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.

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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?

neglected weird fiction no. 1. edward lucas white and ‘the snout.’

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Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Fantastical Tree. 1830.

Weird and horror fiction is a tradition that rings with the silence of the unheard. It is a tradition minor to the field of literature itself, and strewn with still more minor writers who have languished, unread, for years. In the long, long scroll of its Great Generic Text there are many neglected passages by authors who produced numerous works, or who just dabbled in the form, or who remained forever anonymous and wrote most of their output in sad and peeling hotel rooms, engulfed in a chalky and tawdry penumbra of cigarette smoke, their organic bodies in a footrace with their words to see which would cease first. (Or, in the case of some pulp writers, to see which could become more cumbersome and preposterous).

For this reason, I’d like to spend a little time recommending and discussing lesser known work from this field, which I have an unhealthy and not entirely explicable fascination with. This will be the start of a series, and the first entry in it features:

 Edward Lucas White, “The Snout.” 1927.

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Jindrich Pilecek, 1972.

Atmosphere is nebulous, hard to create and hard to define. It can’t be restricted to the mere vomiting of adjectival projectiles and constant weather updates. In the right place, a sentence as bare and simple as, “Outside, the streetlights began to turn on,” can exude atmosphere like a hothouse plant emits scent. In the wrong place, a line describing gutters as “yawning their wet gas of rain and garbage” can come off as window-dressing, like a useless and fancy curlicue obscuring an otherwise decent font. It is ultimately not just word-choice but placement, emotion, theme. Creating atmosphere by itself is going about things backwards; atmosphere is the by-product of everything in a story but itself. It is best when accidental, when it arises out of its environment like a weed in concrete. It just happens, but so often it seems to have a life of its own within a text, to loiter reptilianly in an abandoned lot – the only thing we remember about a novel – and to walk about on its own warm legs like a shadow that has left its owner.

Shadow. There is a good way of putting it. Atmosphere is a shadow cast by the body of the text, but without that body it is nothing but air and wishful thinking. You can write a shadow in without a body, but it will be thin as gruel and about as nourishing. (As case in point I would submit Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges la Morte.)

One writer of early horror and fantastic fiction, Edward Lucas White, has to be one of the best at casting the shadow of atmosphere over his reader. In the justifiably famous “The House of the Nightmare,” published in Smith’s Magazine in 1906,  atmosphere is dredged up like something evil from a lake in a marvelous economy of words. Without even resorting to more than one or two similes in the entire story, White brings to the tale a grotesqerie and violence, a shimmering hallucinatory quality not often seen in what is structurally a typical Edwardian ghost story.

One of the most desired for effects in horror fiction is that of the dream. A story must have some savor of the dream in it, that bitter taste of the unconscious when it (or they) speaks through you in its wet, dull voice, manipulates and uses the arbitrary assemblage called “you” like a doll. It is also possibly the most difficult effect to achieve, and the most tiresome and unengaging when it fails. In that story, and in others, White manages this effect with a masterful touch. This could be due in certain part to his literally drawing his fiction from his own vivid dreams, but a worse writer could not have replicated the feeling, the moment when (to borrow an image from the artist Suehiro Maruo) the unconscious pulls back the skin of your face and licks your eyeball.

Of his stories, the amazing “Lukundoo,” “The House of the Nightmare,” and “Amina” are probably the most well known, the latter due mostly to an inclusion in a Derleth anthology for Arkham House during its heydey. But I would like to bring to light a different and later story, one with the evocative title of “The Snout.”

“The Snout” begins as an Edwardian crime caper, with savvy crooks planning a heist of the manor of an eccentric old aristocrat, the wonderfully named Hengist Eversleigh, the son of Vortigern (!) Eversleigh. Hengist is an art collector and an artist, and has been accumulating fine horses, carriages, vases, and jewelry for decades. He owns the “biggest stack of loot in North America” and never leaves the confining walls of his manor. In addition, it is said by his hired guards and servants that he locks himself in the manor every night and lets no one in (or himself out) until the dawn. It is speculated that he spends these nights fiddling like Tartini’s Satan or painting.

The story proceeds up the winding and lonesome country roads leading to the property, and over the stone walls barring entrance, and through the gates and courtyards of the Eversleigh estate. They are lit with the light, and obscured with the dark, of a Paul Delvaux painting – or so I like to imagine.

Paul Delvaux, Bedroom by the Underpass. 1967.As usual for White, without installing any poetic fixtures within the manor of his text he manages to make the reader feel the cool grass of the Eversleigh estate, to smell the rank warmth of the night. His style is that of evocation, to suggest just enough that the reader fills in the rest from the dark matter of their own subjectivity. Thus, I see Paul Delvaux paintings of desolate houses and avenues.

The story proceeds inside Hengist’s home, through lengthy and unlit galleries and apartments, down and up and across innumerable spinal staircases, etc. Eventually, the crooks find Hengist’s personal gallery of his own work, and it is perhaps the high point of the story.

Close to me when the lights blazed out was a sea-picture, blurred grayish foggy weather and a heavy ground-swell; a strange other-world open boat with a fish heaped in the bottom of it and standing among them four human figures in shining boots like rubber boots and wet, shiny, loose coats like oilskins, only the boots and skins were red as claret, and the four figures had hyena’s heads. One was steering and the others were hauling at a net. Caught in the net was a sort of merman, but different from the pictures of mermaids. His shape was all human except the head and hands and feet; every bit of him was covered in fish-scales all rainbowy. He had flat broad fins in place of hands and feet and his head was that of a fat hog. He was thrashing about in the net in an agony of impotent effort. Queer as the picture was it had a compelling impression of reality, as if the scene were actually happening before our eyes.

Hengist Eversleigh’s paintings seem to predate some of the works of Max Ernst, especially the mythologically derived animal-heads of Une Semaine de Bonte. The hog-headed man is reminiscent of the frightful episode from “The House of the Nightmare” where a giant sow attempts to clamber up a bed. “Mr. Hengist Eversleigh is a lunatic, that’s certain,” one of the characters says; “but he unquestionably knows how to paint.” The home invaders of course eventually meet Mr. Eversleigh, after a long trip through the enormous manor and its many and curiously child-sized apartments and furnishings. I will say no more of it, but it is one of the finer pieces I read in S.T. Joshi’s The Stuff of Dreams: The Weird Stories of Edward Lucas White, published by Miskatonic Books. I would recommend purchasing the volume, but it is pricey and of somewhat crappy quality in terms of printed material. Instead, I’ll point to this link, where you can read a number of White’s stories including a few not included in The Stuff of Dreams: Darkside Fiction.