loving the hideous.


Shin Taga, Hand-Mirror. 1981.

“Love the hideous in order to find the sublime core of it.” – Mina Loy, Aphorisms on Futurism. 1914.

“Everywhere we saw half-ruined fountains, satyrs vomiting senilely, nymphs emptying wine upon the lambent flames of dying phoenixes, creatures that were neither satyrs nor nymphs, nor gryphins, but grotesque adminglings of all, slain by one another, with water gushing from wounds in belly and thigh.” – R. Murray Gilchrist, “The Crimson Weaver.” 1895.


More posts forthcoming. Am reading Tales of the German Imagination edited by Peter Wortsman, and also Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks. I will also update the hopefully-soon-to-be-a-proper-series, Neglected Weird Fiction, with rambling, gnashing, and inefficacious sophistry. I would tell what story I’m planning to use but that would spoil it now, wouldn’t it? (Also seriously considering picking up Stories and Essays of Mina Loy by the great Dalkey Archive. But then again I am also seriously considering picking up almost everything because I am a fucking shameless addict and shelf-sniffer.)

l.a. lewis, “tales of the grotesque.”

"Tales of the Grotesque" in a new paperback edition by the UK's Shadow Publishing.

“Tales of the Grotesque” in a new paperback edition by the UK’s Shadow Publishing.

I first heard of the British writer Leslie Allin Lewis (1899-1961) through John Pelan’s marvelous door-stopper Century’s Best anthologies. The inclusion Pelan decided on (operating on a one story per author basis) was “The Tower of Moab,” an arresting and visionary blear of oddity. It was one of several pieces in the collection that seemed to reach beyond its historical context and not merely gesture towards the future, but grab that future by the windpipe and throttle it. It was like Ligotti with the nihilism replaced with mysticism, and shorn of the tendency toward over-writing, yet to summarize it in such a neat way is both a disservice to Ligotti and to Lewis.

Like the work of another Edwardian weird writer, Edward Lucas White, there are no standards or fixtures of horror iconography in this collection, Tales of the Grotesque, recently reissued in affordable paperback by Shadow Publishing. There is not a single straight forward haunting or conventional monster. Instead, you find: the director of music for a local church stumbles on chords that open a rift between this world and another while in somnambulistic trances (“The Chords of Chaos”); a quake opens a hole in the earth, out of which come absinthe-colored entities that linger in the air and terrorize RAF pilots (“Haunted Air”); a traveling salesman goes on a drunk bender and sees visions of demons and angels hovering around a derelict tower built by a religious cult in the late 19th century (“The Tower of Moab”); a man believes his body has been taken over by a past incarnation, one that was burnt at the stake for witchcraft and manifests itself as a perverted feathered creature (“The Hybrid”); a girl falls into a different dimension while on a boating expedition, where she suffers a horrible form of torturous un-death being eaten by unearthly fish in a strange, greenish pool (“Animate in Death”).

Lewis is concerned with the ineffable, with his theosophical bullshit about the astral plane and the web between this world and another, but this concern is intimately bound with earthly grue, with black blood and tobacco-brown bones, and the guts that move inside us – the being that squirms beneath the skin. The mystical is clothed in flesh, and the dangers posed by piercing into the other world are not merely psychological. In “Lost Keep,” such veil-piercing is used to awful ends, as a power-hungry man transports his enemies to a mysterious castle surrounded by a limitless ocean, and leaves them to starve to death, or murder one another. At the end of the piece, the keep in question has been more or less turned into a Dakhma, or Tower of Silence, pungent with flesh, bursting with rot.

The Theosophical Society recurs throughout the collection, an entity frequently referred to by various narrators and protagonists, who oftentimes will subscribe to its newsletter or write articles for its publication (much as Lewis himself did in his life). They are a bureaucracy humming in the background of the stories like the faint sibilation of a radio from another room. They are an authority; they posses gravitas; they might explain things – except they don’t.

In the collection’s best story, “Animate in Death,” an amateur psychic investigator comes up against a force he has not exactly been prepared for by his theosophical reading and his experience with the society. In a humorous take on the psychic investigator genre, Lewis says, through the character: ” ‘It’s queer,’ he mused aloud, ‘how the man in the street always regards an occultist as a sort of case-hardened miracle-man. He is expected to go out into the most horror-haunted regions and hobknob with the Powers of Darkness as though they were a bunch of lawyers’ clerks.'” The investigator has a vague concept of what he is dealing with, but nothing more, and at the end fails to save both himself and the victim, effectively dying to save her. This sacrifice is not handled well emotionally in the text, and is executed on an off-note, but that sense of failure of dealing with such supernatural matters is palpable throughout many of these tales.

The edition I wish I had, and which costs about five beach-front houses.

Much of horror and weird fiction hinges on the conflicted relationship between terror and humor, the author’s deft handling of the text and modulation of its tone determining that it does not stray too far in the direction of the comic. A clumsy, ardent writer will pile on the elements of the horrible so that the fictional scale topples over on the side of the ridiculous. This can be used for intentional effect sometimes, particularly in such sub-genres as bizarro. However, several of Lewis’ stories reside in an uncomfortable zone in between the horrible and comic, uncomfortable both in the sense that they are successful examples of weird fiction and that they are disconcerting and jarring to the reader, who wonders how much control Lewis had over that tone’s manipulation.

The tale “The Hybrid” is one of these, concerning the aforementioned man being possessed by a wicked past self. His body begins to take on the qualities of a monstrous, half-human fowl, shambling around like a drunkard and hopping up on dressers and tables, perching on any height at hand. This quality seems preposterous, laughable, until the hybrid in question assaults the man’s wife in the yard. The description of the hybrid suddenly running with its odd limp at her marks a sharp twist of the dial between the silly and frightening.

In his introduction, editor Richard Dalby mentions that Lewis was invalided out of the RAF in the 1940s, and began a stage of his life in which he was faced with perennial under-employment. During this period, he destroyed all of his unpublished work “during a fit of manic depression.” Dalby speculates that these destroyed stories, like the “bitter drawings” allegedly made by Bruegel in his later years and which were burned, were too disturbing for publication at the time. It is difficult to imagine Lewis writing a story more disturbing than “The Author’s Tale,” in which the quietly sadistic author in question leaves his wife to be devoured by a band of flesh-eating, pseudo-vampiric ghosts – but there you go. It is a shame they are lost, but at least Tales of the Grotesque survives.


the atom bomb its King Pest…

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854).

While reading Andrew Sinclair’s novel about a man who believes he is the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Facts in the Case of E.A. Poe, I came across an extraordinary passage. A brief explanation: Ernest Albert Pons is a Berlin-born Jew who fled Germany before the Holocaust, and lost much of his family to the camps. For much of his adult life, he has hidden, sublimated, and shoved grave-deep down this trauma, until he views Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog. This is part of his response to the film.

So Pons tried to concentrate on Poe – and failed. The dead poet no longer stalked with quick, erect gait through the halls of Pons’ imagination, which were now hung with images from Night and Fog. What was the bedchamber of Lady Tremaine to the gas-chamber at Belsen? What was Ligeia’s raven hair to the countless tresses shorn off Jewish women and piled as high as the pyramids for stuffing pillows? What were Berenice’s small, white and ivory-looking teeth to the tens of millions pulled from the jaws of the camp victims for the gold in their fillings? What was one man’s sensitivity and suffering to the holocaust or to genocide?

Resnais was the Baudelaire of modern times – and Adolf Hitler was its Edgar Allan Poe – and Joseph Stalin its Red Death – and the atom bomb its King Pest. Horror now lay in the deliberate killing of the millions, not in the ticking of time or the creeping of decay or the scratching of obsession or the stealth of corruption in each one of us. Concentration camps were the maelstrom of our creation – nuclear dust our version of the plague. The gloomy fancies of Poe, like those of Hoffman and Grimm, should only frighten children now – not the creatures capable of a Final Solution to the whole human race.

This hits at the heart of a question that has skulked around in my mind for some time, unanswered (unanswerable?) and forlorn: What is the actual relation of horror fiction to reality? Is its function and duty to provide escapism with a coat of the macabre? Is it a memento mori, to remind us of the pain and suffering in life, a warning (to the curious) of the sort that Denton Welch wrote while wracked with the pains of his debilitating accident: “In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn’t know that it was waiting for them, quietly, patiently.” Or is it some dialectical synthesis in between, or neither at all?

This passage will remind some horror readers of the work of Charles Birkin, a man known for his felicity and ferocity with the conte cruel. Several of his tales, such as the brain-searing “A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” were written about the Holocaust. One of them, I believe called “Waiting for Trains”, was directly drawn from his own experience as a British soldier in WWII dealing with a Nazi POW. What does this mean that a fiction can be spun about the Holocaust, and written not within the elevating folds of literary realism like Tadeusz Borowski or Imre Kertesz, but in the grimy, smoldering context of genre? A field of writing that, like it or not, is associated with pure entertainment? Is this okay, or is it just trivializing?

I have no answer for this question, still. But how horror fiction deals with life’s atrocities, not in the personal sense, but in the specifically political sense is a question of some importance. It would obviously be crude, crass, and even colonialistic for a French writer to set a horror tale in Rwanda circa the genocides, but what if a Rwandan writer did? How in the absolute hell can a form as old, constrained, and limited as horror deal with such a thing? Is there even a point to such a venture? I think this, but then the thought comes to me: This is a false privileging of genres. Literary fiction, realist fiction cannot deal with such hideousness either, and yet you do not interrogate its right to deal with such issues, even though it too is nothing but a wad of scummy tissue fluttering above the dirt of life’s landfill, a spindly dog barking at the slaughter of the highways. Yet I am drawn to the conclusion that horror is defeated by events of that kind of magnitude, rendered irrelevant and obsolete, much like how satire is said to be defeated at the hands of a reality so absurd exaggeration of it is impossible.

Albert Pons attempts to view such grandiose vileness through the lens of horror, but finds it a paltry, incommensurate view. Horror then, for Sinclair, is dwarfed by reality, and can never match its horribleness. Ernest Albert Pons uses the work of Poe in part to cope, but also to flee, to escape, to replace an intolerable suffering with a merely large one…