nugent barker’s “written with my left hand.”

Nugent Barker, Left HandNot long ago I forked out a larger amount of cash than I am normally willing to in order to get a cheaper Tartarus Press book. Tartarus are a small British press specializing in supernatural and horror fiction, generally of the kind that is distinguished by its subtlety, ambiguity, and literate prose. Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, Hugh Walpole, Edith Wharton, and the Great One Himself, Robert Aickman, have all been put back into print by them, often in their signature beautiful cream-yellow dust jackets. I would have preferred to get their Marcel Schwob, but what ended up being most affordable was Nugent Barker’s Written with My Left Hand. I had read his poetic ghost story “Whessoe” (1928) in Richard Dalby’s The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, and the masterfully tense “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (1939) in one of the Hitchcock anthologies edited by Robert Arthur. The ad-copy written by Tartarus for the collection extols Barker’s versatility, and on this front, I was not disappointed, but somewhat contrarily wish he had erred more to one side of things – the gruesome – than the lighter, de la Mare-ish fantasies of sweeping lawns and dreaming widows and vases that levitate and interior thoughts that exteriorize themselves in ways visible only to readers who comb their texts with a fine hand.

The best tales in the de la Mare style tend to be those that run themselves, like the pedipalps of some dream spider, over your scalp so quietly and quickly than you don’t even notice them immediately, but react a second later, stirring uneasily in your chair, waving a hand up to slap at something that isn’t even there. You don’t actually get out of your chair, no, these stories are just too fucking quiet for that, that would not quite be middle class and dignified enough. And you might spill your pipe on the floor! And then the char woman would have to come in and clean it up, and honestly, she’s too busy staring into barren hearths and wishing she were in a Gothic novel to do that sort of chore this late. At their best, such stories (and it’s not fair, really, to pin their origin on Mr. de la Horse, others preceded him) are just as good as straightforwardly weird or surreal fiction in leading the reader with clammy hand to a bizarre, medicated, early-morning hallucination. They’re both insubstantial and airy at the same time as they are porridge-thick. Nothing might have happened, but it’s one hell of a nothing to chew on. Stories like Mr. Horse’s “A Mote,” Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room,” John Metcalfe’s “The Feasting Dead” (rather belies the title), Wharton’s “All Souls’,” Robert M. Coates’ “The Hour Before Westerley,” Barry Pain’s “The Diary of a God,” Chris Massie’s “A Fragment of Fact,” all do this.

When they are not good, Christ are they ever boring.

The obscure Barker (1888-1955) does run the gamut, although as I said, not focusing enough on his strengths. “Stanley Hutchinson,” about a talking pig and his demise and ghostly return, reads like a folk tale. It, like a handful of other tales, is written in a British dialect I am unfamiliar with. I have no clue how capable Barker was of phonetically rendering speech, but sometimes it sounds similar to American southern dialects:

It was whispered all over the place how the fat things should ought to grow up into swine of a special grandeur, seeing that their father was hisself a well-mannered pig, though his ways was less dentical than their mother’s, I reckon.

Barker dabbles in the conte cruel, delivering “The Six,” a concise and competent piece that ends in a just-barely telegraphed shocker of an ending, which is so dry that it runs the risk of bursting into flame. “Interlude,” one of the high points here, provides a more surreal take on the strange-tale tradition. A stranger comes into a sea-side town that seems to have become so lethally uninteresting it might as well have stopped time. People linger in the cafe, doing very little. The hallways smell stuffy, carafes hold the same stale water, wallpaper curls. The stranger sits down next to a local and shows him a box he has brought with him. The stranger invites him outside for a walk and opens the box, aiming it out at the water beyond. A patch of unearthly brilliant sunlight, the only sun in the gray town, appears on the sluggish waves. The stranger then takes the box into a department store and to an outdoor auditorium, each time bringing the box’s ability to summon light into the dreary town. Finally, somehow disillusioned and disheartened, the stranger sits on a beached boat with the narrator/local, and says to himself, repeating it as if lost, “All things run back into the sea.” Then, Barker relates in a matter of fact manner:

He plunged his head into the box, and died of the sunstroke.

What all of this means is, of course, uncertain, although that last image is reminiscent of de la Mare’s “The Riddle,” where the children climb into the old trunk and shut the lid over themselves, never to be seen again. There is a weak character study of a Spanish capitalist tycoon in “The Spurs.”. The domestic tale “Out of Leading Strings” struck me as is impenetrable in its banality, but might hold more than a first reading (from a mediocre reader) allows. “Gertie McNamara” is a middling tale of a coven of rural witches, livened up by Barker’s flair in describing spell recipes. A number of tales fall into this category of being lightweight and easily toppled over.

Darker in tone, and much more successful, is “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy.” Another British tale set on Guy Fawkes’ day, it is an atmospheric and cleverly written narrative. It begins in early morning, and Barker gives a wonderful picture of the scene:

The November wind had sobbed all night over Hannibal Terrace as though its heart were breaking. But dawn put an end to the monotonous sound, smiling at first, a little wanly, into those squalid windows, and eventually packing the narrow street with mist, and roofing the mist with a sulphur-coloured sky. Later, on to this shadowy daylight a back door was opened, and Mrs. Sayce stood, dimly visible at the head of her yard, clutching at a plaid shawl and earnestly passing her tongue over her lips:

“Ber-tie? Break-fust!”

She could hear the voices of her neighbours. The dark morning seemed to invest each one of them with a peculiar detachment: the voice of Mrs. Parslow; the voice of Molly Gunn; Lizzy Dixon’s querulous outcry; the measured, mournful tones of Thomas Cooling; Macquisten’s brutal laughter; Nancy Tillit, Arthur Tillit’s widow, calling stridently to Lily and Jack; the united, youthful clamor of the Glydds; Henry Glazer’s mincing, almost gentlemanly accents; the quick, high, frequent giggle of Edie MacKatter.

Barker’s writing is keen throughout as we follow Mrs. Sayce on her doomed journey through the English city and countryside in the early, sulphurous morning, carrying a heavy Guy Fawkes effigy for reasons which remain dark for us until the end. Barker’s shrewd sense of simile and his handle of metaphors credibly grown from the tale’s environment really shine here. It appeared in a Gawsworth anthology in 1934, and should have appeared in others since then.

the Nuge himself.

the Nuge himself.

After the bloody and humorous “Curious Adventure of Mr. Bond” (which I might do a separate entry on), the crown of the collection is “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” After a single read, I’m not really sure what in the hell it means. But it makes excellent use of the creepiness of old nursery rhymes that went adrift in the folk stream over the years and washed up on the shore of the present fairly incomprehensible and haggard, mumbling things to us which make little sense, in a breath of staleness and sawdust. It seems that Barker decided to construct a story around the titular limerick, which goes:

One, two, buckle my shoe

Three, four, shut the door

Five, six, pick up sticks

Seven, eight, lay them straight

Nine, ten, a big fat hen

Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.

This counting rhyme more or less holds the plot of the tale. The insistent meter ensnares the narrator into a fatalistic reenactment of an event that happened many years prior, and the innocuous rhymes become encumbered with sinister weight. This is a theme that has been done a number of times, but not with the same effect achieved here. Like Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo,” what begins as a conventional fireside frame tale becomes something unexpected. I’m reminded of the late guitarist Harry Taussig, who had a record he titled “Fate is Only Once”; in the realm of “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” fate can be many times over. This piece, “Curious Adventure,” “Mrs. Sayce’s Guy,” and “Interlude” pack a strong punch in a lesser known writer’s bibliography, but unfortunately the rest of the tales do not have their same dark intensity of vision. Nonetheless, these four deserve to be celebrated.

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

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

“the 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.’