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.

the place where dead leaves go…

Jindrich Pilecek, Title n.a.

Jindrich Pilecek, Title n.a.

Like a lot of those who write fiction, I am horrible at poetry. I enjoy it sometimes, though I have no patience for deciphering or working in formal verse. What use I find in writing poetry is mainly from forcing oneself to generate imagery and stitch together phrases, some of which could be useful later in the making of a story. What follows is the work of those who are good at poetry, and one of those exercises. The spacing on the last is somewhat off, as WordPress’ spacing decisions confound me, but as it’s essentially mulch anyway, it’s not terribly important. 

All month I heard the owls

pushing their heavy lumber

through the dark.

They are building

another room

on the night. – Thomas McGrath, “Poem.”


In our hands we hold the shadow of our hands.

The night is kind – the others do not see us holding our shadow.

We reinforce the night. We watch ourselves.

So we think better of others.

The sea still seeks our eyes and we are not there.

A young girl buttons up her love in her breast

and we look away smiling at the great distance.

Perhaps high up, in the starlight, a skylight opens up

that looks out on the sea, the olive trees and the burnt houses –

We listen to the butterfly gyrating in the glass of All Soul’s Day,

and the fishermen’s daughter grinding serenity in her coffee

grinder. – Yannis Ritsos, “Absence.”

Samuel Bak, Eternal Return.

Samuel Bak, Eternal Return.

Even the Syro-Chaldean bishopric I offered
on the strength of Hadrian VII
did not tempt Corvo. As mere Provost
to the Lieutenant of Grandmagistracy
of Sanctissima Sophia he fled
to Venice, convinced the Rhodes Trustees
were plotting his assassination.
Where else should provide a home
to the inventor of submarine photography?
I missed his inch-thick cigarettes,
gigantic Waterman fountain pens
and Graecocorvine vocabulary.
We played duets but kissed only once.
At last he denounced me as a fraud
and schismatic. I said he played the spinet
like a lobster trying to escape its pot –
after that, my overtures were useless.
For all his violence and absurdity
I warm to think of him now,
his cropped grey hair dyed with henna,
his white hand, wearing the spur-rowel ring
I gave him as defence against Jesuits,
closed round the oar of his panther-skinned gondola
diapered with crabs and ravens and flying
St George and the red-and-gold Vesilla
of the Bucintoro Rowing Club.
I think less of the lagoon-eyed fauns
he photographs and masturbates.
Does he think of me in Godless Middlesex,
where it either rains or they’re playing cricket?
The Syro-Chaldean Church is not doing well
despite my sigils, blazons, banners
and the undeniable splendour of our ritual.
The landlord’s wife is singing Auld Lang Syne.
This is going to be a Godless century. – Ian Duhig, “Archbishop Mar Jacobus Remembers the Baron.”

Dripping with sleep I went to write a poem
And the waters of the world took me for their own. – Charles Henri Ford, from “Epigrams.”

Gennady Spirin, Minstrel Gazing up at the Moon.

Gennady Spirin, Minstrel Gazing up at the Moon.

You were youthful and callow, ripe with greed.

You were a ghost catching pluck birds in the air.

Catching saint’s heads in jars, setting free

the meadows caught in camera’s nets.

Youthful and callow slender frame in corners,

thin as mountain air and fat as honey,

your slingshot of song

burst every ear drum in the valley,

pried open the dry rot in homes like ribs.

You collected an encyclopedia of eyes,

a rolodex of lips,

and a paucity of self awareness.

Callow and youthful, slingshot of dares,

Your nubile erection

Proudly displayed, among other wares.

You carried a bucket,

filled with the limp body of a muck owl,

all the way up the hill.

You uncracked its wings,

unpacked the feathers,

and set it out, cooling,

on the sill.

When the dark came, and dragging

the moon with it behind,

the night god took the muck owl

and left nothing but a rind.

Your laugh was wide and grasping,

and we set it out to catch the rain.  – Baron Earwig, “Doggerel for Callow Youth.”

the marionettes not only speak: the fiction of gabrielle wittkop.

I’ve just read Wakefield Press’ new Gabrielle Wittkop releases, the novel Murder Most Serene, and the untimely-death-themed novella collection Exemplary Departures. The first thing one notices about them is how beautiful their design is. Both feature the art work of Nicole Duennebier, and whoever worked on the design for Murder uncorked one of the loveliest covers I’ve ever seen. I prefer her earlier novel The Necrophiliac to Murder Most Serene, but it is a worthy read for reasons I will get into shortly. Exemplary Departures is a work that should be of great interest to readers of the macabre, the fantastique, the surreal, and the supernatural, although in a literal sense it only belongs to the first. Wittkop is a writer whose work can (reductively but profitably) be taken as an alliance of the Marquis de Sade and E.T.A. Hoffman, both of whom figure in epigraphs and footnotes to the two books. Before I get into the texts, though, something of a preface:

A while ago I read a book of literary criticism by Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction. In her book, there is something she identifies as the “writerly surface,” and then another level below it, a substrate of signification pulsating beneath the sentence. The surface is similes, metaphors and analogies, the craft of phrase-making, turning an ear to the work of finding pleasing sounds like a pig to truffles, allusion, and the invention of striking imagery. The substrate below the sentence is filled with plot, theme, allegory, sense of timing, the generation of meaning and its themes, characterization; in short, the general deep structures found in any work, the elements of a text which do not appear in the literal word by word, sentence by sentence surface. These are elements that only appear, so to speak, when you stand a ways off to get a proper look at them. A dull surface can hide great power, just as a shining surface can hide its deficit.

In this same work by Dillard, she mentions how modernist writers live on the surface, and turn their characters into what she derisively calls “figures”. Characters become objects adorned with unusual facts. She singles out Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an instance of this, saying that though his characters walk on water, are ghosts, absorb themselves into stained glass on holy days, or wear necklaces of parsnips, they do not elicit any sympathy. They are not characters, but objects, emotionless figures, pieces of setting given names. The reader does not relate to them, but simply gawks at them like novelties or admires them like landscapes; picturesque valleys that lift up their skirts and shuffle around for our amusement. She calls this method of fobbing off character and narrative at the expense of imagery “surface flatness,” an emigre term originally from the plastic arts.

On this note, in her novella, Murder Most Serene, Gabrielle Wittkop’s narrator compares herself to a bunraku puppeteer (kagezukai) and openly refers to her characters as “figures”. MMS has a threadbare historical mystery scaffolding, concerning the deaths by poison of the various wives of Count Alvise Lanzi in the Republic of Venice. Yet it basically unfolds as a procession of images going by, and even the plot, with its succession of wives dying of poison, suggests a processional ritual, a merry dance macabre. Wittkop keeps nothing secret about this, even saying through her bunraku narrator, “Syllogistic conclusions being fundamentally devoid of interest, however, their premises and their ornamental setting alone shall be our entertainment.” With this admission of her opinion that mystery tales are fucking boring, the reader is given a tale of poisonings, familial greed, clerical hypocrisy, and most of all, the 18th century city of Venice itself, the city “whose mirrors drink the dark.” In a passage characteristic of her prose, and also quoted in full by translator Louise LaLaurie for her introduction, Wittkop renders foggy, waterlogged Venice:

A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all the ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.

In MMS, abbots have “pederastic noses”; beautiful vestments hide sores; poison produces incandescent glowing in the gut, released only by graphic, stomach-bursting explosions in stuffy drawing rooms; everyone plays the game of power, and mostly everyone loses; destitute, elderly tumblers ply their acrobatic skills on waterfronts and are pelted and assaulted; Giacomo Casanova, in between venereal play with noble ladies, frightens the city with false rumors of earthquakes; the rich hide themselves away in miniature, island-bound mansions eating moleche and chewing on the scraps of rumor; the canals are filled with corpses like noses with boogers. (The several sarcasms in the last sentence should make clear that sometimes the repetition of things decayed and rotting becomes ridiculous, but the camp is intentional, I think.) Wittkop states in her preface that her evocation of the city comes from the artworks of Pietro Longhi and Giovanni Tiepolo, but with the sardonic fixation of her images, it is clear we are just as much seeing the influence of Sade.

It is an enjoyable work, lightweight even, and much of it is just the detatched kagezukai observing for us the agonizing deaths of various women in various poorly heated rooms. Occasionally there is a scenic tour of Venice’s pools of urine, or its perennial forms of bread and circus, such as a carnival that lasts five months. There is no emotional development of the characters, and the mystery plot, true to form, ends up being predictable and “fundamentally devoid of interest.” Nonetheless, her prose is a pleasure.

Having mentioned “the divine Marquis” and Hoffman, it is also appropriate to mention the influence of Poe, a not astonishing connection given the Southerner’s influence on French literature, as well as his appearance as a character in Exemplary Departures. I will quote Baudelaire here, by way of Arthur Symons, and leave it to speak for itself: “Like our Delacroix, who has elevated art to the height of poetry, Poe loves to move his figures upon a ground of green or violet where the phosphorescence of putrefaction (as in The Case of M. Valdemar) and the odour of the hurricane, reveal themselves.”

The stronger of these two releases, Exemplary Departures does not possess the same surface flatness that bedevils Dillard and quickly loses my interest. Three of the novellas are excellent, “Idalia on the Tower,” “Baltimore Nights,” and “A Descent.” The remaining two that begin and close the collection (“Mr. T’s Last Secrets” and “Claude and Hippolyte”) are much weaker although lovingly written. It is appropriate to pair “Nights” and “Descent” together, as both detail descents into the underworld in some sense. “Nights” is Wittkop’s speculative reconstruction of Edgar Allan Poe’s last days before he died at Washington College Hospital in Baltimore; “Descent” depicts the downfall of a pathetic man, Seymour M. Kenneth, (a name that gives off strong Tom Disch vibes to me) and his eventual demise in a fetid hole below Grand Central Station.

Poe, in “Nights,” is flustered and harried by his constantly disappearing suitcase full of manuscripts. Unseen rivals are out to get him, and they have spies in every sliver of shadow: “They were plebeians. They smelled of cheese.” Wittkop’s Poe is a delusional man wending towards his own death, visited by angels, often feeling as if he could “vomit up his own heart,” but still clinging to his aristocratic pretensions, still capable of stunning speech. Not once is Poe named in “Nights,” but for someone even vaguely familiar with his history, everything is there: West Point, “Eureka,” theatrical parents, dead wife, his stormy relation with his stepfather, fascination with explorers, etc. 

Wittkop keeps the textual fireworks of his delusions to a minimum until the very end, but gives the tale quiet moments of the uncanny, even in a very simple occurrence when Poe returns home from aimless wandering in town: “It was evening before he got back to his room, without having eaten anything. As soon as he’d lit the candle he looked under the bed and saw that the suitcase was gone.” In the context of Poe’s world, these two lines carry much greater weight than they do reading them ripped from their environs. Far from surface flattening, the literary contours of “Nights” are taut and sinewy. As an example of perfect placement and timing, the subterranean invisible work of writing, there you have it.

“Nights” is a magisterial piece of historical fiction in addition to a depiction of a mind’s descent into lurid hallucination. Take as example this wonderful little figurine from near the end, a piece showcasing both Wittkop’s research muscles and psychological acuity: “He climbed back into his carriage. Josef W. Walker bade him farewell gravely, and as he lifted his hat its tattered lining slipped out in a grotesque way, which Doctor Snodgrass gentlemanly ignored.” Baltimore is wonderfully evoked in all its late-Victorian grease, but without the awful steam-punk romanticism and object-fetishism (gaslights!) so often given to the period by contemporary writers. More importantly, unlike in Murder Most Serene, the conjuration of a time period is given something solid to hang onto, instead of just blowing ineffectually in the wind of words. I would compare it to and rank it in quality alongside Angela Carter’s incredible “The Fall River Axe Murders.” (It is also worth mentioning that Wittkop’s love of splattered entrails, black vomit, and rotting organic matter is tempered to fit the tale).

One more quote. Poe delves into a memory from his youth, the possible genesis for his writing of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: “He remembered the nights when the old sailor, being eaten away like a pumpkin by pthisis, described for him the splendor and horrors of the seven seas, all the marvels that burst forth at the screech of the huge white gulls.”

Felix Buhot, Winter Morning on the Quai de l’Hotel Dieu. 1876.

Felix Buhot, Winter Morning on the Quai de l’Hotel Dieu. 1876.

“A Descent” might be even better. After reading two 19th century fictions in “Baltimore Nights” and “Idalia on the Tower,” I did not expect to enjoy a tale set in contemporary times. It sounded jarring for a second, to read Wittkop without drays and steamers and tuberculosis. But the tale is quickly immersive, and if her Sadean side is muted in “Nights,” it comes out cackling in “Descent.” Seymour Kenneth is a wonderfully helpless character, an immature mediocrity overly attached to his mother, socially inept, and without skills or much in the way of intelligence. His mother dies and the sale of her unsuccessful cafe barely covers the cost of their debts, so Seymour strikes out into the world for the first time as a 30+ year old man. He ends up in a relationship with a woman named Emily Gordons, who just by coincidence happens to have a liking for weak, gutless men. He becomes the sub to her dom, working for no wages in her clothing retail store and referring to her at all times as “Mammily.” Somehow Seymour blunders his way into an affair with another woman that is as tepid as tapioca – an affair sordid in its lifelessness, practically kinky in its banal mundanity – and when Mammily finds out, it’s quits. It’s a shame Seymour was not receiving any pay during those years, because now he is 45 and has no job experience and no cash. To New York he goes, and his ultimate departure, exemplary in its own way.

Continuing the faint Tom Disch vibe I get from this tale, I’m reminded of Chip Delany’s comment about how Disch was brilliant at portraying the inner thoughts of stupid people. Wittkop is quite the hand at this too, it turns out, and when she graces us with Seymour’s thoughts the results are convincing and amusing. Seymour, on fleeing to New York, gets the bright idea of driving after entombing himself with whiskey: “Before him, the livid road ran on like a madwoman, running ahead reluctantly, while he gave chase to the beam of his own headlights.” The not at all shocking outcome of this is that Seymour kills a pedestrian, so he continues driving to the city and abandons the car on the outskirts. He settles down at a flophouse and from there his descent only increases in its velocity, culminating in his setting up shop in a corner of the humid underground heating system below New York’s train terminals. Perhaps it’s the contemporary setting, perhaps it’s the indifferent brutality and stupidity of its characters, or simply the meticulous rendering of its ghoulish settings, but “Descent” has the most visceral and immediate impact of any tale in Departures. As always with Wittkop, the allusions are there: Hoffman’s mines of Falun, Sarpedon, Hypnos, and Thanatos.

“Idalia on the Tower” is a strong piece set in the German Rhineland, with references to Alfred Kubin and plentiful period details; “Claude and Hippolyte, or the Inadmissible Tale of the Turquoise Fire” is also rather good, but not to the level of “Idalia” or the others, though it has its charms. “Mr. T’s Last Secrets” I found a little thick on her occasionally purple descriptions and the inscrutable character of Mr. T left me cold. This may well change on re-readings, but with two really excellent pieces of fiction, and a few solid others, Exemplary Departures gets my recommendation.


gather my wax when evening arrives.

Mila Von Luttich, Untitled, Figure walking up Staircase.

Mila Von Luttich, Untitled, Figure walking up Staircase.

I have been a bad blogger. I am about to embark on reading Wakefield Press’ new Gabrielle Wittkop books, Murder Most Serene and Exemplary Departures, and will write a lengthy piece on them; in the meantime, here is a potpourri of prose from books I have read in the last handful of months. I may or may not muster enough ambition in between to tackle a polemic on the growing commercialization of the Weird, but I will if I can. Other books I will be reading after Wittkop and hopefully writing about will be Anne Hebert’s The Children of the Black Sabbath, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog, Claude Seignolle’s The Accursed, and Djuna Barnes’ Ryder.

From Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac:

I don’t hate my occupation: its cadaverous ivories, its pallid crockery, all the goods of the dead, the furniture that they made, the tables that they painted, the glasses from which they drank when life was still sweet to them. Truly, the occupation of an antiquarian is a situation almost ideal for a necrophiliac.

From Jack Black’s You Can’t Win:

His eyes were small and cunning. They looked as if they had been taken out, fried in oil, and put back.

From W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

The capital amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through various forms of slave economy is still in circulation, said de Jong, still bearing interest, increasing many times over and continually burgeoning anew. One of the most tried and tested ways of legitimizing this kind of money has always been patronage of the arts, the purchase and exhibiting of paintings and sculptures, a practice which today, said de Jong, was leading to a relentless escalation of prices paid at major auctions….at times it seems to me, said de Jong, as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectionist to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresa, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy.

From Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side:

My pictures, soaked in the pallid, gloomy atmosphere of the Dream Realm, were a veiled expression of my grief. I spent hours immersing myself in the poetry of the dank courtyards, hidden attics, shadowy back rooms, dusty spiral staircases, abandoned, nettle-ridden gardens, the pale colours of the brick and wooden pavements, the black chimneys and a whole host of bizarre fireplaces. They were repeated variations on one melancholy theme, the anguish of desolation and the struggle with an unfathomable fate.

Natalia Smirnova, Grimoire.

Natalia Smirnova, Grimoire.

From Gerald Kersh’s Fowlers End:

I don’t believe them when they say that wisdom is something gently acquired. It may come gradually over your head, but it hits in a flash and with a shock. Such wisdom as you have strikes like lightning, and you are none the happier for it – if you are wise. I can liken it only to a sudden and agonizing eructation of perceptiveness, upon whose sad wind your years of innocence are belched away, leaving a bitterness which it takes all the years of your maturity to purge you of – if you are lucky.

From Pierre Mabille, The Mirror of the Marvelous:

Lovers are infallible diviners. Renewed by emotion, their eyes wash clean habit’s dust from things and so perceive their total reality.

From Joris Karl Huysman’s La Bas:

He sobs as he walks along. He attempts to thrust aside the phantoms which accost him. Then he looks about him and beholds obscenity in the shapes of the aged trees. It seems that nature perverts itself before him, that his very presence depraves it. For the first time he understands the motionless lubricity of trees. He discovers priapi in the branches.

Here a tree appears to him as a living being, standing on its root-tressed head, its limbs waving in the air and spread wide apart, subdivided and resubdivided into haunches, which again are divided and resubdivided. Here between two limbs another branch is jammed, in a stationary fornication which is reproduced in diminished scale from bough to twig to the top of the tree. There it seems the trunk is a phallus which mounts and disappears into a skirt of leaves or which, on the contrary, issues from a green clout and plunges into the belly of the earth.

Frightful images rise before him. He sees the skin of little boys, the lucid white skin, vellum-like, in the pale, smooth bark of the slender beeches. He recognizes the pachydermatous skin of the beggar boys in the dark and wrinkled envelope of the old oaks. Beside the birfucations of the branches there are yawning holes, puckered orifices in the bark, simulating emunctoria, or the protruding anus of a beast. In the joints of the branches there are other visions, elbows, armpits furred with grey lichens. Even in the trunks there are incisions which spread out into great lips beneath tufts of brown, velvety moss.

Everywhere obscene forms rise from the ground and spring, disordered, into a firmament which satanizes. The clouds swell into breasts, divide into buttocks, bulge as if with fecundity, scattering a train of spawn through space. They accord with the sombre bulging of the foliage, in which now there are only images of giant or dwarf hips, feminine triangles, great V’s, mouths of Sodom, glowing cicatrices, humid vents. This landscape of abomination changes. Gilles now sees on the trunks frightful cancers and horrible wens. He observes exostoses and ulcers, membranous sores, tubercular chancres, atrocious caries. It is an arboreal lazaret, a venereal clinic.

And there, at a detour of the forest aisle, stands a mottled red beech.

Amid the sanguinary falling leaves he feels that he has been spattered by a shower of blood. He goes into a rage. He conceives the delusion that beneath the bark lives a wood nymph, and he would feel with his hands the palpitant flesh of the goddess, he would trucidate the Dryad, violate her in a place unknown to the follies of men.

He is jealous of the woodman who can murder, can massacre, the trees, and he raves…

Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, Dandy in the Underworld.

Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, Dandy in the Underworld.

From Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces:

Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it.

From Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors:

You are enlightened, I think; you do not consider all the petty rules and bylaws that a corrupt society has made for its own selfish convenience as the immutable decrees of the Eternal.”



(I forgot to mention: the title of this post is a quote from a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, the father of film director Ivan Tarkovsky.)

reggie oliver’s “the sea of blood.”

Jeanne Mammen, (1890-1970).

Jeanne Mammen, (1890-1970). “Der Totentanz.”

I’ve just finished reading Dark Renaissance’s The Sea of Blood, their recent collection of Reggie Oliver’s best fiction thus far. Having never read his fiction at all, nor his plays, I was unsure what to expect. I had been led to believe that he was some sort of melding of M.R. James with Robert Aickman, and knew he was one of the biggest names in the contemporary supernatural field, but that’s about it. This collection is a reminder of my own reading temperament, in that I am not suited to exclusive literary monogamy, but prefer to drift around having passionate affairs with short and long works by different authors. In this sense the anthology form is perfect for me, being a sort of literary version of a polyamorous commune. Whereas choosing to read the collected stories of a particular author in one block is like moving in with someone. You get to see hidden virtues, yes, but mostly you see that they leave their dirty socks on the kitchen table, forget to close the fridge door, and repeat their funny jokes excessively. The obsessions and limitations come out amidst the strengths.

Oliver’s obsessions are not especially subtle. In terms of his characters, everyone is or was in the theater, or knows someone who is on the stage. All of the plays performed are middling thrillers or mysteries, likely also featuring middle class characters even more wound up, sucked in, repressed, and complacently unfeeling. People are going on seaside vacations. Reminiscing about private schools, the names Oxford and Eton hang off their lifeless faces like the green tongues of the hanged, memories of authoritarian masters bulge out like asphyxiate’s eyes. They abashedly admit to being snobs about wine, classical music, or class. Almost all of them have contacts with the upper class, although they do not belong themselves. LGBTQ characters pop in out and out of narratives, and sometimes do the narrating themselves – a pleasant trait I am unused to in supernatural fiction because I seldom read contemporary work. And yet, Oliver knows it well, but this relentlessly British middle class mileau becomes repetitive and deadening after a dozen or so tales.

Of the twenty plus tales that feature in The Sea of Blood, the jewel for me was “Flowers of the Sea.” An aging writer and his painter wife begin to have shared blackout fugues or seizures, the aftereffect of which leaves them numbed and incapable of aesthetic feeling. Only the writer ever remembers that the seizures happen, and it soon comes out that the painter is suffering from dementia. They telepathically share her nightmares, which consist of visions of falling towards an infinite miasmic sea. The horrific imagery is clearly and rigorously molded to the story’s theme of dementia. In other tales, such as “The Constant Rake,” the supernatural is a kind of expensively imported substance that isn’t quite what it purports to be on arrival; or more accurately, a species of exotic pet loosed into the natural wild of the fiction, where it destroys and subverts the local ecosystem.

In “Flowers,” the mental decay of dementia is identified with physical decay and made ally to the decay of vegetable matter, the disintegration of flora and fauna, their breaking down into liquid form, culminating in a liquid sea of mouths and hair, beings half cabbage and half animal. The sea, filled with its death flowers, is the anti-narrative force of chaos. It is autophagic, and as insensate as its victims ultimately become; it eats and excretes itself and composts identity and memory into an annihilating humus used only to cultivate more death. There is no resolution or reprieve from suffering. The ending discovery of a Victorian book of pressed flowers, altered by his wife to represent the “death land” she had entered, is surprising and genuinely earned. Even a minor character, the conniving Greek Stavros, is memorable. His pitiless hunger for the accumulation of valuable antique matter is a sort of structural rhyme for dementia’s hunger for identity, death’s thirst for biological matter.

There are a number of similarities to an Aleister Crowley tale, “The Testament of Magdalen Blair,” from the deceased partner, telepathic communication, and the image of falling towards a slimy and grayly putrescent ocean. In both, everything ends in pain and without any hope. The biographical connections to Oliver’s marriage and his wife’s death (she was a painter as well as an actress) perhaps go in some small way towards explaining the perfection and unity of the tale, a perfection and unity not really fully realized in any of his others, however excellent they are. The portrait of the painterly wife whose mind is slipping away may be a composite portrait, but the grief and the experience with dementia appear real. In “Flowers,” the Jamesian device of found imaginary manuscripts reappears in truly sinister and harrowing form, without any of the playfulness of previous manifestations. The story does not have its tongue in its cheek, and without this encumbrance, its sharp incisors and canines can be seen plainly.


On the second order of quality, “The Old Silence,” “Minos or Rhadamanthus,” and “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” stand out. These three all represent particular strains of Oliver’s fiction. “Cardinal Vittorini” is the James/Borges side, crammed with antique documents, forgotten historical figures, and uninteresting academics who ultimately burn the documents they find. Only a few of M.R. James’ tales hit me (“Casting the Runes,” “Cathedral History,” a few others) and most Jamesian fiction leaves me cold as pudding. But Oliver makes the pleasing terror more cosmic in style, marking it out for me as a more nihilistic cousin to Roger Johnson’s wonderful “The Wall Painting.” A Death-God sitting on his throne of nothing? You have my attention.

“Minos” is Oliver in trad-supernatural mode. Two ghosts meet each other on a cricket playing-field outside a boy’s prep school; one a former student, the other headmaster. The revelation of school authority figures having sexual peculiarities or fetishes is recurrent in Oliver’s work, with here a less dark figuration of it than in “The Rooms are High,” with its disturbing coffeehouse conversation with an openly predatory pedophile of a headmaster. In “Minos” the peculiarity is more an inordinate appreciation of caning young boys. It is also a period piece, set just after the first world war. Its plot line is old hat, and not really intended to be anything else. The focus is on an emotional confrontation and a heavily congealed mood of melancholy. Taken on its own terms, it is a lovely tale.

“The Old Silence” I’ve graded as the second best story in Sea of Blood, and it stands in for Oliver’s weirder tendencies. The term “weird” appears to have unbuckled itself from its definitional seat belt, and is happily bouncing around on a number of seats as if it owns all of them. This reservation in mind, “Silence” is the closest Oliver gets to straight ahead weird fiction, and it is really something. A hack of a psychic medium who has a thing for silent films gets his comeuppance in a grisly manner. There are a number of fantastic stories that deal with the ectoplasms of mediums, but none of them are as gruesome as this. In a way it reminds me of the work of Junji Ito:

I highly recommend all of the aforementioned tales. Oliver is a fine and fairly traditional stylist within the supernatural tradition. Outside of “Flowers of the Sea,” nothing in this collection is exactly scintillating, but a solid few are powerful entertainments, and his prose and characterization are always highly readable.

Also, here is Oliver with a bit part in the 1990 adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s “The Green Man.”

opening the windows: arthur porges, “the mirror and other strange reflections.”

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

I have been away from this blog for a long time. Something in the nature of seven months. In that time, I have not been smashed by an automobile, garroted, set aflame, tattooed to death, or suffered any other life altering incident that would prohibit maintaining an unpopular blog. I have been working the same old blue collar job and reading, mostly. Occasionally the exciting intervenes. But for the most part I have been reading novels and stories, and have written a few stories and poems, as well as a 6,000-ish word essay for the scholarly journal Aickman Studies, entitled “Beyond the Human Compass.” It is now in revision mode.

A few of the novels I read have been noteworthy. I finally read Dedalus’s reprint of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side. I read Gerald Kersh’s wonderful Fowlers End, courtesy of the valiant Valancourt. I found both of these marvelous, and both will be included whenever I open my mouth in response to the question of “favorite novels.” In process of reading John Fowles’ The Magus, and am soon to embark on Reggie Oliver’s new best of collection from Dark Subterranean, The Sea of Blood. 

This post, an instance of metaphorically airing out a stuffy apartment, is in response to Ash Tree Press‘ collection of short fiction by Arthur Porges, a lesser known writer and mathematics teacher who began writing fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the early 1950’s.

Porges is one of those writers whose mind operates as a compression device, reducing all of his tales to a length of three to six pages. What other writers say in five hundred words, he says in fifty. There may be something of style and panache lost in this reduction, but the ability is admirable and resulted in eminently sale-able pieces to Fantastic and other magazines. Regarding his own flaws as a writer, Porges says in his introduction that he is an idea man, and no great shakes with character. I am reminded of M. John Harrison’s statement of how some of his adolescent SF heroes were capable of head-fucking him like no other, but who possessed “the emotional range of mollusks.”

It is true that the characterizations in Porges’ stories are primarily either “nice guy wants girl” or “tough guy wants money,” with the odd seasoning of “scholar wants knowledge.” Given this deficit of character and prose style, most of the tales have little value in terms of re-reading, but there are a few tales that come through with genuine force and vividness. So much Silver Age SF and fantasy staggers along as if chained in prose’s foot-irons, unable to break free. It dances with vigor and admirable sinuosity, but seldom lets you forget the clanging of the chains on its feet. I’m reminded of a piece of cultural detritus from another world; the old-time fiddler Harry Kiker once described John Dilleshaw (a.k.a. Seven Foot Dilly) thusly: “He weren’t no extra singer, but he was real on the guitar. Them old-timers didn’t go in for foolishness, they went for the sound o’ them boxes.” Arthur Porges, a man with a mind of empirical and mathematical bent, was no extra prose stylist, but he went in for the stories.

And the stories have admirably versatile plots, always a feature I admire in writers (hello Tom Disch and Bob Leman). A few examples: in “What Crouches in the Deep,” a treasure-hunting submersible operator discovers that the Nazi commander of a sunken art-laden sub is still alive, but only in the loosest sense; in “Second Debut,” the mediocre brother of a famous biologist is injected with the DNA of a brilliant pianist who died in mysterious circumstances; “The Fanatic” features an obsessive who believes that many of the creatures we call ‘animals’ are actually predatory aliens engaged in reconnaissance work; in “Words and Music,” a story still smudged with mid-century Soviet scare, a failed musician receives the essence and thoughts of other people as classical compositions; the dissipated and homeless scientist of “The Moths” is visited by a species of moth that might hold the key to obtaining energy from the sun, but in a fit of pique and despair, lying in a filth and lice ridden bed at night, he crushes them in his fingers; the ironically titled “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” is truly one of the most harrowing conte cruels I’ve read in years, revealing with unsparing and unsentimental detail the indifferent and contingent brutality of nature and humanity. Likewise, “The Mirror” is just as determined to annihilate and murder the innocent and shatter illusions, whether of civilization or of domesticity.

This is another thing to be said of Porges: he may have some of the grating whimsicalities of Silver Age authors, some of their disposable commerciality, but he also possesses a darker turn that he is unafraid to explore to its final conclusions. In this respect I am reminded of Basil Copper, but to do Porges justice, I think he goes farther than Copper at twisting the knife in.


There are a few tales with a Jamesian flavor, but with more gruesome tendencies than James (“Count Magnus” notwithstanding). A characteristic excerpt, from “Solomon’s Demon”:

The carving depicted a scene of nightmare context on the deck of a ship. One man, presumably the captain, from his dress, was cringing against the rail with an expression of sick disbelief on his face. He was holding a small black box, the size of a brick. Before him, a sailor lay dead. He appeared to have been a giant of herculean build, perhaps cock of the fo’c’stle, yet one of his arms had been torn off at the shoulder, and his face was a shapeless ruin of mangled flesh.

Three other men were engaged in a gallant but obviously hopeless fight with a most appalling monster. It was tall, much taller than the biggest sailor, cadaverously thin, and fearfully banded with wire-like muscles. One huge taloned paw still clutched the red rags of the dead man’s face; the other was cramming the end of the severed arm into the gaping mouth. The creature wore a sort of tattered grey robe, through which its pale skin, sparsely dotted with green hair, gleamed obscenely…

The thing was earless, and had only a single moist pit for a nose, but its mouth was a jungle of teeth like great glass splinters, running far back into the mighty jaws.

Porges strays into very different territory with “The Forerunner.” It is a piece of mysticism with Christian undertones, wherein a tropical bird, likened to Joseph with his coat of many colors, makes the most appalling noises at night in a suburban neighborhood until it is shot by a disgruntled man. The narrator sneaks out to find the bird, and seeing that it is alive, smuggles it back to his house to nurse it. He gradually realizes that the bird’s song, although extremely dissonant and repetitive, is a song of triumph, of grand announcement. The bird withers under his care and soon dies, but not before shouting, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” in between the bars of its song. Who exactly is coming is left on a note of ambiguity, and the tale retains something stranger than the Christian didacticism it could be taken for. Doubtless Porges had nothing of the kind in mind, but I picture the bird squawking out some of Albert Ayler’s spiritual pieces…

Behind the prose shorn of style, behind the corny jingoism of some of the characters, the vestiges of McCarthyism, and the kitschy fantasy so common in Silver Age work (“$1.98,” “The Fanatical Ford”), there lurks a writer of the fantastic who nurses more darkness and possesses more cold clarity than was typical for his time. The end of “The Moths” has something of cosmic beauty and tragedy to it; “The Second Debut” would be a fine addition to any speculative fiction anthology themed around music; perhaps “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” will make it into the anthology of the cruel tale I’d like to get around to compiling some day. It would rival even the Birkin pieces.

nettles of pricks, vipers of tongues

Lars Hertervig, Skogtjern. 1865

Lars Hertervig, Skogtjern. 1865

We’re not people anymore with eyes to see. We’re blind gaping holes at the end of a production line stuffing with trash.” – David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen.

Like all of us in this world, I am two men. A self and a non self. Only by being non-selves can we now survive in our own mortal shrouds we weave around us. And what shall this survival profit us? In this day of the mask, this day of corporation-men. What shall the self do then, poor thing? But curl away as from a poisoning wind and dream. Dream of some Second Coming man himself must bring up about, through some vast disobedience and new resurrection.” – David Rudkin, Penda’s Fen.

Still from Alan Clarke’s film of ‘Penda’s Fen.’

“In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.” – Hugh Sykes Davies, “In the Stump of the Old Tree.” 1936.

William Degouve de Nuncques, The Leprous Forest.

William Degouve de Nuncques, The Leprous Forest.

“‘Ho! Ho! You worm of my folly,’ laughed the hollow skull. ‘I am alive still, though I am dead; and you are dead, though you’re alive. For life is beyond your mirrors and your waters. It’s at the bottom of your pond; it’s in the body of your sun; it’s in the dust of your star spaces; it’s in the eyes of weasels and the noses of rats and the pricks of nettles and the tongues of vipers and the spawn of frogs and the slime of snails. Life is in me still, you worm of my folly, and girls’ flesh is sweet for ever; and honey is sticky and tears are salt, and yellow-hammers’ eggs have mischievous crooked scrawls!’ – John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent.

interesting failures of weird fiction no. 1. “the aquarist” by j.n. allan.

Fritz Schwimbeck, Dracula.

Fritz Schwimbeck, Dracula.

There are several ways to strain against convention within the fairly constricted and classical structure of the horror or weird tale. You can bend it, like a spoon or a spine, by contorting the plot and expectations of the reader, introducing new themes and setting up reversals. Generic convention becomes a funhouse. The second way is through a heightening of the language, bringing a poetic sensibility to established stories. This latter path is the most frequent in contemporary weird literature and, sadly, the least stimulating and successful. Whether it is through the popularity of Creative Writing courses or the crossbreeding of genre with literary fiction, more genre prose writers now write well crafted sentences punctuated with deft similes. But too often it is as if they learned to write sentences, but not stories. The sentences act as meticulous, ornamented arcades guiding one through a building which is either nonexistent or entirely unconvincing. (This appears to happen often when literary writers venture into genre, happily thinking if they merely construct a series of ‘muscular’ and unassailable sentences that they will conquer the dark continent of horror, SF, or fantasy – or all of them at once.)

While this may be prevalent now in the world of genre fiction, there are of course numerous instances from the past. A more interesting failure of this variety that I’d like to focus on today is J.N. Allan’s “The Aquarist,” first published in London Magazine in 1981. London appears to be a literature and art magazine whose fictional focus is primarily lit-fic. Allan was a one-time contributor who appears to have published nothing else, and is possibly the pseudonym of another established editor and/or writer.

Like many stories that take the second path to the rejuvenation of old forms, there is little in the way of plot but there are a hell of a lot of pristine, cut-glass sentences. Allan describes a moray eel devouring an octopus:

After swallowing this wriggling arm the moray repeated the action, until the octopus was left with no arms; just the immobile bag of its body, like a pudding tipped out of its mould.

Aside from an impertinent semi-colon, that is a decent sentence.

The basic story is an old one: a mentally ill man kills his wife and her new lover, then the police come. The getting there is quite unusual with Allan, but I do wish they had decided to work more along the lines of Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimmage of Clifford M,” which is written in basic prose but provides a heady revisionary working of the vampire tale that is a joy to read. If Allan had combined these two tendencies, “The Aquarist” could have been one of the best weird tales of the 80’s. Instead it is a just a curio piece, a worthwhile specimen of failure.

In this old-hat piece, the mentally ill man (and of course he is mentally ill; they’re all dangerous, right?) is an aquarium enthusiast who spends much of his time in a dark room studying and adoring his collection of octopuses. His wife Thelma openly carries on an affair with a man named Frank. Neither of the two seem to believe that the narrator (who is unnamed, of course, it wouldn’t be properly literary if he wasn’t) is cognizant enough to recognize their relationship for what it is. Our aquarist is obsessed with these two aspects of his life and the reader listens to his detached voice as it mumbles surgical sentences in which these two fixations merge into one. When spying on Frank and Thelma making out in the kitchen, his mind goes to a very bizarre place:

Thelma is always ovo-vivaparous at times like these, like my fish, Frank laying his tongue inside her head and letting it develop like an egg and hatch inside its mother. Thelma smiles as wrinkles like stretch-marks crisscross her skin and slowly but surely the lower rays of her tail fin begin to elongate and splay. Thelma inducing a kind of mouth-brooding. Her distensible mouth engulfing the head of this brooding male.

The most hallucinatory moment of the tale comes when he witnesses Frank and Thelma having sex in the bedroom (is it his bedroom anymore?). I will quote it in full because it is rather close to marvelous as it violently combines and reconstitutes species and sexual practices in a stunningly misanthropic portrait that would be clinical if it weren’t so batshit. It’s like pornography written by an alien biologist observing humans:

Through the keyhole I can see both of them now. With my eye at the keyhole I can hear the hiss and slap of their bliss, as my small bones creak and slip inside my head, my forehead creased on the handle I dare not twist. In the corner of my eye I can see the octopuses as well; I watch them mating in the aquarium, I watch the male extend his hectoctolyzed arm and touch the female very gently with its tip. Eventually he succeeds in placing the tip of his arm loaded with spermatophores inside the female, inside her bag-like form, impregnating the darker jellyfish fixed at the centre of a mass of tangled arms. The photophores round the rims of her eyes give off a blue light with a pearly sheen as I watch them; their eyes like great semi-circular canals set deep within their heads.  It is with a sense of unreality that I return my gaze to the key hole, a black slit like the wound from a knife; it is with a sense of unreality that I gaze at the object my wife’s fingers have revealed. It is unmistakably a plant bud of some sort, a strange corsage with involved and involuted folds of pale blue and bloody pink that seems to expand, that seems to exude a thin sanguineous fluid, making me shudder when I see its internal structure full of nerve-like filaments with a core that suggests cartilage.

And that right there is pretty much what the story has to offer. The techniques Allan employs to convey the narrator’s mental deterioration are for the most part as old as the tale itself. A number of conjunctions like “as if” are thrown out haphazardly to allow the writer room to engage in flights of fantasy – it was as if the patterns in the carpet turned into squid-arms, it was as if the blender were speaking to me in the timid orange voices of carrots, it was as if the suit were eating the curling iron, it was as if the writer tediously wanted every sentence to burst out at the reader like a jack-in-the-box, and so on. The narrator observes things without understanding their import, subject and object become confused, repeating figures such as “a black slit like the wound from a knife” pop up throughout to act as connective tissue to involve the reader in the dislocation and confusion of wife and self into octopus. The resulting murder of the cheaters and the arrival of the police are the triumphal high points of cliche defeating technique.

It is a story that has no heart and is written like an exercise, as clinical and inevitable as its narrator. At its core “The Aquarist” is a dense block of prose that fails to hide the fact that the plot is hackneyed and predictable from the beginning. The florid prose withers under such severe literary conditions and becomes more of a weedy emptiness than a buxom garden. The unity and consistency of the theme with its underlings of simile and metaphor are not powerful enough to make up for the lack of ingenuity. The imagination is restricted entirely to overworked prose techniques, leaving the tale incongruous, like a massive set of arms and shoulders balancing atop a pair of scrawny, wobbling legs. It is a curio piece and a brain-dulling failure, but one worth investigating for its sheer strangeness and its value as a study in why technique cannot always overcome worn ideas. And, certainly its greatest strength, it is very quotable. It can be found in The Penguin Book of Horror Stories.

nugent barker’s “written with my left hand.”

Nugent Barker, Left HandNot long ago I forked out a larger amount of cash than I am normally willing to in order to get a cheaper Tartarus Press book. Tartarus are a small British press specializing in supernatural and horror fiction, generally of the kind that is distinguished by its subtlety, ambiguity, and literate prose. Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Hugh Walpole, Edith Wharton, and the Great One Himself, Robert Aickman, have all been put back into print by them, often in their signature beautiful cream-yellow dust jackets. I would have preferred to get their Marcel Schwob, but what ended up being most affordable was Nugent Barker’s Written with My Left Hand. I had read his poetic ghost story “Whessoe” (1928) in Richard Dalby’s The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, and the masterfully tense “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (1939) in one of the Hitchcock anthologies edited by Robert Arthur. The ad-copy written by Tartarus for the collection extols Barker’s versatility, and on this front, I was not disappointed, but somewhat contrarily wish he had erred more to one side of things – the gruesome – than the lighter, de la Mare-ish fantasies of sweeping lawns and dreaming widows and vases that levitate and interior thoughts that exteriorize themselves in ways visible only to readers who comb their texts with a fine hand.

The best tales in the de la Mare style tend to be those that run themselves, like the pedipalps of some dream spider, over your scalp so quietly and quickly than you don’t even notice them immediately, but react a second later, stirring uneasily in your chair, waving a hand up to slap at something that isn’t even there. You don’t actually get out of your chair, no, these stories are just too fucking quiet for that, that would not quite be middle class and dignified enough. And you might spill your pipe on the floor! And then the char woman would have to come in and clean it up, and honestly, she’s too busy staring into barren hearths and wishing she were in a Gothic novel to do that sort of chore this late. At their best, such stories (and it’s not fair, really, to pin their origin on Mr. de la Horse, others preceded him) are just as good as straightforwardly weird or surreal fiction in leading the reader with clammy hand to a bizarre, medicated, early-morning hallucination. They’re both insubstantial and airy at the same time as they are porridge-thick. Nothing might have happened, but it’s one hell of a nothing to chew on. Stories like Mr. Horse’s “A Mote,” Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room,” John Metcalfe’s “The Feasting Dead” (rather belies the title), Wharton’s “All Souls’,” Robert M. Coates’ “The Hour Before Westerley,” Barry Pain’s “The Diary of a God,” Chris Massie’s “A Fragment of Fact,” all do this.

When they are not good, Christ are they ever boring.

The obscure Barker (1888-1955) does run the gamut, although as I said, not focusing enough on his strengths. “Stanley Hutchinson,” about a talking pig and his demise and ghostly return, reads like a folk tale. It, like a handful of other tales, is written in a British dialect I am unfamiliar with. I have no clue how capable Barker was of phonetically rendering speech, but sometimes it sounds similar to American southern dialects:

It was whispered all over the place how the fat things should ought to grow up into swine of a special grandeur, seeing that their father was hisself a well-mannered pig, though his ways was less dentical than their mother’s, I reckon.

Barker dabbles in the conte cruel, delivering “The Six,” a concise and competent piece that ends in a just-barely telegraphed shocker of an ending, which is so dry that it runs the risk of bursting into flame. “Interlude,” one of the high points here, provides a more surreal take on the strange-tale tradition. A stranger comes into a sea-side town that seems to have become so lethally uninteresting it might as well have stopped time. People linger in the cafe, doing very little. The hallways smell stuffy, carafes hold the same stale water, wallpaper curls. The stranger sits down next to a local and shows him a box he has brought with him. The stranger invites him outside for a walk and opens the box, aiming it out at the water beyond. A patch of unearthly brilliant sunlight, the only sun in the gray town, appears on the sluggish waves. The stranger then takes the box into a department store and to an outdoor auditorium, each time bringing the box’s ability to summon light into the dreary town. Finally, somehow disillusioned and disheartened, the stranger sits on a beached boat with the narrator/local, and says to himself, repeating it as if lost, “All things run back into the sea.” Then, Barker relates in a matter of fact manner:

He plunged his head into the box, and died of the sunstroke.

What all of this means is, of course, uncertain, although that last image is reminiscent of de la Mare’s “The Riddle,” where the children climb into the old trunk and shut the lid over themselves, never to be seen again. There is a weak character study of a Spanish capitalist tycoon in “The Spurs.”. The domestic tale “Out of Leading Strings” struck me as is impenetrable in its banality, but might hold more than a first reading (from a mediocre reader) allows. “Gertie McNamara” is a middling tale of a coven of rural witches, livened up by Barker’s flair in describing spell recipes. A number of tales fall into this category of being lightweight and easily toppled over.

Darker in tone, and much more successful, is “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy.” Another British tale set on Guy Fawkes’ day, it is an atmospheric and cleverly written narrative. It begins in early morning, and Barker gives a wonderful picture of the scene:

The November wind had sobbed all night over Hannibal Terrace as though its heart were breaking. But dawn put an end to the monotonous sound, smiling at first, a little wanly, into those squalid windows, and eventually packing the narrow street with mist, and roofing the mist with a sulphur-coloured sky. Later, on to this shadowy daylight a back door was opened, and Mrs. Sayce stood, dimly visible at the head of her yard, clutching at a plaid shawl and earnestly passing her tongue over her lips:

“Ber-tie? Break-fust!”

She could hear the voices of her neighbours. The dark morning seemed to invest each one of them with a peculiar detachment: the voice of Mrs. Parslow; the voice of Molly Gunn; Lizzy Dixon’s querulous outcry; the measured, mournful tones of Thomas Cooling; Macquisten’s brutal laughter; Nancy Tillit, Arthur Tillit’s widow, calling stridently to Lily and Jack; the united, youthful clamor of the Glydds; Henry Glazer’s mincing, almost gentlemanly accents; the quick, high, frequent giggle of Edie MacKatter.

Barker’s writing is keen throughout as we follow Mrs. Sayce on her doomed journey through the English city and countryside in the early, sulphurous morning, carrying a heavy Guy Fawkes effigy for reasons which remain dark for us until the end. Barker’s shrewd sense of simile and his handle of metaphors credibly grown from the tale’s environment really shine here. It appeared in a Gawsworth anthology in 1934, and should have appeared in others since then.

the Nuge himself.

the Nuge himself.

After the bloody and humorous “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (which I might do a separate entry on), the crown of the collection is “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” After a single read, I’m not really sure what in the hell it means. But it makes excellent use of the creepiness of old nursery rhymes that went adrift in the folk stream over the years and washed up on the shore of the present fairly incomprehensible and haggard, mumbling things to us which make little sense, in a breath of staleness and sawdust. It seems that Barker decided to construct a story around the titular limerick, which goes:

One, two, buckle my shoe

Three, four, shut the door

Five, six, pick up sticks

Seven, eight, lay them straight

Nine, ten, a big fat hen

Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.

This counting rhyme more or less holds the plot of the tale. The insistent meter ensnares the narrator into a fatalistic reenactment of an event that happened many years prior, and the innocuous rhymes become encumbered with sinister weight. This is a theme that has been done a number of times, but not with the same effect achieved here. Like Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo,” what begins as a conventional fireside frame tale becomes something unexpected. I’m reminded of the late guitarist Harry Taussig, who had a record he titled “Fate is Only Once”; in the realm of “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” fate can be many times over. This piece, “Curious Adventure,” “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy,” and “Interlude” pack a strong punch in a lesser known writer’s bibliography, but unfortunately the rest of the tales do not have their same dark intensity of vision. Nonetheless, these four deserve to be celebrated.

the skull’s worm eaten library pt. 2.

(6) Nightwood, Djuna Barnes. Read at 20-21 yrs. I was assigned to read this in college for a Modernist Lit course and was immediately told by the professor (the formidable Louis Chude-Sokei) that almost everyone would despise it. I took this as a challenge, and went home to read it. I got halfway through the first chapter before despising it, and tossed it down on the ugly little communal coffee table, littered with oily fragrant pools of beer, brownly-corroded bongs, and scientific papers. Frustrated, I picked it up again half an hour later and skipped ahead to the second chapter. It was as if I unhinged my jaw and swallowed the book, only to find myself choking on it in delight and confusion. Spittle streamed down my neck and ran down my shirt front. I was abashed; a snake that had tried to swallow too large an egg.

The text of Nightwood is a decorative egg cobbled with jewelry, studded with aphorisms, adorned with asides and observations and digressions to the extent that the novel is almost a digression generator, a clockwork device ringing out witticisms in measured periods. Aphorisms break out like tiny cracks over the text, characters expel them like sonorous belches, slip them out amidst sips of cocktails and inarticulate whines of despair. The conversation is as unnatural as Marlowe and Shakespeare and as packed and tinned with speeches, every sentence glistening and silvery with a wit that denigrates itself in such lines as: “Love is the first lie, wisdom the last.”

When Barnes’ egg is cracked with a spoon, the insides leak out all velvety and chewy, like a liquefied silk glove. One can only take a bit at a time, storing in the refrigerator for later use. The taste lingers in the throat and stomach like a strong mustard. A man obsessed with nobility, a trans Irish black market doctor whose oration bedevils him like indigestion, a romantic buzzard of a woman who can only love those who are already taken, and two doomed women who circle around each other like dogs making their beds in the night. These are brought to the palette by the vinegar of Barnes’ tongue, and once tasted, the reader’s palette never quite returns to normal. Difficult as it begins, slow and encumbered with the weight of what is to come, it becomes enjoyable in the same way sour Flemish beer does – something that dances, tingles, and pricks, then sinks downwards into the cellar of the gut, where it ages like a cask of Amontillado. Nemo me lectito lacessit.

(7) The Dark Tower series, Stephen King. Read at 15-17. I grew up reading King. As soon as I was old enough to graduate from Goosebumps and regional folklore books for adolescents, I began amassing his paperbacks. The comfortable working and middle class world of Maine, with its roster of truck-driving characters plowing through the snow and listening to classic rock, became more familiar to me than any other setting. My first experience with Lovecraft came through King’s Lovecraftian novella, “Jerusalem’s Lot” (not the novel Salem’s Lot). At a time when I was emigrating to more and more so-called literary fiction, King ensured I tarried in the field of horror and the weird awhile longer, and in this way ensured that the literary-fiction I read was often of a fantastical, macabre bent. This was, I’m sure, one of the few instances where King helped to get someone into the likes of Paul Leppin and Gustav Meyrink.

All of the faults associated with King appear in this series. The tendency to bloat, the execrably bad sense of humor, the heroically obvious allusions, etc. But it is, in its way, some kind of triumph of the imagination and quite an accomplishment of epic fantasy. It is unique on several levels: its origin in a Robert Browning poem; its cross-genre melding of Spaghetti western cinema (not so much American western lit itself), the fantasy epic, and horror; its meta-fictional elements; its ability to be dark and gruesome without achieving the maligned ‘grimdark’ quality of pulpy fiction that buries its head in bloodied sand and moans tediously; and its Ouroboric structure, of which I will say no more here. In addition, its protagonist Roland Deschain is directly modeled off Clint Eastwood’s man with no name character, whom I loved ardently at the time.

Every text you read drips down into the imagination’s cistern. Some texts are more fecund than others, and others are just read at the right time. With The Dark Tower, I think both apply. Sections of it still bring a small thrill when I think of them, such as the episode of the monster in the crumbling house, the booby-trapped city of Lud, Roland killing an entire town of bewitched people, the more overtly Western episodes of young Roland and his gunslinger friends. As compared to a more slickly realized fantasy such as Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, King’s work is relatively impoverished on the level of prose and sheer invention. Yet opposed to Gene Wolfe’s cold churning of theme and archetype, King is superior in terms of feeling. His characters may be archetypes and some of them may be quite flat and others directly modeled off Clint Eastwood, but he nonetheless succeeds in inducing the reader into rooting for them and re-visiting, from time to the time, the world they lived in.

8) Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino. Read at 21. Like Burrough’s novel in this list, Calvino changed my notion of what a novel could be in terms of structure. Cities consists of a conversation between Kubla Khan and Marco Polo, wherein the explorer describes the many cities that encompass the Khanate and which Kubla will never visit, because they are so many and his empire so extensive. The two do not even speak the same language and appear to hold their listener/speaker roles for different but converging ends. In some ways, this mirrors the relation many readers will have with Cities’ writer.

Lacking narrative as such, the novel is more of an inscription than a progression, most explicitly in that the book’s section titles outline an oscillating sine wave. If nothing else, it is a beautiful meditation on what makes a city a city, and attempts to open up the possibilities in urban design and geography. The cities suggested by Calvino remind me of those modeled by speculative “paper-architects” Aleksandr Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. In one of their sketches, a city is built as a jagged upside-down U-shaped bridge across a body of water. Another is filled with haphazard wooden skyscrapers, and yet another teeters perilously on top of an inaccessible mountain, allowing no commerce with the outside world.

In addition, the book is endlessly quotable:

With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Is it surprising that I was completely stoned the entire time I read this book?

9) À Rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans. Read at 23. I first heard of Huysmans in a little essay written by Bruce Robinson included in an early Criterion edition of the film “Withnail and I.” Robinson said that his drunken thespian friend Vivien, the inspiration for the character of Withnail, recommended the novel to him. Robinson referred to it as “the funniest book I’ve ever read.” Seeing this praise from the writer of Withnail, I decided I had to read the novel. While I did not find it the funniest novel I’d ever read, it was a heady distillation of a lot of the elements of fin de siecle decadence I enjoyed: the theatricality, the thick, solid language brought to bear on sensual things, the seemingly anachronistic Catholic mysticism*, the splenetic hatred of philistine commercialism, the love of art and the grotesque. Certain aspects of the aesthete protagonist Jean des Esseintes came to influence later drafts and edits of a novelette I had written featuring a house whose historical contents are all fakes.

As to that protagonist himself, a more odious, self-absorbed, narcissistic upper-class prick has never been invented. He is everything the literary dandy would come to be: “dissipated,” (i.e. fucked half to death), venomously elitist, pickled in privilege, the benefactor of a comfortable inheritance, and yes, very misogynist. De Esseinte spends the entirety of the novel in the stately country home drawn up to match the contours of his ego, sipping and smacking at wines, examining his expensive Redon prints, impulse buying a litany of expensive knick-knacks, inadvertently killing-a-tortoise-by-jewelry, and generally luxuriating in the exceptional qualities of his own farts, cosseting them in the folds of his lamb-skin robes like a mother duck warming her young. He goes to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and his wrath is hilariously outrageous, the narrow caterwauling of an intellectually advanced baby. He attempts to write a symphony using different flavors of sweet liqueur. He installs a garden of rare and fatal plants. He lectures to himself on obscure medieval Christian theologians. At the end, he returns to the city. And that’s it! (Plotless works seem to be a theme in this batch.)

As a sample of Huysman’s prose, here he is describing Rodolphe Bresdin’s 1854 lithograph, “The Comedy of Death”:

Bresdin’s Comedy of Death was one, where in an impossible landscape, bristling with trees, coppices and thickets taking the shape of demons and phantoms, swarming with birds having rats’ heads and tails of vegetables, from a soil littered with human bones, vertebrae, ribs and skulls, spring willows, knotted and gnarled, surmounted by skeletons tossing their arms in unison and chanting a hymn of victory, while a Christ flies away to a sky dappled with little clouds; a hermit sits pondering, his head between his hands, in the recesses of a grotto; a beggar dies worn out with privations, exhausted with hunger, stretched on his back, his feet extended towards a stagnant pool.

* Is it even possible for the famous Barbey d’Aurevilly binary of choosing “between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the cross” to have any less significance or relation to the contemporary Western intelligentsia?

And frankly, I’m not doing a tenth book because I lost interest in this crap weeks ago. More (and more interesting) posts will be forthcoming, once I can find the cord to plug my brain back in.