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.

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.

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.

Weird #5 Casting the Runes by M.R James (1911)

Book reviewing can be a perilous profession, especially when the author of the book in question knows a thing or two about alchemy and Runic magic. In such cases, it is not advised to write an overly negative review, for fear of reprisals on the part of the sorcerer in question. Unfortunately, in M. R. James’s 1911 weird tale “Casting the Runes,” the reviewer, Mr. Harrington, learns this lesson the hard way, and let his fate be a lesson to those in his profession!

M.R. James is a classic author of weird fiction and one of the more influential writers included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. According to the anthologists, he has influenced H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, and Tanith Lee. His ghost stories are “widely regarded as among the finest in English literature” and they forego the “Gothic trappings” of the supernatural tale to innovate the evolving genre of the weird tale (56). There are no dark castles, vampires, ghosts, or stormy nights in “Casting the Runes,” but there is a bizarre ad on an electric tramway: a notice of the death of Mr. John Harrington, who once negatively reviewed Mr. Karswell’s History of Witchcraft and lived just long enough to regret it.

The man who sees this notice is Mr. Dunning, a specialist in alchemy working for the British Museum and a consultant responsible for the rejection of the same manuscript. Karswell seeks revenge for the rejection of his poorly punctuated book of sorcery, which was, “in point of style and form, quite hopeless” (58). But are the evil rituals of Mr. Karswell more credible than the book’s grammar?

It turns out that Mr. Harrington died shortly after receiving a program at a musical concert that contained a slip of paper printed with a set of red and black runes. The cunning Mr. Karswell, who wrote a chapter on “casting the Runes” in his book, speaks of this form of magic in a way that seems, to Henry Harrington, the deceased’s brother, “to imply actual knowledge” (64). Dunning becomes his next target. Thus, it is up to himself and Henry Harrington to stop Karswell from taking out an uncanny form of revenge.

“Casting the Runes” offers a variation on the empiricism versus supernaturalism dialectic at play in much supernatural fiction. It is fairly common to see supernatural fiction writers pit a scientific explanation of uncanny phenomena against a supernatural explanation, like Blackwood does in “The Willows” and Crawford does in “The Screaming Skull.” Most frequently, the narrator struggles to resolve this epistemological conflict, but falls victim to the supernatural forces at play. However, M.R. James follows a different tact from the authors included thus far in the VanderMeer anthology.

Harrington and Dunning are able to put this epistemological conflict aside to deal with Karswell’s threat as a solvable problem, treating magic under the assumption that it works. In the end, after executing a switch of luggage with Karswell on a train, Dunning and Harrington cast the runes that had been intended for Dunning back onto Karswell himself. Later, he is “instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower [of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville], there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment” (67). Harrington had learned the rules of rune casting from his brother’s death and puts this knowledge to use in order to help save Dunning. This is a substantial innovation. It is almost as if, by shedding the medievalism of traditional Gothic fiction in which modern people become victimized by the ghosts of the past, James has led the weird tale into the brave new world of the modern era, where this ancient phenomena can be controlled by humans and put to utilitarian use.

As a final note, it is interesting to see how the supernaturalism/empiricism dialectic maps onto a conflict between print culture and oral culture in “Casting the Runes.” Karswell’s book is not only unbelievable, but incompetently written, and one senses that the reason the publishers were so dismissive of Karswell had as much to do with his incompetence at the printed word as his being a magician. Yet, when communicating orally, Karswell’s competence is undeniable. The book “was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise” (64). Yet, Harry Harrington admits that Karswell “spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge” (64). The conflict between empiricism and the supernatural is here drawn along lines of print literacy; though Karswell’s magic is unbelievable in print, the truth of his magic is apparent when communicating orally. The runes themselves, an “odd writing” (63), may even suggest an uncanny in-between form of writing that blurs the boundaries between a largely oral pagan culture and our print-dominated modern culture.

This concludes my discussion of “Casting the Runes.” Next week, I will discuss “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912), a work of weird fiction by that classic author of fantasy Lord Dunsany.

Weird #4 Srendi Vashtar by Saki (1910)

In “Srendi Vashtar” (1908) by Saki, a sickly boy named Conradin has a lively imagination exasperated by the dreariness of his Edwardian childhood. Having been given five years to live by a doctor whose “opinion counted for very little” (53), he declares, in the midst of his loneliness and boredom, that his polecat-ferret is a god. Founding his own personal religion, he names the “great ferret” Srendi Vashtar (54), an appellation whose syllables could have been lifted from Vedas.

This fourth story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is a short story by one of Edwardian England’s most satirical wits who was also a master of the macabre. Saki is the pen name for Hector Hugh Muro, who likely based Conradin’s puritanical cousin on his personal experience growing up in North Devon. According to Wikipedia and Emlyn Williams, he chose the name ‘Saki’ not because he was overfond of sake, the Japanese rice wine, but because ‘Saki’ is the name of a cup bearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. 

“Srendi Vashtar” not only skewers the stuffiness of Edwardian society, but strikes me as a send-up of the pagan revival trope. More than anything else, this story reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, in the sense that it too comes across as a variant of the Greek myth of Bacchus and Pentheus. Ovid in The Metamorphoses describes how the cult of the god of wine and sex, Bacchus, gains high popularity in the city of Thebes. Pentheus, roughly the ancient Greek equivalent of a puritan, tries to shut the cult down but after denouncing it exhaustively, he is torn to pieces by a frenzied crowd of Bacchus worshipers.

In the same way, Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s guardian, tries to get rid of the great ferret, Srendi Vashtar. In the end, Conradin prays to his god, chanting “loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Srendi Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts

and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace,

but he brought them death.

Srendi Vashtar the Beautiful.” (55)

In the end, Srendi Vashtar gets the better of Mrs. De Ropp and “Conradin made himself another piece of toast” (55).

Next week, I review another classic weird tale, “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1911).

Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).

Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).