Weird #22: “Genius Loci'” by Clark Ashton Smith (1933)

Clark Ashton Smith

“Genius Loci” by Clark Ashton Smith is a striking inclusion in this weird fiction anthology. It is a much simpler, quieter story than Smith’s more famous pulp fantasy adventures. A significant influence on Lovecraft, Smith may be best known for his highly wrought prose style and his fantastic short stories and poems about vanished continents and civilizations.

I first grew acquainted with Smith by reading the The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, a Penguin Classics book. I picked it up in Toronto when I presented on my Master’s thesis for the Academic Conference for Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ACCSFF) in 2019. During the same trip, I also had the chance to glimpse Clark’s artworks in a book held by the Toronto Public Library in the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. Smith’s interests in painting and poetry certainly come through in “Genius Loci.”

Though it can be easy to criticize Smith’s artworks as amateurish and his prose as overwrought, some of his artworks and short stories (especially his poetry and prose poems) do more than tell a story: they conjure a specific mood that Lovecraft considered essential to the weird tale. “Genius Loci” does this but on a much quieter scale than his other works.

Like so many of the preceding stories, this is also a survivor’s tale told by the narrator, who is a writer living in the countryside with Amberville, a renowned painter. Amberville becomes fascinated with a particular spot in the landscape that seems to ooze with an undefinable sense of menace and evil. The painter is both attracted to, and repulsed by, the dreadfulness of the bony, dead willow growing above a stinking, scummy pool. “The spot is evil–it is unholy in a way that I simply can’t describe,” says Amberville (223). Yet, the spot takes over his mind. The painter can soon think of little else than visually and artistically pinning down exactly what gives the site its awful appearance.

A genius loci, Latin for “spirit of a place,” was considered the guardian of a place in Roman religion (Wikipedia). In modern architecture, it refers to the concept of that un-nameable quality that gives a building its unique feeling. In a sense, it is a personification of a place. The habit of seeing an inanimate setting as having human features recalls pareidolia: the mind’s habit of seeing human faces in non-human objects.

Do you see the twisted, horrific faces?

Initially at least, this seems to be what Amberville has experienced in this particular spot on the Chapman estate. When describing his composition, he says he was “impressed immediately by a profound horror that lurked in these simple elements and was expressed by them as if by the balefully contorted features of some demoniac face … The evil conveyed was something wholly outside humanity–more ancient than man” (224). Later on, he remarks that the Genius Loci “has the air of a thirsty vampire, waiting to drink me in somehow, if it can” (226).

Why is it that seeing faces in of animate things can create such a disturbing sense of horror? It may have something to do with the fact we are inherently disturbed to see faces in things in which we do not expect to see them.

This spotting of the familiar in the unfamiliar Freud called unheimlich–unhomely–which in English is often translated as “uncanny.” The uncanny can serve to explain why we feel uncomfortable when we see a staircase in the middle of the forest, or see a face in a piece of wood. But in my opinion, the uncanny alone cannot explain the specific sense of dread and menace that Amberville sees on the Chapman property. For example, a benevolent Genius Loci would still be uncanny. So what can account for the overpowering sense of evil?

A suggestion of what might be at work here, and in a great deal of other weird fiction, can be found in Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject.

Julia Kristeva

In Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection, Kristeva’s opening paragraph describes the abject, a term whose relevance to weird fiction should be apparent:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection, 1

Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” describes the weird tale as requiring an “unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” which in light of Kristeva, actually maps well onto the abject as she describes it above (“a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable”). The painter in “Genius Loci” is seduced by the malignant, outside force of the landscape he desires to paint; in addition, there is also a powerful urge or necessity to resist seduction and resist the evil.

Indeed, Chapman’s grove could be said to be “an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned.” The painter is both repulsed and summoned by the Genius Loci, as many weird tale protagonists have been, from Ewers’s “The Spider” to Merritt’s “People of the Pit.” And like the fates of Bracquemont and Stanton, whose desires are only satisfied in death, the painter is drawn towards the Genius Loci as a moth to a flame, where he drowns in the stagnant pond, becoming part of the haunting landscape himself, where his presence continues to haunt the narrator of the tale after death.

Since the abject is a useful term that I may be returning to in future posts, I should write a little more about it here. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the abject is defined as “what the subject’s consciousness has to expel or disregard in order to create the proper separation between subject and object” (2069). The abject remains unconsciously desired, but is transformed into something filthy and disgusting in an act of repression. For example, “both matter and mother are abjects for the fantasy of self-creation” (2069). In establishing any identity, there must be a thing rejected because it is seen as filthy or evil.

The abject often manifests when this separation between self and other breaks down in moments of horror. Horror fiction is often based on the violation of boundaries and taboos: the boundaries between the human and the material, the human and the animal, the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, and the self and other. According to Wikipedia, for Kristeva,

the abject […] is used to refer to the human reaction (horrorvomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, or between the self and the other.

Powers of Horror, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Powers_of_Horror&oldid=995069481

This breakdown occurs in “Genius Loci” when Amberville sees the face of Chapman, an old man, in the branches of the dead willow. The reason this pareidolia produces such revulsion in Amberville is thus not only because he’s “seeing things” that aren’t there but because he has witnessed that the division between a human being and the material world has dissolved. This has implications for his own humanity, since if another human being could become so transfigured by the vampiric glade, then he can be transformed too.

Seeing a dead body produces a similar feeling in us. We see the stiffness of the body and recognize the fact that it is made of matter as material as grave dirt. Then we realize that we ourselves also inhabit a body, which is, in reality, just as material as the dead one. For most of our lives, we repress this reality and express our revulsion of the body, especially the dead body, because we will also cease to exist except as a material body. Belief in the eternal soul is a symbolic belief that rejects the permanence of the body as abject–but when you look a dead body, you become aware that there’s not so much difference between the dead body and you, whatever your beliefs about the soul.

However, having an abject is necessary to maintain our functionality and perhaps our sanity as well. Arguably, it is the abject that keeps us sane, because it instills the human mind with “the inability … to correlate all its contents” (Lovecraft “The Call of Cthulhu”). In a way, one aspect that makes the followers of Cthulhu insane is their contact with the Real–what Lovecraft identified with the true, cosmic scale of the universe, terrifying in its vastness.

To return to “Genius Loci,” if Amberville notices that there is now no difference between Chapman and the landscape, then it could mean there is no difference between himself and the landscape either, except on a symbolic (not “Real”) level. He sees the landscape as evil because it is an abject for him, so that he can retain his own sense of self. However, as an abject, the Genius Loci is also unconsciously desired, leading to the back-and-forth repulsion and attraction that draws the painter inexorably nearer to the landscape and to his death.

As I read more and more weird fiction, the more I’m noticing that this pattern seems to be a key dynamic of the genre.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” (1935).

Weird #21: “The Shadowy Street'” by Jean Ray (1931)

The Great Fire, 1842 painting by Peter Suhr (from Wikipedia)

Jean Ray’s story “The Shadowy Street” is the second by the same author published in the VanderMeers’ anthology The Weird. Known as the French Edgar Allan Poe, his work remains largely unknown to English-language readers.

Like “The Mainz Psalter,” which I wrote about last week, “The Shadowy Street” is told in a nested narratives. The principle narrator is a man who riffles through a pile of different destroyed papers confiscated by customs officials near a Rotterdam dock. Among the manuscripts, which have been cut in two but still provoke a certain curiosity, he discovers a book bearing the name of Alphonse Archipetre, consisting of a French and a German manuscript, each detailing a horror that turns out to be two perspectives on the same phenomenon.

Accounts discovered in manuscripts seem to be as much a staple of weird fiction as fear of unknown threats beyond one’s ken. Several stories that I’ve examined so far have used this trope, and, when it’s not a manuscript, it’s likely to be a transcription of the last words of a lone survivor. Perhaps the reason weird fiction writers use discovered manuscripts as a narrative strategy is because it renders the story more credible. The narrator can remain a detached, rational observer, merely reporting what the hard, concrete evidence of the manuscript reports, while not directly making any claim to truth. Like in archaeology, the artefact speak for themselves.

The French manuscript is a complete horror tale in and of itself, written by a woman who moves in with a group of sisters staying at the house of Councillor Hühnebein on the Deichstrasse in Hamburg. In it, the night itself steals into their home from the street outside. Frida reports that there is a “fear” in her room and when Eleonore ridicules her and goes to investigate, she does not return. She disappears.

The sisters soon see that the darkness is to be avoided. They drive the darkness back by lighting their house with all manner of light fixtures. But Hühnebein becomes murdered as darkness enters the room, their candles snuffed out. The women are not alone in experiencing this horror. The entire city is being wracked by a series of murders, so many deaths that the city becomes “indifferent” to them (210).

The narrator of the manuscript encounters the “invisible monster” and pities its cries of “Moh… Moh…” (211). She carries pitchers of milk in the hopes of placating it and lies to Meta, who wishes to root out the ghost, about seeing anything. In the end, she is discovered betraying the household, and Meta stabs her through with a rapier. Suddenly, the house catches on fire spontaneously, and the last thing she sees is a tall, old woman with horrible green eyes.

The second, French manuscript is Archipetre’s own account, and it details how he discovered that Saint Beregonne’s Lane, a street he has noticed in his city, is not known to anyone else but himself. In fact, the street exists in another dimension, and no one other than he can see it or step into it. He wonders how this could be and then thinks it might be the gift of sight given to him through his maternal grandmother, a tall woman with piercing green eyes.

Archipetre’s first venture down Saint Beregonne’s Lane ends with him taking a sprig of viburnum back into the normal world, which has “an enormous philosophical significance” because “it was ‘in excess’ in our world,” an total addition to the total number of twigs in the ordinary universe (214). In a sense, he has total, absolute ownership over the spring of viburnum, because the place where it was taken exists only for him.

Finding himself poor and wanting to woo the daughter of an Mediterranean sailor, he then makes regular forays into this parallel dimension, making a paltry living selling whatever loot he can steal from the alternate dimension to which only he has access. In one house in particular, every night he steals the same tray, which reappears the next day in precisely the same spot. Every time, he sells it to Gockel, a pawnbroker The street has a bizarre quality to it, though its visual appearance is ordinary: there is a sound of harmonious dissonance coming from far off, which sets him ill at ease.

When the series of murders and disappearances grips the neighbourhood, Archipetre is left with a unique insight: all the crimes had been committed along the line the street covers. Confiding with Anita, he is devastated when she disappears, perhaps another casualty of a murderer who uses the darkness of the shadowy street to commit his crimes. Archipetre arranges for Gockel to leave him with a cart of gunpowder and oil so he can burn the houses on the street down and take his revenge for Anita’s loss.

The fire he sets is the same fire that destroys Councillor Hühnebein’s house on the Deichstrasse. He later finds the German manuscript in the same house from which he had stolen the trays, suggesting that Archipetre might have been the ghost that so haunts the coucillor’s house in the first, Germna manuscript.

The last line of Archipetre’s manuscript is one of ecstatic horror: “Vampires! Vampires! Vampires!” (221).

The principle narrator who discovered the manuscripts then visits Lockmann Gockel, who explains that the antique dealer in the manuscript was his grandfather. Archipetre died the day after the great fire of Hamburg (a real event that occurred on 5 May, 1842). He survived the fire, but died the next day when his own house burned down, though no surrounding houses were harmed.

Gockel then reveals what might be the strangest thing about this story: “the story compressed time, just as space was compressed at the fateful location of Saint Beregonne’s Lane” (221). He says that the accounts of the crimes and disappearances, which happened before the fire in the manuscript, actually happened during the fire, according to accounts in the Hamburg archives. The perpetrators who used the darkness of the street to hide their crimes actually did it so within the brightness of the Hamburg fire of 1842. To explain this, he alludes to Einstein’s theory of relativity and the law of contraction put forward by Fitzgerald and Lorentz.

I suppose this testifies to the impact Einstein’s theories had at the time. Old assumptions about the nature of reality were being questioned. Reality could stretch, shrink, or appear different depending on the observer’s position, and this theory of relativity is certainly a device that Ray makes use of in this story. Archipetre is an observer who can look and step into another dimension, where time and space follow different rules–a trait shared with his grandmother, whose transcendence of space and time can also be attributed to this phenomenon.

The apparent normalcy of the world is perhaps due to the fact that we can never see how anyone else truly sees the world we share in common–so we assume everyone must see what we see. If one man uniquely sees something that doesn’t exist for anyone else, one can only integrate their perspective into one’s own by asking them what they see, listening to them, and trusting that they’re reporting what they see accurately. But even then, the listener is only receiving the information second-hand. The two observers do not inhabit the same reality, since under Einstein’s theory of relativity, reality is relative to the observer.

Yet, when the positions of two observers and their perceptions are analyzed, some truth may be discovered in how they overlap. That’s precisely the logic behind “The Shadowy Street.” The German and French manuscripts each report an observation by a different observer on the same series of events, and each come out as very different experiences. Together, they undermine our certainty that we share a common reality.

As the final kicker, it is said Gockel became rich because a tall, old woman with terrible green eyes purchased the trays and candlesticks brought to him by Archipetre with gold. The things haunting Gockel will remain with his family because “they come out of their gold, which we keep, and which we love in spite of everything; they rise from everything we’ve acquired with that infernal fortune” (222). The haunting continues so long as they continue to possess what was acquired through Archipetre’s trans-dimensional theft.

Flemish author Jean Ray
Flemish author Jean Ray

Next week, I’ll be discussing Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci” (1933).

Weird #20: “The ‘Mainz Psalter'” by Jean Ray (1930)

Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” is a ‘supernatural’ sea adventure–although a better word for it would be a nautical weird tale, since it purports to be about a natural, material phenomenon that exists beyond everyday human perception. The editors state that it takes after William Hope Hodgson’s stories of ghost pirates–think the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie–though Ray claimed to have actually written “The Mainz Psalterbefore reading Hodgson.

He would not have had to read Hodgson first, however, to have found predecessors for this kind of story in any old coot’s high seas tale, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Marinere, and in the supernatural South Seas stories of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Like Merrit’s “People of the Pit” and many other tales besides, this is a “lone survivor” narrative. The captain of the Mainz Psalter, which, as the italics hint, is a ship, tells his story to the crew of the North Caper, the ship that has rescued him, as the only surviving witness of the strange and fantastic phenomena glimpsed form the deck of the Psalter.

Like Margaret Irwin’s “The Book,” “The Mainz Psalter” could have easily been a ghost story–but it is a good deal more than that. There is no haunting, no disembodied hands, but there is the fear of an inchoately perceived threat.

Sea stories are especially well-suited to weird fiction because of sailors depend on each other for survival against the hostile, incomparably vast ocean, a shorthand for humanity’s futile struggle against the distantly perceived exterior threat contained in the cosmos. Sailors have speculated about what monsters lie in the depths of the sea since time immemorial. In its terrifying dimensions, sailing the open ocean is as close to plumbing the uncharted depths of cosmic space as one can get on earth.

The story begins with a schoolmaster requesting passage through hellish waters to Cape Wrath. As part of the deal, he ask for the ship to be renamed the Mainz Psalter, after a rare incunabulum printed by the successors of Gutenberg in the sixteenth century that was gifted to him from a grand-uncle. He’s transporting the rare, precious manuscript, which is worth a fortune, for scientific purposes the likes of which he does not disclose to the captain. Combine M. R. James’s antiquarianism with Stevenson’s love of a high seas tale–with a dash of Lovecraftian alternate dimensions–and you have an idea for the story will be about.

The sailors weigh anchor in Big Toe Bay, a smuggler’s notch and a shelter from the violent seas, where some coastal raiders assault their ship from atop the surrounding cliffs. However, the raiders are picked off one-by-one by an unknown, invisible force: they are hurled from the cliffs and fall to their deaths.

Saved, yet terrified of what could have done such a thing to a human being, the captain tries to determine what happened. Friar Tuck, “a sea-going jack-of-all-trades” (194), points up the cliff at something he’s just seen, but when Jellewyn, his companion, turns, it has already disappeared, and the schoolmaster is seen walking down to the beach from the cliffs.

The sea behaves oddly after that. The water has “oddly coloured streaks” and laughter seems to be coming from within the waves themselves (197). The schoolmaster disappears from the ship. When asked what he thinks of this phenomena, Friar Tuck answers: “I know only that something is around us, something worse than anything else, worse than death!” (197). Fear of the threat posed by indeterminate, outside forces is part of what makes a weird tale weird, and it only gets weirder from here.

New stars appear in the sky, the strange constellations “new geometrical groupings [that] were shining dimly in a frighteningly black sidereal abyss” (197). Here the abyss of the ocean is joined with the abyss of the cosmos, along with a sense of dislocation: that they might have journeyed onto “another plane of existence” (198). This is where the story truly gains a sense of cosmic horror.

Ever since the voyages of Bran the Blessed, and probably before that, Atlantic sailors have claimed to cross into strange, other worlds. The Psalter has now wandered into one of those strange spaces. Jewellyn even states that “if, by some inconceivable magic or some monstrous science, we were transported to Mars or Jupiter, or even to Aldebaran, it wouldn’t prevent us from seeing the same constellations we see from earth” (198). They’ve voyaged so far from home, they’ve surpassed the conventional ways of expressing extreme distance, arriving into a new dimension which they don’t even have the language to describe: the “Nth dimension” (198).

The kraken
The kraken

A strange, glass like substance covers a lifeboat and causes it to vanish. Later, like in the voyages of Bran–not to mention Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”–the Psalter sails above a vast, sunken city:

The water had become transparent as glass. At an enormous depth, we saw great dark masses with unreal shapes: there were manors with immense towers, gigantic domes, horribly straight streets lined with frenzied houses. We appeared to be flying over a furiously busy city at an incredible height.

(200)

At once, something arises out of the city and hits the keel of the boat. Briefly, the crew glimpses a horror that at once recalls legends about the kraken and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu:

we saw three enormous tentacles, three times as high as the mainmast, hideously writing in the air. A formidable face composed of black shadows and two eyes of liquid amber rose above the port side of the ship and gave us a terrifying look.

(200)

The figure disappears, but the crew is picked off one by one, until only the captain and Jewellyn remain, holed up in the cabin. They hear footsteps on deck, as a strange crew manages the sails–a ghost crew, except for the fact that they must be material, not spiritual, in substance, since they are steering the ship.

Jewellyn says the schoolmaster kept a crystal box, which may be at the source of the horror. He climbs the mainmast to “see something” (203)–what he intends to find is never explained–and leaves behind a note anticipating that in the event of his death, the captain must burn the schoolmaster’s books and destroy the box.

This is precisely what he does. He burns the Mainz Psalter (the incunabulum) and the schoolmaster’s other tomes, finding the crystal box hidden inside the Psalter. The schoolmaster resurfaces in the ocean, an “infernal swimmer” (203), pleading with him to stop destroying the books, but in the end, he smashes the glass box into a million pieces.

What follows is a brief recap: it was at this point that the North Caper, the ship on which the captain has been telling his story, finally rescues him. But the horror follows him on the new ship. The schoolmaster reappears in the ocean, appearing like a clergyman with eyes like burning coals. The clergyman tries to kill the captain of the Psalter, but the narrator–John Copeland, first mate of the North Caper–shoots the clergyman with a pistol. When the body is recovered, however, all that is left are the clothes and a wax head, a mere mannequin.

In the end, Reines, a literary magazine writer and the transcriber of the captain’s account, takes the mannequin to a churchman, who finds that it smells of octopus, in addition to phosphorus and formic acid. This revelation is interesting in terms of deciding whether Ray wants the reader to believe Ballister’s account or not. The phosphorus would seem to suggest a hoax, while the smell of octopus could confirm the truth of the trans-dimensional voyage. Of course, the octopus smell could also be a coincidence and phosoporus is not really sufficient to explain the rising of the three-tentacled vision from the depths of an underwater city. From a Todorovian perspective, the reader may not be sure whether a natural explanation of Ballister’s story has been given, but it certainly permits a reading of what happened as marvelous.

Perplexed by this contradictory evidence, the churchman quotes the Bible, telling them not to “[darken] counsel by words without knowledge” (205). The men of the North Caper give up “trying to understand” (205), and, in so doing, reconcile themselves to perplexity.

Is this a “fantastic” ending in the Todorovian sense, where the events could equally be given a natural or supernatural explanation? Not at all–it’s more of an abdication of any kind of judgment about what they have seen.

The different levels of narration complicate this reading further. Ballister’s account of the Psalter is embedded within Copeland’s story of his rescue on the Caper, which later develops into their encounter with the coal-eyed clergyman. Also, Ballister’s account is not verbatim, but stylistically embellished by Reines. Furthermore, the entire story is presented as a factual account, with Copeland mildly admonishing Reines’s embellishments, while still testifying to the validity of the facts.

But Copeland himself only witnesses the coal-eyed clergyman’s attack–the only part of the story that could be explained by the natural causes of formic acid and phosphorus. How can he guarantee the reader that Ballister’s account is also factual, especially since he admits it has been embellished by Reines? How much of the inter-dimensional travel story was from Ballister’s memory and what was from Reines’s imagination?

On the question of whether there is a marvelous or natural cause behind Ballister’s story of the Mainz Psalter, perhaps what Ray is saying is that we, as reader, should also not darken counsel by “words without knowledge.”

(For more on how embedded narrators can be used to play around with the truth claims made in a story of fantastic discovery, I would recommend Umberto Eco’s study of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Voyage of Gordon Pym in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.)

Flemish author Jean Ray
Flemish author Jean Ray


Next week, I’ll be discussing Jean Ray’s “The Shadowy Street” (1931).

an old, buckled leather-bound book

Weird #19: “The Book” by Margaret Irwin (1930)

Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” is considered both a ghost story and a weird tale. These two genres do not always coincide. In “Supernatural Horror and Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft says that the true weird tale goes beyond the ghost story’s formalism to give a certain atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplained dread of “outer, unknown forces” (“Introduction”). Irwin’s ghost story accomplishes this mood and atmosphere. Not only does the protagonist become aware of the haunting, despite his sceptism, but he comes to see his ordinary world as an illusion. His very rationality becomes twisted, supporting his fall into madness.

The formalism of the ghost story was explored by the Russian formalist Tzvetan Todorov in his famous analysis of “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. In his analysis, the reader of the ghost story bandies continually between being convinced that the haunting has a supernatural origin and justifying a natural explanation for the phenomenon. A ghost story can thus achieve three effects by time the tale achieves closure:

1) the reader reaches the conclusion that it definitely has a natural explanation, in which case it is known as an “uncanny” story;

2) the reader concludes that the haunting must truly be supernatural, in which case it is a case of the “marvellous”;

and 3) a perfect balance of ambiguity between the natural and the supernatural is achieved, in which case it is an example of what Todorov calls “the fantastic.” It is fantastic because the reader cannot decide whether it has a natural or supernatural explanation.

Very few stories achieve a perfect fantastic ending. But most ghost stories do play with the reader’s uncertainty of whether the haunting has a natural and supernatural explanation. It is this interplay that can be thought of as defining the form of the ghost story.

Irwin’s story, like many ghost stories, performs this Todorovian game with the reader. But it also establishes a mood–essential both to the weird tale and the effective ghost story.

The story begins when Mr. Corbett, filled with ennui upon reading a detective story, returns to his library to pick up another book to entertain himself. For one reason or another, a cynical, moribund mood has overcome him, and it colours his reading of every book he picks off the shelf.

Corbett cannot read even optimistic literature without seeing the skull beneath the skin. He sees Charles Dickens’ “revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “sickly attraction to brutality,” and calls Jane Austen “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations” (184-5). No explanation is given for this mood–he might have just become tired of the optimistic rationalism found in commercial detective novels.

When he replaces the Dickens book, he realizes that there is a larger gap in his bookshelf than there had been before. “This is nonsense,” Corbett thinks. “No one can possibly have gone into the dining-room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall” (184). It is the first sign of a haunting, of something potentially marvellous, in Todorov’s sense. Of course, he does not believe in ghosts, and he has no reason to suspect that there could be one in his house. However, the gap torments his mind once he goes to sleep. It becomes “the most hideous deformity, like a gap between the front teeth of some grinning monster” (184). By the time he awakes, the gap has disappeared. He thinks nothing of it.

Later, he seeks out an old Latin tome in the theological library. As he sets about interpreting it, he reads about the horrible rights of devil worshippers and falls sick. He returns to his family, who seem to be “like sheep”: “nothing in his appearance in the mirror struck him as odd; it was their gaping faces that were unfamiliar” (186). This passage is uncanny in the Freudian sense of unheimlich, or “unhomely.” Corbett sees his own family as other; what is homely and familiar becomes unhomely and strange. The mood conjured by the Latin book has made him see the unreality of his mundane existence, conjuring a mood that goes beyond that of the ghost story into weird tale territory.

It’s this combination of the ghost story form and the weird tale mood that makes Irwin’s “The Book” such a “weird” ghost story. The ghost is not only haunting Corbett; his experience of the ghost alienates him from his very sense of reality.

But the story’s strangest turn has yet to happen. Corbett notices that a few lines of Latin text are being added to the book every night. No one in his family is writing this text; it simply appears. He comes to read these lines as if they were words from an oracle, or a prophet. A practical man, when he reads the line “Ex auro canceris / In dentem elephanits” (“Out of the money of the crab / Into the tooth of the elephant”) (188), he invests his money in the African ivory trade. He makes a killing on his investment.

Due to this turn of good fortune, he learns to trust the book to tell him what to do. Every night he interprets new lines from the text. However, it takes a turn for the worst when he reads “Canem occide” (“Kill the dog”). He attempts to murder the family dog, Mike, who he does not like, with rat poison.

Fortunately, he fails, but his young daughter has a dream that night of a disembodied hand crawling among the bookshelves and picking out a particular volume. Corbett comforts her as the ominousness of the dream settles. Then that same night, he reads the next command: “Infantem occide,” or “Kill the child.”

In one disturbing moment, he resolves to use the rat poison to kill his own daughter:

Jean had acquired dangerous knowledge. She was a spy, an antagonist. That she was so unconsciously, that she was eight years old, his youngest and favourite child, were sentimental appeals that could make no difference to a man of sane reasoning power such as his own. Jean had sided with Mike against him.

(191)

In this passage, Corbett rationalizes his paranoid delusions much like Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His rationalism, which has affected his taste in literature and his scepticism of ghosts, is now precisely what drives him into unreality. Furthermore, his patriarchal rejection of sentiment (gendered female) as non-rational drives him to reject his common sense and commit the unthinkable.

However, in the end, he cannot bring himself to kill his own child. He throws the cursed tome into the fireplace. As a result, his body is discovered later. He is assumed to have committed suicide due to a sudden plunge in the ivory stocks. But the strangling finger marks discovered around his throat suggest a final, supernatural explanation for his death and all the preceding events: the severed hand from his daughter’s dream has killed him for disobedience.

What is so horrible about this story is not so much the supernatural itself as the all-too-willingness of human beings to obey such heartless commands. The second half of this ghost story bears certain similarities to “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers in how the void seems to whisper dark commands to the protagonist, commanding absolute obedience.

From a politico-economic standpoint, I also find it interesting that Corbett invests in the African ivory trade, which likely means he invested in the Congo, where the Belgians were responsible for genocidal abuses at the beginning of the century. The Belgian atrocities included cutting the hands off slaves engaged in the rubber and ivory trade. It is interesting that a severed hand then murders Corbett, who likely invested in this same industry. It is interesting to imagine the hand as the severed revenant of an African slave. Though the text itself may not support such a reading, the imagery is suggestive.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Flemish writer Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” (1930). Ray is one of the few authors in this anthology to have been published twice in The Weird.

Yog-Sothoth

Weird #18: “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft (1929)

H. P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft may often be thought of as the father of weird fiction for the scale of his influence. He is certainly one of the most important and central writers in the twisted bouquet of texts gathered in the VanderMeers’ anthology. However, he is not so much the founder of weird fiction than one of its first self-professed authors.

The scale of Lovecraft’s influence was felt by his contemporaries and vastly more so by his successors. But it is also reflected on the literary histories that were later made. Jorge Luis Borges might have been speaking of the author of “The Dunwich Horror” and “Supernatural Horror in Literature” when he said, in “Kafka and His Predecessors,” “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (On Writing 87).

Like Kafka, Lovecraft created his own predecessors. Understood in Lovecraft’s own terms, they stretch back not only as far as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe, but as far back as the early Gothic writers. In fact, they could be said to go back far earlier, to the earliest superstitions of our human ancestors.

In his “Afterweird” to the VanderMeers’ anthology, China Miéville describes the indefinite nature of the weird canon, saying that its

edges are as protean, its membranes as permeable and oozing as the breaching biology of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror. We interpret it, of course: our minds are meaning-factories. But the ground below them is hole-y. There are cracks and chaos, meaningquakes. The metaphors we walk on are

scree

(1115)

The terrifying, invisible abomination of form that lies at the centre of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is thus metonymic for the (highly permeable) form of weird fiction itself. For Mieville, the weird is an “affect,” not bound by the categories of high or low literature, genre, nationality, subject matter, or even the category of supernatural fiction (1115). It defies our capacity for description through language. Like the worms that were around before the human race came to be and will still be here when it is gone, the weird is about that which exists separately from human affairs.

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft charts the historical development of the weird tale. He defines his subject as such:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a serious and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

(“Introduction”)

This definition contains the essence of the literary history he traces in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” The early Gothic writers who often included a rational, natural explanation of a ghostly haunting do not earn Lovecraft’s admiration, though he does commend writers who experiment with a certain sense of breathlessness in their style. The key figure separating these early experiments from the vein of horror Lovecraft finds most inspiring is Edgar Allan Poe, to whom “we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state” (“Edgar Allan Poe”).

For Lovecraft, the psychological realism of horror was crucial for the weird tale, as was the avoidance of any pandering to “the majority’s artificial ideas” such as genre conventions, happy endings, and moral or social lessons (“Introduction”). Lovecraft goes on to mention various authors in Britain and America whose work follows in the supernatural tradition, ranging from Rudyard Kipling, Lafcadio Hearn, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Bram Stoker, George MacDonald, and William Hope Hodgson.

(He even includes Joseph Conrad in this list, who “often wrote of the dark secrets of the sea, and the of the daemoniac driving power of Fate as influencing the lives of lonely and maniacally resolute men” (“The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”). Parallels between the nautical aspects of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” and Hodgson’s nautical tales of discovery are considered one with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the tradition of terror.)

“The Dunwich Horror,” can be read as the culmination of the literary values described in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This weird tale contains a gradual unveiling of an invisible horror, culminating in the revelation of the formless, shapeless monster at its heart.

Lovecraft’s debt to Poe can be seen in the first paragraphs, in which the tiny New England community of Dunwich Village is described as impossibly ancient in comparison to the lands around it. Dunwich fell long ago into decadence and decline, much like the House of Usher. Dunwich was apparently settled long ago by residents of Salem who fled the witch trials. As such, no building in the entire village was built more recently than the early 1800s and many of them date back to the 1600s.

Degeneracy as a result of strict endogamy plagues the “repellently decadent” natives of Dunwich (160). The albino Lavinia Wateley gives birth to a “dark, goatish-looking infant” who matures with an unusual speed (161). Young Wilbur Whateley soon becomes the apprentice of his father, Old Whateley, a sorcerer. By the age of four and a half, he resembles a fifteen-year-old boy and can speak fluently, becoming learned in the dark arts his father teaches him.

Artistic rendering of Wilbur Whateley by Reuben C. Dodd

On feast days, he and his father perform secret rites on the site of an altar on Sentinel Hill, performing occult ceremonies. Earthquakes and explosive sounds are heard coming from underground. The villagers fear and avoid the Whateley’s and their house; the dogs bark at the boy, who speaks with a voice that one suspects is produced by more than human vocal organs. Everywhere the rites are practiced, a peculiar stench can be detected. Furthermore, he is never seen without a tightly, buttoned-up shirt, as though his clothes are hiding the monstrous body beneath them.

Before his father dies, he tells his son to “Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition,” which is later revealed to be a reference to the Necronomicon (165). Wilbur seeks the Necronomicon at Miskatonic University, asking the librarian Henry Armitage to bring it back to Dunwich. Armitage catches a glimpse of the text and immediately forbids it.

This is what Armitage reads:

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. […] By Their smell can men sometimes know them near, but of their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind. […] They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. […] Man rules now where They ruled once They shall soon rule where man rules now.

(167)

Taking into account all that he knows about goat-faced Wilbur, Armitage reaches the terrible conclusion that he has been plotting the annihilation of the entire human race by attempting to summon Yog-Sothoth from the depths of interdimensional space. He decides that Wilbur must never be allowed to consult the Necronomicon, under any circumstances, for the good of the human race. He forbids Wilbur and phones ahead to warn the library staff at Harvard, where he goes searching for the forbidden tome next.

In the end, Wilbur breaks into Miskatonic Universtiy to steal the cursed book. Armitage hears a terrible scream and finds the body of Wilbur Whateley, mauled by a guard dog. His clothes have been torn, exposing the true form of his “teratologically fabulous” body:

Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfuly, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was pie-bald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.

Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, wound with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.

(169)

This description is worth quoting in full because of the expert way in which Lovecraft attempts to use language to describe not merely what “no human pen” can describe, but a body that cannot even be visualized “by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (169).

The description gains the reader’s trust with the easier-to-grasp image of the slightly anomalous torso, but then becomes gradually more outrageous. How could it be that this creature has dark, coarse fur on its tentacles? Is it a bear-like mammal or is it more like a cephalopod? It clearly has something of both categories, indicating how useless our categories are to defining the sheer Otherness of this being.

Even the eyes on the “hips” of the tentacles only seem to be undeveloped eyes. The tail is not really a tail but a feeler or trunk–the author isn’t sure which. The coup-de-grace comes when the annular markings around the trunk/feeler give some kind of evidence indicating they are mouths–or throats. But to make that visualization, the reader must forever abandon the limitations on their understanding of what could constitute a “mouth.”

As Graham Harman remarks in Lovecraft and Philosophy, this is “one of the greatest and most important of all Lovecraft passages” (161). Rather than succumb to a pulp trope and leave the description simply at “no human pen could describe it” (Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror” 169), Lovecraft chooses to describe “the specific manner in which the corpse resists description” using a “cubist” and “Husserlian” technique in which he multiplies “an absurd number of concrete features that are nearly impossible to unify” (161). In this way, Harman says, “language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess of surfaces and aspects of the thing” (25). This description foregrounds how human perceptions are always filtered by our eyes, by the dimensions we know, and the categories in which we sort the sensuous data with which we perceive the world.

All this is merely the prologue to the real Dunwich horror–which begins to unravel the moment Armitage gets on the case. Armitage becomes the protagonist, tasked with saving the planet from the apocalypse that Wilbur, the spawn of Yog-Sothoth himself, nearly succeeds at initiating before his death.

An invisible giant whose elephant-like footsteps are all that is visible of it wrecks the house of the Elmer Fryes, extinguishing the entire family line. Armitage rallies a competent team of men to track down the entity and stop it with a spell. Like one of Conrad’s duty-bound protagonists, Armitage chases after Yog-Sothoth to the peak of Sentinel Hill. Though competent, he is constantly aware of the unknown nature of the threat and the fact that all their tools and weapons are insignificant compared to the Dunwich horror’s size and power.

It is here that Curtis Whateley, part of the “undecayed” branch of Wilbur’s family, glimpses the terrible form of Yog-Sothoth himself. Lovecraft delivers the description in what can only be described as an unreadable mess, Lovecraft’s indefensible attempt at a transcription of an (albeit obscure) rural New England dialect.

Feel free to skip to the “translation” I’ve provided two paragraphs down from it, but the original text is here:

‘Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it–all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed close together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stove-pipes an all a-tossin’ an openin’ an’ shuttin’ … all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in Heaven–that haff face on top…’

In On Writing, Stephen King calls Lovecraft “a terrible dialogue writer” (180). Lovecraft only wrote about 5,000 words of dialogue in his entire career, according to King–a mercy to the human race, whose minds still remain sensible because of it. Even in this 1.88% concentration, a dose can be fatal to a reader’s sanity. However, translating this classist, country bumpkin-ese into the kind of plain English Lovecraft is fully capable of writing when more educated, privileged characters are speaking, the above passage would read like this:

‘Bigger than a barn … all made of squirming ropes … the whole thing sort of shaped like a hen’s egg bigger than anything with dozens of legs like hogsheads that half shut up when they step. Nothing solid about it–all like jelly, and made of separate wriggling ropes pushed close together. Great bulging eyes all over it… Ten or twenty mouths or trunks sticking out all along the sides, big as stove-pipes and all tossing and opening and shutting. All grey, with kinder blue or purple rings. And God in Heaven–that half-face on top…’

The body of the Old One is undefined, barely contained, filled with moving parts that are anything but stable. What strikes me most about this passage is the sense of the Old One’s body being formed of ropes bound together. Wilbur’s family resemblance to this entity is apparent in the eyes that he shares with Wilbur, and in the ambiguity of whether the things sticking out from its body are mouths or trunks.

According to Miéville, the Dunwich horror, as described by Curtis Whateley, is a metaphor, or metonymy, for the boundaries of the weird as a genre. Each text, or perhaps each group of texts, is like a tightly bound “rope” that forms part of the amorphous body of the creature. The weird, like the Dunwich horror, walks the earth as if it had no care for the human race at all. Its worm-like trunk-eyes are looking at us, but “that they watch us is as random as a rip” (Miéville, “Afterweird” 1115). The affect that defines the weird for Mieville is equivalent to the sensation of being watched by those rope-like, or perhaps worm-like, eyes.

The end of “The Dunwich Horror” was a little disappointing to me. Essentially, the invisible entity returns to the dimension from whence it came after shouting the name of its father, Yog-Sothoth. No action is needed from Armitage and his team. The daemon is revealed to be the twin brother of Wilbur Whateley, spawned from the same father, the Old One, Yog-Sothoth.

While it does not provide a happy ending, like much of the supernatural fiction that Lovecraft disliked, “The Dunwich Horror” does fail at creating a satisfying non-conclusion. The explanation that the Dunwich horror was actually Wilbur’s twin brother seems extraneous and bizarre.

It would have been far more interesting had Wilbur not truly “died” but become the Dunwich horror himself.

After all, the dog only destroys the physical, visible body of Wilbur, and the entire point of the story is that there exists a realm of invisible, incorporeal monsters who have existed since before the dawn of time. Perhaps Wilbur, despite being half-human, has retained these incorporeal abilities. Perhaps he could have become united in some way to the beast he had summoned.

Making Wilbur the Dunwich horror itself, Lovecraft could have at least avoided drawing upon extraneous information to explain to the reader what the Dunwich horror was. In this case, learning the explanation frankly dulled the affect of the horror. At least, that was the effect the story had on me.

I could have pointed out half a dozen other strengths to this story, despite its glaring faults. For one, the gradual revelation of the horror through the dispensation of information, clues, and connections was expertly done. I could see at once how effective this technique was, especially since it has been borrowed by Lovecraft’s modern-day imitators. For instance, Usman Malik does much the same trick in “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” during his buildup to an unspeakable blood sacrifice beneath a Buddhist stupa.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” (1930), which Mieville and writer Joanna Russ both call one of the most interesting supernatural stories they’ve ever read.

Weird #17: “The Night Wire” by H. F. Arnold (1926)

“There is something ungodly about these night wire jobs. You sit up here on the top floor of a skyscraper and listen in to the whispers of a civilization. New York, London, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore–they’re your next door neighbors after the street lights go dim and the world has gone to sleep” (“The Night Wire,” The Weird, 154).

Such is the unforgettable opening of H. F. Arnold’s “The Night Wire,” published in Weird Tales magazine in 1926. The editors’ introduction to this story remarks upon its “still being able to chill the reader today despite using elements that could have made the story feel dated” (154), and this description suits the effect it had on me perfectly.

The opening encapsulates a sense of globalization that has not left us. The story as whole has the feel of a twenty-first century short story set in the 1920s. An Internet-aware author may have simply projected the mass interconnectivity of the Information Era onto a story about a lonely telegraph operator in New York City in the 20s and attributed it to a different author.

But if Arnold predicted our times, it was only because he wrote about his own.

A telegraph operator

The operator of a “night wire,” who I’m guessing is a telegraph operator working for a news service, listens to the news of the world, creating records of all incoming messages. With John Morgan, his one night operator staff member, he works late into the night transcribing information for the next day’s headlines.

On this particular night, he receives a message he would not have ordinarily noticed, except he has never heard of the city from which it originated: Xebico. The message, sent by another night wire man in Xebico, tells of a mysterious fog originating in a graveyard that slowly consumes an entire city, terrifying the residents.

The New York operator reads the operator’s copy in installments, each of which has already been typed by the oddly silent Morgan. “I will stay with the wire until the end,” the Xebico operator writes. “The fog is not simply vapor–it lives! By the side of each moaning and weeping human is a companion figure, an aura of strange and vari-colored hues. How the shapes cling! Each to a living thing! […] They are being consumed–piecemeal” (157).

The figures in the mist devour the people in the city as a set of rainbow lights of various spectra appear in the sky, announcing the arrival of entities completely outside of human experience: aliens, inter-dimensional beings, creatures born purely of light but who consume flesh. I was reminded of the light-globe people in A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” At this point, I was also beginning to see how Lovecraft loved this story. Certain similarities with his weird tale “The Colour of Outer Space” are apparent.

The operator’s account stops suddenly, at the moment where he presumably perished. However, the New York operator seems to believe it was a hoax–like a 1920s version of a creepypasta. But when he touches Morgan to shake him awake, he realizes he’s gone cold. He’s been dead for hours, and worse, the narrator seems to think his fingers might have kept recording the account even after he had perished.

Had the mists killed him somehow, just through the act of transcribing the news from Xebico? What does the expanding mist mean for the other cities on Earth? One is left with the sense that the planet itself could be doomed as the mists expand, much like the it is doomed by the expanding borders of Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.

Though this story fits its 1926 context so well, it is also easy to see how it could be adapted to our own age. Perhaps the equivalent of a night wire operator today would be a reporter subscribed to a specific news feed, or even a doomscroller on Twitter working late into night, retweeting the major stories that emerge from across the globe as he slowly becomes jaded.

Today’s world is at a far more developed stage of inter-connectedness, but an earlier stage of that development of communications technology can be seen in this story. This is a weird tale that finds the weird and the disturbing in, among other things, the new frequencies of globalization and worldwide communication.

The editors make the author of this story sound rather mysterious, as though he were a name only known because it was associated with “The Night Wire” and two other published stories: one in Weird Tales and one in Amazing Stories. It’s not even known if H. F. Arnold was his real name, apparently. The editors seem to allow for a “weird” reading of his biography, as if the disturbing sense of dislocation the story creates could apply to the authorship of the story itself. One is left with the impression that Arnold is as mysterious as Xebico, a city not found on any map.

However, the blog Tellers of Weird Tales does supply a brief biography of H. F. Arnold that goes into more detail than the VanderMeers go into in The Weird. Some things, such as his wounding during World War II and the day of his birth and death, are known about the author, or about a man who shares his exact initials and last name. I’d like to know more about what exactly the controversy about his identity entails, and why this uncertainty as to his identity exists. Oddly, there is no hint on Tellers of Weird Tales that he might have worked as a journalist, as the VanderMeers say some have speculated–though Arnold did, apparently, work for Hollywood in PR.

H. F. Arnold

Next week, I’ll be tackling the father of weird fiction himself, H. P. Lovecraft, and his defining weird tale, “The Dunwich Horror” (1929). I also hope to say something intelligent about his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a foundational text in the creation of the entity known as “weird fiction.”

Stefan Grabiński

Weird #16: “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński (1921)

Stefan Grabiński

Since the Witcher film and video games came out, and since Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of monster-hunting dark fantasy novels were translated, English-speaking North Americans have been introduced to whole slews of new fantastical creatures from Polish folklore. These creatures include many that might have been unfamiliar to readers of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Even Jorge Luis Borges seems to have missed accounting for many of them in his Book of Imaginary Beings.

In Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, for instance, readers were introduced to strange creatures such as the kikimora, amphisboena, and mecopteran, alongside more familiar entities from European folklore, such as nymphs, rusalkas, strigas, chimeras, and dryads. (Some Eastern European monsters also appear in The Bone Mother by David Demchuk.) However, “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński adds one more for the books. Described as “the Polish Poe,” Grabiński introduced me to the wyrak, a creature described as being a cross between a monkey and a frog.

The Gollum-like Philippine tarsier, or Wyrak upiorny in Polish

I’m always pleased to have the opportunity to expand my Pokédex of imaginary creatures. It is difficult to find more information on the wyrak online, but a quick search does reveal two things: 1) wyrak in Polish means “mistake” (Google translate); and 2) it is also a Polish name for the tarsier, a very real creature who astonishingly matches its half-mammal, half-amphibian description.

Much weird fiction demands the reader’s effort in reconciling contradictory descriptions (such as the half-vegetable, half-animal shoggoths In the Mountains of Madness), in order to suggest the impossibility of imagining a particular creature. Sometimes creatures are described as liminal, straddling two categories, in order to suggest the arbitrariness (perhaps even the “wryak-ness,” or mistakenness, if wyrak means “mistake”) of our own scientific categories. When Polish naturalists encountered the Southeast Asian tarsier, they must have instantly recognized it as a creature from their own folklore.

However, the wyrak in “The White Wyrak” doesn’t climb trees; he climbs chimneys. The story is narrated by a young journeyman chimneysweeper who works for his master, Kalina, a jack-of-all-trades and devotee of Saint Florian who likes to tell tale tales. One of those tall tales seems to come to life one day, when they encounter the wyrak after two of the younger journeymen, Antarek and Biedron, go mysteriously missing on a routine chimney-sweeping job at an abandoned brewery.

The brewery was abandoned when the last brewer went bankrupt and hanged himself. As Kalina explains, “The boilers and machines are supposed to be evil. They’re of an old system. No one wants to take the financial risk of replacing it with a new one” (150). The risk involved in investing the capital necessary to replace the machinery means the place has remained abandoned long enough for the man-eating wyrak to take up residence in the chimney. Realistic details like these make the presence of a monster believable. Even if we don’t believe in the monster, we can at least believe in the severity of debt, which also eats men alive.

Kalina is wise in the ways of the world and the chimney sweeper’s craft. But it is hinted that his knowledge extends beyond the ordinary. He warns the narrator, saying, “Soot is treacherous, my boy, soot lays dormant inside dark smoke chambers and stuffy furnaces, and it lies in weight–for an opportunity. Something vindictive resides in soot, something evil lurks there. You never know what will emerge from it, or when” (150). Even if you don’t believe in monsters, Kalina offers sage advice. His profession is founded on the necessity of chimney sweeping due to the danger that accumulated soot can spontaneously ignite if it isn’t cleaned regularly. In a way, the wryak is the perfect metaphor for the very real, mundane danger of fire risks.

To tackle the chimney, Kalina drops a ball on a rope from the roof, while the narrator climbs up from the bottom. In the middle of the chimney, they see the “huge, owlish yellow eyes” of the wyrak as it holds “in his front claws what seemed like a human arm, which hung limply from a corpse” (151). The remains of the young apprentices are discovered, and the narrator hits the wyrak with a hatchet, slaying it. As it dies, they attempt to retrieve the creature’s body, but it dissolves into a “small milk-white substance,” becoming nothing more than a pile of soot as it exits the chimney (152). The monster leaves Kalina and the narrator with a bizarre case of white pimples due to their contact with the monster, but these soon disappear.

“The White Wyrak” contains a tidy resolution: the monster is slain. The supernatural strangeness disappears nearly as soon as the corpse exits the chimney. In this respect, and in terms of the sober realism with which he writes, Grabiński is most unlike Poe and Lovecraft, to whom he is also compared. The characters act rationally (at least in this story) and deal matter-of-factly with the presence of a wyrak. The story’s realism includes specific details of the chimney sweepers’ profession, such as their tools and even gems like his description of the “layers of easily flammable ‘enamel’ [that] glowed with a cold metallic luster” in the chimney (151). Though the chimneysweepers may be shaking in their boots, from the cool sobriety with which they approach the problem, one might think they were merely cleaning out a routine accumulation of soot.

As a weird tale, “The White Wyrak” has a tidy resolution, unlike more disturbing weird tales where uneasiness lingers long after the tragic story is “resolved.” However, perhaps we should not be lulled by the chimney sweepers’ rationalism. After all, Kalina’s apprentice is now aware that his master’s tall tales have a firm basis in reality. He, like the reader, has learned that the world is inhabited by monsters in its interstitial spaces, leaving unanswered the question of how many more monsters are out there, hiding in our ordinary world.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The Night Wire” (1926) by the American pulp fiction writer H. F. Arnold.

Franz Kafka

Weird #15: “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (1919)

“In the Penal Colony” (translated by Ian Johnston) was an interesting choice to include in The Weird. The obvious Franz Kafka story to include would have been The Metamorphosis (included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Classic Fantasy), which is certainly weird and alienating in the way much weird fiction is, including that of Alfred Kubin, which Kafka’s writer’s group influenced. But perhaps The Metamorphosis would have been too obvious a choice. Which begs the question: What exactly makes “In the Penal Colony” a better choice for this anthology?

The editors state that “the story’s reliance on strange ritual and its luminous clarity are grounded in a modernity that … represented a new approach to weird fiction” (133). Where the supernatural was a central aspect of the weird tale in earlier writers, Kafka has no concern with the past or its superstitions. Instead, it is grounded firmly the mechanistic horror of modernity, the “strange ritual” of which, while not occult, does tend to release humanity’s seemingly innate barbarism.

The elaborate torture device at the centre of the story, through its level of detail, becomes immense, becoming a symbol for more than the brutal task it is meant to accomplish. In fact, the story can be interpreted as an allegory for the cruelty exacted in modern society under the name of justice, and the tendency of good-meaning people to passively tolerate it.

It throws up a host of associations, from the punishing justice systems in the European colonies of the time to the cruelty of Nazi Germany. In contemporary society, it speaks to debates about the death penalty and torture. It can also read as an allegory of how cruelty is enacted and tolerated in prisons, the justice system, and police force, particularly as it affects BIPOCs.

Franz Kafka

The story is about an Explorer who who is invited to the penal colony by the Commandant. There he receives a guided tour of the torture apparatus by the Officer, an old man who has been maintaining and running the machine for years. The machine itself is composed of three parts: the Bed, the Inscriber, and the Harrow, the purpose of which is to lower the tips of needles onto the body and carry out the execution.

The Condemned is fitted into the Bed of the machine, where he is strapped down. Responding to the Explorer’s questions, the Officer explains that the Condemned Man has not been told his own sentence. “It would be useless to give him that information,” says the Officer. “He experiences it on his own body” (136). Indeed, the Inscriber marks the bodies of the criminals with the name of their crime. This exotic form of torture certainly pegs the story as weird, much as the torture in Georg Heym’s “The Dissection” (1913).

The Officer describes his method of ascertaining the man’s guilt:

Guilt is always beyond a doubt. […] If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so on. But now I have him and I won’t release him again.

(136)

This is not “guilty before being proven innocent.” The Officer’s idea of justice is “guilty.” Period. The Officer’s sense of justice is a travesty, and closer to fascism than anything else.

The Officer explains the man was instructed to stand watch and salute his captain on the hour. However, the captain apparently complained that when the man was to salute at two o’clock, he had fallen asleep. The Officer believes the captain’s testimony, calling it “the facts” (136). He doesn’t have to hear anything more, taking the testimony of the captain at face value, without hearing the Condemned’s story.

This reminds me of how Black victims of police shootings are so often presumed to be guilty, or violent, when police are called to respond to a crisis or a disturbance. In such altercations, efforts are rarely, if ever, made to learn both sides of the story. Perhaps the stories are heard eventually, but only long after the Black victim has been needlessly killed. The Officer represents this tendency to take the complaint at face value and use it as an excuse to perpetrate cruel, unnecessary violence in the name of “justice.” Though Kafka’s story was published in 1919, he anticipated not only the injustices of the Nazis but described the dynamics of injustice that still persist in North American society after hundreds of years.

The Explorer, a foreigner in the penal colony, believes that “the injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond a doubt” (139). However, he finds that actually taking action to destroy the machine that inflicts such unjust suffering is precarious. He reflects on his status as an outsider, saying, “It is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. If he wanted to condemn this execution, or even hinder it, people would say to him: You are a foreigner–keep quiet” (139). Non-intervention keeps him from taking decisive action.

Franz Kafka statue (Prague)

Furthermore, the Officer has his own designs. He gives the Explorer a long speech about the machine has seen better days–it has a squeaky wheel, and replacement parts are hard to come by. He waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the old Commander himself would officiate at the executions and crowds of people would gather to see it. And he complains about the current Commander, who he senses is slowly trying to undermine him with the goal of eventually getting rid of the machine. In fact, the Commander may have invited the Explorer to the colony for the very purpose of asking his opinion on the island’s particular customs regarding executions. In short, if the Explorer were to help the Officer and voice his favourable opinion of the machine during a public meeting with the Commander, he would be doing him a favour.

To do so, it would be necessary is for the Explorer to hide his true opinions, before speaking his unshakeable opinion during the meeting. The Officer essentially grooms him to speak like a politician:

Unless someone asks you directly, you should not express any view whatsoever. But what you do say must be short and vague. People should notice that it has become difficult for you to speak about the subject, that you feel bitter, that, if you were to speak openly, you’d have to burst out cursing on the spot. I’m not asking you to lie, not at all. You should give only brief answers — something like, “Yes, I’ve seen the execution” or “Yes, I’ve heard the full explanation.” […] Naturally, [the Commandant] will completely misunderstand the issue and interpret it in his own way.

(142)

The Officer’s instructions are a precise description of how politicians speak complacently about problematic, unjust policies. Rather than risk alienating voters who may approve of such policies, politicians, even those who wish to reform, often speak meaninglessly on the issue, cloaking their own opinion, and they do so in term such as the Officer has just described. This vague language enables the injustice to persist.

The Officer then ask the Explorer to voice his approval of the machine during the meeting with the Commandant. But in the end, the Explorer says, “No” (145). He says that he will be leaving the penal colony on the boat the next day. In the end, his desire not to get caught up in the colony’s affairs outweighs his desire to take action.

The Officer puts on a smile, but inside, he knows his bid has been ruined. Unexpectedly, he frees the Condemned from the machine. Then he strips naked, breaking his sabre in half and throwing it into a cesspit. Lying down on the Bed of the machine, he kicks the lever to begin the torture, setting the machine upon himself. As it spins into motion, the machine begins to fall apart, with gear wheels falling out of the Inscriber. Needles stab his body, killing him plain and simple. In the end, “his gaze was calm and convinced [and] the tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead” (147).

The Officer’s condemnation of himself and freeing the prisoner is striking, and the Condemned is obviously confused by this reversal. I believe the Officer dies because he has seen that the time of his torture machine is at an end. The Officer was simply holding true to his own absolutist idea of justice and applying the same law that he had applied upon the Condemned on himself. Rather than dismantle the model of justice he believes in, he, like Javert in Les Misérables, commits suicide rather than question the worldview by which he has lived.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The White Wyrack” (1921) by the demonologist and Polish weird fiction author Stefan Grabiński, sometimes known as the Polish Poe. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m wondering if in Gabriński we won’t see a kind of precedent for Andrzej Sapkowski and his Witcher books.

Weird #14: “Unseen — Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (1919)

Gertrude Barrows Bennett

Content warning: racism, suicide.

Francis Stevens is the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female author of science fiction and fantasy. She has been compared to (and even been mistaken for) A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft wrote approvingly of her famous novel Claimed, which is about the summoning of an ancient god in New Jersey. Her short story “Unseen – Unfeared” is billed by the editors of The Weird as a classic weird tale.

“Unseen – Unfeared” is motivated by a curiosity about the unknown things that lie outside of human experience: a greater unknown which science and religion cannot altogether explain. Like in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” curiosity is rewarded with despair and terror at the realization of the grim condition of the human race. The most merciful thing here is the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” The story can also be seen as proto-Lovecraftian in its anti-humanism, its racism, and in how the two relate together.

The story begins with the narrator meeting a detective in an Italian restaurant by chance, discussing how Holt, an experimental chemist, has been falsely accused of poisoning an assistant. The people in this part of town are suspicious of Holt, given his experiments, and they accuse him of using the Evil Eye. The detective gives the narrator a cigar and goes on his way.

The narrator wanders down South Street, feeling sick from sour wine, and has several encounters in which he voices his disgust of the ethnic minorities of this neighbourhood–a group that includes Black people, Jews and Italians. This naturally gave me pause as I confronted the racist fear depicted in this story. It reminded me of the essay about Lovecraft, “Why We Can’t Ignore Lovecraft’s White Supremacy.” Racial fear disturbs Stevens’s narrator at visceral level, in a way that is disturbing in itself to read, because it convincingly puts the reader in the shoes of a racist walking through a poor, ethnic neighourhood.

Curiously, much of the narrator’s fear at South Street’s “nameless dread” is directed towards Italians. Italians were considered racial others at this point in American history, and as Catholics, they were viewed as being more superstitious than Protestant Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the malocchio, or Evil Eye.

One depiction of a young Italian struck me because of how similar it was to the demonizing language used by police to justify the use of racist violence against Black and Latinx people. The narrator remarks that the young man is “handsome after the swarthy manner of his race, but never in my life had I seen a face so expressive of pure, malicious cruelty, naked and unashamed. Our eyes met and his seemed to light up with a vile gleaming, as if all the wickedness of his nature had come to a focus in the look of concentrated hate he gave me” (126). This look of hatred has no cause, no reason, and so it is attributed to the man’s “nature,” which is a concept not so far removed from his race.

The sense of racial fear is palpable in this description. That Italians are no longer subject to such demonizing descriptions in 2020, but Black people still are, is testament to the unevenness of their experiences of assimilation into white culture. Anti-Black racism in North American society clearly endures today, while Italians and other European immigrants have had the privilege of becoming “racially united through assimilation” into white culture (DiAngelo, White Fragility, 49). (DiAngelo references Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White to develop this point.) However, in 1919, this assimilation had not yet occurred, and this passage reveals what racist fear of Italians might have looked back then.

The racial fear that the narrator experiences, a fear towards all the racialized groups that inhabit it (not just Italians), eventually expands to encompass the whole human race. Like Lovecraft’s fiction, “Unseen – Unfeared” has an anti-humanist philosophy at its core.

An antique camera

To get back to the story, the narrator finds a sign advertising “THE GREAT UNSEEN” (125) and enters the building to sit out his sense of unease and paranoid fear, expecting to find a museum exhibit to distract himself. There he encounters an old man with grey hair and black eyes who shows him inside a laboratory where he has been experimenting with colour photography.

By chance, the old man has stumbled upon a rare, pearlescent-gray plant membrane from South America, which, when applied as a lens to his camera, sets off an abundance of light that reveals the existence of creatures who have never before been observed by the human eye.

The empty air now appears to be crowded with insects, arachnids, and invertebrates–huge, writhing, tentacled creatures who climb all over the room. In addition, there “were the things with human faces. Mask-like, monstrous, huge gaping mouths and slitlike eyes” (129). The fear the narrator has felt up to now becomes a dizzying, as if he has learned to see the panoply of microscopic germs, viruses, and parasites that pervade our world.

But these are not mere germs or viruses. The old man explains what the creatures are, crying, “Among such as these do you move every hour of the day and night. Only you and I have seen, for God is merciful and has spared our race from sight. But I am not merciful! I loathe the race which gave these creatures birth […] man has made these! By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!” (129)

This revelation can be interpreted as justifying the narrator’s vague disgust about racial others due to the fact the human race is beastly as a whole. But it is also a moment where the narrator comes to hate the sight of his own hate–because it is hate that has created these abominations.

The narrator is immediately seized with terror and reaches such a depth of despair and loathing for the progenitors of these creatures that he wishes to kill himself, to prevent himself from birthing any more of the hideous beasts. However, he ultimately faints before he can go through with the deed. The old man is seized by the same impulse, and succeeds.

When he awakens, the narrator becomes convinced the vision was a dream. The detective revives him and explains that his vision of the old man was caused by the drugged cigar he gave him back at the Italian restaurant. However, when the narrator discovers the pearlescent membrane still in the lab, he becomes tempted to try the experiment again, to see if his vision of the creatures was real. In the end, the detective encourages him to burn it and they do, because “doubt is sometimes better than certainty” (132).

This ending resolves the story’s disturbing anti-humanist claims in a way that would have been palatable for readers of People’s Favourite Magazine, where the story first appeared. There’s no doubt that this is a racist story. However, it is remarkable to see how the narrator’s disgust with specific groups of people soon becomes a generalized hatred for the human race as a whole, including himself: for humanity’s brutishness and pettiness, for its sinfulness and its failure to live up to higher ideals. I’m not sure if the narrator’s realization “redeems” the story of its racism, but just as the depiction of racial others as brutish reinforces the narrator’s anti-humanism, his urge towards suicide could imply that he has recognized the hatred and fear that exists inside himself.

I would venture even to say that “Unseen – Unfeared” can be read allegorically (somewhat against the grain) as a reflection on what it means to notice racism in society. In our contemporary society, racism is almost invisible (much of the time), though it is still enshrined in racist policy and institutions. We (White people especially) need the special lens of an anti-racist education to get better at seeing where racism exists: where it infests our society like so many many-legged millipedes and spiders.

Once we do learn to see and recognize the effects of racism, we must resist the temptation to forget it. Unlike the horror that grips the narrator, witnessing the horror of racism in all its grotesquerie won’t kill us.

This being said, I’m not certain Francis Stevens intended such a message to be made of her story. To the anti-humanist, human progress is futile, if not absurd–including progress towards racial equality. Human beings may strive towards progress, but they will inevitably succumb to their base nature eventually and lose any sense of progress that has been made. This worldview is undeniably bleak, though it must have been radical for its time in its condemnation of sins of the human race.

Today, we’re all too aware of how humans behave like a virus, depleting the earth’s natural resources and slowly destroying our environment through pollution and climate change. Rather than express a bland humanistic optimism, “Unseen – Unfeared” expresses a condemnation of humanity itself. It is a vision of humanity that is so bleak, the only rational response is suicide or to forget that this situation exists, as the author makes clear. In light of this, perhaps humanism and the pursuit of racial equality only makes sense if you forget humanity’s meaningless position in the universe.

Perhaps that bleak situation isn’t such a bad thing to try to forget.

N.B.: I noticed a passing parallel to “Unseen – Unfeared” in Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” in which a woman endowed with a rare power notices her Ivy League date’s ugly thoughts, which are described as being “covered in spines and centipede feet, [glistening] with ancient grudges” (The New Voices of Fantasy, 21). Here, hate and misogyny becomes visibly manifested as insects and vermin to those who can see them. It seemed to me that Wong was either inspired by Francis Stevens in crafting this image or inspired by the same broader cultural associations that inspired “Unseen – Unfeared.”

Speaking of centipedes and cockroaches, next week, I’ll be writing about “In the Penal Colony” (1919) by the iconic Franz Kafka, who wrote the most famous cockroach story of all.

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.