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

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

Roy Friberg. Title, date n/a.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

the link in the wall.

Eugene Berman, Cassandra. 1942-43.

Eugene Berman, Cassandra. 1942-43.

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

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

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

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

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

loving the hideous.

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Shin Taga, Hand-Mirror. 1981.

“Love the hideous in order to find the sublime core of it.” – Mina Loy, Aphorisms on Futurism. 1914.

“Everywhere we saw half-ruined fountains, satyrs vomiting senilely, nymphs emptying wine upon the lambent flames of dying phoenixes, creatures that were neither satyrs nor nymphs, nor gryphins, but grotesque adminglings of all, slain by one another, with water gushing from wounds in belly and thigh.” – R. Murray Gilchrist, “The Crimson Weaver.” 1895.

 

More posts forthcoming. Am reading Tales of the German Imagination edited by Peter Wortsman, and also Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks. I will also update the hopefully-soon-to-be-a-proper-series, Neglected Weird Fiction, with rambling, gnashing, and inefficacious sophistry. I would tell what story I’m planning to use but that would spoil it now, wouldn’t it? (Also seriously considering picking up Stories and Essays of Mina Loy by the great Dalkey Archive. But then again I am also seriously considering picking up almost everything because I am a fucking shameless addict and shelf-sniffer.)

l.a. lewis, “tales of the grotesque.”

"Tales of the Grotesque" in a new paperback edition by the UK's Shadow Publishing.

“Tales of the Grotesque” in a new paperback edition by the UK’s Shadow Publishing.

I first heard of the British writer Leslie Allin Lewis (1899-1961) through John Pelan’s marvelous door-stopper Century’s Best anthologies. The inclusion Pelan decided on (operating on a one story per author basis) was “The Tower of Moab,” an arresting and visionary blear of oddity. It was one of several pieces in the collection that seemed to reach beyond its historical context and not merely gesture towards the future, but grab that future by the windpipe and throttle it. It was like Ligotti with the nihilism replaced with mysticism, and shorn of the tendency toward over-writing, yet to summarize it in such a neat way is both a disservice to Ligotti and to Lewis.

Like the work of another Edwardian weird writer, Edward Lucas White, there are no standards or fixtures of horror iconography in this collection, Tales of the Grotesque, recently reissued in affordable paperback by Shadow Publishing. There is not a single straight forward haunting or conventional monster. Instead, you find: the director of music for a local church stumbles on chords that open a rift between this world and another while in somnambulistic trances (“The Chords of Chaos”); a quake opens a hole in the earth, out of which come absinthe-colored entities that linger in the air and terrorize RAF pilots (“Haunted Air”); a traveling salesman goes on a drunk bender and sees visions of demons and angels hovering around a derelict tower built by a religious cult in the late 19th century (“The Tower of Moab”); a man believes his body has been taken over by a past incarnation, one that was burnt at the stake for witchcraft and manifests itself as a perverted feathered creature (“The Hybrid”); a girl falls into a different dimension while on a boating expedition, where she suffers a horrible form of torturous un-death being eaten by unearthly fish in a strange, greenish pool (“Animate in Death”).

Lewis is concerned with the ineffable, with his theosophical bullshit about the astral plane and the web between this world and another, but this concern is intimately bound with earthly grue, with black blood and tobacco-brown bones, and the guts that move inside us – the being that squirms beneath the skin. The mystical is clothed in flesh, and the dangers posed by piercing into the other world are not merely psychological. In “Lost Keep,” such veil-piercing is used to awful ends, as a power-hungry man transports his enemies to a mysterious castle surrounded by a limitless ocean, and leaves them to starve to death, or murder one another. At the end of the piece, the keep in question has been more or less turned into a Dakhma, or Tower of Silence, pungent with flesh, bursting with rot.

The Theosophical Society recurs throughout the collection, an entity frequently referred to by various narrators and protagonists, who oftentimes will subscribe to its newsletter or write articles for its publication (much as Lewis himself did in his life). They are a bureaucracy humming in the background of the stories like the faint sibilation of a radio from another room. They are an authority; they posses gravitas; they might explain things – except they don’t.

In the collection’s best story, “Animate in Death,” an amateur psychic investigator comes up against a force he has not exactly been prepared for by his theosophical reading and his experience with the society. In a humorous take on the psychic investigator genre, Lewis says, through the character: ” ‘It’s queer,’ he mused aloud, ‘how the man in the street always regards an occultist as a sort of case-hardened miracle-man. He is expected to go out into the most horror-haunted regions and hobknob with the Powers of Darkness as though they were a bunch of lawyers’ clerks.'” The investigator has a vague concept of what he is dealing with, but nothing more, and at the end fails to save both himself and the victim, effectively dying to save her. This sacrifice is not handled well emotionally in the text, and is executed on an off-note, but that sense of failure of dealing with such supernatural matters is palpable throughout many of these tales.

The edition I wish I had, and which costs about five beach-front houses.

Much of horror and weird fiction hinges on the conflicted relationship between terror and humor, the author’s deft handling of the text and modulation of its tone determining that it does not stray too far in the direction of the comic. A clumsy, ardent writer will pile on the elements of the horrible so that the fictional scale topples over on the side of the ridiculous. This can be used for intentional effect sometimes, particularly in such sub-genres as bizarro. However, several of Lewis’ stories reside in an uncomfortable zone in between the horrible and comic, uncomfortable both in the sense that they are successful examples of weird fiction and that they are disconcerting and jarring to the reader, who wonders how much control Lewis had over that tone’s manipulation.

The tale “The Hybrid” is one of these, concerning the aforementioned man being possessed by a wicked past self. His body begins to take on the qualities of a monstrous, half-human fowl, shambling around like a drunkard and hopping up on dressers and tables, perching on any height at hand. This quality seems preposterous, laughable, until the hybrid in question assaults the man’s wife in the yard. The description of the hybrid suddenly running with its odd limp at her marks a sharp twist of the dial between the silly and frightening.

In his introduction, editor Richard Dalby mentions that Lewis was invalided out of the RAF in the 1940s, and began a stage of his life in which he was faced with perennial under-employment. During this period, he destroyed all of his unpublished work “during a fit of manic depression.” Dalby speculates that these destroyed stories, like the “bitter drawings” allegedly made by Bruegel in his later years and which were burned, were too disturbing for publication at the time. It is difficult to imagine Lewis writing a story more disturbing than “The Author’s Tale,” in which the quietly sadistic author in question leaves his wife to be devoured by a band of flesh-eating, pseudo-vampiric ghosts – but there you go. It is a shame they are lost, but at least Tales of the Grotesque survives.

 

a review of “darkness, mist and shadow: the collected macabre tales of basil copper.”

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I’ve just gone through the first paperback volume of Drugstore Indian Press’ new edition of Basil Copper’s short fiction, Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper. The impression I get from reading the first volume of this collection of Copper’s work is competence. Nothing more elevating, nothing more damning than that. His fiction seems to be the artisan-like work of a tinkerer – someone sitting in their musty garage, the radio scratchily blaring out the news of the day, while they manipulate old rust-bitten spare parts salvaged from pungent lots and pick n’ pulls.

Many of the stories can be summarized, simply and accurately, as: werewolf tale, vampire tale, haunted house tale, etc. There is something to be said for dusting off an old frame and hanging something new in it, and Copper does this with a quiet, British panache. The tales are sprinkled with restrained sensual description that says: I could give more here, but I live in service of the tale, so I won’t. The sentences wink demurely, drop a suggestive hint about an open bedroom upstairs, and then depart without anything actually happening, leaving you on a staircase with two drinks in your hand, going “Eh?” The problem with this sometimes being that the tales themselves are not that interesting, with or without the fresh coat of polish on them. The reader wants to burrow into the world of the poetic sentences, (held back like a lover trying not to climax too soon) which seem so different from the world those sentences are contained by.

The narrators are all men named Carfax or Carstairs and they are all bachelors who, if you ripped their viscera open with an axe in a moment straight from one of their stories, you would find nothing inside but egg-shells, the smell of smug old leather, sticks and twigs of high-fiber cereal, and a copy of a book entitled The Enthusiast’s Guide to Marginally Interesting Hillocks. They crack and crinkle like dried bits of paper from a wastebasket, they whisper with the husk-like sound of wind through cardboard. They are, in fact, pretty fucking boring for the most part, and can be generally relied upon for sustaining a high level of not interesting you in the slightest throughout. These sorts of bachelor narrators are inherited from M.R. James, but with James they are charming, and with Copper they are something less.

Without any surprise at all, it is the fictions which push against this formula of difficult-to revive-tropes and slightly shit protagonists that are most engaging. “The Janissaries of Emilion” portrays a scientist who finds himself beset by troubling dreams of waking on a foreign shore, caught in the teeth of strong waves, awash in foam, looking out over an expanse of white sand, the hint of a great city in the distance. He is filled with the dread of a sinister event to come and has no idea what it could be, yet every new dreaming brings him farther up the shore, closer to that event. Copper’s handling of the dream’s gradual escalation is sure and steady, and the hallucinatory qualities of the beach just beyond the imaginary city of Emilion are actually given the narcotic glimmer of a dream (not an easy task). He makes a misstep with one effect – the whispering of an ocean breeze telling him “THE JANISSARIES OF EMILION” in all-caps like the script-card from a silent film – but overall the tale is gripping, and Copper demonstrates with the grisly ending that he never does anything by half. This is one of his most admirable qualities as a writer. There are no happy endings with Copper.

Even in a tale that falls in the category of the justified-retribution (a common theme with horror writers who feel like meting out moral justice) the retribution cruelly outstrips the crime. This is his famous “Camera Obscura,” likely the strongest tale in this first volume, and one I originally encountered in Albert Hitchcock’s Stories that Scared Even Me anthology*. In essence it is about the comeuppance of an avaricious moneylender, in the line of William J. Wintle’s Spectre Spiders. But it is the manner of this comeuppance which makes the tale verge on the conte cruel genre, despite the victim being a real, unpasteurized bastard rather than an innocent. The blithe sangfroid of the magical camera obscura’s owner is unsettling, the aura of genteel kindness over his absolute authority skin-crawling.

Gary Gianni's illustration for "Camera Obscura."

Gary Gianni’s illustration for “Camera Obscura.”

The strongest tale after “Camera Obscura” might be “The Cave,” which combines Jamesian elements with the unabashed grue Copper so enjoys. It begins with that tediously venerable frame-tale tradition of a group of wealthy men in a club at evening, sitting in a congealed layer of their own satisfaction, bloviating about a variety of supernatural subjects until one of them hits on a good story. This tedious erection quickly collapses and is forgotten as the actual narrative begins. Even here, the conceit is not far from the boilerplate – a traveler on walking tour through Austrian Tyrol stays at a bed & breakfast, comes upon a mutilated farm animal in the country, hears rumors about some beast slaughtering sheep and goats in the area. The locals, as they tend to be, are reticent to discuss it. The Jamesian device comes in the form of a 14th century church carving:

“Its long neck was disfigured by large nodules of immense size, the teeth were curved and sharp, like a boar, the eyes like a serpent. In its two, claw-like hands, it held the body of a human being. It had just bitten off the head, much as one would eat a stick of celery, and the carver had cleverly managed to suggest that the creature was in the process of spitting out the head before making a start on the meal proper….I cannot tell you what nausea this loathsome creature inspired in me; it seemed almost to move in its frame of dark wood, so brilliantly had the carver, an artist of some genius, depicted his subject.”

This creature, of course, (or creatures?) ends up invading the sanctity of the bed & breakfast and unpleasant things happen. It is the getting there that matters though, and Copper’s rendering of the inn-keeepers’ fatalism, the encounter with what might be the creature behind a massive oaken door with timber latch, the investigation of the cave – these are all done very, very well. The ending, again, is bloody and results in several demises, but is tempered by the apparent vanquishing of the mysterious creatures, as the cave they slink from is sealed by a mob of police and villagers.

There are several other middling pieces. “The Academy of Pain” is a decent conte cruel, but more or less an inferior re-working of H.G. Wells’ hideous “The Cone,” with half the suspense. “The Amber Print,” about a haunted print of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that changes every time one views it, might be the fourth strongest tale. “Doctor Porthos” is without doubt the worst, an execrably written, rushed smear of cliche and nonsense. I haven’t read a worse vampire tale since E.F. Benson’s “Mrs. Amworth,” and this one takes the smelly prize. “The Knocker at the Portico” is a Poe-esque psychological tale and “The House by the Tarn” is a haunted house piece that is much briefer and slightly better than the predictable novella length “The Grey House.”

Brilliant on occasion, the majority of Basil Copper’s output is competent and well put together. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it might be. Copper did what he pleased, but reading this collection I wish he had been more adventurous, less predictable and safe, more inclined to produce stories like “The Janissaries of Emilion” than the respectable and moralizing revenge tale “The Recompensing of Albano Pizar.” One of the reasons I love horror fiction (as well as other restricting forms, like say, the blues or the sonnet) is the challenge of working within a classical, strict, and established confine and nonetheless producing a work of surprising weight and beauty that coheres to every contour necessary in the tradition**. It is a supreme difficulty and when done well, there is nothing more exciting or artistically satisfying than taking the reader down the paneled staircase into their unconscious, and allowing them to find what is there in that warm, frightening, and lovely dark. When it is not done well, when ambition is modest, the plots rehashed, and the delivery not particularly unique….it begs the ungenerous question: “Why was this even done?” A question that Copper deserves somewhat better than.

 

* The Hitchcock anthology was actually ghost edited by Robert Arthur.

** The other reason is pushing against the boundaries when the time calls for it.

 

inhaling a staircase: oneiric monsters.

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Christopher Goodman.

 

“Now I could eat a piano, shoot a table, inhale a staircase. All the extremities of my body have orifices out of which come the skeletons of the piano…” – Gherasim Luca, The Passive Vampire.

* * *

I have grown up from the rubbish tips that line the town. I have two dripping piss-holes for eyes and a tail that drags along behind me, sucking filth from the earth and pushing it upwards towards my head, and gathering it there, so that it grows bigger and bigger, fouler and fouler. My tail is made from fish-bones and aluminum tins and the scum that accretes around drains. I hold up my head with my right arm, which is bigger than the left. I leave the left to hold my cane, which is just the post removed from a stop sign. My legs are always in motion, even when they are still.

I like to stagger along behind the fences of yards at night, so that anyone looking out their windows or smoking on their porches can see my radiantly sour head bobbing along above the fence line. Anyone that walks along the hypnotic streets during my hours will hear me whispering poetry in the mush-mouthed voices of bees.

If you listen, I will tell you of beds of roses vomiting in the pale psalm of morning. I will tell you of my daughter, who lives in the patterns of the carpet in the house of a retired philosopher in Brussels. I will tell you about sex, which for me is a solitary act, the melting of matter into other matter, the mutual decay of various ragpicked pieces of flesh and refuse, their slow tantalizingly putrescent cohesion into a one. I will tell you of meadows that hide satanic poetry in their skin, and exude it from their pores on nights with the coldness of bruises.

If you take my hand, my cold hand, my dead and moving hand, I will tell you how to write such poetry yourself.

* * *

It comes across the hall with the sound of little feet pattering, sounding like a vulnerable and frightened child. It is not a child though, but a creature called the Patterfoot. The Patterfoot is a dress-suit-black, umbrella shaped being that hovers in the air through a triad of tiny wings set behind its ‘head’ that vibrate with the speed of a hummingbird’s. (From a distance these wings are designed to merely sound like the comforting hum of a radiator.) It trails two hanging appendages from its body that swing down to the ground, and have attached to their ends small enamel hooves. These hooves are not used for mobility, but are instead manipulated by the appendages, like marionettes from a wire, to clomp along the floor in a manner similar to an excitable, if uncertain, human child.

When a concerned adult steps out into the hall, the Patterfoot propels itself towards them with uncanny speed, like a video that has been sped up, and ejects a noxious gas from a hole in the faceless hood that is its body. This gas at first chokes the air from the lungs like a fist squeezing dry a wet rag, and then slowly, over the period of an hour, deliquesces the body so that what was once a concerned adult named Steve (known to his intimates as Stevie) becomes a stinking puddle of melted matter.

The Patterfoot, being a concerned citizen, looks over this biological hazard and, unsheathing its lures – the hooves – reveals them to be mouths, which it hoovers up the unfortunate waste with.

* * *

The warmness rippled as I huddled against the father-bones. The father-bones were old and feeble but they still held me, still protected me from the dryness and death heat outside. I sent out all my tongues and shadows in greeting to the father-bones after my sleeping time.

It was my duty to protect the father-bones from visitors, the uglyodd and noisy things with their strange waving limbs and sounding holes and clumps of foul-smelling cloth on top. The little things wanted to destroy the father-bones, to erect new child-bones over them and fill them with more things. I had dealt with these thing-beings before. They always brought in their tubes of destructive fire that shot out rays that killed my tongues and shadows and they sometimes stole parts of the father-bones and took them back to their hell with them, their hell of deathlight.

The father-bones had stood here for many sleeping-times, and it was evil to disturb them in their peace. The father-bones held many spirits, held time like water in a carafe, and to evict those spirits or to dry that water was evil. The last time the thing-beings came they brought their tubes of fire and their hot scorching bodies clumped with cloth and began to take things from the father-bones. The father-bones’ tattoo of a stone moon, they wrenched down with their small idiot violence. It was a beautiful tattoo, cracked in places yes, but such lovely cracks, and such a wise old moon. You could tell it held many learned shadows in itself, was plentiful with the wisdom of tongues. It was a gentle coldness that emanated from it, and the thing-beings were going to take it with them.

Though I was afraid, I peered out from my corner and watched them, waiting for the right moment. One of them pulled out a long, hard looking object with a bluntness at the tip and began beating the father-bones with it! At the same time, another thing-being reached out with a hook to pull down one of the father-bones’ beautiful gold earrings. It hung on a silver chain from high up and the stupid thing-being began to tug it down. I had enough. I could hear the spirits screeching in fright in the thick marrow of the father-bones.

I jumped down, although I was still a small girl, and smothered the first thing-being. I put out its heat while it struggled and burned against me, singeing my shadows. I poured cold jelly onto its stench, I breathed water over it, I held it in its burning and smoking till it was still. My body ached with pain. I looked around and saw that the other thing-beings had fled. They were foolish and full of cowardice and greed.

They have not come back since then, but I hear them outside, outside the walls of the father-bones, scurrying and whining and scratching around. I heal for their return, and I wait for them so I can protect the father-bones. I will be ready next time.

Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.

Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko.

short note on m.p. shiel’s “the bride.”

Image

Hans Bellmer, Les Quartres Filles.

Here is what M.P. Shiel has to say about love in his 1911 tale, “The Bride,” written in his florid, fin de siecle influenced style:

“It was a lunacy, its name was Legion, it was possession by the furies; it was a spasm in the throat, and a sickness of the limbs, and a yearning of the eye-whites, and a fire in the marrow; it was catalepsy, trance, apocalypse; it was high as the galaxy, it was addicted to the gutter; it was Vesuvius, borealis, the sunset; it was the rainbow in a cesspool, St John plus Heliogabalus, Beatrice plus Messalina; it was a transfiguration, and a leprosy, and a metempsychosis, and a neurosis; it was the dance of the maenads, and the bite of the tarantula, and baptism in a sun.”

“The Bride” is an engaging tale, but one with a confusing and muddled end, and not in the good way. However, I found it much more successful than “Xelucha,” the tale Lovecraft glowingly referred to as a “noxiously hideous fragment,” but which I felt was baldly pretentious and successful less in discomfiting the reader than in boring her with the names of minor Egyptian gods. In that tale, the fin de siecle theatricality turns into a pathetic marionette parody of itself. Nonetheless, Shiel can on occasion marshal a splendid set of images, and this was the best passage from “The Bride.” Good horror, I think, depends more on the manufacturing of startling imagery than perhaps any other form of fiction, and this excerpt has it.

(I read this piece in Peter Haining’s Great Irish Tales of Horror, which was uneven but contained some solid work here and there.)

“a beautiful thing that never happened.”

Image

Andrew Wyeth, Christmas Morning. 1944.

(This is the first, rough draft of a story written as a whimsical flight of fancy based off a hypothetical could-have-been from writer and painter Denton Welch’s life, as mentioned in his journals. He said, nostalgically reflecting on a cross-England walking tour he took at the age of 18: “I suddenly wanted to be hiking and hearty and pre-war and pre-accident, everything young and careless. I wished that Eric and I had known each other when we were both eighteen and that we had walked miles together every day and slept every night in haystacks. I longed for it quite bitterly.”

Welch, of course, was hit by a car not long after this walking tour, and ultimately died of complications resulting from it in his early 30’s. He wrote that (emetically sentimental, wrenchingly wistful) desire from the crooked perspective of injury and damaged youth. As a statement, it interests me in that it comes from a literalized version of that perennial fantasy of the old: the wasted and damaged youth. For Welch, this fantasy was a reality, and the desire to have it undone, to pull back the cheap threads of time was more violent and truly spoken than the common bad-faith regret of the old. Although, a voice (through a cloud?) whispers into my ear with the warmth of seduction, “We all waste our youth. At least he had a real excuse; you certainly do not.”

This story then, is a representation of the impossibility of that bad-faith wistfulness of the old person, rendered literally. It should be no surprise then, that the attempt to go back and have things differently, does not work.

This is the first part; the second will be posted not long after.)

* * *

My leg was healed and clean. The knee was back in its right place too, and moved in joyful unison with my other bones. But more than anything else, my back felt strong and straight for the first in a long time. Walking again without a crutch was a revelation. I paced back and forth over the dull carpet with a frightening level of excitement, torturing myself with the desire to leave, to get going.

Myself and Peter left the damp warping fog of our home and penetrated into a warm and greenly wet valley. The strange whining noise that always nagged in our ears left us at last. As the beginning to our walking tour it seemed to bode well, and Peter’s face formed the charming smirk which passed for a smile with him on seeing the landscape before us. We had little money, and nothing really but our packs filled with bread and cheese and canteens of water. We were both about eighteen and on the edge, the cusp of our lives. We had been sleeping before, but now we were awake, and much was going to happen to us, we were sure.

We passed through a small wood whose packed earth was knotted about with vines like strands of thick dark hair, smelling somehow of cardamom but leaving a taste in the mouth like chocolate. We talked about coming across ruined holdfasts and stave-churches, but the wood was suffused with a brisk and unconscious health and anything like that would not have made sense there. Birds glimmered in between the foliage, puckered red moss glowed against the homely bark, leaves lay about the ground like carpets of melted-down bronze. Peter ran his hand across every patch of moss, his strong wrist leading it across the red fur as if it were braille.

There was an openness all around us. We were passing through a portico into another realm.

The woods sloped downwards into a hollow that leveled out and opened up again into the verdant valley, now strewn with cowslip and honeysuckle. My loose and springing legs carried me down the grade and I shouted with exuberance on the way. Peter was too caught up in that exuberance to roll his eyes or make dry remarks at me, and he came down smirking.

“Sourmeath looks a lot closer than ten miles ahead,” Peter said, gazing ahead in his focused way, oblivious to anything else. I don’t know what came over me – the getting over the awful injury, the rhubarb tint to his cheeks, the firm, warm wind coursing across and animating the landscape like blood filling an artery – but I leaned over and kissed him, right on the cheekbone. He stepped back a little bit, at first amused, then a look of hurt puzzlement came over his face and he muttered something indistinct. I looked down at my shoes, my fresh pair of boots, and wished I hadn’t done it.

“Come on,” he said. “Sourmeath will be the first stopping point on our journey, and I want to get there before evening.” Then he laughed, gestured forward with his head, and began walking through the scrubbed and glistening land. I sighed, looking up from my shoes to the sky, and saw that its former pristine blue had become chalky and calcified, incongruous with the scene below. Yet if anything, this just intensified the beauty of everything else.

A fire was in me to see everything around. The millipedes pouring themselves across the ground like living licorice, the timid mice excusing themselves into their dim burrows, the stilt-legged grasshoppers hurling themselves like missiles from their own trebuchet. I felt, with Peter’s body near me, flooded with its own churning blood and life, that I was enclosed by a history written with invisible ink all around me. A micro-history of unrecorded life, the histories and chronicles of storm-ponds, of the nests of spiders and the rise and fall of their heraldic woven arms, the furtive couplings shuddering in the quiet dark and damp of the beautiful unearthly countryside.

“It’s usually only this nice out when you’re stuck inside,” Peter said, grabbing hold of a tuberous purple foxglove hanging downwards into the path.

“That’s poisonous,” I told him. “Wash your hand before you put it back in your mouth.”

“Oh,” he said, looking somehow both crestfallen and detached at the same time. “Well, I guess some things have to be.” Then he smiled again and continued on ahead of me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen him so weightless, so unconcerned with making incisive remarks. He yelled something back to me about a cottage.

It turned out not to be a cottage, but an elevated hunting blind set off from the path about ten yards. It was built with plywood and looked extremely old. Worn cloth was set over the windows instead of glass, and it flapped against the sill in that same, seductive wind we could still feel even off the road. A mangled old bicycle lay against its raised posts in a heap.

Peter got hold of the first step on the ladder and began climbing up to the opening set in under the blind. Not wanting to be left behind, though fearing the blind’s stability, I began climbing. I watched Peter from below as he pulled himself up and I tried not to fall.

Inside it was silent but for the flapping of the cloth. The air was close and grimy with dust. Peter peered at some yellowed posters on the walls of outdated information about hunting licenses, a few pin ups of large and curvy women, and a black and white print of an old car of some make I couldn’t discern. Dust had settled on it so thickly it looked like a pale fungus.

The remains of a fire lingered in a circular pit, the ash gone from gray to white so that it looked like polluted snow. I looked upwards and saw a hatch that opened out to the sky. A rusted dead bolt was over it. I could sense the sky seething above it.

“Would hunters make a fire while waiting for their prey?” Peter asked, fingering the ashes with an extended pinky.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s been used as a shelter for wanderers, I’m sure.” I kicked at a rock from the pit and tried to imagine someone with a hunting rifle lying in wait here, piercing with lead any animal that passed by. It struck me as vulgar and out of place in this valley.

“What was once sordid is now quaint,” Peter said, apparently disagreeing. He threw open a cloth curtain and exclaimed something about a family of rabbits outside, then jumped down the ladder to the ground. He was moving back and forth between trenchant observation and thoughtless exclamation in a way I had not seen since we were boys, that bizarre capacity of his to shrug off existence and embrace it without question in the span of the same minute.

I stood there in that musty blind marveling at all of the things that must have happened just in this spot. But it seemed to me an ugly history and I did not want to think about it any more, so I climbed out of the blind and ran to catch up with Peter.

He was crouched in front of a hollowed out log. Behind the log was a group of four rabbits, all crouched down and staring at Peter with bright green eyes. They did not move. He made a motion to hush me.

“They were in a bush next to the blind and scattered when I came down,” he whispered. “I don’t know why they stopped running. They look out of their wits with terror.”

And they did. One appeared to be the mother or father rabbit, and the other three were under-grown, scrawny little things, all spine and fur. They all stared blankly ahead. A pendant of slaver hung down from the jaw of the oldest, suspended in the air with a stillness that was uncanny. They were all so motionless it was unclear if they were even breathing. They seemed separate from everything else around them. It was as if we were viewing them through a peep-hole in a penny view-machine on a boardwalk.

“Are they looking at us?” I asked.

“I thought they were,” Peter said.

We stood and watched but the animals remained completely still.

“I don’t think they are looking at us,” Peter said.

“What do you mean?” I was looking at the oldest one’s eyes, which did not blink or twitch in the slightest but which I could swear were aware of all going on around it.

“I think they’re looking at something behind us,” Peter said, and we turned around to look at the blind.

The blind had not changed in the slightest since we had left it, but where it was empty before, it was not empty now. How this was the case, I couldn’t say, and Peter probably couldn’t either. But just as I had felt the sky seething behind the hatch inside, I could feel some presence behind the plywood walls, just in back of the cloth curtains. It’s strange to say that I had no idea what kind of presence, but I didn’t. What I knew was that it was a vileness. It was the opposite, or the negative, of the brisk and healthy wood we had just gone through, a place or thing of dead birds and clotted vegetable decay.

But more than this I was certain that it was boring, tremendously boring. There was nothing in the world more boring and vile or emitting a stronger gravitational pull towards lethal, brain-deadening boredom. It was the cosmic boredom of pleasure-worn Greek gods or of certain old and entropic marriages of aunts and uncles.

I felt a vibration in my toes in reaction to it and knew instinctively if I did not step back I would have to steady myself or lose balance. It was drawing me towards it with a powerful inhalation. I looked over to Peter and he was rapt with wonder and fascination. He did not seem horrified in the least.

I grabbed his shoulder and he returned my gaze as if recovering from a stupor. I pulled the both of us backwards in the direction of the road.

“That’s a strange thing,” he said, and I could not find anything more interesting to say either. My mind was a bowl of rancid pudding and language was an undiscovered refrigeration. And I hadn’t even seen the damned thing. My mind would have stopped like a clock if I had glimpsed it.

We shambled away towards the road. As we reached its humble dirt outline, we turned back and saw the family of rabbits still frozen behind the log, looking at the blind.

* * * *