Weird #33: “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum (1949)

The first African writer included in The Weird, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum is a Beninese writer whose story “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” is a visionary journey from childhood to adulthood, from death to new life. Simple in its structure, yet primal in the emotions in conjures, Bhêly-Quénum’s story was called a “rêve a l’état brut” by André Breton, the French Surrealist. It is something of a surrealist ghost story in which the weird penetrates during an experience of being lost in the woods, much as it does in Dante’s Inferno and Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats.”

When an eleven-year-old boy gets lost in the woods while waiting for his father to return, he encounters a woman “wrapped in a white lappa” that conceals her body and discovers her “emaciated face, the face of a fleshless skull” (305). A vision of Death, she follows him throughout the forest as he frantically searches for his father. When he does find him, the child discovers that he failed to re-cross a river that his father re-crossed while trying to return to him–an image that could be symbolic of the child remaining, in some sense, in the realm of death afterwards.

Curious about whether the vision of the woman is real or not, the boy fearlessly returns to the woods to encounter the skeleton again. The child does not fear the skeleton. Despite his sheltered upbringing, he has already known the death of his grandparents and so he does not fear death as others do. He takes the skeleton’s hand and lets her lead him through the forest.

One saying of his grandfather’s resonates for him: that to navigate the forest he must act like a chameleon, “which rarely misses its destination because it knows how to adjust itself to its surroundings and never looks back” (306). The child does not understand what his grandfather meant, but he takes Death’s hand anyway and follows it through the forest, to a cave penetrated with tree roots, to a crypt where the skeletons of people who might be loved ones sit up, crossing their legs and arms. It is a journey to the underworld.

When he returns, he passes through Wassaï, “a house of joy without a keeper,” a place of sexual initiation where he “experienced unforgettable little tremors brought about by girls I did not know” (309). He wakes up on the side of a mountain and descends following a river, where he soon rediscovers the railway line and returns to his village.

Upon his return, his family is having a funeral for him, and he appears to them in the flesh, alive. He reassures his parents that he is not dead, but warns them not to ask him to explain what happened to him. He has come back from the dead.

As a final remark, the narrator says, “How long did this dream last? I shall never know” (310), implying that the dream of death-in-life and life-in-death has continued into the boy’s mature years, when he is narrating the story. Perhaps it is the condition of the human race itself that we must exist in this dream state between life and death.

The story is remarkable in its poetry but also the matter-of-fact way that the child interacts with the skeletal woman who represents Death. He is not shocked–he does not reject the skeleton as an “abject”–but rather accepts death as part of his world, as a part of himself. He claims to have no emotional reaction to seeing the things he sees, even when it comes to the skeletons in the crypt.

What a different emotional arc this story has compared to some of the stories of ghosts featured earlier in this anthology! Where an author like Lovecraft would turn the grave into something horrifying and abject–yawn–Bhêly-Quénum takes it in stride and lets a more profound theme shine through his work like “a light entering the place from heaven knows where” (308).

There’s certainly a Surrealist spirit behind this story, not only in the inclusion of strange and unusual images, but in the attitude the narrator has towards those images. In the same way that the boy takes Death by the hand, the Surrealists take the unconscious by the hand and let it lead them where it wants to go–not matter how strange or disturbing the journey is. In a way, the grandfather’s advice about the chameleon–to adapt to your surroundings and keep going forward, without looking back and becoming self-conscious or fearful–can be applied to the ideal state of mind of the Surrealist at work. It’s also reminiscent of the underworld myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Ouidah, the birthplace of the author, known as “the Voodoo Capital of the world,” is the site of a sacred forest known as Kpasse. Although I don’t know much about Voodoo, it would be interesting to learn how different the perspective of a Voodoo practitioner in reading this story would be from my own. The skeleton woman in this story may be an allusion to a specific figure within this religion. As a Westerner, I interpreted her as a general symbol for “Death.”

I found this one image of an ouroboros, a symbol of the eternal cycle of death and life. It is one of the symbols that the child in “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” sees during his walk with Death, and it’s located in the sacred forest in Benin. The snake biting its tail echoes the circular pattern of the Hero’s Journey and makes a satisfying image to contemplate as an illustration of this story.

Next week, I will be writing about Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950).

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).