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).

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.

The goddess Arachne.

Weird #9: “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915)

The goddess Arachne.
The goddess Arachne.

Trigger warning: suicide.

A series of suicides, carried out in exactly the same fashion, at the same hour of the day, between three victims who should by all account have been happy with their lives, prompts a medical student, Richard Bracquemont, to investigate. The only link between the three men is a black spider that is seen crawling out from their mouths when their bodies are found hanged by the windowsill. The detail is soon forgotten by the investigators.

“The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers is a grim, existential story. The subject matter was probably what caused me to take so long in writing this reflection; I had to be in the right mind space to write about suicide. But this story is not so much about existential despair, as the idea that infatuation and pleasure can be so strong that it overrides the will to live.

While philosophers such as Sartre have pondered the philosophy of committing suicide as an existential act, and in the process perhaps romanticized it to a problematic extent, the fact is that there often is no reason at all for people to commit suicide, though there may be a cause. Depression, for example, is a disease of the mind; the suicidal ideation it may cause is fundamentally non-rational, a chemical process. But this doesn’t stop survivors and witnesses of suicide from grappling for reasons “why” their loved ones kill themselves, even and especially if there aren’t any truly satisfying answers.

It’s this way with celebrity suicides. People look for a reason for why Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain might have committed suicide. But often, there is no answer. They simply had a bad day and made a decision which they might have revoked five minutes later, but which they can now never take back. Often, there simply is not a rational reason for someone to go through with it, although people demand an answer–certainly the newspapers and magazines that have to turn out a story need an answer.

“The Spider” explores the non-rational aspect behind the psychology of suicide. At first, the spider provides a grim comfort by supplying a cause, if not an actual reason, for these three mysterious suicides, which is arguably more comforting than the finding no explanation at all. The spider crawling out from the mouths of each of the hanged bodies suggests that suicide is contagious like a disease, and that this spider has somehow infected these men with suicidal thoughts. (The idea of suicide as contagious does contain a grain of truth. News articles about suicide have been shown to increase suicide rates around the time of publication.) “The Spider” plays off the irrational human fear of literally “catching” a suicidal impulse another suicide.

The spider thus first appears as a supernatural cause that appears to explain the inexplicable. Perhaps the spider’s association with suicide–specifically, hanging–owes itself to the spider’s connection with Arachne, the Greek mortal woman who hanged herself after being punished for winning a weaving competition against the goddess Minerva, who transformed her out of pity into a spider. Was it Arachne herself who caused the deaths of the three victims, the anonymous Swiss traveling salesman, actor Karl Krause, and policeman Charles-Maria Caumié?

In a way, it is.

Bracquemont knows nothing of the spider. However, he spends several weeks in the same room where the men were found hanged in order to write a report for the police. He lies to them, hinting that he’s on the trail of some fundamental clue. He soon feels drawn to the window where the men killed themselves–but not to hang himself. Instead, he gazes out the window at the woman living in the upper room across the street who has captured his imagination: Clarimonde.

Clarimonde is remarkably like Arachne: she sits by the window across the street from him, weaving, while wearing a black dress with purple spots, much like the observed spider. Soon, he begins playing a game with Clarimonde: any gesture of his, be it a smile, a nod, or a complex series of hand movements, she can replicate almost simultaneously. They play this game at the windowsill and, gradually, she seduces him and he falls in love.

However, with her, he feels “a strange comfort and a very subtle fear” (82). Eventually, he discovers that she is not replicating his motions; rather, she is controlling him.

By the time Clarimonde has finished her seduction, Bracquemont is aware that his love for her is “a compulsion of an unheard-of nature and power, yet so subtly sensual  in its inescapable ferocity” (88). In 1920, Sigmund Freud would publish Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he describes the death drive (Thanatos). Ewers, a German writer, paints a psychological portrait of a very similar psychological impulse five years earlier. Seduced by death, Bracquemont finds that he must surrender his will and replicate Clarimonde’s movements, even as she ties a red curtain cord in her apartment into a slipknot. He soon replicates the same action in his own room–and then goes through it, always deliciously copying her own movements.

By the end of the story, it is clear that the spider itself did not infect the three suicides, but, rather, each man was lured by the seductions of a beautiful, supernatural woman. It is not so much that they despaired of living, but that they were so overpowered by pleasure that they gave in to Clarimonde’s game, even to the point where it killed them. In linking Eros to Thanatos, Ewers draws a link between these two impulses in the human mind, suggesting how human beings fall in love with death. “The Spider” is a decadent tale that is also a prescient psychological portrait that convincingly represents the transformation of a rational mind into a self-destructive one.

Next, I hope for a change of mood out of this grim fare. I’ll be discussing “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali polymath.

***

Addendum:

When I step back from this story, I am struck by how it reflects the death drive that exists in Internet culture, especially when it comes to dangerous social media “challenges.” It was recently reported how a fifteen-year-old died playing the Benadryl challenge on Tik-Tok. If Bracquemont and Clarimonde had not been staring out the window at each other, they might have been sharing videos with each other on Tik-Tok. They would share videos of themselves copying each other’s increasingly complex movements until it is no longer clear who is copying who, and it ends in death. The framework of a “game” and a sense of competition are fully capable of making people forget their health. Once the dopamine loops gets started up, it can override the will to live. This makes even doomscrolling on Twitter a form of death, since while you’re doing it, the dopamine is firing in your brain and you’re being subject to an intricate Web not unworthy of Clarimonde, which Twitter users weave through clickbait headlines and polarizing hot takes. Soon, you forget your own sense of free will, and you begin to sense the feed is controlling you, not the other way around, and you don’t know where it’s leading you.

I don’t want to come across as overly critical of social media, but at the same time, I think it’s fascinating how “The Spider” can speak to the psychological dynamics of social media in a very specific way. Social media has a tendency to create copycats, to influence others’ ways of thinking and doing things. In this, it weaves a tangled Web. Sometimes it’s harmless, or even good, since people can be encouraged to perform good deeds through social pressure (for example, when you see posts of friends who’ve donated to a charity and then donate to one yourself). But this copycat tendency in social media has also encouraged the spread of intolerant doctrines and even mass murder. All this goes to show “The Spider” has even more perennial relevance than I thought it did at first.