The editors of The Weird call Robert Bloch “iconic,” an accolade which the editors also use to describe Kafka. This praise is well earned, due to Bloch’s position in American literature. If you’ve ever seen a slasher film, it’s because of him: he was the original author of Psycho, which was later adapted into a fairly famous film. Mentored by Lovecraft, adapted by Hitchcock, Bloch holds an important place in American culture.
“The Hungry House” is no slasher. It’s subtly written, showcasing all of Bloch’s talents. However, in some ways, it is just as iconic as Psycho.
Well, maybe a little less iconic. But it’s still probably the best haunted house story about the alienating effect of mirrors that you will ever read.
The story examines what we find so uncanny about mirrors psychologically. To quickly review, the uncanny occurs whenever we encounter something familiar in a strange context, or vice versa. Mirrors are thus part of the uncanny par excellence: they reproduce our own appearance where it has no right to be: in an object exterior to us.
Nothing is more intimately connected to our personality than our physical appearance and, yet, so rarely do we actually see ourselves. Even those who use mirrors often do not really see themselves: they see an ideal of beauty that they do not match up with. When you look in the mirror, someone (yourself) looks back. The effect can be alienating.
According to Bloch, “A mirror distorts. That’s why men hum and sing and whistle while they shave. To keep their minds off their reflections. Otherwise they go crazy” (325). However, “Women could do it[.] Because women never saw themselves, actually. They saw an idealization, a vision. Powder, rouge, lipstick, mascara, eye-shadow, brilliantine, or merely an emptiness to which these elements must be applied” (325). The human mind naturally tries to repress one’s reflected image, because on some level we find gazing at our own image intolerable.
The mirror is commonly thought to tell the truth: it simply reflects what is there. However, it may be psychologically easier to believe that a mirror distorts. The reality of our own appearance can be intolerable because it contradicts the truth we’ve already accept about ourselves.
This talk of mirrors and reality reminds me of the famous opening to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” (1). It is necessary to believe, for the sake of sanity, that a mirror distorts rather than tells the truth in order to remain sane.
But when a mirror cannot be trusted to tell the truth, what might it show instead?
In “The Hungry House,” Laura Bellman, daughter of one of the house’s previous owners, lives an isolated life in her house, the most beautiful woman in the state. She believes that her mirrors never lie about her beauty, even as her body ages and she begins to wear wigs and false teeth: “the mirrors told her she was unchanged” (329).
The mirrors return the image she’s had of herself since her youth. It’s like the opposite of The Picture of Dorian Gray: she ages, but her image does not. However, she believes her image is an accurate reflection, that her youth is eternal. Since she chooses to remain with her mirrors rather than “waste her beauty on the world” (329), she becomes a hermit surrounded by false images of herself.
An intervention by a doctor results in the confiscation of all her mirrors. As a result, she finally realizes she is old. When she happens upon her gaze in a window and sees “her wrinkled forehead” (329), she believes “this–this obscenity–was not her face” (329). She thus denies the reality of her own appearance: a moment in which the familiar becomes strange. In the end, she loses her senses and dances through the window-pane. Razor-sharp shards of glass tear out her throat (330).
Laura continues to haunt the mirrors after death because, even when she was alive, “she looked into mirrors until there was more of her alive in her reflection than there was in her own body” (331). It is the result of this alienation that is responsible for the supernatural haunting. In a sense, Laura continues to live as she always did.
This rationale for the ghost story is stating something profound, not only about ghosts, but about humanity’s attachment to objects in general. The mirrors hold a part of her personality. You only have to walk into the private room of a recently deceased person to gain a sense of their personality based on what they’ve left behind–we all leave an image of ourselves for the world that outlives us once we’re gone. In Laura’s case, those objects were mirrors, objects that, according to some superstitions, can entrap the soul.
Laura’s alienation also mirrors concepts of alienation more generally. It particularly reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s conception of “the precession of simulacra”: with the death of the original and the reality principle, the image becomes a “second nature” and replaces the original. The image becomes more “alive” than the material object. Laura finds reality–the Real, if you will–intolerable, and thus chooses to live a fragmented, alienating existence, in which her “true” self only exists in mirrors, to the extent that she her image in the mirror outlives her physical death.
Next week, I will be writing about Amos Tutuola’s “The Complete Gentleman” (1952).
Anyone in sales, or anyone who’s ever been a 20-something who’s sold knives door-to-door, or over the phone, as a summer job, will appreciate this story in a deeper way than readers who’ve never been in sales. The techniques that companies use to train young people to sell knives are essentially the same techniques Mortensen uses to sell rope to the gnoles: for example, the notion that the product sells itself; carrying around a sample bag; comparing and contrasting the different materials, uses, and durability of one product over another; handling customers’ knee-jerk reactions; memorizing your sales script, etc.
On that note, I would be interesting in learning what happened to the man who tried to sell a boning knife to the gnoles.
I was once one of those 20-somethings who sold knives–not that I really got anywhere in the job. Being in sales requires a thick skin, the ability to treat others as means to an end while maintaining “unfailing courtesy” (319) as Mortensen’s copy of Manual of Modern Salesmanship describes. It also requires you to view your product as a solution to a problem–you have to actually believe the client will be better off after forking over hundreds of dollars for a new block of knives or a few hundred yards of rope.
Incredibly, this is an instinct that Mortensen has and which he puts to the ultimate test, just as Nuth puts his thievery skills to the test. And Mortensen actually comes incredibly close to succeeding.
Ironically, what destroys him is, in part, his own ethical scruples. After making a thorough presentation of his rope samples to the senior gnole, they agree on a length and material of rope, and he presents his price.
The gnole hesitates, then grabs the smallest gemstone on display in the parlor, an emerald that could nonetheless ransom “a Rockefeller or a whole family of Guggenheims” (321). But taking the gemstone would be in excess of a legitimate profit, violating what the Manual of Modern Salesmanship calls the “high ethical standard” that must be maintained at all times (321).
Mortensen searches for an object of lesser value–and makes his fatal mistake in picking the gnole’s extra pair of eyes from a curiosity cabinet. As St. Clair explains, “The concern good Christian folk should feel for their soul’s welfare is a shadow, a figment, a nothing, compared to what the thoroughly heathen gnole feels for those eyes” (321).
Ignorant of the taboo behind so much as touching one of these extra pairs of eyes, Mortensen, “smiling to evince the charm of manner advised in the Manual, and raising his brows as one who says, ‘Thank you, these will do nicely,’ [drops] the eyes into his pocket” (321). Punishment is swift.
Before he can flee the house, he feels the wrath of the gnole’s tentacles, of which “the best abaca fiber is no stronger” (321). Trapped and stuffed in the cellar, Mortensen is fattened and roasted, as the gnoles serve him for dinner on a plate “with a beautiful border of fancy knotwork made of cotton cord from his own sample case” (321). The end.
I guess the moral of this story is “know your client” or perhaps “the customer is always right.” What I love about this story is how Mortensen gets this close to closing the sale and making a heap of money, but it’s his own inability to adapt and think beyond his rote memory of the Manual that undoes him.
St. Clair’s story serves as a reminder that weird fiction does not always have to strive to achieve a tragic tone–it can take on humorous and darkly satirical tones as well. It also shares a metacognitive dynamic in common with other weird tales: the protagonist perishes because of his inability to adapt his normal way of thinking to a new scenario, a local context.
Next week, I will be writing about Robert Bloch’s “The Hungry House” (1951).
Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” may be the subtlest weird tale in the VanderMeer anthology yet. It reads like a low-stakes story about an older couple, the Allisons, deciding to stay on after Labour Day at their summer home in the country. However, it develops a subtle undercurrent of dread that sharpens into horror.
Most readers know Jackson from “The Lottery,” a mainstay of high school curriculums, or The Haunting of Hill House, which is considered “one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century” (311) and was loosely adapted into a Netflix special.
Jackson is a master of horror, but it’s also worth noting that she was equally skilled at writing women’s fiction–two aspects of her style that are related.
These stories, many of which are about friendships between women, use precise details of domestic life that add material realism to her fiction. Her dialogue captures the way women and men spoke in the 1950s, while her subtext often reveals the social and psychological pressures to which women were often subjected. Even in stories that have no trace of horror in them, her interest in the fears that many women experience is apparent.
These stories appeared in the New Yorker and the New Republic but also in venues such as The Women’s Home Companion and Mademoiselle. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Women’s Home Companion became more focused on lifestyle articles than short stories after the war, perhaps reflecting a broader cultural shift away from short stories–something also seen in the failure of genre fiction pulp magazines around this time–in favour of more marketable (and less thoughtful) nonfiction lifestyle articles for baby boomers.
Honing her skill for realism in these literary markets, Jackson would use her talents to craft the uncanny effects in the horror fiction for which she is known.
For Freud, the word “uncanny” is “unheimlich” or un-homely. It is a feeling of anxiety that emerges when something strange appears in a familiar setting, or when something familiar appears in a strange setting. To borrow an example that Nino Cipri used in a horror workshop last year, think of a staircase in the middle of a forest–where does it lead? The familiarity of the staircase is incongruous in the strangeness of a forest. Such decontextualized objects allow us to project our own fears and fantasies onto them.
It is also possible for strange things to happen in a familiar setting, which is why haunted houses can be so disturbing. The very familiarity of a house is what makes it so shocking that something bizarre or subtly menacing can happen inside it. Broadly, this tension between familiar and strange is where the power of Jackson’s horror fiction lies. And this is as true of The Haunting of Hill House as it is of “The Summer People.”
The Allisons are an older couple, New Yorkers who summer in the country and “invariably [leave] their summer cottage the Tuesday after Labor Day” (311). However, this year they break routine, deciding to stay at their cottage past Labour Day to take advantage of the good weather in October.
It’s an innocent enough start. But as in so many other weird tales and horror stories, it’s this break in habit, this violation of a taboo, this modest display of nonconformity that will result in punishment.
When the Allisons announce their plans to stay and go about procuring kerosene and other essential goods for their cottage, the country folk they encounter express surprise that “nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before” (312). The phrase is repeated several times throughout the story, a refrain used by the villagers that adds ominousness to this particular holiday, this threshold of the seasons that must not be crossed.
Mrs. Allison optimistically says they’re going to “give it a try” but one local, Mr. Babcock, grimly replies, “Never known til you try” (312). The grave tone he use gives the statement a sense of warning.
John Clute in The Darkening Garden says that “horror is that category of stories set in worlds that are false until the tale is told.” The raw, undisguised truth of the world’s horror is revealed at the story’s end. Babcock is suggesting that if the couple stays, then they will see this terrible truth for themselves.
However, since the couple does not take Babcock’s words as a warning, the Allisons decide to remain in the country. Trouble begins to upset the Allisons when their kerosene supplier says he won’t be able to deliver to their house after Labour Day because his son, who usually does the deliveries, has to go back to school. “You never been here after Labor Day before, so’s you wouldn’t know, of course,” he says (315).
But minor inconveniences like these become bigger frustrations when Mr. Allison’s car breaks down. Also, to add atmosphere to the creeping sense of dread, a thunderstorm begins to slowly move in, the sky “smiling indifferently down on the Allison’s summer cottage” (317). There’s almost a sense of cosmic horror in the image–a thin mask of benevolence covers up the essential indifference of natural world towards human kind. It’s a quick, quiet image, but it arguably draws on a similar alienating vision of humankind’s small place in the cosmos as Lovecraft draws in his fiction.
One moment of uncanniness occurs when the couple receives a long-awaited, dutiful letter from their son. The couple are very familiar with his handwriting and letter writing style, but when Mrs. Allison reads the letter, she says it reads strangely: it just doesn’t sound like her son’s writing. She can’t explain why, but she just feels that it was not written by him. “Did some kind of doppelganger write it?”, the reader is left to ask.
Soon, the couple find themselves truly isolated, when their cottage’s wall-mounted phone goes dead. The storm delays its arrival “as though in loving anticipation of the moment it would break over the summer cottage” (317). The Allisons huddle up together in their house listening to a New York station on their radio: “Even the announcer, speaking glowingly of the virtues of razor blades, was no more than an inhuman voice sounding out from the Allison’s cottage and echoing back, as though the lake and the hills and the trees were returning it unwanted” (317). The familiar, modern sounds of radio are rendered strange and alien in the natural landscape of the country. The passage suggests that there are two worlds, the country and the city, and that the country is indifferent to the aspects of the city that the Allisons have brought with them.
Finally, Jackson masterfully reveals a subtext that readers were not aware existed before, when Mr. Allison says, “The car had been tampered with, you know. Even I can see that” (317). Mrs. Allison is quick to realize the phone line must’ve been cut as well (317). The realization that these apparently accidental failures have human intention behind them is the Truth that announces the end of the story. Mrs. Allison realizes she’d known the villagers were out to get them ever since she “saw the light down at the Hall place last night,” referring to their closest neighbours (318).
The story ends with the old couple huddling close together against the storm, unable to act, only waiting for the unspeakable to happen.
The open ending permits several readings. First, it is still possible that the couple only imagined that the car and phone lined had been intentionally tampered with. In this case, the threat is only in their mind, triggered by the anxiety and friction that follows their decision to break from their familiar routine. Second, the villagers could have only been playing pranks on the city folk–tampering with their car and phone line but not exactly conspiring to commit murder. Third, the villagers may be out to kill the Allisons. Possibly, their house will be lit on fire using the kerosene that the kerosene man refused to sell them. Or maybe the Halls will stone them while they’re lying in bed, in a callback to “The Lottery.”
However, in a sense, these endings are irrelevant to the story itself–that’s why Jackson leaves the ending open. The story ends before any one of these possibilities happens because (in keeping with Clute), once the Allisons realize the truth, it is no longer possible for the story to continue because the full horror of their reality has already been recognized. The horror is not in what might physically happen to them (if they are destined to meet a violent death) but about their gradual realization of the truth.
the beauty of this story is in its understatement. It’s a story that invites you to imagine the ending in your own way. It also lends itself to several re-readings, to searching the story multiple times for any missed subtext. It may be a quiet story, but the dread nonetheless leads to a shocking end.
Next week, I will be writing about Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951).
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).
I have set myself the task of speaking about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” but it would be impossible to tell you the number of ideas that spring to mind when I contemplate the story, since they occur to me simultaneously and human language is only sequential.
Imagine a point in space in which all other points are visible: a point of light that contains all lights, the perfect seeing-stone. Now imagine that the scenes of human life and nature that you would see upon gazing into it. It would be a dizzying experience to say the least, but this is the experience of one who reads “The Aleph.”
Somehow, Borges manages to pull off his conceit of making his readers visualize an object of such absurd but sublime proportions. He does so though a series of suggestive literary allusions to the Aleph throughout history and by making the Aleph the only absurd thing in an otherwise realistic story.
Borges is known as a mystic, a blind sage, and an architect of labyrinths. His writings have inspired surrealists and poststructuralists, with his most famous story being perhaps “On Exactitude in Science,” in which a Chinese Emperor orders the creation of a map that is exactly, point-for-point, the size of his kingdom–a frequently referenced fable of postmodernism.
In addition, countless authors have referenced his work. Neil Gaiman references “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the Sandman comics, through the images of Dream’s massive library and when Destiny’s garden. Likewise, Umberto Eco was inspired by this literary Daedalus when designing the labyrinthine library that burns to the ground at the end of in The Name of the Rose–with the monk Jorges’s name eerily suggestive of the Argentinian author’s.
Though he is not “a ‘weird’ writer per se,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Borges often treats of the “inexplicable” in his fiction (296). Indeed, “The Aleph” probably includes the most inexplicable phenomenon in the VanderMeers’ collection yet.
The story is simple enough. The narrator, Borges,a stand-in for the author, mourns his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo, and wishes to remember her very facet and angle. Gradually, he comes to know her cousin, Carlos Argentino Danieri, whose last name contains the first and last letters of name of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri.
Like Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a medieval epic of the divine cosmos, Danieri has given himself over to a grand oeuvre: an epic poem known as The Earth, which centres “on a description of our own terraqueous globe” (297)
Danieri reflects that communications technologies like the telegraph have shrunk the size of the world and that it should now be possible to write a poem treating of the entire planet as a subject. If this story had been written today, he might have tried to versify Google Earth. It is an impossible task, yet it is a goal to which he has applies himself, and not without hubris.
The ironic thing is that The Earth, based on fragmentary excerpts provided by the author, is a wholly unremarkable poem. Yet, Danieri praises his own unmemorable verses, to the extent that the narrator realizes “the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting poetry admirable” (298), a scathing critique of criticism that would do Ben Lerner proud (see The Hatred of Poetry). But the tone of the story shifts when Danieri reveals the source of his inspiration: the Aleph.
Danieri’s house is in danger of being demolished to make way for a café expansion. But Danieri needs the house to finish his oeuvre. Why? Because the Aleph is in his basement, “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (300). He has known about the Aleph from childhood and has been contemplating it as he writes his topographical epic.
The poet prevails upon Borges to enter his basement to see the Aleph for himself, at which point Borges realizes that he could be a madman, planning to murder him like in an Edgar Allan Poe story. However, these paranoid speculations are put to rest when he sees the mighty Aleph positioned under one of the basement steps.
What follows is a description of a marvellous encounter, in which the Aleph is compared to the four-faced angel from the book of Ezekiel and to the Simorgh, the bird of Persian legend, “a bird that somehow is all birds” (301). It is Alain de Lille’s “sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (301). Later in the story, it is compared to the mirror of Iskandar dhu-al-Qarnayn–an Islamic name for Alexander the Great–which is supposed to have revealed his whole kingdom at a glance. It is even linked to Merlin’s crystal ball, alluded to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
The description of what exactly Borges sees in the Aleph takes up a long paragraph consisting of one of the more memorable list-descriptions in literature:
Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors on the planet, (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years before in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw clusters of grapes, snow, tobacco, veins of metal, water vapor, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand …
The list goes on to pile on potentially infinite details, reduced to a rich series of emblems. By this accumulation of detail, Borges makes it possible for the reader to believe, for a moment at least, that such a sublime object really exists.
Finally, the narrator emerges from the basement, still stunned by seeing the corporeal remains of the beloved Beatriz, whose shrivelled, worm-eaten bones he has now seen from infinite angles. He takes his revenge on Danieri by denying that he saw anything at all, implying he is a madman.
Eventually, the house is demolished, the Aleph lost, and the narrator wanders the world with a feeling of déjà vu everywhere he treads. Gradually, his memories of the Aleph fade away.
In a postscript, however, Borges writes that he suspects he encountered a false Aleph that day in Danieri’s basement. A manuscript penned by Sir Richard Francis Burton confirms that the universe itself is believed to reside in a pillar in Cairo’s Al-Amr mosque. “Does that Aleph exist, within the heart of a stone?” asks the narrator. “Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?” (303) The story ends with his lamenting of his own forgetfulness as he loses his memories of Beatriz.
The allusions to various works of philosophy and literature make “The Aleph” a rich and powerful text. I don’t know if there really is such a legend about the Al-Amr mosque in Cairo, but the present building has been rebuilt and restored several times. The original pillars taken from pre-Islamic temples would have been lost by now, if the universe ever did dwell inside one them.
There is something magical about how texts, through the sheer power of references, can make readers believe that a thing as absurd as the Aleph can really exist, in a geographically precise location. In a sense, “The Aleph” is thus not only a fascinating “What if?” story: it is a story about how references and allusions between texts can change our perception of reality, whether the reality of a space below a basement step or of the literary quality of a mediocre poem.
Borges demonstrates that language bears no resemblance to the Real, since it is just as impossible to describe what the Aleph reveals as it is possible for language itself to alter one’s perception of reality. In this way, “The Aleph” questions and, indeed, mocks, our construction of consensual reality. (See what else I’ve written about Borges’s critical irrealism.)
The richness of these allusions makes them fascinating to contemplate, in the way of benign conspiracy theories and pseudo-archaeological theories about “the secrets of the Pyramids” and other such “hidden histories.” Maybe the real Aleph is out there, waiting to be discovered by an intrepid adventurer. However, delving deeper into these allusions does reveal real, hidden connections that are suggestive of how Borges came up with the idea for “The Aleph.”
For instance, though Hebrew legend and the Kabbalah played a role in Borges’s conception of the Aleph, another source behind it comes from Sufism, by away of Sir Richard Francis Burton. I discovered that although the Burton manuscript that Borges mentions does not exist (to my knowledge), Borges may have learned the legend of the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay,” which accompanies his translation of the One Thousand and One Nights.
Burton became a Sufi while stationed in Sindh and would have read The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar while writing his Kasidah. Burton explains his understanding of Attar’s work in what Edward Rice calls “a short, very arcane two pages” (Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, 462). In this passage, the British explorer explains in detail how the Conference is an allegory of the Sufi path to achieving oneness with God, a solution to the question of “We and Thou” (qtd. in Rice 464).
Borges may have thus learned about the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay” and not necessarily directly from a translation of Attar. This could be another case of a reference taking precedence over the original, to the point where what’s significant for Borges is not so much Attar as Burton’s two pages referencing Attar.
This opens the discussion to the connection of the Aleph to Sufism more generally. When confronted with Sufism, I think immediately about Usman Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” a novella with more than a few parallels to “The Aleph.” In this Tor.com novella, which has been recently published in a short story collection, Malik, a Pakistani Sufi author, tells a modern fairy tale about the famous jam-e jam, or the Cup of Jamshid. The Cup has Aleph-like properties, allowing users to see the world of the jinn and explore the depths of dimensional space. I’m not sure Malik was directly inspired by Borges (though it is likely); however, he did take inspiration directly from Islamic Sufi sources such as Ibn Arabi, whose Meccan Revelations are the source of the novella’s epigraph. The Cup of Jamshid is Malik’s Aleph.
This is fitting since Borges mentions “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khosru,” another name of the Cup of Jamshid, as being among the Aleph’s analogues (303). Furthermore, it is Burton, the Sufi, who supposedly provides this analogy. Thus, each of these images–Cup of Jamshid, Simorgh, and Aleph–are linked.
Given these connections, it might be possible to read “The Aleph” as expressing a Sufi mystical conception of achieving oneness with the Infinite (God). This is fascinating because it provides a link between weird fiction (the subject of this blog series) and mysticism.
Is it possible to read weird fiction texts as mystical texts? Does such a reading work for some texts and not for others? The Arabic poet Adonis’s book Sufism and Surrealism may be suggestive and useful to advancing such a thesis, since it argues about a connection between Sufism and one of the literary streams that have influenced weird fiction. It is doubtful that a category as resistant to labels as weird fiction can be called mystical, but an answer to this question will be a topic for another another time.
At risk of beginning another tangent, it is time to move on from Borges. However, if you’re interested in reading more about what I think about this story, you can read my essay “The Criticial Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.”
Next week, I will be writing about Beninese writer Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1949).
“The Long Sheet” by William Sansom hits in a personal way. It is a Kafkaesque and Dantesque journey through a prison where a detailed method of torture serves as a reflection on different social attitudes towards work. When you read it, you may also feel criticized about your work habits.
As the editors indicate, it was published before the English translation of “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka was published, yet takes a very similar approach. It can be thought of as “weird fiction” for the same reason as Kafka’s story: it uses “weird ritual to illuminate society” (290). Instead of a mechanical torture device, however, the method of torture in Sansom is much simpler in outward appearance.
The story opens with an appeal to a common experience:
Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone dry–with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captives at Device Z when the warders set them the task of the long sheet.
The prisoners of Device Z have been placed in separate rooms within a tunnel-like steel box, across which is stretched a long, white sheet soaked with water. They are given the task of wringing the towel bone dry–not just dry enough to air out, but completely purged of moisture–in order to earn their freedom. This is a task not of a few minutes but of months and years. What’s more, the warders employ cruel tricks to complicate it, such as releasing just enough steam into the room to hinder them and ensure the prisoners will make no progress unless they work constantly.
Given this Sisyphean task, the prisoners in each room develop their own culture of work. The rooms become like circles of Dante’s hell–circles where the punishment administered is the same, yet the prisoners’ suffering varies, according to their attitude to the work. In a sense, they are prisoners of their own minds as much as prisoners of the steel box.
For example, in Room Three (Sansom presents them out of order), there are two couples and a Serbian grocer who develop a routine to accomplish their task. However, the attention they pay to their routine becomes too habitual, to the extent that they lose sight of the task itself. They “put in their time at the office” and then return home to give themselves a well-deserved break, with the result that the towel stays wet and they remain prisoners. A child is born to one of the couples, a child who will never be free due to the influence of the constricting routine their parents have established.
As if that wasn’t enough to drive you to despair, Room Two and Room Four contain equally hopeless people. In Room Two, there’s a man who tries to take as many shortcuts as possible, which are each thwarted by the wardens to his own detriment and that of his fellow prisoners; a man with deep-rooted childhood fears of wet towels who “will never be free” because his fear hinders him (292); a distracted man who fumbles his grip on the towel constantly; and a man who enjoys wringing the towel dry only to watch the steam dampen it again, who “liked to watch the fruits of his labour rot” (293). Each of these men are imprisoned as much by their own attitude as by the metal walls of their cubicles.
In Room Four, there is a group of people, including a twelve-year-old girl, who have already given up on freedom. They take no risks and are resigned to their fate. They put no effort towards wringing the towel at all, to the extent that even the young girl, who may have harboured ambitions, has absorbed Room Four’s slackness (put intended).
Finally, in Room One, Sansom presents a glimmer of hope. There is a group of men and women who are reluctant to engage in unproductive labour but choose to do so anyway, because at least, by applying themselves, they can achieve their freedom eventually. Their philosophy runs like this: “it is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production” (294).
The towel wringing is an essentially pointless task. These human beings have been alienated from any productive value their work can give them. But they can feel a certain amount of freedom by applying themselves to their work with a go-getter attitude. Under this energy, they apply themselves, and refine their technique, constantly evaluating the best way to wring the towel. They work hard in shifts, without tiring themselves out, and refine their technique.
Applying their full energy and creativity to the problem at hand, after seven years they succeed in wringing the towel dry and earning their freedom–only for the warders to drench the towel with a blast from a hose. The wardens do this because the prisoners already have their freedom. “Freedom lies in an attitude of the spirit,” say the wardens. “There is no other freedom” (295).
That last line crushed me as I was reading it. Sansom seems to suggest that there really isn’t any freedom at all, aside from one’s personal attitude. The warders’ actions represent this reality: we work our whole lives at school or at a job and dream of freedom, but ours is a world of work. Even when, or if, we retire, we’ll never be free from work. You need to look for freedom inside yourself instead.
In a way, writing this blog feels like wringing our a wet towel week after week. Will it bring me any benefit? I’m not sure, but I do it anyway because I have faith that I’ll get something out of it in the end. Perhaps this is the only freedom there is.
This story seems particularly well-suited to a Marxist interpretation as well. It can be seen as exposing the capitalist lie that a go-getter attitude and “positive thinking” really makes you free. After all, perhaps this idealism only makes a more docile and more materially productive workforce, labouring strenuously on tasks that produce commodities, but not on tasks that directly benefit them. Believing that freedom lies in attitude of spirit may comfort the worker, but really it distracts them from their real condition of alienation. Real freedom can only happen when workers control work for themselves and seize the means of production. The fact the warders can “dampen your towel” at any time shows the real relation between worker and employer, and that what may really be needed is a revolt against the warders, rather than playing the game by their rules.
The limits of this would be that even after a communist revolution, we would still need to work. Attitude may well be all the freedom we can exercise. At least, if one applies oneself to the task of towel-wringing with faith, tenacity, and ingenuity, one will not become a prisoner to oneself, like the inmates of Rooms 2, 3, and 4. In Camus, it’s the inner attitude of defiance that gives Sisyphus his sense of dignity; in Sansom’s “The Long Sheet,” there’s a similar existentialist observation about the human condition.
Next week I will be turning to a story that has obsessed me for a long time: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945). I could easily turn what I have to see on this story into a series of posts, but I will try to keep it brief.
Ray Bradbury’s weird tale “The Crowd” modernizes the weird tale by building a sense of paranoid, unreal conspiracy founded on a modern anxiety. In this respect, he is doing something that Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim have also done, in their way. However, Bradbury enweirdens the city by basing the sense of conspiracy not on the supernatural or an exaggerated scientific phenomena but on a familiar, modern anxiety: the urban crowd.
Crowds are an interesting thing to think about these days, when many of us have not been inside one for months, or even for an entire year, owing to the social distancing restrictions designed to curb the pandemic. In the nineteenth century, when North American and European cities were rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, urban crowds were also a novelty, since rural residents were flocking to the cities for the first time to work at industrial jobs. It pays to remember that prior to those days, more people lived in the country, where crowds do not usually assemble in great size. In ancient and medieval times, even big cities would be considered small by today’s standards and vast crowds would have been very rare indeed.
The anxiety around crowds in the nineteenth century has inspired notable literary works, particularly Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Literary theorists believe Poe’s story had an impact on the development of the detective story. Bradbury, a big fan of Poe (Poe even appears as a character in his story “The Exiles”), builds on this tradition.
Bradbury’s crowd is not a vast one. It is relatively small, consisting of a red-headed woman, a freckled boy, a old man with a wrinkled lip, and an old woman with a mole on her cheek. However, these characters are voyeurs who compulsively show up at the scenes of terrible accidents.
The story begins with a car crash. Mr. Spallner is tossed around and hurt. He feels funny and disoriented, when a crowd materializes. The people stand around gawking, asking each other about whether he is hurt–but not talking to him.
The crowd feels “wrong” (284), perhaps due to the intrusive sense of its voyeurism and its morbid curiosity. One memorable line that encompasses this feeling comes when Mr. Spallner first sees the crowd: “How swiftly a crowd comes …. like the iris of an eye compressing in out of nowhere” (284).
When they seem to think he’ll survive, he has sudden faith that he will not die. “And that was strange,” he thinks (284). Later, he reflects to his doctor that “the way they looked down at me, I knew I wouldn’t die…” (285), and though the doctor is dismissive, Mr. Spallner becomes paranoid about the people he saw in that crowd.
Gradually, he looks through newspapers at photos of accidents and finds that certain individuals have shown up at other scenes in the area. Ordinary rubber-neckers also show up in these crowds, but there is a vanguard are always “the first ones” on the scene of any catastrophic accident (287).
“They have one thing in common, they always show up together. At a fire or an explosion or on the sidelines of a war, at any public demonstration of this thing called death. Vultures, hyenas or saints. I don’t known which they are, I just don’t know.”
Bradbury expressed the central paradox of crowds in this passage: humans are never more isolated from each other than when thousands of them are packed so close together. The fact that this alienation exists is what makes such voyeurism possible.
Just as Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” tries to investigate and trail one solitary member of the crowd, Mr. Spallner investigates a handful of his voyeurs, hoping to uncover, detective-like, a sign of their motivation. The voyeurism of Bradbury’s crowd also has clear applications to our twenty-first century, Tik-Tok and Instagram obsessed society: so often, the instinct of the bystander is not to call for help or intervene but to snap a photo for social media.
Mr. Spallner’s sense of conspiracy develops to the point where he believes the crowd determines who lives and who dies at the scene of any accident. Often, this is done by just “innocently” moving the body, which can result in damage to the neck or spine and thus death.
As fate would have it, Mr. Spallner gets into a second accident on his way to the police station. The crowd gathers around him a final time, moving him as he lies injured on the road. He is essentially assassinated to make sure their cult or conspiracy should continue to go unnoticed.
In the final moment of the story, it is hinted that the voyeurs may even be ghosts. Mr. Spallner last words are: “It –looks like I’ll be joining up with you. I — guess I’ll be a member of your — group — now” (289). But ultimately, the story remains vague about whether these figures are truly the undead. Perhaps the conspiracy was all in Spallner’s head, or perhaps not, but it is this sense of a vaguely defined conspiracy based on a modern anxiety that makes “The Crowd” such a fine example of modern weird fiction.
As a final note, I’m beginning to notice patterns in the narrative structure of the weird tales I’ve written about most recently, especially with Bradbury, Johnson, Leiber, and Wollheim. Since weird fiction is often about introducing the reader to a strange phenomenon that exists within the world they already know, most of these stories can be divided in three parts: 1) the main character’s initial encounter with the weird, in which it disrupts the normal world; 2) a period of learning and experimentation in which the main character attempts to understand the weird phenomena rationally; and 3) the ultimate unveiling of the weird phenomenon, which may result in the main character’s death. In this final stage, the mystery of the phenomenon and the limits of knowledge are revealed, leaving questions lingering afterward. In many ways, it follows the structure of the horror story as defined by John Clute in The Darkening Garden, a structure that also maps onto fantasy literature.
Weird fiction may owe something to detective fiction as well, since detective fiction is also about rationally trying to investigate and explain an unusual phenomenon. In this way, Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and his Detective Dupin stories may have played a role, no less than his supernatural fiction, in the evolution of weird fiction.
Perhaps it is the influence of Weird Tales and the pulp markets that resulted in an effective, although formulaic narrative pattern to emerge in weird fiction. The weird tale seems to have gained a certain form that could be repeated for commercial purposes–part of the natural process for any commercial literary genre, detective fiction included, which also featured in pulps. It’s interesting to think of how a genre so closely tied to surrealism and breaking up norms could remain subversive in its content but develop a certain level of stability or even conservatism of form.
Next week I will be turning to William Samsom’s story “The Long Sheet” (1944).
Donald A. Wollheim’s story “Mimic” captures the unveiling of a hidden world with remarkably succinct storytelling. The premise is simple enough: insects have evolved to survive in the rainforest through camouflage. We see it in how butterflies mimic leaves and in how certain beetles imitate army ants. But what if insects evolved a way to mimic the ultimate army ant, human beings?
Wollheim tells his story using a bare number of elements. In the beginning, there’s a street man he remembers from childhood, a man in a black cloak who never talks to women and who remains very private, “a sight from some weird story out of the old lands” (280). He hammers metals sheets but remains a cypher.
The protagonist grows up and forgets him, taking a job at the entomology exhibit at a museum. As he learns the ways of science, a discipline still in its infancy, he learns all about how certain insects use camouflage to hide themselves–even one particular beetle that is marked to resemble “three ants walking single file” (281). The fact is that much is still unknown to science, and since there is an entire group of animals that mimic predators, what if human beings, the ultimate predator, also had mimics living alongside them?
Once this philosophical idea is expressed, the protagonist has a run-in with man in the black cloak. He hears a troubling sound in a room in the museum and bursts in to find the man dead. However, when he inspects his face and clothes, he is revealed to not be human:
What we thought was a coat was a huge black wing sheath, like a beetle has. He had a thorax like an insect, only the wing sheath covered it and you couldn’t notice it once he wore the cloak. The body bulged out below, tapering off into the two long, thin hind legs.
This man-beetle recalls Kafka’s cockroach, Gregor Samsa, and Wilbur Whateley, Lovecraft’s half-human creation of bundled-up inhuman organs and appendages. However, this beetle, unlike Kafka’s cockroach, has not transformed into a grotesque being from a human being: she’s a beetle through and through, who simply mimics human beings to survive long enough to lay her eggs. The beetle perishes in that room, after the natural end of her life cycle. When the protagonist unlocks the metal box that was also in the bare room, the beetle’s spawn swarm in the air, a reminder of all that which remains unknown to science.
The final sighting of this hidden world comes at the story’s end, when the narrator observes a chimney move and seemingly transform into a moth: “I saw it suddenly vibrate, oddly. And I saw its red brick surface seem to peel away, and the black pipe openings turn suddenly white” (283). The language used to describe this transformation calls to mind the poetics of metamorphosis in Ovid.
It’s this unpeeling that is so central to weird fiction: it reveals the surfaces of the world to be mere surfaces, with a writhing reality hidden underneath. The labels we use to categorize the world are only self-deception. The Other is hidden in plain view. I believe that this is one thing that weird fiction shares in common with surrealism: both reveal the falsity of the surfaces that define the reality to which we give our consent every day.
In all, “Mimic” manages to be both a powerful, visionary weird tale, while also being a focused science fictional extrapolation.
Next week I will be turning to another science fiction great, the legendary Ray Bradbury, in his story “The Crowd” (1943).
If I could point to a quintessential weird tale–a short story that has all the Lovecraftian features that have come to be associated with weird fiction–I would point to Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below.” Not only is Johnson the first author in The Weird to mention Lovecraft by name as a fictionalized character in his story, but he seems to have deeply read his essay “On Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In Johnson, the Lovecraftian weird tale has solidified into its most stable form.
The opening line is an absolute classic: “With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness” (260). The “thing” itself is nothing more unusual than a New York City subway car, but the way it is described estranges it, so that it comes to resemble a bizarre worm crawling though the darkness below the city streets.
But there is a monstrous threat below the city. As Inspector Gordon Craig of the NYPD informs the nameless narrator, “They” have been known to break into the tunnels. The threat remains vaguely defined: a race of pale white creatures who inhabit the darkness and appear similar to a human or a gorilla, yet not dissimilar to “some sort of giant, carrion-feeding, subterranean mole” (262).
“Far Below” actually precedes The Mole People, a 1956 film that popularized the concept of mole people living beneath the earth. However, the first example of mole people is probably the Moorlocks from H. G. Wells’s Time Machine in 1895, in which they were depicted as devolved forms of proletarian humans operating machinery far below the earth’s crust.
This story scores almost every tick in the weird fiction checklist, or, if you prefer, every square in the weird fiction bingo card. These mole people are a cosmic horror, a vaguely defined outside threat that the majority of human beings carry on their lives blissfully ignorant about. The NYPD are like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones fighting back the dark horrors of the night, though instead of a wall, they patrol the subway tunnels. And if they do find one of the creatures, they shred them to pieces with suppressed Maxim guns so no questions are asked about the hidden war beneath the streets.
Unfortunately, it also checks off the “racism” item on the weird tale checklist. The editors make it clear that some aspects of the story would appear dated today. The reasons for this is probably best encapsulated by the fact that the mole people are used to explain Indigenous burial practices that settler scientists cannot explain. (This particular details also checks off the pseudoarchaeology square on the bingo card.) The mole people are also used to explain the cheap price at which the original inhabitants of Manhattan sold the land to the Dutch settlers. Furthermore, there are certain reference to phrenology, or determining human intelligence by the shape of the skull or brain. These features show how the mole people inhabit settler fears of counter-invasion and counter-colonization, as well as White people’s fears of miscegenation.
Johnson is clearly a disciple of Lovecraft’s. As if the content of his story was not enough of a clue, he also has Gordon Craig directly say that he consulted Lovecraft’s writings himself when researching the history of these underground monsters:
Oh, yes; I learned a lot from Lovecraft–and he got a lot from me, too! That’s where the–well, what you might call the authenticity came from in some of his yarns that attracted the most attention! Oh, of course he had to soft-pedal the strongest parts of it–just as you’re going to have to do if you ever mention this in your own writings!
This passage is quite clever because of the way it plays with fictionality: the reader’s relationship to other texts and the reader’s relationship to the world outside the text.
Firstly, it posits that the story told by the character of Gordon Craig has been influenced by Lovecraft himself–but a version of Lovecraft that exists in Johnson’s fictional universe. This raises questions about the ontology of this version of Lovecraft. Is this Lovecraft the real Lovecraft known to scholars, who wrote made-up stories for Weird Tales? Or is it a Lovecraft who may be a slightly different version of himself, appropriate to Johnson’s world?
Johnson seems to want the reader to think that his fictional Lovecraft had “real” encounters with the weird things he wrote about. Since he blurs the line between the real and fictional Lovecraft, he implies that the real Lovecraft who lived outside the text also had these encounters: in short, that his mole people and the weird events of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” also happened in the reader’s world.
What’s more, Johnson subtly usurps Lovecraft’s own originality by saying he owes the authenticity of his own descriptions to the first-hand experiences of Johnson’s fictional character, Gordon Craig! This positions Johnson’s story as closer to the “truth,” while Lovecraft’s fiction is actually a second-hand report.
These rhetorical moves and blurring of lines between fiction and fact create not only the illusion of a shared reality outside the text that both Lovecraft and Johnson have written about in their fiction, but the illusion of the reader’s immersion in their shared universe.
The fact that Johnson’s narrator is never named strengthens the illusion that the narrator might be a fictionalized version of Johnson himself, who “really” travelled with Gordon Craig in the New York subway and recorded his story like a journalist would. Since encounters with real cosmic horror cannot be tolerated by most readers’ minds, perhaps Johnson wishes to make the reader think that he has chosen to tell his story through fiction only because of the shielding alternative it gives. If he had used journalism, perhaps readers would have thought him mad, or gone mad themselves.
Johnson may have intended the appearance of fiction to be seen as one the ways in which his narrator has softened the truth, just as Lovecraft supposedly softened it through fiction. By suggesting that not all of the truth was told, Johnson lets his readers posit that there is a “worse” reality behind his story, a reality the reader could discover for themselves if only they searched for it “out there.”
Each of these strategies of Johnson’s assists in creating the intertextual illusion that the the mole people might actually exist outside the story, in the grimy subway tunnels of Manhattan, where the reader is currently reading Weird Tales magazine as the dark tunnels zip by the plexiglass windows.
Come join me and up to 15 students on an archaeological expedition into the world of fiction at the Thomas More Institute this fall.
Imaging the Past: Fiction & Archaeology is the literature course I’ve been dying to design, and it’s finally being offered at TMI. We need brave, inquisitive souls to join us on our journey in search of ‘lost’ cities, cursed mummies, and the stratigraphy of past aeons.
I’ll be leading our discussion along with course leaders Karen Etingin and Greg Peace. We’re going to have twelve weeks of engaged discussion in a question-driven discussion environment in which we will be reading everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.
You don’t have to be in Montreal to attend. Courses may be taken for degree credit.
If you love history, mysteries, and adventure, then this course is for you. Over twelve weeks, we will delve into how authors, some of whom are archaeologists, have imagined the past in their short stories and novels. We will also consider how they have represented the scientific discipline of archaeology.
Why do so many of fiction’s archaeologists investigate the supernatural and face danger in exotic locales? What impact do the tropes of detective fiction and adventure have on how the public perceives scientific research? How do the remains of past civilizations inform our understanding of them? With authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth as our guides, we will investigate the intersection between science and storytelling—between discovering and imagining the past.
Our expedition will take us from Egypt to Sri Lanka, from the prehistoric dawn of humanity to Mars, as we read a variety of fictions in which the discipline of archaeology and the puzzle of the past are significant themes.