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).

Self-portrait by Leonora Carrington

Weird #28: “White Rabbit” by Leonora Carrington (1941)

A Leonora Carrington self-portrait (Wikipedia)

Leonora Carrington, a British-Mexican author and artist, is best known for her surrealist paintings and sculptures, but her literary output provides “a tantalizing glimpse of ways that surrealism might have had more influence on the weird tale” (277). Her story “White Rabbits” certainly gives a sense of dread and terror and decay in a “weird” way, while also exploring the violation of taboos in a surrealist way.

According to André Breton in his First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, “surrealism is pure, psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or in any other way, the true function of thought, thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations” (quote taken from Sufism and Surrealism by Adonis, “Extracts from Surrealist Writing”). Surrealism seeks to liberate the mind and break the taboos imposed on thought by social conventions, in an effort to capture thought in its purest state. Often, this means that surrealist art takes on a dreamlike quality, such as in Carrington’s own paintings.

Weird fiction and surrealism thus seem to be two aesthetic modes that pair extremely well together. Both can be used to question the social constructs that human beings use to regulate and control reality. Both can be used to fog the categories by which we classify objects. Both attempt to describe reality in a piercing way, through a prism that gives a clearer view of reality through its distortion of surface reality.

But what does a surrealist weird tale actually look like? The best way to answer that question would be to read “White Rabbits” itself.

In “White Rabbits,” the narrator moves into a dimly lit home in New York, where she encounters a woman who carries out a dish of bones to feed a flock of ravens, using her long, black hair to wash the dish when they are done. Already, several taboos are broken: the handling of the bones (no word that the bones aren’t human) and the dichotomy between dirty and clean, encapsulated by the washing of the plate with a part of the human body. These suggest the woman does not follow the rules of wider society and, depending on how you understand these behaviours, they might even cast doubt that she is a human being as we understand it.

The narrator and the woman exchange pleasant smiles. Then the woman casually asks the narrator for “decomposed flesh meat” (278). Not sure if the woman is joking at first, the narrator eventually decides to do her new neighbour a favour by buying some meat and letting it go to rot over the course of a week before giving it to her.

When she delivers the meat to the woman in her home, she feeds it to her pets: a group of carnivorous, white rabbits “who fought like wolves for the meat” (278).

Her husband, Lazarus, appears, stating that he is upset that the narrator has been permitted to enter the house. The woman defends her and then suggests that the narrator stay with them, in that house, forever: “In seven years, your skin will be like stars, in seven years you will have the holy disease of the Bible, leprosy!” (279).

The terrified narrator runs away, “choking with horror,” yet unable not to look back as, in one unforgettable image, the woman waves goodbye: “her fingers fell off and dropped to the ground like shooting stars” (279).

These images are charged and cannot help but produce a shudder in the reader. There is something unsettling and uncanny, in particular, about a white rabbit–a peaceful, vegetarian creature–that gorges on rotten meat like a wolf. Though comic images from Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to my mind while reading this story (an association that did not exist in 1942), they did not get much in the way of the raw, unsettling, remorseless way Carrington writes the image. White rabbits also carry certain connotations from Alice in Wonderland: the narrator narrowly avoids tumbling down a rabbit hole into a backwards, bizarre world.

As uncanny as the rabbits are, however, what might be more uncanny about this story is how Carrington twists the casual, neighbourly relationship between the narrator and the leprous woman into something twisted. Part of the process of moving into a new home or apartment is befriending one’s neighbours by doing them small favours. It’s a form of hospitality, a code to follow, and simply one of the kind things people do for one another. Carrington reimagines this relationship as an extreme, grotesque version of itself, rendering the homely unhomely.

The code exists as the artificial construct it is revealed to be, but the normality of it is stripped bare. The neighbour’s request for a piece of rotting meat hints that there is something strange about this relationship. What’s more, the neighbour’s attempt to trap the narrator into their creepy, abject way of life breaks the bond of hospitality completely, an ancient code that in the Western tradition goes back to the Odyssey. The neighbour is a Polyphemus who raises carnivorous bunnies and attempts to trap the narrator in her leprous cavern of a home.

Carrington’s charged images are highly effective, so much so that it leaves me wanting to read more stories like this. Why did surrealism not have a greater effect on weird fiction’s development? The combination of surrealism and the weird is clearly potent, and, in my opinion, is more unsettling than weird fiction that takes on the conventional structures of horror.

A white rabbit
Behold the face of terror. (Wikipedia)

Next week I will be examining Donald Wollheim’s “Mimic” (1942).