thomas owen, the house of oracles.

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I have just finished Iain White’s translations of Thomas Owen’s short fiction, The House of Oracles and Other Stories, published by Tartarus Press in 2012. White did a marvelous job for Atlas Press with Jean Ray’s novel Malpertuis, and Owen’s prose flows smoothly in this collection. I am unsure if it’s a stylistic similarity born of Owen and Ray being Belgian writers of strange fiction (in the so-called Belgian School of the Strange, including others like Franz Hellens), or if it’s that White’s prose translation is consistently marked with his own brand of evocative, but precise and restrained sentences. If I had to guess, I would imagine the similarity is due to Owen and Ray being literary compatriots – after all, they are the two biggest names in the L’École belge de l’étrange. Both occupy a sort of middle ground between popular writing and what White calls “art writing,” and both have a love for obscure epigraphs (as with a lot of Francophone writers, this is probably due to Poe).

Owen’s epigraphs come from all manner of sources: the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the Egyptian-French surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, the Spanish playwright and novelist Fernando Arrabal, etc. Sometimes the unexpectedness of the quotations leads to an underwhelming or disappointed feeling in the tales themselves, when he uses a colorful epigraph to introduce and decorate an unremarkable piece of work.

Edward Gauvin wrote that Owens “[refines] what we might in English call the tale of supernatural horror to an almost anachronistic degree of classical purity.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to say anachronistic, given the number of other writers of the time also at work as specialists of the short tale of horror: Richard Matheson, Robert Aickman, Charles Beaumont, Shirley Jackson, and many others. Though taking into account the broader view of other contemporaneous literary trends – the “New Wave” of science fiction; the art-writing experimentation of Gass, Hawkes, and Barth; L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poetry – any sort of traditional narrative work could be accused of anachronism, and most of all the horror tale and its centuries old lineage.

Gauvin goes on to make a perceptive remark that Owen’s writing felt like a “throwback” even during the time of original publication. He “[stripped] them of time and place until they addressed some eternal, essential condition.” There are a number of recent writers of horror and fantastic fiction who do this, who choose not to embroider their work with the textures of their own time and instead create a literary any-where, an ambiguous vague-scape that could just as well be 1912 as 2016. Ligotti does this here and there, and Marks Samuels and Valentine are two other occasional peddlers of placeless-places. As for predecessors, one could mention M.P. Shiel, Marcel Schwob, and even Poe himself from time to time (“The Masque of the Red Death”), although Poe often worked present day science and cultural concerns into his writing.

This method sometimes comes across as underwhelming to me, and I am reminded of J.D. Beresford’s remark that when writers of the strange all set their works in the past, it is probably because the strange no longer speaks to us, and we have no more to say. I am tempted to suggest this sort of work is not merely traditionalist, because the work we call traditionalist we can often place within a particular time period by inferences from the text (references to gas-lighting, mesmerism, galvanism, cryogenics, suffragettes, theosophy, rotary phones, omnibuses, theories of ether, hysteria, Yellow Peril, and so on.)

For instance, when I think of Machen, I think of fin de siecle London. When I think of Lovecraft, I think of Depression era New England or New York. But conversely, this stratum of strange writing takes traditional structures and plots and strips them nude of all temporal reference, like a mortician undressing a corpse for embalming. And these are sometimes thoroughly embalmbed works, stuffed museum pieces that trade the frisson of engagement with the specific fears of the present for an uncertain, almost Beckett-like nowhere atmosphere. They can be exciting at times, but taken as a whole, as a trend, the stories can come across a little timidly. The most hackneyed and unimaginative realist work at least operates within the present and encompasses all of its mundanities, terrors, and cultural fixations, even when it does so in a banal manner.

(I read a middling Edgar Wallace doppelganger story a week ago, and towards the end it had a section where the protagonist traversed London at night, passing costermonger’s carts chained to walls, passing industrial coal works and puddle strewn lots, and the sequence was remarkably vivid even in the five or six sentences it helped itself to. You can tell it’s Edwardian era England, and a historian could probably pinpoint it to within a couple years of the 1910 that Wallace published it in. I really don’t think this is something to be undervalued.)

(Anyway.)

Sam Szafran (b. 1934), Winding Staircase.

Sam Szafran (b. 1943).

Owen’s work is of a piece with this trend of placelessness, but it has a fair amount to recommend it, and in a number of stories he achieves a brilliance sometimes achieved by earlier “essential” writers like Shiel. There are also several discernible modes he operates in.

One of these is an almost Aickmanesque tale of uncertainty, where explanation is not given and what actually occurs is oblique, arriving at an odd slant (“My Cousin,” “The Lady From Saint Petersburg”). Another is his take on the cruel tale, evidenced in pieces like “The Park” and “The Passenger.” There are even a few creature features, with “The Black Ball” and “The Castellan” (though I’m not certain the latter is really classifiable in that way.) I feel the remainder are rather tired genre exercises, where the ghost is really the protagonist, or a sensual encounter with a beautiful women in a stately manse is revealed to be a sordid liaison with a pickled corpse in a drainage ditch outside Brussels.

Circularity is a theme in Owen’s work. Over and over again, the ending of a tale becomes the beginning, and the tail leads the reader directly back into the mouth (“The Desolate Presence”). Owen summons the olde ouroboros plot often enough it’s sort of like he didn’t listen to the hoary advice given to sorcerors about calling down what they call up. He called the fucking thing up once and it just stuck around. He lost his wand or something, and now it pilfers the fridge and shoves its snout into everything he writes. As with another perfectionist of the supernatural, Basil Copper, Owen is best when he can’t be arsed to follow genre convention and packs his bags for stranger weather. And, for the thimble of mealy millet it’s worth, my own opinion is that no one is likely to top Alfred Noye’s 1940 tale “The Midnight Express” for this species of plot (it’s very, very akin to Borges, yet written over two full decades before Borges was translated into English.)

I would say there are three really excellent stories in House of Oracles. These are “The Sparrowhawk,” “The Castellan,” and “15.12.38”. The first two are a step ahead of the third, and none of them neatly fit with the above arbitrary categories I’ve complacently whistled and then insisted on shoving Owen’s work into. They all have features I love to see put together in horror fiction, and which seldom are: ambiguity and gruesomeness. This marrying of gruesomeness with ambiguity can be seen in a handful of weird writers, but not that many all together. L.A. Lewis, Edward Lucas White, and Ramsey Campbell are the most well known of these writers, off the top of my head. There are others, but the list is not long. Writers who pride themselves on their subtle insinuation and misdirection tend not to go for the overt, bloody image; those who love severed hands and policemen eaten by demonic dogs don’t generally concern themselves with what-ifs and poetic suggestion. The perfect horror writer for me would be someone who could combine something like Oscar Cook’s “His Beautiful Hands” with John Metcalfe’s “The Bad Lands.”

This rarity in mind, I do value these three stories of Owen’s. I roughly categorized “The Castellan” as a creature feature, but it does not really fit that label. If the Castellan is a creature, he is not in any pantheon I’ve ever heard of. Three men are waiting out an inclement, howling storm, when the sound of flute-playing can be discerned through the wind’s terrible racket. Christ in hell, who would be playing a flute in the middle of this gusty nightmare? Let’s not open the door, fellas. And yet the door opens of itself to show a handsome, smiling young man dandily holding a flute in his hands. He sits himself down at their table, near their fire, and introduces himself as the Castellan. He cheerfully inquires into their employment, then makes menacing, veiled remarks to the treasurer sitting in the armchair about how money “burns the fingers terribly.” They begrudgingly offer him some wine, and he begins to take off his gloves…

It was only then that, with horror, we saw the Castellan’s hands. They were hands of a hideous emaciation, like the feet of a bird, corneous, the fingers curved like claws, bristling at all the joints with protuberances such as one sees at the articulations of suits of armour. The nails had grown into long, horny talons…

And how unimaginably fleshless they were! It was as if successive layers of skin and flesh had been sliced away until all solidity, even that of the bones, had vanished. Seen from the side, hands such as these no longer appeared human.

At this point, I was moved to reflect, “Just how much of horror is based upon deformity, disability, cultural and sexual difference? Maybe it’s all awful shit right down to the bottom and we’re all sick bastards for enjoying it.” This of course isn’t quite true in any case, and we are all sick bastards for enjoying it, but the (fascinated) doubts vanished when it became clear that the boyish Castellan is not human. He is instead an entity out of some bizarre folk-tale Owen himself has invented. The situation escalates quickly once the Castellan observes how unnerved the three men are, and takes no small offense. The events to follow are gruesome, brutish, and mysterious. Just how I like it.

“The Sparrowhawk” is both stranger and heavier on the ambiguity. Owen sets up a really wonderful, and apparently naturalistic tale, of horse-traders setting out for shelter in northern Macedonia in preparation for selling their steeds once the worst of the storm (yet again) passes. This is also one of the few tales that has a locale pinned down, although the time period is elusive still. The traders arrive at a homestead on the steppes with the harvest of snow thickening. The bloated, lowering sky unburdens itself, takes its belt down a few notches and lets some of its frozen mass out. Night approaches. It transpires that one of the traders has been mortally wounded, was in fact wounded before they even left, without saying a word. On examining him in the cabin of their reluctant hoteliers, they find a sucking wound in his chest cavity, as if a large portion of it had been scooped out.

How this happened, and why it happened, is hard to explain. The surreal climax, like an even grimmer version of Philip MacDonald’s “Our Feathered Friends,” is once more gruesome and inexplicable. The naturalistic narrative is really a joy to read, and high on the intensity, and once the supernatural element arrives it kicks into even higher gear. There are many fantastic tales that begin naturalistically and then introduce fantasy in a way that cheapens the narrative or appears without point – this is not one of them.

“15.12.38” reads like a Twilight Zone episode until the very end. I am unsure if Owen had watched Serling’s series (this tale, from The Cellar of Toads, was published in 1963, well into the show’s run), but there are a number of stylistic similarities in its spatial displacement and feeling of paranoiac, existential threat. And then the ending comes like a kick in the stomach, a frank boot to the gut, and in its thorough nastiness, it does what the Twilight Zone would never have been allowed to do. Not as strong as “Sparrowhawk” or “Castellan,” this piece is even more inexplicable and malicious than either of them.

There are a few other oddities throughout House of Oracles. The oddest I would say is “The Blue Snake,” a short fragmentary tale which on the first reading struck me as a Kafka-esque father-fable. This is well out of standard genre territory. It’s neurotic, phallic, and appears to have very little logic impeding its disastrous, almost comical course. The only explanation I can arrive at without putting any effort into it is that it’s something of a sexual lament, of human sexuality ruining the innocence of the world. Since it’s two pages long and Tartarus books are pricy (lovely, but pricy), I’ll spell out the plot by telegram: Boy looks at landscape painting Painting very beautiful Live blue snake coiling at bottom frame Boy asks father to kill snake Father storms back firing wildly all over Misses every shot Shame all around. Shame shame shame

Most of the other stories, as I mentioned, are middling and unimpressive exercises buttressed by unusual surrealist epigraphs that left me yearning for something better. But Owen’s prose is precise and suggestive, and here and there a real pleasure to read. An example, from “Portrait of an Unknown Man,” also one of the better stories after the big three:

I threw the thread and those repellent scraps of crumpled paper, the bearers of such terrible secrets of which I had been, in my own body, the unconscious guardian, onto the fire. They made a great, green flame and filled the room with an odour of burning flesh and horn, such as one smells in a smithy when they are fitting a hot shoe on a horse’s hoof.

All right, one last example, from the same story:

If, for example, I wish to leave my room, I find that the staircase has vanished; if I decide to go into the garden, the lawn on which I set my foot is transformed into a lake in which I feel myself drowning; if I open a cupboard to remove some object, not only is the object not there, but the cupboard has no back, and through it, and the intervening rooms, I perceive the sky, with birds flying in it.

If I reason with myself, if I overcome my surprise, attributing it to some illusion, I fall down the stairwell, or am swallowed up in the water, or indeed, in opening the cupboard, I leave the house open to the weather and to thieves…

I wish Owen more frequently left for stranger pastures as those above, and as those found in “The Castellan,” “The Sparrowhawk,” and “15.12.38”.

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nights at serampore: a few favorite anthologies.

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

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

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

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

 

short fiction: the weeping hole.

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

****

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

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

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

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

Hey, you alright? I shouted. You okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am very thirsty, could I have water?

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

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

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

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

The old woman was singing now.

Baby let me play with your yo-yo

I’ll let you play with mine

Hey babe

I’ll let you play with mine

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

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

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

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

I felt a drop of rain on my neck.

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

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

Get you out of there? I asked.

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

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

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

Patrick. I don’t know what to say.

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

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

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

I was just jealous, Pat.

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

Pat…

Come on, reach and give me a hand.

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

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

I started to walk away, dazed, when

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

Ma’s name?

Our mother’s maiden name.

Why?

Our mother’s maiden name. Say it.

Tollway, I said. Etta Tollway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Matt Sampaio-Hackney, 2015.

opening the windows: arthur porges, “the mirror and other strange reflections.”

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

Max Frey, Meerestiefe. 1927. (Courtesy of Monster Brains).

I have been away from this blog for a long time. Something in the nature of seven months. In that time, I have not been smashed by an automobile, garroted, set aflame, tattooed to death, or suffered any other life altering incident that would prohibit maintaining an unpopular blog. I have been working the same old blue collar job and reading, mostly. Occasionally the exciting intervenes. But for the most part I have been reading novels and stories, and have written a few stories and poems, as well as a 6,000-ish word essay for the scholarly journal Aickman Studies, entitled “Beyond the Human Compass.” It is now in revision mode.

A few of the novels I read have been noteworthy. I finally read Dedalus’s reprint of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side. I read Gerald Kersh’s wonderful Fowlers End, courtesy of the valiant Valancourt. I found both of these marvelous, and both will be included whenever I open my mouth in response to the question of “favorite novels.” In process of reading John Fowles’ The Magus, and am soon to embark on Reggie Oliver’s new best of collection from Dark Subterranean, The Sea of Blood. 

This post, an instance of metaphorically airing out a stuffy apartment, is in response to Ash Tree Press‘ collection of short fiction by Arthur Porges, a lesser known writer and mathematics teacher who began writing fantasy, horror, and science fiction in the early 1950’s.

Porges is one of those writers whose mind operates as a compression device, reducing all of his tales to a length of three to six pages. What other writers say in five hundred words, he says in fifty. There may be something of style and panache lost in this reduction, but the ability is admirable and resulted in eminently sale-able pieces to Fantastic and other magazines. Regarding his own flaws as a writer, Porges says in his introduction that he is an idea man, and no great shakes with character. I am reminded of M. John Harrison’s statement of how some of his adolescent SF heroes were capable of head-fucking him like no other, but who possessed “the emotional range of mollusks.”

It is true that the characterizations in Porges’ stories are primarily either “nice guy wants girl” or “tough guy wants money,” with the odd seasoning of “scholar wants knowledge.” Given this deficit of character and prose style, most of the tales have little value in terms of re-reading, but there are a few tales that come through with genuine force and vividness. So much Silver Age SF and fantasy staggers along as if chained in prose’s foot-irons, unable to break free. It dances with vigor and admirable sinuosity, but seldom lets you forget the clanging of the chains on its feet. I’m reminded of a piece of cultural detritus from another world; the old-time fiddler Harry Kiker once described John Dilleshaw (a.k.a. Seven Foot Dilly) thusly: “He weren’t no extra singer, but he was real on the guitar. Them old-timers didn’t go in for foolishness, they went for the sound o’ them boxes.” Arthur Porges, a man with a mind of empirical and mathematical bent, was no extra prose stylist, but he went in for the stories.

And the stories have admirably versatile plots, always a feature I admire in writers (hello Tom Disch and Bob Leman). A few examples: in “What Crouches in the Deep,” a treasure-hunting submersible operator discovers that the Nazi commander of a sunken art-laden sub is still alive, but only in the loosest sense; in “Second Debut,” the mediocre brother of a famous biologist is injected with the DNA of a brilliant pianist who died in mysterious circumstances; “The Fanatic” features an obsessive who believes that many of the creatures we call ‘animals’ are actually predatory aliens engaged in reconnaissance work; in “Words and Music,” a story still smudged with mid-century Soviet scare, a failed musician receives the essence and thoughts of other people as classical compositions; the dissipated and homeless scientist of “The Moths” is visited by a species of moth that might hold the key to obtaining energy from the sun, but in a fit of pique and despair, lying in a filth and lice ridden bed at night, he crushes them in his fingers; the ironically titled “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” is truly one of the most harrowing conte cruels I’ve read in years, revealing with unsparing and unsentimental detail the indifferent and contingent brutality of nature and humanity. Likewise, “The Mirror” is just as determined to annihilate and murder the innocent and shatter illusions, whether of civilization or of domesticity.

This is another thing to be said of Porges: he may have some of the grating whimsicalities of Silver Age authors, some of their disposable commerciality, but he also possesses a darker turn that he is unafraid to explore to its final conclusions. In this respect I am reminded of Basil Copper, but to do Porges justice, I think he goes farther than Copper at twisting the knife in.

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There are a few tales with a Jamesian flavor, but with more gruesome tendencies than James (“Count Magnus” notwithstanding). A characteristic excerpt, from “Solomon’s Demon”:

The carving depicted a scene of nightmare context on the deck of a ship. One man, presumably the captain, from his dress, was cringing against the rail with an expression of sick disbelief on his face. He was holding a small black box, the size of a brick. Before him, a sailor lay dead. He appeared to have been a giant of herculean build, perhaps cock of the fo’c’stle, yet one of his arms had been torn off at the shoulder, and his face was a shapeless ruin of mangled flesh.

Three other men were engaged in a gallant but obviously hopeless fight with a most appalling monster. It was tall, much taller than the biggest sailor, cadaverously thin, and fearfully banded with wire-like muscles. One huge taloned paw still clutched the red rags of the dead man’s face; the other was cramming the end of the severed arm into the gaping mouth. The creature wore a sort of tattered grey robe, through which its pale skin, sparsely dotted with green hair, gleamed obscenely…

The thing was earless, and had only a single moist pit for a nose, but its mouth was a jungle of teeth like great glass splinters, running far back into the mighty jaws.

Porges strays into very different territory with “The Forerunner.” It is a piece of mysticism with Christian undertones, wherein a tropical bird, likened to Joseph with his coat of many colors, makes the most appalling noises at night in a suburban neighborhood until it is shot by a disgruntled man. The narrator sneaks out to find the bird, and seeing that it is alive, smuggles it back to his house to nurse it. He gradually realizes that the bird’s song, although extremely dissonant and repetitive, is a song of triumph, of grand announcement. The bird withers under his care and soon dies, but not before shouting, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” in between the bars of its song. Who exactly is coming is left on a note of ambiguity, and the tale retains something stranger than the Christian didacticism it could be taken for. Doubtless Porges had nothing of the kind in mind, but I picture the bird squawking out some of Albert Ayler’s spiritual pieces…

Behind the prose shorn of style, behind the corny jingoism of some of the characters, the vestiges of McCarthyism, and the kitschy fantasy so common in Silver Age work (“$1.98,” “The Fanatical Ford”), there lurks a writer of the fantastic who nurses more darkness and possesses more cold clarity than was typical for his time. The end of “The Moths” has something of cosmic beauty and tragedy to it; “The Second Debut” would be a fine addition to any speculative fiction anthology themed around music; perhaps “Mystery and Magic on the Steppe” will make it into the anthology of the cruel tale I’d like to get around to compiling some day. It would rival even the Birkin pieces.

interesting failures of weird fiction no. 1. “the aquarist” by j.n. allan.

Fritz Schwimbeck, Dracula.

Fritz Schwimbeck, Dracula.

There are several ways to strain against convention within the fairly constricted and classical structure of the horror or weird tale. You can bend it, like a spoon or a spine, by contorting the plot and expectations of the reader, introducing new themes and setting up reversals. Generic convention becomes a funhouse. The second way is through a heightening of the language, bringing a poetic sensibility to established stories. This latter path is the most frequent in contemporary weird literature and, sadly, the least stimulating and successful. Whether it is through the popularity of Creative Writing courses or the crossbreeding of genre with literary fiction, more genre prose writers now write well crafted sentences punctuated with deft similes. But too often it is as if they learned to write sentences, but not stories. The sentences act as meticulous, ornamented arcades guiding one through a building which is either nonexistent or entirely unconvincing. (This appears to happen often when literary writers venture into genre, happily thinking if they merely construct a series of ‘muscular’ and unassailable sentences that they will conquer the dark continent of horror, SF, or fantasy – or all of them at once.)

While this may be prevalent now in the world of genre fiction, there are of course numerous instances from the past. A more interesting failure of this variety that I’d like to focus on today is J.N. Allan’s “The Aquarist,” first published in London Magazine in 1981. London appears to be a literature and art magazine whose fictional focus is primarily lit-fic. Allan was a one-time contributor who appears to have published nothing else, and is possibly the pseudonym of another established editor and/or writer.

Like many stories that take the second path to the rejuvenation of old forms, there is little in the way of plot but there are a hell of a lot of pristine, cut-glass sentences. Allan describes a moray eel devouring an octopus:

After swallowing this wriggling arm the moray repeated the action, until the octopus was left with no arms; just the immobile bag of its body, like a pudding tipped out of its mould.

Aside from an impertinent semi-colon, that is a decent sentence.

The basic story is an old one: a mentally ill man kills his wife and her new lover, then the police come. The getting there is quite unusual with Allan, but I do wish they had decided to work more along the lines of Bob Leman’s “The Pilgrimmage of Clifford M,” which is written in basic prose but provides a heady revisionary working of the vampire tale that is a joy to read. If Allan had combined these two tendencies, “The Aquarist” could have been one of the best weird tales of the 80’s. Instead it is a just a curio piece, a worthwhile specimen of failure.

In this old-hat piece, the mentally ill man (and of course he is mentally ill; they’re all dangerous, right?) is an aquarium enthusiast who spends much of his time in a dark room studying and adoring his collection of octopuses. His wife Thelma openly carries on an affair with a man named Frank. Neither of the two seem to believe that the narrator (who is unnamed, of course, it wouldn’t be properly literary if he wasn’t) is cognizant enough to recognize their relationship for what it is. Our aquarist is obsessed with these two aspects of his life and the reader listens to his detached voice as it mumbles surgical sentences in which these two fixations merge into one. When spying on Frank and Thelma making out in the kitchen, his mind goes to a very bizarre place:

Thelma is always ovo-vivaparous at times like these, like my fish, Frank laying his tongue inside her head and letting it develop like an egg and hatch inside its mother. Thelma smiles as wrinkles like stretch-marks crisscross her skin and slowly but surely the lower rays of her tail fin begin to elongate and splay. Thelma inducing a kind of mouth-brooding. Her distensible mouth engulfing the head of this brooding male.

The most hallucinatory moment of the tale comes when he witnesses Frank and Thelma having sex in the bedroom (is it his bedroom anymore?). I will quote it in full because it is rather close to marvelous as it violently combines and reconstitutes species and sexual practices in a stunningly misanthropic portrait that would be clinical if it weren’t so batshit. It’s like pornography written by an alien biologist observing humans:

Through the keyhole I can see both of them now. With my eye at the keyhole I can hear the hiss and slap of their bliss, as my small bones creak and slip inside my head, my forehead creased on the handle I dare not twist. In the corner of my eye I can see the octopuses as well; I watch them mating in the aquarium, I watch the male extend his hectoctolyzed arm and touch the female very gently with its tip. Eventually he succeeds in placing the tip of his arm loaded with spermatophores inside the female, inside her bag-like form, impregnating the darker jellyfish fixed at the centre of a mass of tangled arms. The photophores round the rims of her eyes give off a blue light with a pearly sheen as I watch them; their eyes like great semi-circular canals set deep within their heads.  It is with a sense of unreality that I return my gaze to the key hole, a black slit like the wound from a knife; it is with a sense of unreality that I gaze at the object my wife’s fingers have revealed. It is unmistakably a plant bud of some sort, a strange corsage with involved and involuted folds of pale blue and bloody pink that seems to expand, that seems to exude a thin sanguineous fluid, making me shudder when I see its internal structure full of nerve-like filaments with a core that suggests cartilage.

And that right there is pretty much what the story has to offer. The techniques Allan employs to convey the narrator’s mental deterioration are for the most part as old as the tale itself. A number of conjunctions like “as if” are thrown out haphazardly to allow the writer room to engage in flights of fantasy – it was as if the patterns in the carpet turned into squid-arms, it was as if the blender were speaking to me in the timid orange voices of carrots, it was as if the suit were eating the curling iron, it was as if the writer tediously wanted every sentence to burst out at the reader like a jack-in-the-box, and so on. The narrator observes things without understanding their import, subject and object become confused, repeating figures such as “a black slit like the wound from a knife” pop up throughout to act as connective tissue to involve the reader in the dislocation and confusion of wife and self into octopus. The resulting murder of the cheaters and the arrival of the police are the triumphal high points of cliche defeating technique.

It is a story that has no heart and is written like an exercise, as clinical and inevitable as its narrator. At its core “The Aquarist” is a dense block of prose that fails to hide the fact that the plot is hackneyed and predictable from the beginning. The florid prose withers under such severe literary conditions and becomes more of a weedy emptiness than a buxom garden. The unity and consistency of the theme with its underlings of simile and metaphor are not powerful enough to make up for the lack of ingenuity. The imagination is restricted entirely to overworked prose techniques, leaving the tale incongruous, like a massive set of arms and shoulders balancing atop a pair of scrawny, wobbling legs. It is a curio piece and a brain-dulling failure, but one worth investigating for its sheer strangeness and its value as a study in why technique cannot always overcome worn ideas. And, certainly its greatest strength, it is very quotable. It can be found in The Penguin Book of Horror Stories.

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.

the skull’s worm eaten library pt. 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

the mammoth book of thrillers, ghosts and mysteries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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