the skull’s worm eaten library pt. 1.

Having seen several lists of “10 Books that Have Stayed with You,” including Greg Gbur’s and Richard Fox’s, I thought I’d compile my own list of resinously resonant books. Some of these are not conventional in the usual sense of books that you have read over and over again, but they all plastered themselves over my consciousness in one way or another.

(1.) Creepy Classics II. Read at 9-11 yrs old. I realize now how much my interest in horror fiction is based in nostalgia for when I read it when I was young, and the feeling I had when it was almost too intense for me, when I could not block out plot twists that were too horrible to let me sleep. This is at the root of the excitement I feel when I see a battered old paperback, a worn out, broken-apart, buttons flying out, pages like gray hair tousled in wind, soldier of lurid, brain gripping fiction. It is not entirely based in nostalgia, but that is a fundamental component – at least of my interest in early 20th century horror, with its names so redolent with mystery, thick and close with some kind of dark magic: A.M. Burrage, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson. These beautiful names of course, remain beautiful only when the authorial creatures behind them are not investigated. The endless march of initials when casting one’s eye down the hallowed, penultimate page – the table of contents – bring their own rhythm, a steady, ominous and beautiful rhythm. They even sound like the rapping of feet on stairs just outside the room. R-H-Mal-den. A-C-Ben-son. And the antiquated first names, when given, have the glamor of burnished pottery and old coins, achieving their alien nature from disuse.

The contexts and signifiers of these names (the conservative and colonial Edwardian era, inheritance and class, spiritualism) were unknown to me. They were the names of beings who were no more alive than they were stuffed into graves or fermenting inside barrels or turning into wax or growing as lichen on red brick. They never went to the bank or had racist thoughts or ate cereal. It was a matter of sophistry whether they even had faces or hands, or if maybe they had written their stories electrically, with long ghostly horns of wire jutting from their wrists because they had lost their hands in beet-processing accidents as children. Were they ever children? Surely not.

In a way, I wished for them to exist only as text, as beings animated only by the opening of the page but also hidden behind it; summoners veiled in incense and smoke. Here were haunted leather funnels, valleys bare except for mounds of animal bone and ash, ectoplasms conjured by séance and pouring across the house. Once I read this collection, the beautiful names faded from the brilliancy of a lantern to a match-stick, but the stories stayed behind. One of the odder sensations I’ve had related to fiction was during my prodigal return to genre fiction when I realized that I’d read the author of the wonderfully fucked up “Caterpillars” over a full decade earlier!

A photo of the first edition of Dubliners, which interestingly contains advertisements for “The Hill of Dreams” and “The House of Souls” by Arthur Machen.

(2). Dubliners, James Joyce. Read at 19. Although I couldn’t reconstruct Dublin from Joyce’s fiction if I even bothered, a jumbled, lacerated, and dreamily and drearily voluptuous version of it exists in some side alley of my mind. Joyce’s Dublin is a place of bustling thoroughfares and squares smeared with equine and avian shit, political offices raining with lint, public houses smelling of  indigestion and dregs of bitter, sexual desires repressed and expressed furtively, a ghostly city with fiddling in the daytime and fogged over rivers at night. Sometimes, thinking back on this collection, I wished that Joyce had written a straight forward ghost tale set in Dublin – a young choir boy returning from vespers meets a figure on a bridge, that sort of thing. But I realize now that this whole collection is filled with ghosts. The people are ghosts, sticks and broom-ends covered with human clothes and given provisional mouths to speak with only in order to shrug off their existence. The young boys playing hooky in “An Encounter” more or less have a numinous experience with a moralizing and masturbating old man in a field. The specter of adult sexuality hangs over the encounter and acts as the typical numinous ‘other,’ the something beyond which they have just enough comprehension of to feel unsettled by, but not enough to perceive in any way more detailed than a hand darting behind a curtain. “The Dead” is a justified classic, although I would rank “A Painful Case” just as high, if not higher. Its ending is one of the most lonely and brutal I’ve ever read in fiction. Mr. Duffy, the pretentious and sad man who reads Nietzsche without understanding him, who is “outcast from life’s feast,” is (in my non-traditional interpretation) a gay man in the closet and an entirely doomed personality. A truly desolate tale.

(3). Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs. Read at 17 yrs. This next book is a novel I never even finished, yet it has stuck to me with dogged persistence. Plots slowly form and, just when they’ve drawn your interest, cleave themselves in two and wander off into the distance. There is an anarchist pirate colony led by a figure, Captain James Mission, who may have been real or who may have been an invention of Daniel Defoe’s. This is a nonsensical novel of ritualistic anal sex, hanged men with tumefied erections, a mythos of gods including one whose face is a mass of squirming entrails, hard-boiled detective spoofs, and a virus that causes spontaneous, painful orgasms. One of my favorite SF authors, Thomas Disch, wrote a scathing review denouncing the book as little more than Burrough’s “curious id capering” mingled with a smattering of “sci-fi of the more brain damaged variety.” This is true to an extent, although dismissive and reductive in my opinion. At the time when I read it, I could hardly believe it was possible to get a book like this published. Burroughs’ id capers, yes, and the novel is filled with attractive, slim young men having sex all over each other, but it’s also filled with harrowing imagery, brilliant ideas which are never elaborated, and biting satire. I never finished the damn thing because its incompleteness and fragmentation irritated me, but it changed what I thought was possible or acceptable to write about – the same thing, I suppose, that Naked Lunch did for many others.

(4). Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson. Read at 22. A picaresque novel about American slavery and Buddhism, partly based off the famous Ten Bulls pictures by Kakuan Shien (!). A fantastical neo-slave narrative wherein the hero, young Andrew Hawkins, is under the boot of a liberal, waffling slaver of a master. He is given a “John Stuart Mills education” (i.e. all the classics by age seven or so) by a hired tutor who is also a continental philosopher. This tutor is visited by Karl Marx in one chapter, who is drawn in broad and deft strokes as a jolly old man more interested in tippling beer and checking out servant girls than in discussing political economy. Hawkins expands beyond the intellectual confines of his small town and is sold to a widow in a neighboring city, thus beginning the first stages of his adventure (and it can rightly be called adventure, situated as it is in the Spanish picaresque tradition, and seasoned with bawdiness and ribaldry.) This being a neo-slave narrative, Hawkins eventually escapes and moves North, where he manages to pass due to his light skin. At this point, one of the great novel villains I’ve ever read, the slave-hunter Reb Bannon, hits the road to take Hawkins back. Their confrontation is a marvel of menacing fantasy. Bannon rivals another great novel villain – McCarthy’s Judge Holden – while maintaining a number of similarities with him, in that he is an impersonal force, as monstrous as Schopenhauer’s Will, and one also inclined to philosophize, though with less verbosity than Holden: “Ah approves everythin’. Ah approves nothin’.” It should be noted here, also, that Oxherding Tale was published in 1982 to Blood Meridian‘s 1985. One of the more delightful novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most skillfully written. That it is not better known, and does not even have a Wikipedia entry to its name, is truly one hell of a goddamned shame.

(5). The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien. Read at 22. I have never read another novel with quite the same atmosphere as this one, save for perhaps some of the Alice books by Lewis Caroll. It’s a pungent troll’s brew of dread and droll, where the non-sequiturs and marvelous understatements only reinforce the pervasive unease rising up from the page like steam. The narrator is never named. He may have killed somebody. He wanders in a landscape of corpulent policemen quasi-sexually obsessed with bicycles, ditches now and then filled with a corpse, and entirely inscrutable machinery. He is guided by the works of a crank scientist and philosopher, De Selby, who for instance, believes that night is nothing more than a phenomenon caused by the accretion of “black air.” O’Brien’s fake writer is more ridiculous than those of Borges, and is slotted messily but importantly into the novel’s structure, which as a long and senseless joke, only increases the precarity of the unnamed narrator caught inside its punchline. If I were to illustrate the novel’s structure, it would be (in an appropriate, unconventional manner; screw a graph) a ceiling slowly winding its way downward to crush the protagonist. A sampling of its humor:

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

links descending a staircase.

Poster for Dario Argento's Suspiria, via Dansk Javlarna.

Poster for Dario Argento’s Suspiria, via Dansk Javlarna.

Hypocrisy, Race, and Literary Gentrification. The always eloquent Foz Meadows discusses the old phenomenon of literary writers dabbling in para-literary forms, but draws an analogy between the current process and the gentrification of cities. As a commenter says, numerous pieces of literary fiction end up more or less as badly written SF, as the gentrifying mainstream wanders happily into the neighborhoods of fictional tropes and themes it has no idea have been inhabited for decades.

Dawkins and Saul: Dudebros Under the Skin. Molecular biologist and SF writer Athena Andreadis takes on the Materialist Magus, Richard Dawkins, and severely dresses him down for his shoddy science, self promotion, and “patriarchal authority worship.”

The distal damage is that Dawkins’ selfish gene concept has been adopted wholesale and then shoehorned into every conceivable niche by all regressive groups that like to label themselves progressive and/or “edgy”: libertarians, transhumanists, evopsychos, MRAs, one-percenters, “creatively disruptive” MBAs, grittygrotty SFF writers. The core characteristic of these groups, protestations of visionary thinking notwithstanding, is that they’re actually obsessed with auto-perks for the “worthy” and with perfectibility narratives beloved by fundamentalist clerics.

Invisible Universe: A History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction. A trailer for a documentary by M. Asli Dukan I am very much looking forward to, which examines the history and contributions of African-Americans to speculative forms (SFFnal) in fiction, cinema, and more.

Sundial Press’ Supernatural Line. They have reprints of collections by William J. Wintle (author of the wonderful “Spectre Spiders”), R.H. Malden, Rosemary Timperly, A.N.L. Munby, etc. Richmal Crompton’s 1928 collection Mist is also forthcoming. At 17-ish pounds, these are relatively affordable within the dismally expensive field of small press horror. No gold-plated bullshit, signed-by-the-author’s-goldfish, leaf-foiled excuses for charging three hundred dollars like total dicks.

Forthcoming Titles from New York Review Books. If you didn’t know, NYRB is putting out great stuff, and not just literary work – though much of that stuff is exciting too – but also a lot of work in the realm of the fantastic and strange, situated on the boundaries of lit-fic and genre-fic. A collection by Silvina Ocampo will be out in 2015, but in the meantime they already have available Alan Garner’s time-travelling Red Shift and a collection of ghost stories edited and illustrated by Edward Gorey. And a reprint of a book I’ve lusted after for some time, William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Speaking of him…

Roquentin – impressed by the complete pointlessness of letting go, of persisting, getting on, in Bouville to begin with – mudville- in the primeval slime which Beckett will later render so well in ‘How It Is’; the narrator – Roquentin – convinced of the absolute adventitiousness of every event, the speciousness of every value, the absurdity of the genital spasm, sperm like a billion midges, love an acid rain; the narrator – Roquentin – with such turns taken, feels a nausea which sickens the sidewalk, the shoes, the clothes, the soul, the cells, till the eyes vomit their perceptions, and the mind lies down in swill to thank an empty heaven, author of all – like Roquentin – a dotard, knockabout, another nil among nillions: narrator.

….

Roquentin wonders ‘what if something were to happen?’ What if chance were king, and a red rag were to change into a side of rotten meat, a pimple split like an opening eye in a painting by Magritte; or what if one’s clothing came alive, or one’s tongue turned into a centipede? New names will have to be invented for a spider’s jaw, or as, Borges has imagined, for transparent tigers and towers of blood. – William H. Gass, ‘Representation and the War for Reality.’ pp. 76, 78.

I’m reading his book of essays, Habitations of the Word, and the man knows how to seduce a sentence. His novel Omensetter’s Luck was quite good with that kind of lingual-libertinism, but the essays are something else.

neglected weird fiction no. 3. john keir cross’ “miss thing and the surrealist.”

Klemens Brosch, Herbstsonate.

Klemens Brosch, Herbstsonate.

I’ve always enjoyed fiction about artists and musicians, much more so than I have enjoyed fiction about (or featuring) writers. The endless procession of texts taking The Writer as their subject strides arrogantly towards infinitude, and particularly in genre horror, the protagonist is often a writer in rural retreat or barnacled against the rotting mast of some city tenement while they torture themselves for their masterpiece. This is such a grossly easy device for the actual writer to avoid having to invent the realistic voice of a non-writer, that I would rather have the inanities you see in early pulp fiction:

‘Its liquescent mass is putrescently loathsome!’ cried the illiterate mill-worker.

And other such tripe. I find this preferable to Karl Edward Wagner’s succession of writers and fiction enthusiasts who are all coincidentally really into Black Mask magazine and Oliver Onions. My god, that creature over there looks remarkably similar to something I once saw in a Lee Brown Coye drawing, and now it’s clawing my balls out, oh god oh god my balls.

Fiction about painters and saxophonists and pianists is less inward, in the general run. Such a choice of subject requires its own problematic luggage to be hauled up the stair, but seems to me much less prone to preciousness and veiled self-mythology. From James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” to Violet Paget’s “A Wicked Voice” to Ann Bridge’s “The Song in the House” to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” to Sax Rohmer’s “Tcheriapin” to Kalamu ya Salaam’s “Buddy Bolden” to Robert Chamber’s “The Mask” to Edgar Pangborn’s “The Music Master of Babylon” to Henry Dumas’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” to Walter van Tilburg Clark’s “The Portable Phonograph,” the list of tales I’ve loved about music and musicians, art and artists, is very long indeed. Perhaps it gives a glimpse into a medium which remains far more mysterious and occulted to me than the one I sadly labor at; perhaps I just enjoy the fabulation of Pierre Menards, or the waking into a wedge of historical context, peering over the stile at a fertile creative period in history.

Or perhaps that’s just a bunch of shit, and the fingers which transmit this message are burning with stupidity beamed down from the turd floating in the punch bowl of my skull. My cretinous, cretinous skull. Notwithstanding, for these reasons and others, John Keir Cross’ 1946 fiction collection of SF/fantasy/horror, The Other Passenger, endears itself to me. “Valdemosa” concerns Frederic Chopin’s relationship with George Sand in Majorca. “Clair de Lune” is set in a British artist colony around the time of the first world war. “Couleur de Rose” deals with Tin Pan alley singers and songwriters.

“Valdemosa” is a concise and clear portrait of Chopin’s misery and illness, and the strangeness of one’s beloved, who in the night, appears sometimes to have wandered into one’s bed like an animal. The tale ends with Sand looking down at Chopin, seeing him as an unknowable, frail boy, “stricken…in [her] arms.” “Clair de Lune” is another suitable candidate for this series, a tale of a woman appearing on the lawn and beings called Dark Ones, invisible and sinister, flowing all around her. “Couleur de Rose” is not as strong as either, but its portrait of the song-hocking lifestyle from that era is worthwhile. Yet the highpoint of the collection, aside from the excellent and moderately-anthologized “The Glass Eye,” is another tale of art and artists: “Miss Thing and the Surrealist.”

Surrealism is at its height at this point – a fully bloomed carnation with a small child’s bloody eye lodged in its petals – and Cross concerns himself with a group of British practitioners and aspirants to the movement. Their world is one of junk-shops and dream poetry, disgusting similes and dead fireplaces filled with beer bottles, and ultimately, a horribly angled continuum between art and reality.

Like a number of Cross tales, “Miss Thing” is filled with strong, idiosyncratic women, and the surrealists in this piece are evenly split by gender – an egalitarian state, which, at least in the histories of surrealism, did not exist. Even now, numerous wonderful artists are relegated to the status of lovers and hangers-on of apparently more important men – Dorothea Tanning to Max Ernst, Unica Zurn to Hans Bellmer. Not so in this tale, where the one artist agreed to be touched with actual genius is a woman named Chloe Whitehead. (As Leonora Carrington said when questioned about the association of surrealism with masculinity: ‘Bullshit.’)

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But “Miss Thing” does not take Chloe Whitehead as its focus, nor Tania, nor Jo Haycock, nor Howard Darby – but a reclusive surrealist named Kolensky, and his artistic creation, Miss Thing. It seems to me in this way that Cross (or at least his text) takes a more sinister look at surrealism and its pretense and desire to transcend the given, and its failure as a liberatory practice. More specifically, we have a harsh representation of the surrealist techniques of bodily transformation and mutilation. “Miss Thing” is, in its way, a piece within the sub-genre of ‘body horror.’

Cross’ narrators are often perceptive outsiders who make cutting observations about the social groups around them, and this tale is no exception. The artists are depicted as largely more concerned with their lifestyles as artists, and the appearance of being artists, than the actual production of art itself.

We were concerned with being artists. We looked like artists. We behaved in a manner. Our mode was intended as some sort of gesture – a rude one – five extended fingers at the nose aimed at – what? (All that we secretly were, perhaps, and were afraid or ashamed of.)

These particular British surrealists are afraid of being bourgeois, and in order to stave off this fear ritually frighten or unsettle the bourgie’s so that they may distinguish themselves. Their social methods of declaiming themselves different and radical and surrealist are very amusing. “Miss Thing” is filled with wonderful little details, fictional crown-moldings and cornices sitting prettily in the edifice of text. The writerly surface called style, as Sam Delany would say, shimmers with Cross.

Some of us were walking along the King’s Road with some people – some cousins of Tania’s. We passed a tall house with a woman shaking blankets out of one of the upper windows. Some feathers were fluttering to the ground and the large loose white thing waving seemed like a bleached tongue out of a toothless oblong mouth.

“Oh look,” cried Tania, “that house is being sick…”

Or in another instance, my favorite:

Howard took us all to a crowded and noisy little restaurant that we knew of, where there was music and a permanent buzz of conversation. He had just been reading an anecdote about Baudelaire. He waited for a moment when the music stopped suddenly and the clatter dropped for an instant, then said in a loud tone as if continuing a conversation he had been shouting through the din –

“…but have you ever tasted little children’s brains?”

Yet the amusing hijinks of surrealists frightening the bourgies is just more of that immersive shimmer Cross covers his fictions with. The real concern is with the enigmatic Kolensky, his house, and his marriage to an upper-class, fundamentalist Christian named Vera. Not just a bourgie, but a member of the ruling class! And she is so disconcertingly blase about Kolensky and his transgressive art – as if she weren’t suitably impressed and offended by it. She is the “incarnation of all we gestured against,” but their gestures do not work. For their honor as surrealists, this woman “from Putney or Wimbledon” must be defeated. So, we have Vera in one corner, and Miss Thing in the other.

Who or what is Miss Thing? You meet her when you go to Kolensky’s door at his rooftop apartment; you reach out to her waxen hand, the knocker, to announce your presence. You are allowed in and acquainted with her further when you see her legs holding up the mantle, one breast as a flowerpot, the other breast in the wall, the feet at the bottom of a curved chair – and the other hand the flush chain on the toilet. Miss Thing is an involved and permanent art installation, and Kolensky’s fellow surrealists think she/it is the highest example of surrealism, not only because of the sculptural accomplishment but Miss Thing’s fact as an incarnation of surrealist living.

And who is this Kolensky, then? An odd, nothing-man. Forty or forty-five. A heavy sleeper, inarticulate, with a “leonine mop” of hair. The sort of ghost George Sand thought she saw when she looked down at Chopin sleeping in her bed. A flickering image. A torso without guts, a mouth minus teeth. A novel without a verb. Cross says, in his easy manner:

 He wore a beard – it was one of his disguises. (I did myself in those days, for there is always a time – at least one time – when you must from yourself disguise yourself. Later on you realise that when you meet your own ghost sitting quietly and accusingly on your doorstep when you go home at night, he must look like you yourself, or he has, poor soul, no meaning.)

For the surrealist circle in this tale, Kolensky’s status as penultimate surrealist is rooted in his house. His paintings they say are accomplished, but no one ever remembers them. It is that incarnated surrealist, Miss Thing. She makes Kolensky, even more than he made her. And Kolensky is just a disguise with nothing under it.

To the disappointment of the surrealists, prim society girl Vera does not mind Miss Thing at all, but changes and waters the flowers in her breast, polishes her legs, and so on, without a single hint of discomfiture. She is unfazed, or she loves Kolensky too much to show it.

(Spoilers to follow).

One of the more unusual quirks about Cross’ fiction is that he alternates between drawing sympathetic, fleshed-out portraits of odd, marginal women (esp. in “Glass Eye”), and on the other hand, partaking of the classic misogynist trope of fictionally destroying (and lovingly lingering on the destruction of) women’s bodies. “Miss Thing and the Surrealist” is not quite situated in either tendency, but it does bring to fictional life a frightening literalization of the work of many male Surrealist artists, who so often dismembered, disfigured, and tortured the bodies of women in their painting and sculpture.

Dorothea Tanning, Hotel de Pavot.

Dorothea Tanning, Hotel de Pavot. Trans and dis-figurations of the human body weren’t solely done by male surrealists to women’s bodies, but were also part of a larger tendency in modernist art to sculpt and distort the body and eradicate boundaries of the self.

The unflappable Vera appears at first to win the battle without even realizing one was taking place. She continues to water the breast, go to church each morning, dote over Kolensky and unconsciously irritate all his friends. But one day Vera goes through Kolensky’s old papers in his desk and finds a marriage certificate, certifying his marriage to another woman. And Kolensky had never mentioned a word of this or of any divorce; he might have even married her, Vera, in bigamy! This was unconscionable. In her dismay, she ends up looking more closely at Miss Thing’s parts and realizes that they are “not wax at all – embalmed! embalmed!” Kolensky’s art installation is made from the corpse of his first wife, whom he presumably murdered. Miss Thing is Mrs. Kolensky 1.

(This twist is sort of like the old Pan Horror story, “The Ohio Love Sculpture.”)

Vera, however, is more horrified about the bigamy part. She goes to the law but only because of the marriage’s false pretenses. The murder, the embalming, do not really bother her so much as the fact that bigamy is against her creed. She is revealed to be a monster in her own, lesser way, under the shadow of Kolensky’s monstrosity.

Kolensky is hanged, an event the surrealist circle find grimly appropriate to their “King.” And they all disperse. Chloe Whitehead ends in a mental institution. Tania becomes an actress, Jo married. Fin.

What we have here seems to me the disillusionment of surrealism as a method for extricating oneself, freeing oneself, from the ideologies and taboos and expectations around one. It is the failure of a liberatory practice. The burrowing into the unconscious, into the world of dream was to herald a freedom or liberation from the perversities and ideologies of capitalist society. As Andre Breton said in a lecture in 1934:

Today, more than ever before, the liberation of the mind, demands as primary condition, in the opinion of the Surrealists, the express aim of Surrealism, the liberation of man, which implies that we must struggle with our fetters with all the energy of despair; that today more than ever before the surrealists entirely rely for the bringing about of the liberation of man upon the proletarian Revolution.

But in Cross’ vision (the vision of a man who may not be sympathetic to such a goal in the first place), his penultimate surrealist Kolensky burrowed into the unconscious to escape from the world above, only to drag up a horrific revenant, a malformed mirror-image of a thing from that world above: the misogynist conception that men own women, whose bodies are their property by right. Mrs. Kolensky was just another canvas.

Sibylle Ruppert, Le Spectacle de l’Univers, 1977.

Sibylle Ruppert, Le Spectacle de l’Univers, 1977.

Yet it is not just an instance of the misogynist under and over-tones of male surrealist work being incarnated in reality, but is also part of a larger tendency in surrealism – the desire to escape from the physical and enter the dream-world. And in a grim sense, one could be tempted to say this is what happened to Mrs. Kolensky. But she did not enter the dream world; Kolensky did.

This tale seems to coincide with or confirm the work of Paul Virilio, who in Art and Fear draws a connection between the work of modernist artists who warp and disfigure the human body with the insane sciences of war and the death camp. As Davin Heckman put it, “He tells a history of art that dreams of a world without humanity, and a history of science that is already bringing this dream to life.”

With “Miss Thing and the Surrealist” we have a representation of surrealism as a somewhat egalitarian art and practice, but one still not fully severed from the awful ideologies of the world it was supposed to be fighting against. Kolensky’s masterpiece is like the work of Hans Bellmer or Dali literalized, with any potential liberation (from the body in general, from more specific conceptions of feminine beauty, from the Pedestal) negated and turned into death.

If it is not clear already, Keir Cross is a marvelous writer on the level of prose and the generation of meaning and aphorisms. I’ll end the review with a quote from this tale, a darker twist on an old cliche derived from Carl Sandburg:

My friend, there are layers and layers. Life, said Howard once, is like an onion. You peel the layers and there is no core. It only makes you weep.

music and horror no. 3: you won’t recognize my face.

François de Nomé, 'Fantastic Ruins with Saint Augustine and the Child.'

François de Nomé, ‘Fantastic Ruins with Saint Augustine and the Child.’

I am working on a piece on John Keir Cross’ 1946 fiction collection The Other Passenger, and am unsure whether to make one tale an installment in the Neglected Weird Fiction series or to do a general review. In the meantime, here is another installment in a different still-born series, Music and Horror.

The first entries for today are my own work, from a project tentatively called Atonist. The boilerplate description: Atonist is a lo-fi “experimental” collaboration working around a combination of structured composition and free improvisation, in the style of what we like to call “acoustic noise”. Acoustic instruments are used to lull the listener with pretty, fingerpicking passages that only lead into bludgeoning and percussive bursts of improvisation. Prepared guitars and broken instruments preponderate. Influences could be said to include: Bob Drake, Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, musique concrete, and a whole number of free jazz artists. At some points the music verges on what could be called “free folk.” The wholly provisional name of Atonist is taken from a novel by Ishmael Reed, “Mumbo Jumbo.” Atonist is myself and a friend and fellow Central Valley-ite Californian, D.M.K.

The mood in we engaged in these instrumental pieces was one of nebulous political engagement and a feeling of being energized to do something about the crumbling, failing system and landscape around us (or at least speaking for myself).

Civilization – with its vastly droning airports; its thousand-ton freighters cutting through the polluted charnel house of an ocean; its delusions of some cosmic singularity melding cruel irrevocable flesh with its shadow and emanation, the mind; the possibilities of flight and growth through the emptiest desert of all, outer space; the unthinking, harvesting thresher of capital, working ceaselessly over its potter’s field of bones and offal, constantly expanding like a tick filling with blood from a toe, dilating like a great blind eye; its uncanny skill to immiserate and coddle in the same instant, to drown in cold water one bawling infant and garb in warmth and soft music another; its portentous governments with their halls of abstraction and their laws birthed and upheld by despotic violence; the seductive desiderata and cooing blather of its culture industries, its 24/7 libraries of entertainment housed in the clouds – is a party winding down.

It is a 35 year old man looking in the mirror and pretending he is still fresh out of college, unable to see the dermal signposts of middle age beginning to extrude themselves on his face.

The artwork in the first song, “Settler Class” is by Irving Norman. The artist in the second is Stanislaw Boryowski.

Thanks to artist Paul Rumsey for mentioning Norman in the comments at True Outsider.

Kym Amps provides a chilling synth-driven song about a ghostly woman stalker. I’m having to disguise my voice, I’ve even changed the way I write. You won’t recognize my face; I never look the same way twice. 

Blues artist R.L. Burnside is at his best, for my money (what little of it I have), in “Goin’ Down South.” The main riff induces hypnosis and each note sears like hot iron, clashes in the ears like a butcher sharpening cleavers. I’d rather be dead and six feet in the ground…

the mammoth book of thrillers, ghosts and mysteries.

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Thought I’d go over a great old anthology, The Mammoth Book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries, edited by J.M. Parrish and John R. Crossland and published by Odhams Press in 1936. It’s a musty old thing, embossed with a flying bat on the cover and filled with illustrations by a variety of magazine illustrators from the era. It has a sealed section at the end, comprising many of the choicer terror tales, and marked with hyperbolic warnings about reading alone and at night. Each selection comes with its own author portrait, drawn by an unknown artist or series of artists. Some of these are rather bad, such as the oddly sinister one of M.R. James, where he looks like some sort of angry banker who has just found out his workers are unionizing – but others are quite good, such as Aldous Huxley and Guy de Maupassant. (The purveyors of the illustrations themselves are credited on their own page.)

I picked this up for 12 bucks about two or three years ago, so my memory of the contents is not as vivid as it could be, but I write down all the decent stories I read in a notebook so that helps. I’m not going to give this a serious critical dressing-down, as this is more about providing a casual look-through at a relatively easy to find anthology which is still running at an affordable price and is packed with lesser known contributions to the tradition of British strange fiction.

Some of the highlights are Michael Arlen’s “The Ghoul of Golders Green,” a story so enjoyable I didn’t even mind that it had a blazing atrocity of a crap ending. This was my first introduction to Arlen (the former Dikran Kouyoumdjian), an acquaintance I was glad to extend when I later read his excellent and uproarious “The Gentleman from America.” J.D. Beresford contributes an enigmatic puzzle of a tale in “Powers of the Air,” a piece that might give Robert Aickman a run for his money in the unpopular ‘How Many Unexplained Things Can You Have in Your Story’ contest.

Joseph Conrad’s unremittingly tense “The Secret Sharer” is included. A piece by the aforementioned Mopin’ Maupassant, “The Hostelry,” also quite strong and atmospheric; a man keeping watch over an out of season and snowed-in hotel, deep in some European mountains whose specific location I can’t bring myself to give a shit about and remember.

Huxley’s “The Dwarfs” is great, James’ “The Mezzotint” is one of my favorite bits by him (I’ve included the illustration for it below). Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner” is here, and it is a deserved classic, brutal, abrupt, and horrid in every way. Onion’s “Rooum” is solid, Barry Pain’s “The Green Light” is a fun but slighter offering from him.

Robert Louis Stevenson steals a folktale from Hawaiians and comes out with “The Island of Voices,” likely my favorite thing by him. The anonymous “Tale of a Gas-light Ghost” is tremendous, which I was not expecting at all. I had my first dalliance with L.P. Hartley here, in the well-known “A Visitor from Down Under,” which is as humorous as it is unnerving, and condenses everything I love about the British style of doing weird, odd, and strange fiction.

William Hope Hodgson also contributes his woeful tale of fungal foibles in “The Voice in the Night,” which still astounds me that it was written in 1907 and is so thoroughly and wonderfully cruel, disgusting, and funny. This was quite a bit before the housing fungal-fiction bubble in the late 20th century, long before the gob of fungi became a standard device and fetishized accoutrement in the world of weird fiction.

I can remember little of P.C. Wren’s “Presentiments,” but I graded it an ‘A’ in my notebook so it must have been good. It was Freudian, as I recall, about a smothering and jealous mother who hounds her daughter into an early grave and is not even consciously aware of her own smoldering hatred for her offspring.

This anthology is still out there and relatively affordable, and it comes with my entirely worthless and dubious recommendation. Apparently this post has screwed up my blog’s format, somehow, which irritates me to no end but which I don’t feel like doing anything about now.

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the catacomb of books is growing, coughed the tuberculitic rector.

 

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I have accumulated all of these despite working a near minimum wage job. The joys of being single and childless truly know no bounds. A few of the books I look forward to the most are Anna Tambour’s Crandolin, recently out from Chômu Press, The Evening Standard Book of Strange Stories from 1934, and my first Tartarus press splurge, Nugent Barker’s Written with my Left Hand.

step across the border: the (not at all) as usual dance.

Last night I re-watched Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel’s 1990 documentary about Fred Frith, Step Across the Border. I watched it with my housemate who had never seen it before. I had not seen it for about seven years, since I was in high school. To say that it was an invigorating and inspiring experience was to say the absolute, minimal least. I can say without hesitation that it is one of my all time favorite films, from the perspective of musical performances captured, cinematic beauty, and the exciting interplay of editing and found sound which I have not seen in many other documentaries.

If you are unfamiliar with Fred Frith, he is an avant-garde multi-instrumentalist and composer, primarily known for his work on the guitar. You can look up his work, an overview of his discography. His tenure with Henry Cow, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, and the Art Bears. His solo work for prepared guitar. You don’t need to know any of it to be stunned and pleased by this film. (Even my high school girlfriend who I watched it with seven years ago, who mostly liked bland indie pop music, was charmed by Frith.)

Frith is captured in this film as an unabashedly arty man, charming and practically detonating with talent. It was once said of comedian Peter Cook that he was “funny in the same way some people are beautiful.” Fred Frith is musical in the same way some people are beautiful. Un-self-consciously, constantly. Joyfully. This is a man who can be captivating by doing nothing more than casually humming out bars from compositions he has written, using his hands against the couch for percussion. One of my favorite scenes from the film shows Fred Frith from distance at a beach, wrapped in thick layers of coat. Above, seagulls whirl through the air and fill it with their cries. The camera zooms in and you realize that Frith is holding a violin and mimicking the seagulls, scraping the strings in imitation of their nasal cackling. We stay with him while he tries out five or six different calls, each time finding the exact note for the gull’s voice, such that if you had your eyes closed you might suppose the filmmakers had decided to include a lengthy scene of gulls crying for atmospheric purposes.

There are many highlights, however. The scenes of Massacre rehearsing their dissonant, free-jazz Balkan punk; “The Morning Song,” featuring an alarm clock; a jam between John Zorn and Frith in a dimly lit room, so that Zorn appears to be some sort of alien insect hidden inside a jacket (shades of Wollheim’s “Mimic”), blowing out something resembling interstellar blues; a mind-erasing piece featuring Frith playing percussion on prepared guitar and a Japanese percussionist wielding hammers against an indomitable wall of drums. Little in the film is forgettable.

It is apparent that Frith sees a connection between his music and his (left) politics. Just as his musical work seeks to estrange and distance itself and deviate from standard structures, he hopes his music, in some humble way, can help others to see through the mist of pre-given opinion. He says in the film that he has given up on his youthful hopes of changing the world and has instead seen the value in challenging, if for a moment, the expectations a listener had for music or what their definition of music was. If he can get a few listeners to come up to him and ask, “What in the world was that about?”, then he has done something of value. From the Skeleton Crew song, “The Border”:

A step across the border

One foot after another

Think! Think!

A small step into elsewhere

To follow the quick light

Tom Cora, Iva Bittová, Pavel Fajt, Arto Lindsay, and many other figures wander through Step Across the Border. It is a charming and enervating film, a chaotic coughing of musical spores into the air. They get into your throat, they get stuck in your eyes. The next few days, you find yourself feeling their effects, tapping out rhythms on inappropriate surfaces, speaking with greater confidence about art and why it is important. You cough a few spores yourself. It travels round.

the romance of certain old houses.

Fonthill Abbey, delineation by John Rutter.

Fonthill Abbey, delineation by John Rutter.

I wanted to make a post about the obsession of the house in fiction, particularly fiction of the fantastic and/or macabre. Deriving from the Gothic, much fictional work featuring houses as a central entity or ‘character’ is based on variations of a conservative premise: the heir and their ancestral home. Either the heir has an uneasy relationship with the ancestral home, as in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, or the ancestral home functions as a symbol of pastoral, Arcadian perfection which is invaded by an exterior force (or an interior force which happens to have been awakened). Either way we begin from a place of soporific privilege and perverting, idle wealth.

These narratives are suffused with the romance of old houses whose massiveness is a chimney-barnacled beacon of economic power, whose lamps shine into the night as quasi-religious icons of comfort and assurance that the Normal State of Things is untrammeled. Oftentimes the narratives use the color palette of faded grandeur, and employ allusive griping about changing economic and cultural situations necessitating the selling of the house’s store of cultural and artistic capital. With American writers, the houses become a little more Lovecraftian, a little more decked with fungal matter. But whether it is the glamor of the hale country stronghold, the faded beauty of a fleeting lifestyle, or the fascinating ugliness of the long-ruined, the romance of certain old houses is sold to us unrelentingly. The constituent parts of this narrative equation, s and h, are equally important: size and history.

As politically problematic as I find such narrative grounding, it is nonetheless formidable in its seductive power. As a kid I played the Castlevania series for N64 and Gameboy, and wandering through endless halls effulgent with ornate lamps, and impossibly large libraries stuffed with ghastly, floating books, formed a central role in my dreams and imaginings. I enjoy looking at delineations of old country seats and lithographs of castles and photochroms of villas. I re-imagine them (political correctness run amok!) as being artist colonies or other usages less oriented toward exploitation and wealth accumulation. For the most part, this severance from context is a pantomime done in bad faith. The extravagance of such structures is inextricable from their context of being built on the backs of others. Their foundations rest on the necks of the majority and their utilitarian function is to demonstrate the power of private capital or the state. And yet they are so god damned cool.

Artist n/a.

Artist n/a.

The large house in fiction of the fantastic is engrossing for a number of reasons, one of which is that it provides a material analogy for psychological phenomena: the mind (and thus, the house) is large and dark and filled with places for things to hide. The house becomes a projection of the mind that fills the skull, a materializing device that brings to solidity the neuroses and grubbing paraphilias nesting in the heads of such noble shits born into the gentry. We relate because though we may not all be born into privilege, neuroses and psychological gargoyles are born into us. They are exciting because they are foreign worlds in themselves; the house in a tale of terror is not so far from the alien planet in the First Contact SF tale, although lackluster in its potential to dislocate the reader from mythologies of stasis. (This incidentally relates to Thomas Disch’s curmudgeonly critique of first contact tales as being secretly within the genre of the pastoral, a point he manifested in his story “Et in Arcadia Ego”).

There are a vast number of things which could be talked about here, such as Chris Baldick’s definition of Gothic literature as being properly “anti-Gothic” in its condemnation of a barbarous past, exceptions to the general rules outlined here, etc. But I wanted to showcase a literary failure of my own in this department, an excerpt from a novelette I wrote a few years back called The Ossuary. I gleefully wanted to participate in the miniature world-building of house-creation, and to top and best all previous fictional houses as a stunning literary prodigy. Of course I failed at that, but I think the work overall was of interest. A short period after completing the novelette, I read Gene Wolfe’s four volume Book of the New Sun, and found my creation paltry in the extreme in comparison to The House Absolute (which, incidentally, is a beacon of the state rather than private capital in the series). While I found Wolfe’s novel overall to be a rather cold gumbo of Christ-allegory and Nietzschean ubermensch, his creations border on the astonishing. Creatures such as the alzabo and notule dashed to a pulp any of the beings I had invented, and Wolfe’s prose shimmered throughout.

In writing the failure that became The Ossuary I wanted to take the premise of Peake’s Gormenghast (which I haven’t read so far), with its tedium of rituals and its slow ooze of history, and turn it on its head. Instead of being oppressed by the weight of historical fact, the privileged narrator is oppressed by the falsity of its historical invention. The confabulator is the narrator’s grandfather, a figure somewhere in between Joris Karl Huysman’s aesthete Des Esseinte and former King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. Jean Des Esseinte was an aristocratic dandy who preferred the flowers in his collection to be of species that appear as artificial as possible, like metal or raw meat; Ludwig II spent damn near all of his ancestral trust-fund on the completion of a childish, phantasmagorical dream in the form of several garish castles.

Anyways, here is the excerpt. It is crass sometimes, and little more than a taxidermied wrist from  a discarded trophy, but I kind of like it.

 

It is called a house, but it is not really a house. It is an index of memory, a hall of glass concealing an abattoir. The word house is a sarcasm to begin with, as it is not a house in the sense that a Bissoan salt possesses a house, with one room, a fireplace full of ashes, and stiff beds pushed against stone. It is called a castle sometimes, by outsiders. But it is not a castle. A castle is a crumbling grayness stuffed to its windows with history. The house that Bediah Tanner built contains no history, only the dream of history. It is not gray, but the color of a young girl’s blush.

Everywhere inside it, trompe-l’œil covers its walls, as if its bigness were not big enough. Passageways end in lakes teeming with swans and plump albino nymphs. Gardens open up behind bathtubs, an oculus glows in every falsely domed ceiling. The whole house is a junkyard of antiquarian objects, all of them reproductions. From the guests’ Octagon Rooms to the sitting rooms with their daybeds covered in baldaquins, paintings and statuettes clutter the interiors, as well as the exteriors, of the house. The collection of historical kitsch is so vast, it is stored in three subterranean floors and weekly rearranged in new orders so it appears as if the reproductions are reproducing.

Years ago. Quite a few. My older sister Ada would smuggle me down into the underground storerooms when I was a child. Each floor was the size of a warehouse. In my moth-eaten mind it is an endless and cramped maze of coatracks and musty instruments, all brand new but never worn, and sealed with dust. Wolves’ heads and horses’ abdomens, ostrich-feather carpets hanging in rows from the walls, flintlock pistols and gibbets. All the detritus of my grandfather’s disease were collected there without any sense of order, as if catalogued by someone without short term memory. I remember feeling lost and afraid, but Ada was always just around the corner, singing old cowboy songs she’d learned from Bediah’s songbooks. I’m going back to see my mother, when the work’s all done this fall.

We were both forced to learn the collected works of Karlheinz Tanner, our capitalist ancestor who amassed the Tanner fortune and later served in the United Parliament. In fact, the only items of genuine age in the house are Bediah’s framed ambrotypes of Karlheinz dating from the 1750’s. His hair is lank and long in the reddish image, and his eyes are piggish eyes. He was given a pig’s heart too, in the early 19th century. It was an experimental surgery, and caused his death.

During his life, he claimed sexual disinclination and married only to continue the line. But according to his journals, he was plagued by hallucinations of an ursine god which demanded to take his virginity in the next world. He would be at the drawing room, notating a folk song he had stolen from a beet farmer on his travels, and a feeling like “a knife in my brain” would overtake him. A giant grizzly bear would appear amongst the china and berate him, as tiny, crawling fetuses poured out of its mouth. So he says.

Many entries in his journal describe him withholding masturbation on his bed, as this was another expression the bear god found offensive. Sometimes the desire would get so strong, he would “feel the seed, for lack of natural release, gushing out my eyes.” When this occurred, he would sit down and pen gospel songs, which Ada taught to me, a century and a half later.

Karlheinz was also fixated on history. He was a scholar of 13th century plainsong and claimed to retain over 1,000 descants in his head. He somehow amassed a collection of bones of hanged Viennese nobles dating from the anarchist revolutions in the early 1700’s. He kept them in a locked chest, and said that he talked to them whenever the bear god was troublesome. His journal entries detailing his antiquarian findings reveal that he had no sense of discrimination. A pile of ancient urinals was no less entrancing to him than a second edition of the Book of Hours, which he traded to receive the former. The oldness of things was an end in itself, their relative worth measured by the extent of his alienation from them.

It was is if he saw a great steak steaming on a plate when he looked at the past, and the horror of the slaughterhouse when he saw the present. The desire for a past which is irrevocable and unattainable, is analogous to a man or woman one pines for futilely in bed, and who may or may not exist; a desire whose sole purpose is to dissipate, whose joy is in dissipation. Those who are afflicted with this desire become vampires always striving to turn the present into the past. When one confronts them, they turn into mist or a wolf and slink away from hearing.

I can reach no other conclusion but that this is a form of cowardice.

Bediah was not particular about his history, either. All over the house’s tapestry, gunslingers in beaten leather dusters stand toe to toe with old Slavic wartenwurms, and medieval heraldry is celebrated alongside oil mercenaries from the previous century. Despite his crass reverence to antiquity, Bediah had a sense of the mischievous too; his smoking room, which later became his dying room, was adorned with stained glass pornography. He showed it to me when I turned twelve. Even as a teenager staring at saints performing cunnilingus, stained glass was not an arousing medium.

As I grew older, and Bediah’s songbooks still buzzed in my head like hornets, I began to hate him. That myself and Ada were not allowed to speak to him except during holidays made it worse. It would have been better if Malvina were around, but she was always off hunting in other counties. She was rumored to be involved in occult and Marxist organizations, which turned out to be true. She did not really leave, however, until the frontier came.

During all the ceremonies I was subjected to, where I was forced to raise a standard, consecrate a hunting rifle, or pass a gauntlet of Boys with sharpened fans – my movements felt sluggish and feverish, weighted with hatred. Like the historical items in the house, the traditions were not genuine; they had been invented by Bediah. He wrote them all down on a sheaf of paper years ago, drilled them into the salts and servants, and hid them at the bottom of his desk drawer. He later had them drawn up into lawful contracts.

When I was nine, I remember seeing Bediah rowed around on a gondola over the artificial river he had installed in the middle of the house. Sometimes it was the Delaware, sometimes it was the Seine. The gondola was wreathed in tartan cloth and strewn with bells, and the rowers (who really worked in the kitchens) were dressed like Siamese royalty. Bediah himself wore a muumuu and drank from a pitcher of chilled vodka and shouted about the Russian proletariat and the evil of women. He had a gun, and sometimes fired it into the wall. They rowed over the blue river with its smooth stones at the bottom and frightened Ada, who ran to complain to Malvina that grandfather had fallen into a bottle and couldn’t get up.

It was less than a month later that she drowned in the river. I found her at the bend that came near the entrance hall. She floated listless above the bright stones. She was sixteen. She was sixteen.

I do not have forgiveness in my heart.

neglected weird fiction no. 2. j.d. beresford’s “the little town.”

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

I first encountered the work of John Davys Beresford (1873-1947) in Alberto Manguel’s stunning anthology Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic. The piece of fiction Manguel chose for inclusion was “The Misanthrope,” from Beresford’s 1918 collection Nineteen Impressions. “The Misanthrope” had been included previously in a Dorothy Sayers anthology (The Omnibus of Crime) as well as the uncredited Evening Standard Book of Strange Stories from 1934. I read it and was hooked. The tale had that tantalizing combination of the ambiguous and gruesome so much excellent British strange fiction had from the period. I wrote the story down, graded it in my notebook, and filed the name away in my mind. It stayed there for awhile, inert.

Since then I’ve read several more instances of Beresford’s work, including the puzzling “Powers of the Air,” from an old hardback Thrillers anthology from the 40’s, with a golden bat embossed on the bruise-purple cover, and fragrant pages that smelled like every shelf-haunter’s wet (or dry?) dream. I came across “A Negligible Experiment” in one of S.T. Joshi’s weird anthologies. With these three stories in my crap filing cabinet of a mind, I eventually decided to find a copy of Nineteen Impressions. There was a print on demand edition available for about five dollars from Aegypan Press, and I picked it up.

What I realized from reading the slim collection is that only three of the nineteen impressions were worth reading. “The Misanthrope” was one, and “Powers of the Air” was the second. The third was called “The Little Town,” and after reading I wondered if it wasn’t the best of the three.

Beresford writes an introduction entitled “The Other Thing” for Impressions, and it is worth quoting because it is revealing of the aesthetics and ideology of not only Beresford, but many other writers of this type of fiction:

“At the moment we receive it, we respond without reservation. For a time we believe that we, too, have had a vision of the other thing. And, then, it is as if the tiny opening had drawn together again, and we find – an explanation. Nothing in the world is more depressing than an explanation. It is like dull, drab paint on what was once a shining surface. It hides the mystery of those half-seen depths that do reflect something, even if we cannot see clearly what the image is.”

This echoes similar statements made by writers as different as Borges and Sacheverell Sitwell. Several odd comparisons come to mind, such as John Keat’s “science kills the rainbow” wangst and the Iowa School Imposing Edifice of Realist Fiction’s injunction to “show, not tell.” And yet while there is some connection between the former to Beresford’s obvious resistance to scientific hegemony and materialism, this particular aesthetic has survived to enjoy employment by authors and readers of decidedly materialist bent. It also goes beyond the standard “it is better to imagine the monster than to reveal it” technique of much old-fashioned horror, and into a more extreme realm of obfuscation which has always seemed new to me, the opposite of old-fashioned.

At its dizzying height, this aesthetic and its associated techniques verge on the avant-garde, they thumb their noses at absolutist readings while providing plenty of material to chew on (in opposition to Joanna Russ’ idea that an exemplar of this style, Robert Aickman, was essentially empty, nothing but a vampiric style draining the corpses of succulent stories). Instead of providing cheese and crackers for a single interpretation, they provide a feast of material, almost an excess. It is, to put it in simplistic terms, the application of modernist (and also, in a lesser way, surrealist) thought to a very traditional medium, arriving at its own tradition: the strange story. (That this is more of a strange story than a weird story is a taxonomic quibble worth noting, but not enough to prevent me from including it as a “neglected weird fiction.”)

“The Little Town” does not quite reach the heights of the best of this style or order of fiction, but it approaches it. It begins with a nameless and genderless narrator on a night train to an English town called St. Erth, occulted in the hillside, unknown to even the most knowledgeable. (Beresford makes clear it is not the St. Erth in Cornwall, but another one elsewhere). This description of the passenger looking out the window of the train provides an example of Beresford’s clear prose, shining with concision and observation:

The yellow lighted reflection of the now familiar interior jutted out before me, its floor diaphanous and traversed by two streaks of shining metal. And my own white face peered in at me with strained, searching eyes, frowning at me when our glances met, trying to peer past me into the light and warmth of the railway carriage.

One of the techniques marshaled by this somber, every-button-buttoned surrealism is: The Detail Noticed by the Narrator that Couldn’t Possibly Be True. In the classical ghost story, this effect served as the first incrementalist note in a gradually building symphony of generic cohesion. Or to put it in less shitty and cumbersome terms, as the foreshadowing and build up. It was a road that took the reader to a fictional locale that had both Latitude and Longitude readings available. But applied here, it is a road that tends to lead to a bush snarled dead end, or to the meeting of disused train tracks. It still coheres to generic terms, but its own generic terms, the primary dictum of which is that not all doors that are opened must be closed. This technique is given its first go on the first page, when the narrator notices that the train is crossing a bridge over a body of water that, to his knowledge, does not exist and could not exist. “We were not near the sea and no English river could surely have been so wide.”

The narrator arrives at the terminus and heads to the night’s lodgings. He (one is tempted to say he, the narrator seems so much an emanation of Beresford himself) eats dinner and decides to explore what he has been told is “quite a small place.” The narrator heads out into the dark and finds that the street the inn is on leads downhill. Lamps occasionally dot the darkness as the narrator passes recessed courtyards and alleys, out of which come sparse laughter and conversation. Bodies flit by his, indifferent, along the constantly descending “tedious ravel of streets.”

Ludwig Sievert, stage design for The Dead City, 1921.

Ludwig Sievert, stage design for The Dead City, 1921.

I turned at last out of a passage so narrow that my body brushed the wall on either side, into a small square of low houses and the floor of the square was flat. On all sides it was entered by passages such as that from which I had just emerged, and all of them led upwards. About and above me I could vaguely distinguish an infinite slope of houses, ranging up tier above tier, lost at last in the black immensity. I appeared to be at the bottom of some Titanic basin among the mountains; at the center of some inconceivably vast collection of mean houses that swarmed over the whole face of visible earth.

This is on the third page! Most of the stories in Nineteen Impressions are under six pages, and this tale is no exception. After marveling at the ascension of St Erth’s streets, the narrator ends up in front of a building with an open door and a faded sign reading “Kosmos.” He passes through a proscenium opening onto a lit theater stage and a small cluster of people waiting in shadow.

I found a seat near the door and waited. It came to me that the stage was disproportionately large for the size of the hall. And then out of the wings came wobbling a tiny figure, and I realized that this great stage was set for a puppet-show. The whole thing was so impossibly grotesque, that I nearly laughed aloud.

Again, that building strangeness which has no resolution. How or why the stage seems unaccountably large we will never see. What follows from this introduction of the puppet show reminds me of a miniaturized version of Kafka’s “Josephine,” in its psychological analysis and portrait of the effect of artistic performance on a group. It is brilliant. The whole performance is an inscrutable exercise in senility, feebleness, and graphic meaninglessness. In a more overtly sinister aspect, our nameless and sexless narrator becomes perplexed that they cannot discern the presence of wires connecting the puppets to their manipulator above the stage. They seem to be moving of their own (demented) accord. Abruptly, the curtains close over the stage while the puppets continue moving. The lights turn out. The watchers get up to leave and return to the interminable streets of St. Erth.

At the closing of the show, our emanation of J.D. Beresford decides to mount a staircase in order to discover who in the preposterous hell put on such an ineffective and disquieting puppet show. He discovers an old man, in a chair so large it is “almost a throne.” The man has a gentle and benevolent look on his face as he commands the dolls with his hands and seems never disturbed when they fall or stumble under his care. The wires connecting his fingers to the dolls below remain invisible. Perturbed, the narrator leaves to walk back to his lodgings. On the return trip the town seems to have diminished in size and the walk takes only ten minutes.

An obvious symbolism presents itself in “Erth” and “Kosmos,” but Beresford himself rejects this interpretation in his introduction, saying, “If I had said that the old man up in the flies of the Kosmos Theater represented God, I should have grossly satirized my own idea.” If taken to be true (and why not, for the sake of argument) this would provide another technique marshaled by strange fiction: that of throwing out red herrings as if a mystery tale were being written.

In distinction to Beresford’s point of view, I do not actually mind that interpretation of the “The Little Town.” It has a pre-vision of Thomas Ligotti about it, and shades of David Park Barnitz’s decadent collection of verse, The Book of Jade (1901). The final line in particular reminds me of Barnitz’s invective against god as a “filthy idiot” sitting in a pile of his own shit and playing with it: “I wondered whether he was a charlatan or only very old, and very, very foolish.”

Another interpretation is perhaps that, like the foolish old man, we all imagine we are in control of our lives, and deny assiduously that our motions to control it are in fact doing nothing at all. I highly recommend all four Beresford stories mentioned here, and both Nineteen Impressions and his later collection Signs and Wonders are available as abominable print on demand editions.

* * * * *

As a post-script I would like to further quote Beresford for the sake of a relevant comment on tendencies in weird and strange fiction: “Nor can I find [the other thing] by reading the careful mysteries of those who write of fauns and naiads; the stories of those authors who appear to think that mystery died, if not with ancient Greece, at least in the Middle Ages. Indeed, I think that when we are reduced to seeking this other thing in the past, we have lost our ability to find it.” Hello, pastiches of gas-light detection and M.R. James!

I will couple this with Fredric Jameson, from “Magical narratives,” as quoted in Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion: “For when we speak of a mode, what can we mean but that this particular literary discourse is not bound to the conventions of a given age, nor indissolubly linked to a given type of verbal artifact, but rather persists as a temptation and a mode of expression across a whole range of historical periods, seeming to offer itself, if only intermittently, as a formal possibility which can be revived and renewed.”

Is such fiction existent now as a formal possibility to be renewed? Or do we mistake a garden of dying cabbage for a manicured pleasure park, replete with moats and cottage?

the link in the wall.

Eugene Berman, Cassandra. 1942-43.

Eugene Berman, Cassandra. 1942-43.

1) Diseased Gardens. Translator “G. Mac” provides English translations of Belgian and French contes fantastiques. Translated authors include: Jean Ray, Thomas Owen, Michel de Ghelderode, Franz Hellens, and Marcel Brion. The site is pleasing to the eye, includes rather nice art, and the translations at a skim (I have not yet had time to read) appear competent at the very, very least. This individual’s knowledge appears to run deep and wide.

2) There’s Nothing in Why: Robert Aickman’s “The View.” Brendan Moody tracks down the allusions that litter one of Aickman’s better tales. “The View” always struck me as being about, among other things (such as the deterioration of genuine life through modernity), the essential unknowability of the beloved, of the romantic object. The constant elision and elusion of “the self” as seen through a metaphor of changing, growing landscape.

3) Forthcoming Releases: Wakefield Press. If you will notice, Wakefield are planning on releasing a brand new translation of Marcel Schwob’s The King in the Golden Mask from 1892. Which leads me to…

4) A Constellation of Isolated Flashes. A 3Am magazine interview with Wakefield’s chosen translator, Kit Schluter. Schluter also translated Schwob’s Book of Monelle, which I have purchased but have yet to crack open.

5) The Curve in the Line. My new favorite tumblr. Symbolism, art nouveau, architecture. I’d rank it alongside an older favorite, La Criniere.