Rabindranath Tagore

Weird #10: “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

Rabindranath Tagore, who “is credited with originating the Bengali-language version” of the short story form (91), wrote several ghost stories. However, according to The Weird‘s editors, “The Hungry Stones” (1916) is the most “overtly weird, or supernatural” of his tales. It is the kind of short story known as a yarn, a rapturous tale told by a narrator who is probably making it all up, but who is nonetheless entertaining. Thus, there is no expectation for the storyteller to be believable or realistic, although the narrator’s story is framed through the viewpoint of a more trustworthy “I.”

My acquaintance with Tagore is limited, but he is a giant of Indian letters. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize and his advocacy initiated a literary renaissance at a time when the Indian independence movement was gaining steam. His Bengali-language novel Ghaire Baire, or The Home and the World, dramatizes the conflict between his love for European culture and his sympathies for the revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, who were revolting against European culture. This novel was somewhat famously reviewed by Gyorgy Lukacs, the Marxist literary theorist, who compared the revolutionary Sandip to Gandhi, even though Gandhi had not yet come into his fame.

In a sense, “The Hungry Stones” is also a revolt against European culture–a revolt of the senses and of the imagination against drab modernism. The order of India’s colonized, modernist present is upset by India’s glorious, sensuous and sensual Mughal-dynasty past.

The story begins with the narrator encountering an eccentric but confidently knowledgeable and talkative man on the train, who claims knowledge of the Vedas and the Persian poets. I had a sense of the narrator as a modern Indian since he has “no pretense to knowledge of the Vedas” despite the fact he shows enough devotion to be returning from a “Puja trip.” The strange man seems touched by divine knowledge. The narrator’s companion, a theosophist, claims he might be supernaturally inspired by an astral body.

While waiting for a connecting train, the two men are held captive by the fellow, who has their attention for hours as he tells his yarn.

The man claims he was a collector of cotton duties in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the city of Barich, in which there is a marble palace built for Emperor Mahmud Shah III’s pleasure. The palace still stands, abandoned. When the man ventures inside, he is confronted with the loneliness of the deserted building. However, at night, he hears, but does not see, the pattering feet and the charming giggles of Persian damsels as they playfully chase each other and bathe in the reservoirs. The speaker feels a thrill of desire and curiosity and becomes raptured by the dream of the marble palace, so much so that his ordinary life, in which he wears a short, English coat and tight breeches, becomes an absurd dream. “It seemed as if a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through,” he says (91), suggesting how the two eras of history are parted only by a voyeuristic veil. In a way, colonial India was also characterized by this sense of the simultaneity of different historical eras, with the modern and the medieval coexisting side by side.

Though this story is certainly more delightful than Hans Heinz Ewers’s grim “The Spider,” it still makes a similar connection between seduction, decadence, madness, and death. In Ewers, Bracquemont’s fate is at one point compared to that of a spider who lures another spider into her web and eats him. In Tagore, the cotton duty collector is lured by one Persian maiden in particular who “beckoned [him] with her five fingers bedecked with rings to follow her cautiously” into “one of the thousand and one Arabian Nights … a trysting-place fraught with peril” (93). He becomes ecstatic with the richness of this new world, where he dresses like a prince, shedding his modern clothes. The Arab maiden treats him with “a caress and many a kiss and many a tender touch of hands,” seducing and entrapping him so that he gives up his “queer English coat and hat for good” (94). The palace consumes him like Ewers’s spider. Only the cry of Meher Ali, the madman whose cry is “All is false!” brings the speaker to his senses and saves him from staying a third, fatal night.

“The Hungry Stones” is an orientalist fantasy of desire, which may appear strange coming from an Indian, rather than the usual European living out his exotic sexual fantasies. However, I propose that if Tagore does participate in the orientalism of the European literature he admired, then it can be argued he simultaneously reclaims those fantasies for his own, native tradition.

Tagore’s story merits the label “weird fiction” partly based on the description of the marble palace, whose hungry stones consume the speaker. “I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice,” he says (91). This description of architecture as a living organism devouring the trespasser reminded me of editor Jeff VanderMeer’s description of the Tower in his weird fiction novel, Annihilation. In Annihilation, a biologist is drawn deep into an underground tower where a dangerous monster lurks in its depths. She notices the walls are not stone, as she previously thought, but some kind of organic matter, and that the Tower could be an organism itself, swallowing her. Although Tagore does not use this image as literally as VanderMeer does, the emphasis placed on the palace having digestive juices is visceral and strikingly similar.

The speaker goes on to describe the palace at the end of the narrative: “The curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach” (96). The speaker was not the first man to be enraptured by the ghosts of the palace; it has long been a place of death and heartache.  The horror of joining the multitudes of men who have experienced frustrated desire is equivalent to the horror of consumption. However, rather than join them, the speaker alone manages to hold onto his sanity and tell his story, much like the protagonist of a Lovecraft story.

Though this Tagore story is explicitly supernatural, in the end, the frame narrative adds grounds for deniability. The yarn-spinner, like Scheherazade, finishes his story only to hint that he will soon begin a new one about the secret misery of the Arab maiden. However, the connecting train soon arrives, and the two friends must move on to Calcutta. The frame narrator claims that the whole story is a pure fabrication, while his theosophical friend disagrees.

Their argument permanently ends their friendship.

Next week, we’ll be travelling to Italy to discuss “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini, a children’s author who wrote a sequel to Pinocchio. It was translated for The Weird into English for the first time by Brendan and Anna Connell.

Scythian deer

The Goddess in Him

Scythian deerKurghan, a time-traveling Scythian blacksmith with a jewellery business in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood, notices that his son Altai is losing the culture of his people. Kughan longs for nothing less than to feel the wind in his hair again and to ride his horse on a leopard hunt. He wants the same for his son. But should he force the way of the warrior on Altai? Or should Altai forge his own path?

My urban fantasy story “The Goddess in Him” is now available to read on NewMyths.com. I like this story because it’s about the immigrant experience. I was inspired to write it while teaching English to recent immigrants and refugees in the Plateau. But “Goddess” is about immigration across a time scale: how would immigrants from the B.C. era integrate into contemporary society? I believe that if you raised a Roman child in today’s society, she would be dancing on Tik-Tok soon enough. The past, if made accessible to us, simply becomes another country.

It’s also true that we project many of today’s values onto the past. It’s a stereotype that men in previous societies were somehow stronger, more rugged, violent, survivalist–in short, more manly than they are today. It may have been more common that people worked with their hands in the past, but this fantasy of manhood is more of a projection of our own society’s patriarchal values onto the past, a false nostalgia for something that never existed. Often, cultures in the historical past were surprisingly open to trans and gender non-conforming people, or men wearing clothes that today would be considered “effeminate.”

In some ways, Kurghan represents the man’s man Conan the Barbarian stereotype. But I also try to subvert assumptions about historical gender roles in this story. So hopefully, you find “Goddess” thought-provoking as well as laugh-out-loud funny. In a way, it’s a classic “fish-out-of-water” story, like Son of Zorn or George of the Jungle.

I would love to hear your comments on this story. I’ve accomplished a major goal of mine here: to write an urban fantasy story set in my home city of Montreal. Ever since reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Charles de Lint’s Newford series, and seeing Claude Lalumière’s Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic at a book festival, I was seized by the idea of bringing the fantastic to Montreal. Now I’ve done it for the first time ever. I hope it’s the first in a series of Montreal-inspired fantastic stories.

The goddess Arachne.

Weird #9: “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915)

The goddess Arachne.
The goddess Arachne.

Trigger warning: suicide.

A series of suicides, carried out in exactly the same fashion, at the same hour of the day, between three victims who should by all account have been happy with their lives, prompts a medical student, Richard Bracquemont, to investigate. The only link between the three men is a black spider that is seen crawling out from their mouths when their bodies are found hanged by the windowsill. The detail is soon forgotten by the investigators.

“The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers is a grim, existential story. The subject matter was probably what caused me to take so long in writing this reflection; I had to be in the right mind space to write about suicide. But this story is not so much about existential despair, as the idea that infatuation and pleasure can be so strong that it overrides the will to live.

While philosophers such as Sartre have pondered the philosophy of committing suicide as an existential act, and in the process perhaps romanticized it to a problematic extent, the fact is that there often is no reason at all for people to commit suicide, though there may be a cause. Depression, for example, is a disease of the mind; the suicidal ideation it may cause is fundamentally non-rational, a chemical process. But this doesn’t stop survivors and witnesses of suicide from grappling for reasons “why” their loved ones kill themselves, even and especially if there aren’t any truly satisfying answers.

It’s this way with celebrity suicides. People look for a reason for why Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain might have committed suicide. But often, there is no answer. They simply had a bad day and made a decision which they might have revoked five minutes later, but which they can now never take back. Often, there simply is not a rational reason for someone to go through with it, although people demand an answer–certainly the newspapers and magazines that have to turn out a story need an answer.

“The Spider” explores the non-rational aspect behind the psychology of suicide. At first, the spider provides a grim comfort by supplying a cause, if not an actual reason, for these three mysterious suicides, which is arguably more comforting than the finding no explanation at all. The spider crawling out from the mouths of each of the hanged bodies suggests that suicide is contagious like a disease, and that this spider has somehow infected these men with suicidal thoughts. (The idea of suicide as contagious does contain a grain of truth. News articles about suicide have been shown to increase suicide rates around the time of publication.) “The Spider” plays off the irrational human fear of literally “catching” a suicidal impulse another suicide.

The spider thus first appears as a supernatural cause that appears to explain the inexplicable. Perhaps the spider’s association with suicide–specifically, hanging–owes itself to the spider’s connection with Arachne, the Greek mortal woman who hanged herself after being punished for winning a weaving competition against the goddess Minerva, who transformed her out of pity into a spider. Was it Arachne herself who caused the deaths of the three victims, the anonymous Swiss traveling salesman, actor Karl Krause, and policeman Charles-Maria Caumié?

In a way, it is.

Bracquemont knows nothing of the spider. However, he spends several weeks in the same room where the men were found hanged in order to write a report for the police. He lies to them, hinting that he’s on the trail of some fundamental clue. He soon feels drawn to the window where the men killed themselves–but not to hang himself. Instead, he gazes out the window at the woman living in the upper room across the street who has captured his imagination: Clarimonde.

Clarimonde is remarkably like Arachne: she sits by the window across the street from him, weaving, while wearing a black dress with purple spots, much like the observed spider. Soon, he begins playing a game with Clarimonde: any gesture of his, be it a smile, a nod, or a complex series of hand movements, she can replicate almost simultaneously. They play this game at the windowsill and, gradually, she seduces him and he falls in love.

However, with her, he feels “a strange comfort and a very subtle fear” (82). Eventually, he discovers that she is not replicating his motions; rather, she is controlling him.

By the time Clarimonde has finished her seduction, Bracquemont is aware that his love for her is “a compulsion of an unheard-of nature and power, yet so subtly sensual  in its inescapable ferocity” (88). In 1920, Sigmund Freud would publish Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he describes the death drive (Thanatos). Ewers, a German writer, paints a psychological portrait of a very similar psychological impulse five years earlier. Seduced by death, Bracquemont finds that he must surrender his will and replicate Clarimonde’s movements, even as she ties a red curtain cord in her apartment into a slipknot. He soon replicates the same action in his own room–and then goes through it, always deliciously copying her own movements.

By the end of the story, it is clear that the spider itself did not infect the three suicides, but, rather, each man was lured by the seductions of a beautiful, supernatural woman. It is not so much that they despaired of living, but that they were so overpowered by pleasure that they gave in to Clarimonde’s game, even to the point where it killed them. In linking Eros to Thanatos, Ewers draws a link between these two impulses in the human mind, suggesting how human beings fall in love with death. “The Spider” is a decadent tale that is also a prescient psychological portrait that convincingly represents the transformation of a rational mind into a self-destructive one.

Next, I hope for a change of mood out of this grim fare. I’ll be discussing “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali polymath.

***

Addendum:

When I step back from this story, I am struck by how it reflects the death drive that exists in Internet culture, especially when it comes to dangerous social media “challenges.” It was recently reported how a fifteen-year-old died playing the Benadryl challenge on Tik-Tok. If Bracquemont and Clarimonde had not been staring out the window at each other, they might have been sharing videos with each other on Tik-Tok. They would share videos of themselves copying each other’s increasingly complex movements until it is no longer clear who is copying who, and it ends in death. The framework of a “game” and a sense of competition are fully capable of making people forget their health. Once the dopamine loops gets started up, it can override the will to live. This makes even doomscrolling on Twitter a form of death, since while you’re doing it, the dopamine is firing in your brain and you’re being subject to an intricate Web not unworthy of Clarimonde, which Twitter users weave through clickbait headlines and polarizing hot takes. Soon, you forget your own sense of free will, and you begin to sense the feed is controlling you, not the other way around, and you don’t know where it’s leading you.

I don’t want to come across as overly critical of social media, but at the same time, I think it’s fascinating how “The Spider” can speak to the psychological dynamics of social media in a very specific way. Social media has a tendency to create copycats, to influence others’ ways of thinking and doing things. In this, it weaves a tangled Web. Sometimes it’s harmless, or even good, since people can be encouraged to perform good deeds through social pressure (for example, when you see posts of friends who’ve donated to a charity and then donate to one yourself). But this copycat tendency in social media has also encouraged the spread of intolerant doctrines and even mass murder. All this goes to show “The Spider” has even more perennial relevance than I thought it did at first.

Course Offered: Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology

Petra, Jordan

Come join me and up to 15 students on an archaeological expedition into the world of fiction at the Thomas More Institute this fall.

Imaging the Past: Fiction & Archaeology is the literature course I’ve been dying to design, and it’s finally being offered at TMI. We need brave, inquisitive souls to join us on our journey in search of ‘lost’ cities, cursed mummies, and the stratigraphy of past aeons.

I’ll be leading our discussion along with course leaders Karen Etingin and Greg Peace. We’re going to have twelve weeks of engaged discussion in a question-driven discussion environment in which we will be reading everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. Courses may be taken for degree credit.

Course Description

If you love history, mysteries, and adventure, then this course is for you. Over twelve weeks, we will delve into how authors, some of whom are archaeologists, have imagined the past in their short stories and novels. We will also consider how they have represented the scientific discipline of archaeology.

Why do so many of fiction’s archaeologists investigate the supernatural and face danger in exotic locales? What impact do the tropes of detective fiction and adventure have on how the public perceives scientific research? How do the remains of past civilizations inform our understanding of them? With authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth as our guides, we will investigate the intersection between science and storytelling—between discovering and imagining the past.

Our expedition will take us from Egypt to Sri Lanka, from the prehistoric dawn of humanity to Mars, as we read a variety of fictions in which the discipline of archaeology and the puzzle of the past are significant themes.


Course schedule: Wednesday, 6:15 – 8:15 p.m. (12 weeks)

First Class:  23 September, 2020

 

You can register now.

Register online by logging in or creating an account at TMI: https://courses.thomasmore.qc.ca/log-in/

  • You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. It will be offered online with Zoom.

  • Books to purchase: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Artifacts by Mary Anna Evans

  • $135 tuition (admin fees included) for new students; 185$ (admin fees included) for standard tuition

Come join us on an adventure.

Georg Heym

Weird #8: “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913)

“The dead man lay alone and naked on a white cloth in a wide room, surrounded by depressing white walls, in the cruel sobriety of a dissection room that seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.”

So begins the bleak tale of “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), a German poet and playwright who foresaw his own drowning death in a dream. Heym was a critic of romanticism and industrialism. His refusal of modernity’s optimism comes through in “The Dissection,” through its exquisitely detailed body horror and unflinching irony.

Georg Heym, author of “The Dissection”

The story, to some extent, reads like a Saw film, save for the poetic sensibility that elevates it. Some of the best lines include his body being compared to “some gigantic flower, a mysterious plant from Indian primeval forests that someone had shyly laid at the altar of death.” The cold urine of his punctured bladder glistens “like yellow wine.” The instruments of the doctors are “like vultures’ crooked beaks forever screaming for flesh.” A dissection has never been described in such rich horror.

It seemed to me a little too rich at times, but the worst part of the horror is arguably understated. It comes down to a single word: the doctors are described as “friendly men.” In other words, they were not the sort of people you could point to and say, “That’s a villain.” They were sociable people, like you and me, performing a horrible experiment motivated by nothing more than simple curiosity about the human body.

Heym died before the First World War. But if he had lived to see the Second World War and the rise of Nazi Germany, he may have heard reports of medical experiments like this in the concentration camps and recognized that his story had anticipated the worst depredations of the twentieth century. The fact the doctors in his story are “friendly” men reminds me of the observation made by Hannah Arendt and others that most Nazis were ordinary folks who passively decided to “just follow orders.” The Nazis were like the doctors in this story–“friendly men” who perpetrated war crimes.

Heym’s story also criticizes a wider trend in modernity. He indicts Enlightenment science’s drive to section up and divide, split apart, dissect, and, ultimately, destroy what it studies. In short, he critiques science’s blindness to the human consequences of knowledge gathering.

Archaeology, which as a discipline was founded on colonialist forms of knowledge, is a prime example of this. In archaeology, knowledge is produced by destruction, in the same way that medical knowledge is produced by dissection. Digging a trench to excavate artefacts destroys the context in which the artefacts were found. But at the same time, that destruction is necessary for the production of knowledge. This may be less true today, with radar and remote imaging techniques. But traditional archaeological techniques involve a dissection of the soil which results in the destruction of sites considered important to living societies who derive their cultural identity from them. In short, archaeological knowledge gathering has human consequences, even if the archaeologists are blind to them.

In “The Dissection,” Heym’s critique of science’s ethics is accompanied by a critique of romanticism. Eventually, the man being tortured escapes the horror of his situation in a vivid dream of his beloved. “I’ll see you again tomorrow. Here, under the window of the chapel, here, where the light of the candles falls about you,” runs his stream of consciousness. The passage appears at first to embody the Romantic idea that the mind and imagination can be a refuge against the travesties of the material world.

But then comes bitter irony. At the moment the man has this dream, the doctors take hammers and chisels to his brain, splitting apart the very organ that produces consciousness. The man dies quivering in happiness as “the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple.”

The scientists cannot learn the mechanism of the body which produces the mind without killing what they want to study. In the end, the mind is no refuge; it is dependent on the body. A romantic escape from the mechanistic realities of the modern world is impossible, or, at best, a temporary dream, a deceitful illusion.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915), yet another bleak, German weird tale, this time about a series of mysteriously linked suicides. (Here’s hoping the stories stay weird but cheer up a little in the future.)

Masquerade, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Weird #7: “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Mayrink (1912)

Gustav Mayrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” is a short, decadent tale. It takes place at a masqued ball in the court of a Persian prince, Mohammed Darasche-Koh, who is gravely jealous of the Count de Faast for the hand of a beautiful princess.

Due to its decadent literary influences, and its preoccupation with themes of surface and concealment, I feel like this story can be best described visually. Were this story to be produced for the screen, it would be a contender for the Oscar for Best Costume Design for sheer extravagance. And if animated in the classic, shadowy style of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley–who is directly referenced as an influence in the text–it would win for Best Animated Feature.

Masquerade by Aubrey Beardsley, cover design for The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894

At the centre of this story is a marionette show staring the Persian prince, the Count de Faast, and the princess together–a production designed by the jealous Prince himself. The Count is placed in a thick glass bottle, alone, while the Prince sits cross-legged above it. What follows is a prime literary example of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” in which the cruelty becomes genuine, no longer an act.

In short (spoilers ahead), the masquers watch the Count’s real distress as he slowly suffocates to death for lack of air in front of their very eyes. The masquers are unable to tell where the Count’s part in the “Man in the Bottle” marionette show ends and where his genuine panic begins. In effect, the Count’s panic and subsequent death is the evening’s entertainment.

Only at the end of the play, when the princess as “The Lady in the Sedan Chair” finally appears before the audience, do the masquers fully realize the “nameless horror” of what they witnessed (74). In short, the Prince plays the audience and actors like marionettes, executing the perfect vengeance.

This story appeared to me, on a first read, to be witty, decadent, and highly aesthetic in a way that seemed difficult to write about. However, when during my second read, I was reminded of Artaud, I started to see how this story has continuous relevance today, when we think about cruelty and spectacle in the news we consume.

I’m not well-versed in Artaud. But to me, “The Man in the Bottle” suggests that cruelty to another human being becomes normalized when it becomes part of a spectacle. People are uncertain whether they should intervene in a crisis, because the cruelty becomes perceived as part of the “act.” Only when the “mask” of performance comes loose does the full scale of the cruelty become apparent to the audience.

It got me thinking about the idea of “entertainment media” and how certain news shows play up real acts of cruelty as spectacles of entertainment. It also got me thinking about how some people tried to console themselves in 2016 by joking that Donald Trump’s election run was just an art project, as if that could make his boorishness and cruelty more tolerable or normal.

When cruelty is represented as a spectacle in the media, it becomes socially normalized. At what point do we cease to perceive the news as representing the suffering of real people, and at which point do we start viewing the news primarily as a spectacle, seemingly divorced from human suffering?

The masquers watch the Count de Faast slowly suffocate for lack of air, thinking it is part of an elaborate stage production. The times being what they are, I cannot ignore the parallel between this method of execution and the suffocating chokehold placed on George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. People who continue to deny systemic racism exists seem to me to be an awful lot like the masquers, in how they may prefer to think of police brutality as some sort of illusion–not that they deny police brutality happens, but that they prefer to deny the systemic nature of it. In treating systemic racism as an elaborate masque, they, through their inaction, tolerate and enable the cruelty perpetrated before their very eyes.

I would like to think that most people regard the suffering of black people at the hands of the police with a more morally engaged and empathetic attitude than the frivolous masquers regard the Count. However, it would be foolish to ignore the wider point this story is making about the cruelty of human nature. The message of “The Man in the Bottle” could be taken as a cautionary tale not to let spectacle and illusion blind us to the inhumane cruelty happening before our eyes. But the tale also seems to suggest something darker and more indicting–that such spectacles of cruelty are a fundamental aspect of our experience of modernity in the first place.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), which, as I am sure you can imagine from the title, is a charming, happy-go-lucky story of love and loss with no body horror whatsoever.

Weird #6: “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” by Lord Dunsany (1912)

The sixth entry in my Archaeology of Weird Fiction challenge is a classic weird tale by the fantasist Lord Dunsany, a story about the violation of the property taboo.

In “How Nuth Would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles,” Dunsany tells a story about an aristocratic thief, Mr. Nuth. Though a businessman, Mr. Nuth’s tastes are highly refined and his service has no need of advertising. Given his unique status and skill set, he is set apart from the crowd as he steals tapestries and jewelry for his clients, who are envious of their neighbours’ country houses. He is more silent than a shadow.

One day, to challenge himself, the genius thief plans to heist the house of the gnoles, which has never been attempted by a thief before. And if you noticed the future conditional in the title of this weird tale, you probably realized he does not succeed.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Lord Dunsany is a master stylist, and is enjoyable to listen to out loud. His sentences are perfectly paced to deliver the drama and suspense of Nuth’s approach to the gnoles’ house with his apprentice, Tonker. So much of the feeling of strangeness that this story produces is a result of the language he uses to describe the approach.

The description of the heist calls to my mind the approach to the Peruvian temple in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a weird tale author, Dunsany may well have influenced the pulp traditions that inspired Indiana Jones. Tonker and Nuth see an “early Georgian poacher nailed to a door in an oak tree,” while Tonker steps “heavily on a hard, dry stick, after which they both lay still for twenty minutes” (70). These points of tension ratchet the suspense higher, much like discovering the freshly poisoned arrows hints at danger in Indiana Jones.

These details fill the atmosphere of the story with a sense of intrusion and foreboding. Not only are the thieves intruding on the gnoles, but the weird is intruding on mundane reality. Dunsany expresses this in his description of the silence:

And the moment that Tonker touched the whithered boards, the silence that, though ominous, was earthly, became unearthly like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath offending against that silence …

70

The sense that something wrong has happened is tangible–and the punishment follows. It is significant that the moment Tonker breaks the taboo on property is the moment the unearthly intrudes. The intruder becomes the one being intruded upon, serving as a warning to other thieves.

Buried beneath this is a hint as to Lord Dunsany’s politics. At one point, his narrator says, “It must not be thought that I am a friend of Nuth’s; on the contrary such politics as I have are on the side of Property” (68). Indeed, though it uses ‘weird’ imagery to indulge in the fantasy of the violation of property, this story can be read as reconfirming the aristocracy’s right to private property.

After all, Mr. Nuth’s aristocratic privilege allows him to escape the dark fate of Tonker, his working-class apprentice. “Nobody ever catches Nuth,” the narrator says. His genius places him above punishment as he lets his apprentice take the fall for his own overreaching ambition; the fantasy of the tasteful, aristocratic thief is allowed to continue beyond the pages of the story.

In short, this story is an enchanting heist caper that can also be read as a window into the fantasies of the aristocracy to which Lord Dunsany belonged. It affirms the right of the aristocracy to private property, while at the same time indulging in a little escapism through a story that enables the audience to vicariously experience the violation of the property taboo as well.

Flowers by the Refugee’s Road: A Review of Salt Bride by Ilona Martonfi

Cover of Salt Bride by Ilona Martonfi

In her latest poetry collection, Salt Bride (Inanna Publications, 2019), Ilona Martonfi reinvents herself by creating a narrative out of her past–one in which she has had to reinvent herself many times, as a child refugee, mother, battered wife, activist, and, finally, as a poet. Hers is a refugee’s experience down to the very form and content of her lines; the search for place and home inspires her poetry, sometimes in unexpected ways. In the furtive fragments of her free verse lines, one detects a longing for impressions to stick, for a sentence to settle. But Martonfi’s voice is productively restless. Danger forces the refugee on the road, but she can still appreciate the beauty in a field of flowers.

In addition to her own, personal past, Martonfi tells the histories of other people. Her opening poem describes the environmental devastation around Shinkolobwe, an abandoned Congolese village where the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was mined. An “official nonplace” (1), Shinkolobwe is a home that has been erased. Nagaski, in her second poem, “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” is another example. With haiku-like economy, she speaks from the voice of victim of the atomic bomb blast: “the ocean still, low winds. / 11:02 a.m. August 9, 1945 / was the day I died” (3–5). Her understatement is not a shout out against injustice but a quiet witnessing of the victim’s experience.

In her witness poems, she uses her sparse, imagistic style to pay witness to the Chernobyl disaster, the Babi Yar massacre, the bombing of Budapest, and the Birkenau concentration camp, among other topics. She marks the time-and-place specificity of each trauma to memorialize it; the litany of place names and times of day develop their own poetic rhythm, their own stark, metronymic effect. But she never forgets the beauty of the natural landscape, which seems at times to encode the idea of home, especially in places where all sense of home has been destroyed and remembering it has become more important than ever.

For example, “Srebrenica” tells the story of a man’s brother, a victim of the Bosnian genocide. It is told from survivor’s first-person viewpoint:

hands bound behind his back.

My brother is here

summer of 1995

in a mass grave in Bosnia

fourteen years old

|

Avdija buried without his head

|

gravedigger

sheep, goats

|

walnut trees

climbing roses

white skulls

of the mountain.

(6 –17)

In this description of a grave, a home for the dead, her staccato imagery has the spontaneous clarity of Japanese poetry. The natural world is never far from Martonfi’s awareness; the beauty that lies by the wayside of trauma recalls the value of the lives lost.

Eventually, Martonfi turns to her own past to write about her family’s experience as Hungarian refugees during and after the Second World War. In poems like “Easter Sunday,” she reconstructs her earliest childhood memories. Representing herself as a “pigtailed Magyar refugee girl” (22), she tempers a sense of her innocence and naivety with her adult awareness of the secrets that her family never discussed at the time (personal interview). Fields of flowers and a new dress to wear are at the centre of this ten-year-old child’s world, until she discovers the “unfound” body of her mother (17), who has attempted suicide. “All the time I carry with me / the odour of spring / the odour of funeral,” the speaker states (5–6).

Smell is supposed to be the sense most strongly tied to memory; but what occasionally concretizes the past for Martonfi is sound. Lines of dialogue bring back the past with immediacy. Dialogue can draw up a specific childhood memory, or a memory of a fateful conversation, as in “The Vigil on Puget Sound,” a lament for her late brother. Other exclamations hit. In “White Lilacs,” she quotes her assertive reprimand against her abusive husband:

Lined with row houses

1215 rue Saint-André

tight knots of violence

[…]

Your four children. His fists.

|

“Shorty, I will divorce you!”

|

“I will divorce you,” you said.

(1–3, 38–40)

Martonfi renders the violence in the relationship explicit. Her oral assertion of agency reaches out from the poem like it does from the past; her promise to divorce is her response to her husband’s fists.

In examining her own life, Martonfi writes about her own children and what it was like to live with a batterer husband. Though equating a poet with her speaker is usually problematic, Martonfi states that these poems reflect her experiences completely and that standing up against domestic violence is her life’s calling (personal interview). This said, her poetry has been a vehicle for the reinvention and re-fashioning of her identity. In the prose poem “Casa dei Zetti,” she furnishes a villa with a catalogue of domestic details, describing how it is “a house for art” (3), despite the presence of the violence that puts her “arms on the ceiling. Head on the wall” (15). Art is a way to recover from abuse and, in the end, to master one’s past. “Every day, I reconstructed myself,” she says (14), highlighting the importance of art for her recovery.

Martonfi’s poetry is especially sympathetic to the plight of children. In “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” she speaks of the “children / who will die once again” (22–23). The children who continue to suffer due to society’s inability to learn from the past serve as indictments of that society. In “Girl in Dubrulle Wood,” she speaks of a girl who was “snatched in a playground / in front of her mother” (16–17). In “Small River,” an Inuk woman recalls her grandparents’ traditional way of life, before she was taken to a Residential School–another form of kidnapping. “I was just four when taken,” her speaker says (19). “Small River,” like “The Fourth Panel,” is respectful of the other’s voice, reporting the facts of their trauma and letting the reader supply emotion.

Martonfi’s own childhood as a refugee, as recalled in her poems, parallels the experiences of these children. In fact, “Funeral Prayer for Alan Kurdî” can be read as one child refugee’s prayer to another: from Martonfi younger self to a boy who never made it to safety. Alan Kurdî is the Syrian refugee boy who drowned en route to the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and whose photograph became one of the pietàs of the Syrian refugee crisis. As a former child refugee, Martonfi expresses her wish for Alan, and for all children displaced by conflict: “O little boy, Alan. / O God, give him a home” (15–17).

Given this powerful subject matter, which manages to be both personal and historical, one could risk overlooking Martonfi’s less eventful, more form-based poems. But to do so would mean to overlook her experiments, which inform the aesthetics of the rest of her collection. The well-crafted word-strokes of her ekphrastic Van Gogh poems express her verbal impressionism. In addition, her Cézanne poems, contained in “Les Lauves,” are a series of haiku which paint an impression of Cézanne’s art studio in Aix-en-Provence: “red-tile roof stone house / chasing the ghosts of artists / mistral in blue pines” (7–9). Additionally, “Sea Urchin” echoes this form in a series of oceanic haiku with mythological overtones, hinting at the mysterious depths that lie beneath the haiku itself: a concept that can be summarized in the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen.

In short, these poems reiterate the aesthetic that defines the rest of the collection. Fusing the personal with the historical, and impressionism with yūgen, Salt Bride offers the reader history with personal depths.

Photo of Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride
Photo Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride

Montreal poet recounts experience as war refugee

Recently, I interviewed Montreal poet Ilona Martonfi, an activist and arts organizer. I’ve known Ilona since I was an editor for Scrivener Creative Review, so it was a pleasure to interview her about her most recent collection, Salt Bride, for Cult Montreal.

As a young child towards the end of the Second World War, Martonfi fled Hungary with her family as a war refugee. Though no one talked about such things at the time, she has since since learned that the town in Bavaria where she went to school was filled with Nazis from Czechoslovakia. Her family endured the siege of Budapest and many other dangerous experiences during this time.

In Salt Bride, she recounts these personal events as a poet. In her witness poems, she puts herself in the shoes of the hibakusha (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) and people displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well. She presents these and other subjects through her haunting, staccato-lined imagist verses, such as in this poem about victims of the atomic bombs:

“I played a piano
in a wooden house

and then I saw
my brother Akio digging me out
carrying me outside on his back,

laying me down under a ginkgo tree

flies and maggots
crawling on my body.


Like you, I forget.


We were children
who will die once again.”

From “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts” in Salt Bride

“I don’t like to shout in my work,” says Martonfi. “I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes [a Holocaust memorial site]. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing.”

Read the article here.

Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride

Write a Fight Scene like Robert Ludlum

Photo by Quinn Buffing on Unsplash

I recently studied a Jason Bourne fight scene in The Bourne Identity to learn all I could about writing a good fight.

Aside from the realism of fights, I wanted to learn the style. What words does Robert Ludlum, the author of the Bourne thrillers, use when describing punches and kicks? How does he organize sentences? Does the place where he put emphasis in a sentence matter when expressing the visceral, kinetic motion of a fight?

The short answer is: yes. It matters a whole lot.

I really learned a lot by asking myself these questions. So much so that I wrote an article about it for The Writing Cooperative. Among the things I learned was:

  • save the hardest hitting words for the end of the sentence
  • use active verbs, using the continuous tense (-ing) to describe motion
  • vary sentence lengths: long sentences really focus attention on a move’s execution
  • end with a knockout

For more tips, you can read my whole article, “Write a Fight Scene Jason Bourne Style.” Don’t forget to click the clapping hands icon to let me know you liked it!

Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn neat writing tricks from Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, or your favourite author? Sign up to my FREE monthly newsletter and you can apprentice yourself to the greats right now. Simply download the worksheet and do the simple exercise I did with Robert Ludlum. Go apprentice yourself to your favourite authors! You’ll be surprised at what they can teach you.


Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction author and Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate based in Montreal’s West Island. After writing his Master’s thesis on modern fantasy, he published his first short story with Bards and Sages Quarterly in October 2018. Since then, he’s taught a creative writing course at the Thomas More Institute. Check out his blog Archaeologies of the Weird. He’s on Twitter @matthewrettino.

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