent, arbitrary, and unjust. As one unsurprising example: women are property whose self-determination only exists in so far as it is their fault if they are sexually assaulted.

Though he was a nobleman living during the French revolution, Kleist really puts some effort into making the ancien regime look dreadful. I’m reminded of a statement I read in Chris Baldick’s “In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and 19th Century Writing”: that the ancien regime hoisted its barbarity over itself too, and that primogeniture was a process of feeding one’s young to the devouring god of property, the equivalent of shoving one’s male children into a jar and shaking it around to see who kills who in order to become the rightful heir. The paterfamilias comes off a little worse than shabby in Kleist, such as the Count or Duke (or whatever his christing title is) who is by turns murderously angry and outrageously lustful towards his daughter in “The Marquise of O.” And in “Kohlhaas” we are given Martin Luther writing an epistle to the Emperor recommending that Kohlhaas – an unrepentant murderer and sacker of cities, who is further aggrandizing himself as an emissary of god – be pardoned for all of his crimes. In Kleist, everyone is either awkward, horrible, or a saint about to be pin-cushioned by arrows.

The Marquise of O” is a nihilistic sex comedy from 1808, featuring an unhinged young Russian count who tears around from scene to scene terrifying everyone with his startling and violent behavior. The second he leaves, he is lavished with praise as a “fine young man” of “many good qualities.” Even with the pathological allowances for young noblemen of the time, the count’s behavior is beyond the pale. This is a man who breaks into back gardens and chases marquises around until they escape into the house and lock the door. A man who proceeds in his love affairs as if he is “storming a fortress.” In other words, a fine young man of many good qualities. Not quite as fine perhaps, as the marquise’s father, who as touched on before, spends his final scene in the novella passionately making out with his daughter, “in unspeakable pleasure over his daughter’s mouth.” Translator David Constantine mentions in his footnotes that Kleist intended to offend with this story, which is more or less an exercise in the “forced seduction” genre, but with the normal happy ending strained and touched with greater perversity than even usual.

Over and over again, women in Kleist are the recipients of false accusations and misunderstandings, and over and over again, we see them thrown out of their homes without getting a single word in against their apoplectic parents or brothers, who are too emetically furious to do anything other than vomit out execrations or tears. This is the state of things for women in his fiction (a state he is not critical enough about to even anachronistically be feminist, but critical enough to emphasize its negatives): they are pieces of genetic furniture with no more say over their destinies than an antique tapestry of family history over where it gets to hang. Their courtships by and large result in their being raped by their suitors, whether in “O” or in “Betrothal in San Domingo.” Constantine mentions that Kleist loved to put women on trial in his tales, using their plight to interrogate oppressive social norms, most of which are related to sex. The effect is without doubt even more horrific to modern readers than to Kleist’s contemporaries, because the norms Kleist finds acceptable and within moderation are still terrible.

The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is a three page exercise in the traditional ghost story. A rich nobleman comes home to find a sick old woman has been given shelter in his house, and in annoyance, asks her to move to the other side of the room away from the warm stove. In doing so, she falls and hurts her back severely, but gets up again and lays down on the far end of the room, dying shortly after with a groan. The room becomes haunted by her ghostly appearance and re-enacted death every night, thus making the house unsaleable (almost everything in Kleist is about sex or property). Other writers might leave the spectral revenge at that, but Kleist takes it farther, so that the nobleman falls into a fit of rage one night over the ghost and burns the house down, reducing himself to a cinder after a protracted death agony. From the perspective of 2016, at least, whether it’s a ghost story or the awful “forced seduction” story, Kleist really can’t do anything straight.

The Chilean Earthquake” is a vicious tale about the possibilities of utopian society in the wake of a disaster and its leveling of the social classes and the infrastructures of church and state. This utopian glimpse is squashed, and the cruelty returns with accelerated force. “The Foundling” is another perverse tale, this time a sex tragedy rather than a comedy: out of pity, a businessman picks up a wandering young boy infected with the plague, thus causing the death of his own son who catches the disease. This occurs in the first half page, and events only worsen from there.

With scheming relatives, horny young psychopaths, a diverse cast of landed gentry stricken by their obsessions with sex and property, incestuous patriarchs, and a proliferation of suicides, there’s a lot to appreciate in Kleist. These and his intensely negative portrayals of church, state, and the ancien regime seal it for me as one of my favorite reads of the year. It is reductive as all christ, but I am reminded of John Llewelyn Probert’s classic description of the work of Charles Birkin: “No nonsense cruelty delivered simply and economically.” There is a lot more to him than this, and a lot more I could write here, but I’ll leave this posting with the observation that if I ever get around to compiling an anthology of conte cruels, Kleist will be one of the first entries. 

 

Note: the edition I have used for this entry has been Hackett Publishing’s “Selected Writings,” translated by David Constantine. This collection also features Kleist’s plays, selected letters, and a few of his short, pungent anecdotes.

let the damned ride their earwigs to hell.

Pavel Simon

Pavel Simon, Title n/a.

Peter Redgrove, Corposant.

A ghost of a mouldy larder is one thing: whiskery bread,

Green threads, jet dots,

Milk scabbed, the bottles choked with wool,

Shrouded cheese, ebony eggs, soft tomatoes

Cascading through their splits,

Whitewashed all around, a chalky smell,

And these parts steam their breath. The other thing

Is that to it comes the woman walking backwards

With her empty lamp playing through the empty house,

Her light sliding through her steaming breath in prayer.

Why exoricse the harmless mouldy ghost

With embodied clergymen and scalding texts?

Because she rises shrieking from the bone-dry bath

With bubbling wrists, a lamp and steaming breath,

Stretching shadows in her rooms till daybreak

The rancid larder glimmering from her corpse

Tall and wreathed like moulds or mists,

Spoiling the market value of the house.

 

Herbert Palmer, Rock Pilgrim.

 

Let the damned ride their earwigs to Hell, but let me not join them.

For why I should covet the tide, or in meanness purloin them?

They are sick, they have chosen the path of their apple-green folly,

I will turn to my mountains of light and my mauve melancholy.

 

Let their hands get the primrose — God wreathe me! — of lowland and lagland;

For me the small yellow tormentil of heath-hill and cragland.

Man’s days are as grass, his thought but as thistle-seed wind-sown;

I will plod up the pass, and nourish the turf with my shinbone.

 

I should stay for a day, I should seek in high faith to reclaim them?

But the threadbare beat straw, and the hole in my shirt will inflame them.

They are blinder than moles, for they see but the flies in God’s honey;

And they eat off their soles; and they kneel to the Moloch of money.

 

They have squeezed my mouth dumb; their clutch for a year yet may rankle.

I will tie Robin Death to my side, with his claw on my ankle.

Let them come, stick and drum, and assail me across the grey boulders;

I will flutter my toes, and rattle the screes on their shoulders.

 

Let the damned get to Hell and be quick, while decision is early.

I will tie a red rose to my stick, and plant my feet squarely.

My back shall be blind on their spite, and my rump on their folly;

I will plod up the ridge to the right, past the crimson green holly.

 

Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon. 1946.

Ithell Colquhoun, The Gorgon. 1946.

Paul Celan, Psalm.

(Translated by Michael Hamburger.)

 

Praised be your name, No one.

For your sake

we shall flower.

Towards you.

 

A nothing

we were, are, shall

remain, flowering:

the nothing -, the

No one’s rose.

 

With

our pistil soul-bright,

with our stamen heaven-ravaged,

our corolla red

with the crimson word which we sang

over, O over

the thorn.

 

striking when the iron is cold: recent reads.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections.

This is now my favorite Delany novel, beating out Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. It might also be my favorite Delany book, beating out the magisterial memoirist critique of city planning and gentrification, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. It concerns Arnold Hawley, an aging black poet in New York, struggling to survive in penury, incapable of coming to grips with his sexuality. Dark Reflections is the publisher-imposed title of one of his collections, and it seems to me a few weeks after digesting the novel’s piercing misery that Hawley is in a number of ways a dark reflection of Delany himself. Hawley is a black writer, but a poet rather than a novelist; Hawley is a gay cis man, but rather than being sexually exuberant and adventurous as Delany himself has been, Hawley has never in his life had a real partner and only briefly experimented with other men; and, like Delany, Hawley marries a woman for a period of time. Hawley’s literary tastes also bear out a resemblance to Delany’s, encompassing high modernist poets like Hayden and Crane and out of fashion writers (out of fashion in the post-9/11 NYC of the novel) such as Gass and a few others I’ve seen Delany reference in interviews.

I described the novel’s sadness as piercing, and it is. I remember calling Joyce’s own sexually repressed James Duffy of “A Painful Case” “an entirely doomed personality,” and in a number of ways Arnold Hawley is very much that. Unlike Duffy, Hawley has literary endeavor to redeem his existence, which teems so avidly on the surface with failure, but even this redemption is small beer. There are several scenes of Hawley at various ages, doing small acts to cement his reputation and clear the way for future biographers, like notating the backs of old photographs, “The poet Arnold Hawley, Coney Island, 1939.” I was just reading Helene Cixous yesterday, and she talks about Flaubert renouncing life for the “the beautifully written,” and how all of his human relationships were “monstrous.” She wonders if it is necessary for art that the artist renounce their existence. The worst thing of course, about Hawley, is that he essentially renounces his existence but gets no recognition in return, and can only hope for a posthumous revival. Yet the text seems to suggest that Hawley’s near inscrutable works (never excerpted) and their clumsy, abstruse titles are not really ripe or likely for posthumous celebration. They are unfashionable, difficult. Hawley’s fastidious concern for leaving behind documentation of his life is probably in vain.

When faced with any of the diminutive or great tragedies of his life, Hawley often stands in front of his bookshelf, gazing at his collection of first editions of his own works. In the sense that Hawley exteriorizes himself into words, this is Narcissus and his reflection. But in the sense that Hawley lives for his work, it is his reminder of his purpose, and that the grubby, messy things of life, such as sex and companionship, are no more than grist for the monstrous mill of words. The novel is beautiful and almost unbearable, and serves as a reminder, among other things, that the vast majority of lives in human history have had all happiness and sexual satisfaction squashed, thwarted, crushed, diverted, deceived, and destroyed. One thinks of all the charwomen and chimney sweeps in Victorian novels who have never kissed another human being, scrubbing and scraping and inhaling all the dust of the miserable world, their Holy Communion of industrialization. One can’t help but feel poorly about Arnold Hawley, but what is remarkable is not that one life is bereft of human sexual and emotional companionship, but that so few in history have not been bereft. Unlike the red faced and raw handed specters from Victorian works, Hawley makes his own decision to live for his art, but his view of his sexuality (“It’s not worth worrying about something that was already ruined to begin with”) comes from the time and place that shaped him. Yet Delany makes clear, not only by his own memoirs displaying an alternative, but within the text, that Hawley chooses, again and again, to let the social forces that shape him continue to own him.

Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents.

On the subject of industrialization and coal scuttles and crude oil and tar paper, here comes Fritz Leiber attempting to kidnap the horror tale and drag it inside a garbage bag into the city. Other writers had dealt with modernity and it’s waste products and leprous slums before (Dickens with “The Signalman,” Wells with “The Cone,” for starters), but none had been so fetishistically obsessed with coal and refuse and all the pornography of industrial effluvium. “Smoke Ghost” is the classic here, and deserving of the recognition. What I had forgotten about the story since I last read it was that the entity in question demands worship, and that the unfortunate ad-man who becomes haunted by it sees it as the epicenter of the forces of war and totalitarianism. Or perhaps the smoke thing is some kind of excretion of those forces, akin to the cancerous runoff from paper mills. In the parlor game of “What is this textual figure a metaphor for?”, I would suggest it has something of the utterly mad drive of technological progress – the blind striving and groping for increasing mechanization and bureaucratization, regardless of whether this manifests in superfluous electric pepper shakers or in Belsen and Sobibor, in laundry machines that whine jingles while they wash or in the atom bomb. That it demands worship also connotes a traditional criticism of money, which suggests it could also be capital at the same time.

Other stories are of less interest, such as “The Automatic Pistol” which mostly acts as an updating of the “familiar” from witchcraft and demonology, a point Leiber is not afraid to baldly and unnecessarily state in dialogue. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” forgoes the oozing closeups on drainage ditches or the burbling sacks of sentient detergent that demand tribute, and instead opts for a more cosmic route, although Leiber still manages to tie everything into Hitler once again. A brilliant chess player prone to wastreldom and fuckery has a series of dreams where he is playing some kind of interdimensional board game (somewhere between chess and Go) against an unidentified malignant force. The whole narrative is feverish and absorbing, but I think its final culminating image was a little amateurishly written, winding up more silly than anything else. This is rather surprising, as Leiber is a very capable prose writer, but there you go. And the two stories I was most excited about (“Diary in the Snow”, “A Bit of the Dark World”) are excised from my defective Berkeley edition. Cocks and balls.

Alan Garner, The Owl Service.

Garner draws on the Welsh Mabinogion for this young adult novel from 1967. The owl service in question is an old dinner service with floral patterns that, when traced together in a certain way, form the images of owls. This parallels the tale from the Mabinogion of someone enchanting a meadow to turn into a woman, who becomes furious and seeks revenge because all she wanted was to be flowers and not disgusting horrible humans. This flower-spirit has been imprisoned in various forms over the years, in wall-paintings and now in a dinner service, always making the transformation from flowers to owls in order to go “a-hunting.” British class society plays a prominent role in tensions between characters, chiefly in a romance between a working class Welsh boy and an upper class English girl. The names of characters from the Mabinogion are truly unfamiliar (like Bloduwedd, who I call “Bloody Wood”), which makes me wonder why science fiction so often opts for Roman language rather than Welsh when attempting to construct the alien. In any case, it was an enjoyable read but I have very little that’s intelligible or intelligent to say about it.

quick review: “the embrace of the serpent.”

This is an unusual tack for this blog (although not unprecedented) but I’m putting up a capsule review of the film El Abrazo de la Serpiente/The Embrace of the Serpent because I was moved out of a writing slump to say something about it. I also, more importantly, like to think that the few people that mosey over here dispiritedly, kicking rocks, incapable of finding anything else to read on the internet, have good taste and might agree with me that this film is great. Like the other film review, it is political in orientation, which I’m not sure is something I’d like this blog to be on a regular basis. In any case, Serpent is dreamy, disturbing, surprising, and has a bit of the fantastic about it, so I hope it could be of interest. If you’ve not seen it, go on and get tickets, then come back; everything to follow is a massive, fun-puncturing spoiler:

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I think I’ve just been floored by Ciro Guerra’s The Embrace of the Serpent. It’s not every director that would choose to shoot a tropical/rainforest film in black and white, and it’s the perfect choice here. On one shallow hand, it makes me think of Sebastiao Salgado, but what it really does is make the viewer focus on the movement of the water, the movement of the leaves, the glowering and kneading movements of the sky. These three – water, flora, sky – become contiguous, as they really are.

The scene where Theo breaks his prohibition and spears a fish and tears into it raw, his eyes blazing and delirious, will likely remain with me longer than the other images. Karamakate says, in response not just to Theo, but to the colonialist white-supremacist project which Theo stands in for, “You have no self discipline. You will destroy everything.” We see in the first scene at the Mission colonialism’s tragedy, and in the second scene, its farce. In the first, it is clear how colonialism eradicates culture and amputates history, using its favored blade, a weaponized Christianity – the sacred bones of Christ taken from their reliquaries and sharpened into clubs, the rosary kept as a thief’s garrote. Not only does the white man destroy everything else, he even destroys his own religion, plunders it for its monetary worth. The water and wine bunkum is pure cat-piss, utter flim-flam; the only transubstantiation the white man believes in is the conversion of the world into capital.

In the second scene at the Mission, things have slowly grown surreal, that ill-fated spot of suffering and violence having shot up some truly weird flowers. In this, we see the final conclusion of white civilization: totalitarian fascism. The white Spaniard in charge has cannibalized his own god, literally this time, and says, “I am the only sacred thing in this forest.” I remember that Robert Lowell wrote, “I will catch Christ with a greased worm,” and in this film Ciro Guerra seems to make a connection between Theo’s devoured fish and the Spaniard’s digested Jesus of Nazareth, the poor mutilated cross-maker of a god who rises up only in belches of arrogance from the dreadful man’s mouth.

Karamakate says over and over again in this film that white civilization’s pursuit of knowledge is really the pursuit of death. Theo’s successor Evan may pull out his notebooks with renderings of plants and indigenous art, swearing his disinterested love of knowledge, but he is after yakruna for the same reason the rubber barons are after rubber trees. The world is transubstantiated into capital at cost of death, and that capital is then transubstantiated into more death by way of atom bombs, nerve gas, tanks rolling on rubber wheels, etc. Karamakate may be a feebler man when Evan arrives, he may be a chullachaqui, but he is no fool. When Evan offers Karamakate what he presents as “a lot of money,” holding out two crumpled dollar bills, Karamakate laughs.

While it may register as a surprise at the end that Evan is working for the same interests as the rubber companies, everything we need to know about his character is shown in that early scene. And though Evan’s arrival must take place sometime in the 1920’s or 30’s, his dress reminds me very much of a Google executive: the fine watch, the strangely clean white shirt, the neatly trimmed beard, the glasses. One could write a whole essay about Evan’s glasses in this film, how they both hide and frame the cold calculation in his eyes, how they symbolize white male intellectualism, the clinical watching of science. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in the scenes where Evan is most vulnerable, he has taken his glasses off (while captured at the mission, ingesting yakruna at the end, etc.)

Guerra’s film seems to do a lot of wordless, visual work with gaze in this film; this is most clear early on when Evan leans down over a distraught Karamakate, crying in his bunk at night. The face is still, a cold and empty house, but the eyes burn like fire-wood behind the iron grates of the spectacles.

It is worth mentioning that both white characters in this film are more or less scoundrels. Evan is a ruthless scout for private interests (unlike Theo, who works for universities), whereas Theo has become a totally selfish being, interested only in saving his life from the disease tunneling through his nervous system “like horse piss eats deep snow” (Norman Dubie, “The Funeral”). Karamakate gives him caapi to give him visions, but all Theo can think or say when he takes it is, “I don’t want to die.” When Karamakate burns the yakruna at the tree to prevent its mass harvesting/mass production and abuse as a recreational drug, he can only scream “Karamakate!” in frustration over and over again while the tree burns. He is unable, understandably to a degree, to think about why Karamakate would do such a thing, or to be concerned about the degradation of the villagers, who seem to stuff their bodies with yakruna in order to deal with the terrors of the rubber barons and the Colombians. It is important to note also, that Karamakate, in his anger, is sticking it to Theo. To paraphrase the character himself, if Karamakate is not one of the most complex figures in recent cinema, I am a snake.

An important scene for how Theo reinforces colonial ideology under the guise of anthropology comes when, on leaving a village, he realizes someone has kept his compass. He becomes violent and demands it back. When Karamakate questions him why it matters, he responds that their tribe is a culture that navigates by wind and stars. Karamakate says, in effect, that this is stupid white man bullshit and that knowledge belongs to everyone. You see there the contradiction: anthropology demands that you do not tamper or change in any way the cultures you investigate, yet the colonial project which anthropological study is a part of is predicated on the eradication of cultures. A people have been displaced and murdered for rubber trees, but let’s not be irresponsible and give them a compass because we might alter their culture. This high mindedness manifests primarily as withholding knowledge and power.

Guerra’s directorial choices are assured, David Gallego’s cinematography is lovely and in control, the dialogue is written with a fine ear. It is gorgeous, strange, horrifying, surreal, and calming. The friend who recommended it to me said that it blew her away, and I can’t say otherwise for myself. 

nights at serampore: a few favorite anthologies.

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  1. Herbert Van Thal, The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.
  2. Ray Bradbury, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow.
  3. Italo Calvino, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday.
  4. Mike Mitchell, The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy: 1890-2000.
  5. Groff Conklin, Science Fiction Terror Tales.
  6. John Pelan, Century’s Best Horror Volumes One and Two.
  7. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Omnibus of Crime.
  8. David G. Hartwell, The Science Fiction Century.
  9. Alberto Manguel, Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature, Black Water: More Tales of the Fantastic.
  10. Leonard Wolf, Wolf’s Complete Book of Terror.

This is not an anthology Top 10. If it was, it would be terribly out of order and also guilty of excluding a very well known work, The Weird by the Vandermeers. I chose these because they a) were extremely influential to me, b) are lesser known than they should be, and/or c) have eccentric inclusions. (I’ve also excluded a number of anthologies, including some that would be on a best of listing, just because I’ve covered them here before.) If this were a rough Top 10, for what it’s worth, Alberto Manguel’s Black Water series would be at the very top, just above The Weird. You can see that it takes some from the earlier Sayers anthology, as well as snippets from the Borges/Ocampo/Casares work, The Book of Fantasy, but he does an incredible job resurrecting little known works of tremendous power. Take a look at Manguel’s website for a better formatted version of the table of contents, in the “Anthologies” section under the “Works” header.

The Wolf anthology was the christening of my prodigal return to dark and fantastic fiction after a long journey away. The First Pan book is justly legendary and surprisingly potent still, packed with gem after gem, ranging from ghastly pulp grue to literate, ambiguous strangeness. I think it has the best selection of any in the Pan Horror series. I won’t give a detailed breakdown of every book here, but the Conklin is great, the Bradbury is wonderful, the Mitchell stunning. Pelan’s selections I find goofy sometimes, but I’m a fan of doorstoppers, and Century’s Best fits the bill and is chock full of excellent obscurities.

I’ve been recovering from some detestable illness and a bout of insomnia, so the entries on here have been frankly shit for some period of time. I have more in depth posts I’ve been working on, and really want to do something on Joanna Russ, especially her collection The Hidden Side of the Moon, which was spectacular.

 

short fiction: the weeping hole.

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Here is a piece of short fiction I wrote on a whim for a friend, whose art work depicting a fisherman laying rod into a “ghost-hole” inspired me to throw out a frivolous little piece that I had some good fun with (I am now unable to find the exact sketch, unfortunately). It’s a semi pastiche of Southern writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, although I tried to make the twang of the voice a little more understated than I’ve perhaps been guilty of perpetrating in my youth. As I said, it is a frivolity, but hopefully a worthwhile one.

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I heard the weeping when I was out on my dad’s property. It was way out past the bridge over the dried up gully, where it plateaus and you can see the whole valley; where, if you have a telescope, you can spy on Boont’s Lake ten miles off. See the elk drinking from it, and hawks snatching up fish flying too close to the sun. The weeping hole was in a crevice just below where the tableland drops out.

It was late afternoon. The only sounds were the wind, the crunch of my boots against sandstone and rock, and the occasional lizard, green as lichen, scuttling from crevice to cave as fast as thought. I was enjoying the silence, and the wind behind it. The wind made the silence, gave it the opening to appear; not the other way around. The wind got rid of thought, destroyed the mind and replaced it with itself. Out in that part, the wind is a taxidermist and it’s out to stuff you and your shirtsleeves and brain as thick as rag and cotton. Then the silence mounts you on the wall, and you’re not a person anymore. Just a thing without thoughts.

That’s why a lot of the family don’t go out there at night. But I had things I didn’t want to think about, and this place helped.

While looking at the view afforded me on the plateau, I heard a woman sobbing. I was just rubbing my sore back and I jumped straight up at the sound. Sobbing. All the way out here, and here was basically Outer Nowhere. It takes half an hour on a dirt road to get to my dad’s place and the place out there was five miles into its belly. Nowhere. And here was a woman sobbing and weeping, clear as a woman sobbing and weeping in a police show.

Hey, you alright? I shouted. You okay?

I didn’t get any answer except an echo. The weeping continued. And then I noticed that the woman’s sobbing had no echo to it at all. Her voice landed flat. And everything out on that tableland had an echo, particularly near where the plateau drops off. You threw a pebble out there, it sounded like a .22.

Since she kept on crying, and I couldn’t help but think about things as a result, I set off across the plateau towards the end it was coming from. The sky was getting a little ashy, but this was due more to storm clouds in the east than it getting late. At three o’clock, I still had an hour to get back to my truck near the bridge and drive home for dinner. I watched it slowly moving above me, warily. It was like melted silver stewing about in a great pot.

As I strode across the hard red rock the tone of the sobbing seemed to change. It would get fainter, or closer, sometimes deeper. It rang in me like someone pulling a bell in my spine, or scratched in my ear like a dog at a door. Other times it sank away as if somebody had pulled a cloth over the voice, but always it rose up again. By the time I was halfway across the plateau I realized the sobbing wasn’t a woman’s, but a young boy’s.

I walked slower. I was not convinced that it had been a boy all along. It was improbable, and the thing had been unsettling from the outset. It was tough to move along. My feet wanted to turn the other direction and take off. I felt tingling all over them, and tugging too, like they were animals trying to escape from me.

And of course, there was the fact that I could not see this person on perfectly flat terrain, and the table dropped off at the end to a valley perhaps fifty feet below. There were little inlets and protrusions in the rock so you could get down some ways, but you had to be careful and keep balance.

All the time I was walking over to the weeping, no more than two minutes, I did not consider who the voice might be. I did not consider why someone might be out there. I didn’t want to. But I think I knew it was not right, and could not possibly be.

Nearing the edge of the table, I realized that the voice had, very slow and in stages, changed into a drunken old man. His voice was battered unrecognizable by drink. He started with a prolonged and frightful gasping for air, exploded into inarticulate fury, and then returned to gasping once more.

Listening to this in what may as well have been Outer Nowhere was something of an ordeal. I had been crisp and dry and calm, and then two minutes later I was sodden, stinking, hot, and terrified. I pictured this horrible and ruined man crouching against the rock face of the plateau and I wanted nothing to do with him.

And the voice changed again. Quick as a card pulled out of a deck, a young woman was speaking. She was speaking not in general like before, but speaking to me.

I would like some water, she said. Do you have water?

I had almost a quarter of a gallon. I did not answer. The wind was drying out my eyes and I closed them for a moment. Then I resumed walking.

I am very thirsty, could I have water?

I had reached the end of the table. The valley and the voice were below me. I leaned over but could see only valley. And then, almost shattering my heart with its suddenness, the voice said

I wish you would come down here. I really do wish you would.

An old woman said this. I still saw no one, but I received a clear picture of her somehow. Overcooked mutton skin, a thick awful tongue sticking out like a reeking foot, eyes like pissed-in porridge.

I pulled out the long handled hunting knife I kept with me to ward off wild cats. I had a feeling of finality. I knew I had to see this through. The thoughts that had been pressed down by the wind were rising.

The old woman was singing now.

Baby let me play with your yo-yo

I’ll let you play with mine

Hey babe

I’ll let you play with mine

Her leering, cracked voice came from the other side of a rock outcropping. I edged around it, playing nervously with the knife.

When I got to the other side I realized it was coming from a hole in the ground. I stood in front of the hole. Nothing came out of it. The sky above sprouted more gray hairs, glowered and furrowed in

disapproval. This is a desolate land, I kept telling myself for no reason. This is a desolate land.

I crept closer to the hole, getting on my knees. The hole was silent. I reached the edge and stood over it, looking down. There was not a thing to see. I had left my flashlight in the car.

I felt a drop of rain on my neck.

I was considering filling the hole with rocks when my brother spoke to me.

Eldon, you need to get me out of here, he said.

Get you out of there? I asked.

I been trapped in here for months. It’s cramped. I don’t like the company.

I don’t understand, I said. And I didn’t. I really didn’t.

Where you been anyway? Ma’s been looking for you.

Patrick. I don’t know what to say.

How about, how the hell have you been? It’s been months, man. I’m almost done with that wood carving that always annoyed you. The one of the big catfish I caught, that uncle Bibby dropped when we tried to weigh it?

Patrick, that was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.

Well, hell, it’s pretty good now. You oughta see it. If you get me out of here I’ll show it to you. You never did like any of the stuff I did. Never any of that arsty stuff.

I was just jealous, Pat.

Anyway, get me out of here, yeah? Reach down and give me a hand.

Pat…

Come on, reach and give me a hand.

Patrick, I killed you. Two months ago, I said.

And then there was just silence. The hole didn’t speak.

I started to walk away, dazed, when

What was our mother’s maiden name? Patrick asked. His voice was colder now.

Ma’s name?

Our mother’s maiden name.

Why?

Our mother’s maiden name. Say it.

Tollway, I said. Etta Tollway.

Right on saying this, a head peeked up out of the hole. The head was bashed in on the left side, crumpled up like a gristly red ball of tinfoil. One of the eyes was crushed under the wound, the other gazed out with the curiously blind look of a catfish. On his left ear was our mother’s famous earring, the peridot gem from her grandmother.

The head arched up to the sky like it was going to drink rain and I could see it was wriggling itself out of the hole. I dashed over and ran the knife into its catfish eye as hard as I could, then yanked it out with all of the resentment I’d ever had for him. He fell back into the hole.

The next day I went into Patrick’s old trailer and found the cloth hanging over the carving. I pulled the cloth off and almost lost my balance. When I had last seen it, the trout was not as ugly as I’d lied, but its proportions were bad and it had the weirdly human lips of some pinup girls he kept on the walls. But now it was like something you’d find in a museum. A natural history museum. The Catfish of Northern Montana. It made me hate him all over again.

I stuck it in my coat pocket and took off to Outer Nowhere. I got to the weeping hole, the ghost hole, and stood in front of it. I’m not sure why I was doing it, but it felt like a way of getting the last word in.

It was funny. I’d killed him with the steel flashlight he’d lent me, apparently killed him again with a knife, and I felt like I still hadn’t had the last say.

I held the flashlight and the carving in my hands. I dropped them into the hole.

There was a commotion of voices, and the flashlight must have gotten stuck on the way down, for its light was shining steady down the hole.

There were a bunch of people down there. They all looked up at me with catfish eyes and they had long bony horns coming out of their foreheads. I saw Etta among them, staring glassily at me. Then there was a great whooshing sound and they all came flying up.

Needless to say, I ran back to the truck and did not look back even once.

– Matt Sampaio-Hackney, 2015.

mordancy.

…in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late – the chance which gives “permission” to take action – when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself – and has become distrustful and henceforth for ever useless. – In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule? Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannize over “the right time” – in order to take chance by the forelock!” – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. pp.137-138.

 

The narrator is one of the best examples of a typical Aickman character: a sad, marginal-failure. To fail more spectacularly would actually confer a degree of success that doesn’t fit with the Aickman view of humanity.” – cw67q, poster at Vault of Evil boards.

 

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in a particularly fierce aphorism of their Dialectic of Enlightment latter section – a treatise about rationality booby traps – saw some similarities between the haruspex in a pagan altar and the professor working on the dissecting table of an ultra-modern laboratory. For the two German philosophers both the priest and the scientist represents the Man and the Humanity devoted to the ecstatic observation of Nature in bloody agony, slowly tasting the perverse pleasure that such activity can provide. Of course, it is not the suffering of Nature as a totality, since the focus is on the potential and preferred victims, seen as the weakest links in the terrible chains of natural and social logic – captured animals, the natural sources with easy access, peaceful and isolated communities, segregated human groups, women – chosen for sacrifice. When faced with all the blood, viscera, and the torment of open wounds, the owners of knowledge (scientific or ritualistic) seek signs, evidence, portents. So this brief aphorism, titled “Man and beast”, presents the thesis, central to Adorno and Horkheimer’s philosophy, that the brutal and fearful exploitation of Nature reflects the brutalization of man from the remotest origin, the most distant historical sign and myth. The devastated Nature and the Humanity enslaved reflected each other…” – Bibliophage, Cannibals of West Papua.

 

Victor Soren, Avec Nortre Cheval Mort.

Victor Soren. “Avec Nortre Cheval Mort.”

And thirteen we were, crying like pissants into our soup and breaking wind for the poor bastard done in and out of his joys in life, and all his roads stopped up with dust. – Djuna Barnes.

 

I wake early one morning and slip into my parents’ bedroom. My mother lies on her side, curled tight as a seashell. My father is on his back, his mouth wide open. I notice that my father is not snoring, and my father always snores. In fact, he is not even breathing. His mouth is open, his eyes are closed, and he is perfectly still, perfectly quiet. My mother too is still, quiet, not breathing. The early morning light coming through the curtains tints them in a yellowish sheen, as if some soft golden powder has been spread over the room, the bed, the sleeping bodies.

I wonder how it is that my parents are not breathing. I watch them closely, trying to solve the mystery. I see that my father’s skin is turning gray, my mother’s skin too. My parents are becoming stone, gradually transforming from skin into stone before my eyes.

The added weight of the stone crushes against the mattress they sleep on. My mother’s stone body is sinking into the mattress. The white mattress rises up along her sides, folds over the top of her still hands and feet, over her torso and head. She disappears into the mattress, leaving only a crease. Then my father sinks from sight, the mattress creeping over him like the closing petals of a flower. His arms, his legs, his torso–all disappear into the trough of the mattress, until only his face remains.

Then the mattress folds over his face and he is gone.” – Thomas Wiloch, Early Morning.

aickman studies, aickman criticism.

Rik Rawling, Robert Aickman.

Rik Rawling, “Robert Aickman.”

For those who do not know, there is a fairly new academic journal devoted to the works of Robert Aickman, appropriately called Aickman Studies. It is edited by Tom Baynham and includes Gary William Crawford, Jim Rockhill, and Phillip Challinor on its editorial board. Its first release in January of 2014 included a piece by the venerable Mark Valentine, and it has proceeded apace with biannual updates. (I suppose it’s sort of the “official” Aickman journal, as all submitted pieces are sent to the Aickman estate for approval; this means they go to Leslie Gardner, who now handles the estate).

Ringing in the new year, Aickman Studies has put up its January 2016 release of reviews and criticism of all things related to the world of Robert Aickman. It contains an essay by a favorite of mine, Richard Paul Fox, on “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal,” in which he does an analysis of epistolary fiction in Gothic and supernatural work; Jim Rockhill’s review of the recent anthology Aickman’s Heirs; Simon Cooke’s review of Tartarus’ latest Aickman release, which contains not only a documentary of the writer, but a lost piece of fiction entitled “The Strangers” as well; and lastly, it contains an essay by myself, “Beyond the Human Compass.” I look forward to reading the other entries, as I have thus far been pressed for time, primarily by my own horrific mis-management of it.

My essay, which is awkwardly sub-titled in classic academic fashion, “The Curiosity Cabinet of Ravissante,” contains discussion of the following things: curiosity cabinets, succubi, sexual organs, horror vs terror, fin de siecle erotic art, Aickman’s dirty jokes, Faust, and the muse. It makes the claim that “Ravissante” is an instance of Aickman ferociously mounting a defense of his aesthetic and providing a blueprint of sorts for the strange tale. I also attempt to draw a provisional history of the strange tale, pointing out the precursors Aickman had in his endeavors, which is something I have not seen many others do before. As I say:

The popular idea that Aickman is a singular entity dropped ex nihilo into the backward fens and fields of supernatural fiction must be replaced with a more truthful and historical image of him as a writer consciously operating within a tradition.

I employ Italo Calvino’s notion of invisibility and the “disincarnation” of the fantastic in Henry James to draw out a list of strange writers:

We can see this trend of invisibility rippling outward from James in a number of Aickman’s predecessors: Barry Pain, Rudyard Kipling, Madeline Yale Wynne, Walter de la Mare, Oliver Onions, John Metcalfe, A.E. Coppard, John Davys Beresford. To one degree or another, all of these writers tended not to hum the standard bars of the ghostly tale, and chose to pipe on a scale altogether more allusive and elusive. They drain the blood from their spectres and dry them on hooks, not in the dining room Uncle Hugh died in, but in the abattoir of their protagonist’s brains. The interior becomes exterior, the fear of death fulminates behind their eyes and its smoke trails out into what Samuel Beckett called “the faint inscriptions of the outer world.” (Beckett, 38) This is a literary territory not of screaming skulls, mephitic puddles of putridity that once were men, or unctuous things in halls. Here, instead, is a literary topography of tiny hillside towns much bigger at night than they have any right to be, enticing attic trunks that swallow children whole, and perfectly non-descript country homes that might actually be way-stations between this world and the alleged next. From this fertile loam Aickman sprang.

I also attempt a rough definition of what the strange tale is, as opposed to the weird tale or the boilerplate supernatural tale. Among other things, it often features a stasis in the spot between the marvelous (fantastic) and unhomely (realistic), which can be instanced in tales such as The Hospice and, of course, the incredibly heady and slippery Ravissante. If I wanted to burn my eyes out with a hot, hissing poker, I might use the term “liminal,” or “liminality,” or say something like, “the ontological liminality of strangeness refuses to be subsumed or inscribed into the Real.” There are a few academic terms that make it into the essay, but not many (‘ontological’ I confess, is one of them), and after writing this piece I think I’d like to sand my work even cleaner of unnecessary jargon.

The strange sub-genre does not so much have unique features as it has commonplace features enlarged to deformity. The primary characteristics of strange fiction – ambiguity, dream-logic, and sexuality (repressed or overt) – are all present in traditional supernatural and ghostly fiction. It is simply that these elements have metastasized and, as a result, transcend the fireside club-tale conformity found in the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sabine Baring-Gould. Resolution, conventional sentiment, and standard manifestations of the occult are all undermined. Mystery and the uncanny are elevated. The text becomes a catafalque of dream-imagery unencumbered by rationality.

Although the essay is essentially a special-interest piece directed towards the small number of readers who have read “Ravissante,” I think that Aickman is of interest to anyone who loves literature, and I have attempted to leaven and season the piece with humor and something resembling sensuous turns of phrase. It is in fact based off a fragment I wrote for this blog in 2013 (Christ all-fucking-mighty! Three years ago!) called “The Magnetic Under-mind.” With the encouragement of being published, I am likely to submit further work to Aickman Studies and Wormwood.

Again, regular updating of this blog is constantly running against the wall of my indolence and poor time management. I am working on a post on Samuel R. Delany and the imprecise usage of genre classification, primarily by those writing on the so-called “literary fiction” side of the fence, (which, if I actually put effort into it, might show what modest skill I possess for calumny and vituperation; all in good fun) and a review of Shamus Frazer’s Where Human Pathways End.

Ferdinand Keller, The Pool. 1911.

Ferdinand Keller, The Pool. 1911.