thomas owen, the house of oracles.


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.)


Sam Szafran (b. 1934), Winding Staircase.

Sam Szafran (b. 1943).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the cruelty of Kleist: short stories.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins. 1914.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

striking when the iron is cold: recent reads.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Roland Cat, Le Souvenir.

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections.

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

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

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

Fritz Leiber, Night’s Black Agents.

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

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

Alan Garner, The Owl Service.

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

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.