Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Weird #12: “The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt (1918)

A Merritt

Having come this far in this Archaeology of Weird Fiction project, I have noticed that certain patterns of representing the attraction and danger of the weird have begun to repeat as patterns. In addition, I keep finding parallels, in one way or another, to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. In this, my experience of “People of the Pit” by A. Merritt was no different. It is, however, the first story in the collection to explicitly feature archaeology and past civilizations as a source of the weird (except perhaps in “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore).

Two men exploring the far northern reaches of Alaska come across a hazy mountain with five peaks outstretched like a hand where a strange light is glowing. A frightened man near death crawls up to their campfire and tells them he has just returned from those very mountains. He narrates the story of his encounter with the People of the Pit. Having reached the mountains from the other side, the horrified speaker recounts how he journeyed down the bottleneck of the seemingly infinite pit that lies between the mountains, to finally reach the massive, primeval city at the bottom.

Made a captive of the invisible, glowing creatures who live at the bottom of the pit, the man participates in their chanting rituals and eventually comes to see the inner sluglike forms. Horrified, he breaks his chains and escapes. The man finishes his tale and soon dies. The explorers cremate the man according to his wishes and scatter his ashes to prevent the People of the Pit from claiming his body after death.

According to the editors, Merritt was heavily influenced by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female American science fiction and fantasy writer and inventor of dark fantasy, who published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens and wrote weird tales about lost civilizations. Merrit, in turn, influenced H.P. Lovecraft, who himself was an admirer of Stevens/Bennett. All three authors are included in The Weird.

“The People of the Pit” follows the formula of an explorer/scientist who journeys to the frontiers of the (to Europeans) known world to investigate a curious phenomenon, only to encounter horror and terror and supernatural dread. Some of Merrit’s other scientists, like Throckmartin in The Moon Pool and Goodwin in The Metal Monster, use the scientific process to get themselves out of seeming supernatural quandaries, and do so successfully. These novels are better spoken of as science fantasy. However, “The People of the Pit” destabilizes the efficacy of science, calling into question its ability to categorize extraordinary phenomena, in the way that much weird fiction does.

The explorers note the whispering coming from a strange light on the mountain, which “can’t be the aurora” (101). Indeed, it is not a “crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith” either; rather, it holds “a demand. It was eager” (101). It evades the categories of Judeo-Christian mythology and science and attracts their curiosity with “inexorable insistence” (102) in a way that recalls the Sirens from the Odyssey. This phenomena that evades their categories and classifications produces a curiosity that can lures and seduce men to their doom. In a way, this whispering is the equivalent to Tagore’s marble palace and Ewers’s Clarimonde. It demonstrates the sensual’s domination over the rational, a modernist dichotomy.

Drawn by the mystery of the mountain, which is a kind of El Dorado given the “Athabasean” legend of gold streaming out from the peaks (102), the survivor recalls his first sign of the unusual: a road. Since he is far from civilization, the existence of an ancient road in the wilderness is unexpected in how it suggests the ancient presence of a technologically advanced human civilization. “Lost” civilization tropes often carry the problematic assumption that non-Western, non-white people could not have possibly built monumental structures, urban centres, or possessed advanced technology.  Perhaps, then, the Athabaseans’ ancestors, or those of another Indigenous nation, had built this city once, long ago. However, “The People of the Pit” does not specify who used to live here; that fact has been lost to time and history and is one of the many unsolved mysteries that confront the survivor as he ventures past the city, over the mountains, and into the pit.

Currently, I am teaching a 12-week course called “Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology” in which I am leading discussion on fictional texts about archaeology and history. In this course, we’ve been talking a lot about what motivates archaeologists–for some it is a quest, a curiosity about the world, or a need to fill out the answers to a burning question rather than face the blankness of the unknown. Merritt’s story features and explorer and honourary archaeologist whose curiosity about the world leads him to his doom.

While celebrating this curiosity in a certain way, Merritt also exposes just how little of the world is actually known. In 1918, places like northern Alaska may still have contained regions remote enough that most Americans could believe a Pit of this size and scale could exist. However, what seems to have driven Merritt to write this story is not enthusiasm for mapping uncharted frontiers, but rather an awe at that very unchartedness. He revels in exposing precisely what is unknown, and those who investigate it too closely pay a price.

Perhaps he was a romantic, reacting against modernity’s exhortation to map the last pockets of difference on the earth’s surface. Rationalism and irrationalism, sensuality and reason are at war in Merritt’s work.

Cover of The Metal Monster by A. Merritt from Fantastic Mysteries Magazine
A. Merritt’s novel The Metal Monster featured in a Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels joint issue

The survivor is drawn to his doom by the pit. Curiously, this image anticipates the Tower in VanderMeer’s Annihilation: a spiral staircase leading down, down, down to a seemingly infinite depth. “It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll!” writes Merritt (104). The pit has a hoard of possible meanings: a journey to the unconscious or to the underworld, a quest for the base of reality itself, the end of all questions and inquiry–a base that does not really exist.

In a further parallel with Annihilation, the walls are inscribed with an inscrutable text. In “People of the Pit,” that text is visual. The inscriptions along the wall of the spiral staircase in Merritt, left behind by unknown peoples, contain figures that hold back a vaguer, underlying image: an “impression of enormous upright slugs” (104). Later, when the survivor reaches the city at the bottom of the pit, he sees inscriptions on an altar of “formless things that gave no conscious image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals–ideas of hate–of combats between unthinkable monstrous things” (106), suggesting the abstracted forms of primitivist paintings.

The mention of a upright slugs connects the People of the Pit to the Crawler in Annihilation. Both are described as grotesque sluglike creatures who glow and whose form seems too much for the human eye to take in at once. Both are sublime monsters because they surpass our senses’ ability to see and our brains’ ability to make understand them.

To better illustrate, VanderMeer describes The Crawler as follows:

[I]t was no longer golden but blue-green, and the blue-green light was like nothing I had experienced before. […] As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. […] It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough. (176)

Compare this with Merritt’s description of the People of the Pit:

Great transparent snail-like bodies–dozens of waving tentacles stretching from them–round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! […] They did not crawl or walk–they floated! They floated and were–gone! (108)

While VanderMeer’s prose is less exclamatory, the similarities are clear. The monstrous bodies of the People of the Pit and the Crawler are abject and grotesque due to their being in excess of the very categories used to define them. They throw in question humanity’s ability to classify phenomena and understand the universe. They throw in question the very capacity of language–the very language the authors use–to describe them. They are a splinter irritating the universe with their own incomprehensibility, exposing the world for its illusions.

In short, “The People of the Pit” is a quintessential weird tale, destabilizing Enlightenment assumptions about reality and the knowability of the universe, suggesting there are whole worlds and civilizations that lie beyond our senses and our understanding–a position that would go on to influence Lovecraft.

Next week, I’ll be writing about the ‘father of the Japanese short story’, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and his weird tale, “The Hell Screen.”

Liana

Weird #11: “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini (1917)

a green man waterspout“The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini is a simple enough story of a man whose skin has turned completely green.

He explains how he became infected with this unique illness. Seduced by the mysteries of science’s unexplored frontier, Olivares goes on an expedition to the Brazilian interior in search of new forms of plant life. There he discovers a plant that “seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science,” a plant that cannot wholly be categorized as vegetable, but which has the appearance of “human limbs without skin” (98). Pricked by a thorn, he soon experiences the first subtle symptoms of what becomes a wasting disease that turns his skin green and leads to other mutations besides.

Soon, Doctor Benito Olivares literally becomes a green man: half-vegetable, half-man.

Appearing in the Italian journal The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea in 1917, “The Vegetable Man” reads like a traveler’s tale from a distant corner of the earth. Like Indiana Jones, Doctor Olivares is an adventure scientist like you might find in a pulp story who is dedicated to “[penetrating] the virgin forests” and pushing the frontier of knowledge (97). However, with that sense of guarded mystery comes a sense of intruding into what nature never intended humanity to see. Twice, the Guaraní Indians try to warn him about the samples he took of the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants.

Perhaps most uncanny are the leaves of this plant. Resembling a prickly pear, they have “two oval scuttulem” on them, resembling “two very human eyes that seemed to stare out at me in an unpleasant and sinister way” (98). When the green man pulls off his gloves, his hands are revealed to have been turned into these same, shapeless leaves, with uncannily human eyes.

Doctor Olivares claims to have been born in Santos, Brazil, and he donates his samples of the Olivara vigilans to the Museum of Natural History in Buenos Aires. This puts Ugolini’s story in the vicinity of another great weird fiction writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Buenos Aires is Borges’s storied home city; in his famous story, “The Aleph,” Santos happens to be the Brazilian town where Pedro Henriquez Ureña supposedly found Sir Richard Francis Burton’s manuscript on the Aleph.

Details like these have me imagining a weird fiction “shared universe.” What would Borges (who suffered from blindness) have thought of Olivara vigilans, a plant he would have been unable to see with his own eyes, even though the plant itself could “see” him?

I was astonished to find tangential links to Jeff VanderMeer and H.P. Lovecraft in Ugolini as well. For one, Olivara vigilans is described in a similar way to how Lovecraft describes the shoggoth fossils in At the Mountains of Madness. Both straddle the uncanny line between the vegetable and the animal. For instance, Lovecraft describes the shoggoth as a “barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature,” defying categorization, such that Lake cannot decide whether they are “vegetable or animal.”

In comparison, Ugolini’s scientist describes Olivara vigilans as “a living contradiction” in terms of classification, a plant that is “in itself an order, family, species, variety …  with palmate leaves that were thick and fleshy” (98). The discovery upends the categories scientists use to classify and order the physical world, throwing such artificial boundaries into doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, the liana, “the octopus of the forest” (98) which strangles trees in the grove where Olivares finds the Olivara vigilans, is almost an echo of the strangling vines that move around in the fungal lettering left behind by the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even more of  a strong echo are the all-too human eyes growing out of the plant’s leaves, which call to mind the all-too human eyes of the dolphin the Biologist glimpses in Area X. The implication in Annihilation is that those who visit Area X somehow get transformed into animals, yet retain uncanny traces of their humanity. In a similar way, this is Olivares’s fate; he becomes “reclaimed” by the natural world after being infected with the Olivara vigilans‘s poison.

As I continue to notice parallels between VanderMeer’s work and the stories he and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, included in this anthology, I am strongly reminded again of what Borges wrote in “Kafka and His Precursors”: every author creates their own precursor. The weird fiction authors included in this anthology may have seen each other as influences, or they may not have done so. But VanderMeer acts as both author and critic, creating the predecessors of the New Weird as a literary movement through his role as editor of this anthology, even as he drops teasing hints as to who his own, personal precursors may have been. Even if “The Vegetable Man” did not inspire Annihilation directly, they are both holding a conversation with the same literary zeitgeist.

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

Next week, I’ll be getting into pulp adventure with Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” I have discussed one of Indiana Jones’s predecessors, Merritt’s The Moon Pool, elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll be in familiar territory when I write about it next week.

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.