my band has released an LP.


It has certainly been a very long time since I have made a post on this blog, and may be another long time until I make the next. But since a few people have expressed interest in what I have been working on instead of this blog, I figured I would share this, although it isn’t necessarily going to be up everyone’s alley. I am in a band called Trough that has just released its debut LP. We are a strange kind of punk band, a punk band that you might describe as being experimental were we not reasonably catchy and structured, that you might describe as dissonant if we weren’t also highly melodic, as post-punk if we weren’t so aggressive, etc. the contradictions continue. I do think we have a distinct style, although we are not reinventing any wheel by any means. We are a little noise-rock, a little death-rock, a little post-hardcore, a little D-beat, a little free jazz, a little no wave, but more than anything sound like an odd amalgam of these. Our friend Rob Magill, who is a free jazz composer and horn player, contributes ghastly squeals and squawks on bass clarinet and saxophone on three songs. Our guitarist, Andy Lopez, adds in dissonant piano textures, as well as kalimba and octave mandolin.

It would be troublesome to say *who* exactly we sound like, but I’ll take a leaf from Rob’s book and instead give a list of some people who are possibly responsible in some faint measure for how we sound, through repeated listens on our part if nothing else: Slint, The Jesus Lizard, Captain Beefheart, Dead Moon, Rudimentary Peni, Sun City Girls, Oxbow, Swans, Lydia Lunch, Big Black, Discharge, Siege. On and on it goes, and none of it is especially illuminating, but those are a few of the people we’ve listened to, individually and collectively, a lot of.

I am the vocalist for this band, and write the lyrics, which can be found on the bandcamp site. Subjects include dementia, murder, the socialization of men towards violence, cannibalism, empty life in rural towns, and so on. As a sampler, here are the words to our song “Pretty Low Levels of Radiation,” and many thanks for those who have read this blog over the years:

In youth is beauty:
Your bones wake to the sun,
Before the body’s betrayal.

But in youth is cruelty –
A salamander writhing on a nail.
But at least you had your fun?

I know you
And what we’d do
While the sun was high in the sky.

Pavillions and courtyards
And statues of butchers.
Monuments to the bastards
That cast us little psychopathic shadows.


the cruelty of Kleist: short stories.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins.

Lizzy Ansigh, The Seven Deadly Sins. 1914.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

let the damned ride their earwigs to hell.

Pavel Simon

Pavel Simon, Title n/a.

Peter Redgrove, Corposant.

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

Green threads, jet dots,

Milk scabbed, the bottles choked with wool,

Shrouded cheese, ebony eggs, soft tomatoes

Cascading through their splits,

Whitewashed all around, a chalky smell,

And these parts steam their breath. The other thing

Is that to it comes the woman walking backwards

With her empty lamp playing through the empty house,

Her light sliding through her steaming breath in prayer.

Why exoricse the harmless mouldy ghost

With embodied clergymen and scalding texts?

Because she rises shrieking from the bone-dry bath

With bubbling wrists, a lamp and steaming breath,

Stretching shadows in her rooms till daybreak

The rancid larder glimmering from her corpse

Tall and wreathed like moulds or mists,

Spoiling the market value of the house.


Herbert Palmer, Rock Pilgrim.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon. 1946.

Ithell Colquhoun, The Gorgon. 1946.

Paul Celan, Psalm.

(Translated by Michael Hamburger.)


Praised be your name, No one.

For your sake

we shall flower.

Towards you.


A nothing

we were, are, shall

remain, flowering:

the nothing -, the

No one’s rose.



our pistil soul-bright,

with our stamen heaven-ravaged,

our corolla red

with the crimson word which we sang

over, O over

the thorn.


quick review: “the embrace of the serpent.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nights at serampore: a few favorite anthologies.



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

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

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

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


short fiction: the weeping hole.


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


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

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

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

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

Hey, you alright? I shouted. You okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am very thirsty, could I have water?

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

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

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

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

The old woman was singing now.

Baby let me play with your yo-yo

I’ll let you play with mine

Hey babe

I’ll let you play with mine

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

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

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

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

I felt a drop of rain on my neck.

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

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

Get you out of there? I asked.

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

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

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

Patrick. I don’t know what to say.

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

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

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

I was just jealous, Pat.

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


Come on, reach and give me a hand.

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

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

I started to walk away, dazed, when

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

Ma’s name?

Our mother’s maiden name.


Our mother’s maiden name. Say it.

Tollway, I said. Etta Tollway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Matt Sampaio-Hackney, 2015.


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


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


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


Victor Soren, Avec Nortre Cheval Mort.

Victor Soren. “Avec Nortre Cheval Mort.”

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


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

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

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

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

aickman studies, aickman criticism.

Rik Rawling, Robert Aickman.

Rik Rawling, “Robert Aickman.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferdinand Keller, The Pool. 1911.

Ferdinand Keller, The Pool. 1911.

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.