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.)
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”.