the mammoth book of thrillers, ghosts and mysteries.


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.

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.

sleeping sphinxes: ‘tales of the german imagination.’

Cover featuring Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's woodcut "Self Portrait; Melancholy of the Mountains."

Cover featuring Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s woodcut “Self Portrait: Melancholy of the Mountains.” (1929).

“Enough,” replied the dreamlike presence, “take your flowers cheerfully, as life offers them, and don’t dig for their roots in the ground, it’s sad and silent down below.” – Josef von Eichendorff, ‘The Marble Statue.’

I’ve just finished the Penguin anthology Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann. It is a survey of German fantastic fiction, running from early Märchen (the rougher German term for fairy tales) to the expressionism of Georg Heym and the Dadaism of Kurt Schwitters. Oft anthologized classics such as Hoffman’s “The Sandman” and Adelbert von Chamisso’s “Peter Schlemiel” are included, but so are a large number of more obscure pieces. Writers more unknown to English speaking audiences such as Klabund and Salomo Friedlander make appearances, while other inclusions come from unlikely sources such as Robert Walser and the poet Paul Celan (whose befuddling prose-poem “The Shadowlight” I found disappointing.)

Editor Peter Wortsman notes in the introduction the hard-edged quality to much of German fantasy, its preoccupation with the macabre and the violent. The violence in this anthology begins with fratricide in the Grimms’ “The Singing Bone” and and culminates in the absolutely horrific and bloody “The Lunatic” by the poet Georg Heym. This tale follows an asylum inmate released for mysterious reasons who goes on a killing rampage that begins in the pond-haunted countryside and ends in the dullness of a shopping center in the town. It is brief, brutal, and bereft of moralizing or sentiment. The most disquieting segment of the story is when the eponymous lunatic tromps through a field and imagines that the ripe stalks bursting under his feet are the heads of random strangers. It is a conte cruel at heart, with all of the extremity of famous practitioner Charles Birkin, and none of the cleverness that suggests he is telling a joke.

I remember reading Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show,”* with its dedication to the author’s friend, presenting it as “a story that doesn’t flinch.” Heym does not flinch here, either. Nor does he blink. Something of the “invisible spectator” objectivity of Paul Bowles is here as well, as if the story’s point of view came from that of an indifferent bird circling overhead, sharp eyes sucking in the deranged vision with perfect calm.

A more humorous exercise in such loamy, Teutonic, worm-wriggling darkness comes from the aforementioned Kurt Schwitters, whose “The Onion” is about a man sentenced to execution and consumption by the state. Its plot doesn’t sound like a merry, piss-inducing chuckle compared to the Heym piece, but its violence is of the madcap variety, that belonging almost to early Schlesinger cartoons. It is every bit as gory as “The Lunatic” but its treatment could not be more different, both in that its structure is as disordered as the mental state of the former’s protagonist, but also in that every swing of the knife seems to be met with literary “anvil” sounds and to echo with not-yet-invented canned laughter.

Moving on to less bodily focused fare, Wolfgang Borchert’s “The Dandelion” is a beautifully wrought tale of a prisoner (imprisoned for obscure reasons, of course) who is brought out every day into the exercise yard to run in a circle around a pitiful scrub of field. In the midst of rancorous hatred and jealousy of his fellow inmates, he falls in love with a yellow dandelion flower that has shot up out of the meager pittance of a field. The final passage is truly lovely and bewildering, something warranting meatier consideration than the miserly rendering given here. Suffice to say it is a highlight.

Ingeborg Bachmann’s “The Secrets of the Princess of Kagran” features a landscape reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” The captured-then-escaped princess navigates a wind scoured swamp, vast and unfamiliar, resonant with the slushing of willow through water, charged with the possibility of starvation.

But enough summation. I’d rather temporarily silence the gaseous trumpets of blathering, and provide a different viewpoint for this anthology: namely, a fractured look at its various fictions by presenting completely out of context quotes and mashing them together senselessly like a charlatan. These were wandering phrases, knights-errant clauses blundering through the stupefied landscape of my brain, which I picked out capriciously, redundantly, and for no reason at all. Is this avant-garde? Or just bullshit? Bullshit-garde? I don’t know. Nor care. They hopefully will provide another piece of evidence for the prosecution of this alleged “German imagination.” Say what you will, such excerption might not be German to this blog posting, but neither is it Hungary for provocation:

the plants, herbs, flowers, and trees are all squirming in pain, consumed by a great wound

the sculpture of Venus, now so terribly white and motionless

he knelt over their faces and blew air into the holes in their skulls

a spider that squeezes a scaffold out of its rear end

at least my children will no longer do without their own guillotine and gallows

the frenzy of that imagined-inflicted kiss, kissed by the demons

sleeping sphinxes nestled beneath the dream spectres of the trees

this hostile landscape, a world of willow, wind and water

‘bone rot!’ i screamed and let yellow dust fall from my ribs

to scout out the greatest iniquity, the cross was nailed onto Christ

i took my legs out of my knapsack

i’ve just pinioned my sister as a weather-vane on the church steeple

she turned her back to the mirror, for she could not abide its vanity

on a plate with knife and fork they served up the eyes

flowers sprouting from his skin: anemones

Benes Knupfer (1848-1910), The Embrace.

Benes Knupfer (1848-1910), The Embrace. One of my favorite paintings. Man, it’s nice.


* Don’t read this Lansdale story if you are not okay with the dialogue of a bunch of racist fucks dropping slurs every other sentence. And also violence, and also whatinthefuckwasthatshitjesus

a strange anthology.

Just picked up a massive anthology from 1944 (my copy is a reprint from ’47) in an Oakland bookshop. It’s called Pause to Wonder: Stories of the Marvelous, Mysterious, and Strange. It’s always a pleasant surprise when I see a big anthology I’ve never heard of before, particularly one with such an eccentric table of contents. It’s in overall great condition, but I got it for extremely cheap because it is missing two pages – two pages which unfortunately consist of a piece of fiction I’d have liked to read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, called “Nelly Trim.”

The contents appear eclectic, though the overall tone is likely less macabre than I would generally like, and more inclined to lighter fantasy than fictions of terror. But it looks to hold a good deal of the literary strange from the likes of Walter de la Mare and the early folkloric fiction of W.B. Yeats. Like many fantastic anthologies from this period, the author demographics are almost exclusively white and British/American, a fact which becomes monotonous after awhile when dealing with a lot of these collections, though in all fairness is attributed here in the introduction to lack of funding for translations. But still, you have Pliny and Chesterton thrown together, which is always fun and kind of compensates for it.

(Which, incidentally, is another of the many reasons I appreciate Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for their work on The Weird: A Compendium. Besides being incredible and far-reaching in general, it brings together early 20th century fictions from a variety of sources which generally are not lain side by side. Luigi Ugolini so close to Francis Marion Crawford, just a village away from Merce Rodoreda, not so far from Ben Okri? Take my money!)

Have a look.

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book finds of the past year.

“…but books make good burrows in which to hide, and few places are as redolent of the little escape as a library; the shelves of fiction, history, geography, each book a pretext for derealization, patiently awaiting the moment when it will be coupled to some vague reverie.” – Nick Land.

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So many little escapes. These are only some of the books I’ve gotten over the past year or so. Some novels are missing, quite a few anthologies, as well as some philosophy and cultural criticism. I haven’t quite read everything, but this should be a representative sample of the kind of literature I’ll engage with in this blog, if that wasn’t clear enough already.

Captioning all of these messes up the format, so I’ll just clarify: the illustration, third from the top left, is by Hugo Steiner Prag from an unbelievably cheap ($2) edition of the stories of Hoffman I picked up awhile back. I almost exclusively buy used in support of my book problem, and that’s really the only way to go. I’ve only recently moved to an area that has a decent public library, so my accumulation should decrease – but still, who can resist an old paperback antho for a dollar fifty?

I’ll wrap this post up with a close-up of a beautiful logo or heraldic symbol from the Wagenknecht “Fireside Book of Ghost Stories” collection:


“the magnetic under-mind” of robert aickman, part two.

Xavier Mellery, La Escalera. 1889. The painter quoted in the story as saying he paints "'silence' and 'the soul of things.'"

Xavier Mellery, La Escalera. 1889. The painter quoted in “Ravissante” as saying he paints “‘silence’ and ‘the soul of things.'”

Just yesterday, I re-read an Aickman story I first encountered in a Ramsey Campbell anthology called Uncanny Banquet. That story is “Ravissante,” first published in 1968 in his collection Sub Rosa. What follows will deal in spoilers, so for those that have not read “Ravissante” and plan to read it at some point, you should probably not read further. It is a story worth reading, particularly to those who have an interest in symbolist and decadent painters from the fin de siècle period. Xavier Mellery, William Degouve de Nunques, and James Ensor are all mentioned, among others. An antique Art-Nouveau house in Brussels features prominently in its setting, for what it’s worth. And besides all that, it is a beautiful and mysterious story, and who doesn’t want to read one of those?

“Ravissante” (French for ‘charming,’ by the way) falls in line with my feeling that most Aickman stories are more enjoyable when you re-read them, but it also differs in another respect. I do not find this story unsettling or frightening in the way his best fiction is. I did not the first time, and did not the second. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating story, and one of his most perverse and unusual (second only perhaps, to “The Swords”).

“Ravissante” is a story within a story, of the “manuscript found in a drainpipe/toaster oven/bottle of laxative/etc.” variety. The typical Aickman introvert cipher narrator strikes up an acquaintance with a painter at a forgettable cocktail party. He is a dry and forgettable man, “faintly disappointing,” but a painter of some power. His wife is even drier and more forgettable, a taciturn matchstick of a woman who says almost nothing at all and whose character never moves beyond the enigmatic. The painter dies, and bequeaths his entire artistic output to the narrator – as well as a hundred pounds, for some reason. The narrator meets with the painter’s wife, who indifferently says she will burn everything he does not take. He takes one painting and a stack of papers that consist of the man’s letters and writings. The narrative proper begins when the narrator reads one of these papers, a tale chronicling the painter’s stay in Belgium, visiting the elderly wife of an unnamed symbolist painter.

This is, of course, the point at which the story splits itself in two, where the main narrative shrugs off the old skin that held it and slouches off somewhere else. The common problem of how to connect these two parts is present here in “Ravissante,” and it is worth noting that Aickman does not even try to resolve it. He simply allows the manuscript to complete itself, and then fucks off without another word.

The painter – who remains anonymous throughout the story on the basis of that rusty old verisimilitude-contraption that in the Victorian and Edwardian periods expressed itself like “Monsieur M____ gave me a snot filled handkerchief at the Hotel rue de _____”- spends much of the narrative within the stately home of Madame A. It is apparent that this house exists on a different plane of reality than we find in the earlier section of the story. Madame A herself is imperious, the house is dimly lit, and reality seems to take on a discomfiting, liquid aspect.

Alberto Martini, Follia. 1914.

Alberto Martini, Follia. 1914.

The main room of the house is a long living room replete with symbolist sculpture, erotic works by Felicien Rops, smoked-glass Art-Nouveau lamps, and an enormous fireplace sonorously belching with flame. The painter notes, “Almost as soon as I entered, it struck me that the general coloration had something in common with that of my own works” (p.14). This is a theme Aickman goes on to elaborate at (subtle) length.

Madame A regales the painter with lurid, salacious tales of the personal lives of many artists she knew, saying of one, “I wouldn’t have used him as a pocket handkerchief when I had the grippe” (see how this story has burrowed into me, with the re-appearance already of a mucus-soaked handkerchief). She rants and gripes and berates and belittles, and you can smell the stale hovels, stinking feet, furtively spilled seed, soured wine, and odd fetish acts implied in her harangue. The painter is mortified, feeling that she is spoiling the dignity of the artists he adores. But he says nothing, knowing that only command “interested her in the context of human discourse” (p.13).

While she fumigates her own memories of the repulsive, insect-like artists she knew, something very odd happens. A small dog, looking like a black poodle, appears out of a shadowy corner behind a door and pokes around the sitting area by the fire, and then trots away back into the darkness, entirely unnoticed by Madame A. The painter says that it has “very big eyes and very long legs, perhaps more like a spider than a poodle” (p.19). He relates this to Madame, suggesting it “must have got in from the darkness outside,” but she shrugs and replies that animals are always making appearances in the room, including “less commonplace species” (p.20).

The strangest part of the story occurs when Madame A invites the painter into the room of Chrysothème, her currently-abroad, adopted daughter. She makes a number of curious statements about her, saying that she “is the most beautiful girl in Europe” and that, “If you could see her naked, you would understand everything” (p.20). The most important parts of Aickman’s description of the room follow: “In the center of the far wall stood a red brocaded dressing table, looking very much like an altar…the only picture hung over the head of the bed in the corner behind the door” (p.21).

At this point we have entered an inner chamber of the house’s reality. If the main room with its possible doors and artifacts of memory is an in-between zone, the room of Chrysothème is closer to the heart of it, maybe to the “silence” and “soul of things” as Mellery is quoted earlier.

The painter dully exclaims that it is a “beautiful room” and receives the reply from Madame A, “That is because people have died in it…the two beautiful things are love and death.”* He goes on to observe to himself, locked in this bizarre, quiet room, “It looked more like a chapel than a bedroom. More like a mortuary chapel, it suddenly struck me; with a sequence of corpses at rest and beflowered on the bierlike bed behind the door” (p.22).

This bizzarerie worsens when the madame invites him to touch and examine the clothes of Chrysothème, giving commands such as, “Lift the dress to your face,” “Kneel on it. Tread on it,” and “Why don’t you kiss it?” The painter obeys every one, and the madame notes, “You could almost wear it yourself…you like wearing blue and you are thin enough” (p.23).

This psycho-sexual, fetishistic examination of Chrysothème’s apparel culminates when Madame A invites him to open a chest full of  her lingerie and underwear. Again, compelled both by the madame and by his own urges, he obeys, saying that “the scent was intoxicating in itself” (p.24). Lost in this reverie, he is unaware of the passing of time until he realizes he is cold and has lost his sense of smell. Then:

“And at that moment, for the first time, I really apprehended the one picture, which hung above the wide bed in the corner. Despite the bad light, it seemed familiar. I went over to it and, putting one knee on the bed, leaned toward it. Now I was certain. The picture was by me” (p.25).

At this point the unfortunate painter has had enough, and after the madame vituperates whoever it was that painted such dreck, he flees. Out in the hall he finds, “squatted on the single golden light that hung by a golden chain from the golden ceiling of the landing, was a tiny, fluffy animal, so very small that it might almost have been a dark furry insect with unusually distinct pale eyes” (p.25).

This provides further motivation to hightail it out of the house. On his way out, the madame follows him with a pair of scissors, imploring him to give her a lock of hair as a souvenir. He dodges her, saying good night, and steps out into the Belgium night towards the Chausee d’Ixelles.

Santiago Caruso, The Peacock Escritoire.

Santiago Caruso, The Peacock Escritoire.

As if this were not an odd enough capper, Aickman finishes the story in this way:

“Within twenty-four hours I perceived clearly enough that there could have been no dog, no little animal squatted on the lantern, no picture over the bed, and probably no adopted daughter. That hardly needed saying. The trouble was, and is, that this obvious truth only makes things worse. Indeed, it is precisely where the real trouble begins. What is to become of me? What will happen to me next? What can I do? What am I?” (p.26).

Well, alright, Robert. Not only does he detail the anonymous painter’s erosion of faith in material reality, par for the course, but he also lists the diffuse symbols and manifestations employed throughout the tale! Of course, when the painter says himself in such a plain manner that the dog and animal and so on could not have existed, the reader should be skeptical.

Nonetheless, I suspect he is right. And this is, by the way, an interesting variation on the venerable “supernatural explained materialistically by improbable crap” ending. Rather than stating via authorial dogma that what happened is not real, Aickman delegates the messy coercion to a plebeian narrator (and not even the only cheek on the narrative throne!), thus implicitly undermining such a position. And not to mention that the “explanation” part is left out as well.

The most ready explanation for all of this is that when the painter enters the house of Madame A, he is more or less penetrating into the substance of his own consciousness, whether literally or figuratively**. I am tempted to suggest, perhaps both crassly and traditionally, that the house and its inhabitants can be broken up into the classic Freudian trinity of Ego, Super-Ego, and Id. This is a literalization of Aickman’s belief that the proper ghost story should “draw upon the unconscious mind in the manner of poetry.”

If we take this rather basic line, Madame A, with her sexual and salacious injunctions, must stand in for the Id. The long living room, as the mediator between various spaces in the house, would be the Ego, troubled by fleeting visitants from other parts. The dog and insect-animal would be errant strands of thought from the unconscious, from “the darkness outside.” What then, is the room of Chrysothème, and where does this leave the Super-ego in the traditional topographical model?

Contra to the psychoanalytic interpretation, the easiest explanation is that she is the classical, gendered artistic muse, with her clothing as the material of the sought-for, “intoxicating” ineffable. It is worth noting that the muse is still untouchable, still mediated by barriers. But what does it mean that the painter grows cold after handling the ineffable, after coming so close to touching the flesh of the muse? Does this suggest an emptiness at the heart of materialism and material reality? That it is better not to ‘know,’ the carnal sense included? In a way, Chrysothème is the meaning of the story itself. Distant, untouchable, and intoxicating, and all the more so because we know that we can never ‘see her naked.’***

So this tawdry Freudian model has collapsed, unless I make the claim that the symbolist art-pieces hold the Super-ego function of providing an authoritative model for how to “properly” engage and behave in an artistic tradition. They would stand then, in contradistinction to the unadulterated substance of inspiration, the mainlining of muse, provided by Chrysothème’s wardrobe. This would be a stretch.

So even if the ol’ Freudian interpretation doesn’t quite work, I’m still not ready to reject the interpretation that our unnamed and faintly disappointing painter has permeated the slimy membrane over his own brain-bulb. Yet as a version of the “it was all a dream” trope, this too, is faintly disappointing, isn’t it? Surely it must be grounded in some kind of reality, if for nothing else than the sake of being something more than a man walking through the “lacunous vastitude” of his own psyche.****

Let’s posit an alternative.

A theme that runs through “Ravissante” is the artist that feels alienated from her own creative processes. The painter in question feels that his work comes from “someone else.” This is the “inspiration as possession” theme, given more erotic flavoring. If this line is taken, the tale becomes somewhat meta-fictional. Our painter comes to a house that is a shadowed and fleshy ontological tunnel into his own mind. He is introduced to the source of his own inspiration (the muse, like Big Brother, can never be met directly), at which point he is possessed by this source in a rather creepy, onanistic way. But despite being a possession mediated through second-hand objects – with clothing used as prophylactics in the weirdest way ever, possibly – it is still a fertile possession. Chrysothème is not so much a succubus, drawing out energy, but rather a female incubus, supplying energy. She is an absentee incubus, but an incubus nonetheless.

So what this possession provides is artistic energy which the painter later uses to describe the possession in the narrative called “Ravissante.” Perhaps he wakes up into a “little death” because Chrysothème ran out of juice, and was finished having her way with him. Charming, indeed.

At this point I’ve run out of steam a bit, and might come back to expand on this later. I am unfamiliar with Philip Challinor’s interpretation of this story, but would love to hear his or anyone else’s thoughts, as I understand any singular take on his work is inadequate, and rightly so. As Aickman quotes Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end it is the mystery which lasts and not the explanation.”

Meanwhile, it is October. The trees are tuberculitic, and will soon enough spit out their veined leaves like orbs of blood onto the ground, onto the wet streets and lawns. As splendid a time to read Robert Aickman as any. I recommend everyone do so.

*Robert Aickman had a collection published in 1977 titled ‘Tales of Love and Death.’

** If so, it has a strong, structural similarity to Fredric Brown’s 1960 tale, “The House,” an even more abstruse weird tale that, like “Ravissante,” is more mysterious than it is unsettling. And it is unsettling.

*** I am also not averse to the hilarious idea that Madame A is simply a dirty old lady who likes to make young men smell her underwear.

**** Phrase courtesy of Hilda Hilst.

“the magnetic under-mind” of robert aickman.

For those who don’t know, Robert Aickman (1914 -1981) was a British writer and conservationist widely regarded as one of the finest craftsmen of ghost stories in the 20th century. His writing did not really conform to the traditional contours of the supernatural ghost story, however; often times, his ghosts are interior, psychological, environmental. Their manifestations are curiously unresponsive to logic, they are more like fragments of former beings rather than specters. Their broken and dispersed nature brings to mind Fernando Pessoa’s use of heteronyms, which he said were mutilated versions of himself. The supernatural or ghostly in Aickman’s work is often a mutilated version of something, and reading him can feel like being tasked with reconstituting the mutilated body with all its constituent pieces, knowing that you are doomed to end up with three arms and one leg, and four lips with no nose.

And yet the task is exciting. Sometimes reading him is like reading a mystery tale which you suspect, even dread, consists of literally nothing but red herrings. Other times he cowers you into an oleaginous puddle slopping into the corner in fear, bewildered and scared with no idea of what it is that’s frightening to begin with, let alone why.

An overview of the margins, signposts, and boundaries of Robert Aickman’s world: the starched, firm collars of the business introvert; the vanishing British countryside, devoured by real estate interests and exhaled as middle-class suburbs; slate-gray train stations; emptied sea-side towns, damp as handshakes; the innards of bureaucratic institutions, scrubbed and inscrutable, reeking of cleaning chemicals and power; second-class, provincial theaters beaming with dull, tarnished glamor.

I would say that his work could be compared to the American Henry James, with the tremendous caveat that I find James’ work indescribably boring the majority of the time, and that Aickman is the more sensual, poetic, perverse, and technically skilled writer.

To bring this comparison out, a quote from Italo Calvino’s introduction to his own Fantastic Tales seems called for: “With James…the fantastic genre of the nineteenth century has its final incarnation. Better put, its disincarnation, since it becomes more invisible and impalpable than ever: a psychological emanation or vibration….The ghosts in Henry James’ ghost stories are very evasive.”

This is a point worth drawing out. I think we can indeed consider Aickman to be in a 20th century branch of Henry James’ lineage, with British predecessors such as Walter de la Mare coming before him and working in a similar, familial idiom. Like James, Aickman’s stories are psychologically centered, with the supernatural at times seeming to be the exteriorization of mental distress and neurosis – although a fundamental aspect of Aickman is that his work can never be reduced so totally. His work rarely performs tropes, and hardly ever hums the standard bars of tradition. Like the Symbolist painters he sometimes mentions in his fictions, his symbols are diffuse in their meaning; they are multiple, open. Nonetheless, I believe that at least some of them can be pinned down.

If we consider Aickman’s supernatural to be a disincarnation of the fantastic, it is a disincarnation that remains more bodily focused than James’, more sexual in its concerns and manifestations, and never wholly impalpable. These disincarnations, rather than making the fantastic less strange or more normalized and domestic (as arguably you could say about James), instead seem to make it more alien, more incomprehensible and other than ever. The famous quote of Aickman’s that “the ghost story draws upon the unconscious mind in the manner of poetry” is apt here. Aickman’s own brilliant phrase for the unconscious was “the magnetic under-mind,” which is both stylish and punning.

In Aickman’s stories, the under-mind undermines, and what it undermines is often the narrator’s own conscious self-image, sense of bourgeois comfort, or belief in materialism. It undermines the trail of mythologies we make about ourselves and the places we live in and the people we say that we love. Most particularly, it undermines the reader’s expectation for a neat, closed, and readily explicable ending. But again, this under-mind is not the totality of the supernatural for Aickman; it is just one valence of it, one agent. Along this line, it is important to note how the “manner of poetry” statement above finishes: “[the ghost story] need provide neither logic nor morals.”

This rejection of logic is one reason why horror scholar S.T. Joshi believes Aickman to have a basically surrealist conception of the supernatural. Whereas I, as I have hinted above, would argue it is actually more symbolist.

(To be continued in a second post).

Lorenzo Mattoti, 'The Raven.'

Lorenzo Mattoti, ‘The Raven.’

blogs as tract homes, and a nocturnal improvisation.

Newly minted blogs are like rows of shining suburban tract homes, radiant with banality, waiting for their audiences, like young couples, to move in and make something of them. The realtor can provide a lovely array of designs and pre-made arrangements for the positioning of furniture, yet most blogs – like actual houses in the US – remain untenanted by an audience, although for altogether opposing reasons. And yet the seething blogosphere mimics the overcrowding of urban apartment buildings in cities such as Hong Kong, what Michael Wolf calls an “architecture of density.” (The metaphors that come to mind to describe this packed electronic architecture tend to be biological, and aquatic: crabs in a barrel, sardines in a can.) Blogs are suburban in that the majority of them are superfluous, vacant, and uniform, but urban in that they are packed together in a manner worsening the underlying condition – in this case, the deafening hum of surplus cultural noise.

Today’s contribution to cultural sprawl comes in the form of a fictional improvisation I wrote a month back. I gave myself half an hour, and chose the two words “time” and “rain” to go from. It was brought about by coming across a quote of Jorge Borges’ I had written down in a notebook. I think I originally found it in an anthology by Alberto Manguel. I’ve always found it an oddly moving statement.

And yet, and yet, time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that tears me apart, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.”

David Horowitz, Untitled Piece.

David Horowitz, Untitled Piece.

‘There was rain over everything, rain that pirouetted up and down eaves, cascaded across hillsides, suffocated avenues and clogged parking lots, rain that came inside, did not know the boundaries where it was allowed to rain or not, rain that trickled through shut casements, rain that screamed out of ceilings like an angry mouth, rain that poured into glasses of milk, rain that soaked freshly made bread, rain that ruined crown molding and formed bacteria which later killed the owners of houses, rain that destroyed various pieces of fungible electronic equipment, rain that drowned small animals and gave children colds.

Then as quickly as there was rain, there was no rain left. The world ran out of rain. The rain shortage became a drought, and crops began to die, and the spaces of the planet that had been laid aside, demarcated, and given permission to be land, were swollen and parched like a tightening throat.

Salt water was brought up from the oceans and boiled and then used to irrigate fields, but this was expensive and took a lot of time. But fortunately the shortage of rain was replaced by an excess of time, and time itself began to slide down the sky like a smear of blood, and time introduced itself to hot plates of food, and dribbled and sopped and spattered all over vacuumed carpets, and groaned down entryways.

Because the human species is constituted by time, rather than moving in it like a liquid, like rain, some of this gross excess of time turned into flesh. Flesh that wrinkled itself and tumbled over steps, flesh that sat green on white tablecloths, flesh that burned redly on cement, flesh that grew sores and pimples, flesh that dissolved as if with acid and left awful smells lingering, flesh that convulsed and throbbed, flesh that reproduced, etc. Some of this flesh began to be used as food, or at least, the flesh which did not fall rotten from the time, or which was not horribly mangled or injured – as the flesh for some strange reason did all the things and had all the things happen to it that normal flesh does.

This soon became the main diet of everyone, but still there was so much time that everyone kept eating because there was nothing to do. But there was too much to eat. The days sat wide and open like a vastness of plains and never seemed to end. Soon the days became so large they dwarfed everything else, and the entirety of human existence winked out like a dead star under the hugeness of the days.

Soon no one even knew they existed, they were so small. And some time after that, as the days outgrew the universe in every direction like a boy hitting puberty, maybe they didn’t.

Let’s say they didn’t.’

connecting links.

Adolf Hoffmeister's "The City of Lost Time."

Adolf Hoffmeister’s “The City of Lost Time.”

In the staid and venerable blogging tradition, here are a series of links which may be of interest to those who find this blog to be of interest.

1) I Want to Believe. First up is an excellent essay about a topic I’ve been kicking around in my own empty and whistling skull for the past few days: conspiracy theories. In particular, their relation to reality-based theoretical concepts and narratives. Do they, in fact, taint systematic critique by a kind of association, so that talk of corporate power and structures of control become mingled in people’s minds with glutinous, carb-based alien lifeforms from the planet Sillkkkkksh? Above and beyond the obvious differences, what are the similarities these theories have to things as they actually are?

As it turns out, according to Jarrod Shanahan, these non-reality based conspiracies can actually be useful for helping people to think around the thicket of received opinion about democracy and freedom and the “free market.” It ends on a very simplistic paean to the power of the working class and the need to rise and so on, but it’s a good read, and better written than some of the obtuse stuff the New Inquiry posts. And I’ll take optimism any day at this point, over bog-standard reflexive defeatism. In one of the more interesting paragraphs, Shanahan says:

“The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple….whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds….beneath the purported chaos of a modern world seemingly driven inexorably toward its own destruction, a secret logic hums away, unseen, yet steering with the circumspection of a protective father. In this way the conspiracy theory is a secularized monotheism which replaces our dearly departed God with an equally shadowy intelligence serving the same omniscient function. Sometimes it even lives in outer space and knows what we’re thinking.”

This point of conspiracy theories reflecting (or refracting) the logic of monotheism is an interesting one, although I am somewhat skeptical at a moment when many so writers today find the logic of monotheism everywhere. I might suggest that the theological frameworks of some conspiracy theorists are more polytheist than monotheist, simply because the various absurd or racist figures that fill them (Freemasons, Jews, Illuminati) are not privileged over one another, but often co-exist in the same conspiracy, cooperating within or vying for control of the power landscape. And this analogy seems to shrink monotheism into something which has no function other than to console believers that there is a direction and underlying purpose to the planet’s shoddy state of affairs.

More importantly, he suggests the succinct thesis: “The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism.” The modern conspiracy theory then, is a mythologizing and obfuscating theory, rather than one that has literally no basis or interest in reality, such as those stemming directly from Public Relations campaigns, like “America promotes freedom,” “Capitalism is the only way,” “The Democrats support unions and the working class,” and “Republicans want less government.”

2) “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” written by David Graeber for Strike! Magazine. It discusses the discarding, off-shoring, and out-sourcing of productive labor, and its replacement with un-productive clerical and administrative jobs, as well as service work. Graeber argues that the uselessness of certain professions creates a psychological violence on those performing it, and in tandem with a “mobilizing resentment,” results in meaningful work (that of teachers, garbage collectors, longshoremen and women, mechanics) receiving low pay and general disdain. Nothing earth-shattering, but worth the read and well-written.

“While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.”

3) “You Can’t Hurry Love,” by Subashini over at the wonderfully named Blog of Disquiet. This is a wide-ranging essay that covers topics such as: the “Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple,” with their “gym-toned bodies” and “identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-but-ourselves faces”; the disappearance of the individual into image; the colonization of desire; and Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna. Really an excellent piece of writing.

4) “Fantasy and Revolution,” an old interview from 2000 with China Mieville on the relation of fantasy and SF  to left politics. A relevant excerpt: “Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the ‘escape’ that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it’s precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it’s not nearly fantastic enough. It’s escapist, but it can’t escape.”

5) Fallen Master of the Macabre: Jessica Amanda Salmonson discusses the life and work of Vincent O’Sullivan, a lesser known writer of late 19th and early 20th century horror fiction, who knew Oscar Wilde, and died in a “pauper’s grave.” Here she tantalizingly mentions a difficult to find tale of his, seemingly a conte cruel, which will bother me endlessly until I can read it:

“Additional Decadent tales are “Will” from The Green Window (1899) & his rarest story, “The Monkey & Basil Holderness.” The latter appeared in only in the Yellow Nineties journal The Senate which Vincent regarded as superior to the Savoy & the Yellow Book. It was published by two brothers of Manchester who forever after retained Vincent’s affection, for he wrote of them: “The two Bynges who, unlike most of the Yellow-Bookites, had a strong sense of humour, regarded the whole thing as a huge joke, & one day they defied me, who was the shocker of the affair, to write a story which would explode all their subscribers. I accepted; & the story, called ‘The Monkey & Basil Holderness,’ had certainly had the desired effect.”

Indeed, Vincent’s tale made such a stir that the journal was censored, matrons no longer submitted their rhymes, while Vincent was declared “morbid & unhealthy” & castigated as “no English gentleman,” the day’s supreme vituperation. The magazine ultimately folded on account of the reaction. The story of Basil & his monkey has lost none of its shocking nature in the century since, & is probably the grimmest & most perverse of all “beauty & beast” variants ever penned.”

All I have read by Sullivan so far is “The Master of Fallen Years,” from John Pelan’s Century’s Best Horror, “The Abigail Sheriff Memorial” out of F. S. Greene’s Grim Thirteen anthology, and “The Next Room” in a Richard Dalby antho. The first two were excellent, the latter, not nearly as much. I look forward to reading more.