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

Gertrude Barrows Bennett

Content warning: racism, suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An antique camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Weird #12: “The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt (1918)

A Merritt

Having come this far in this Archaeology of Weird Fiction project, I have noticed that certain patterns of representing the attraction and danger of the weird have begun to repeat as patterns. In addition, I keep finding parallels, in one way or another, to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. In this, my experience of “People of the Pit” by A. Merritt was no different. It is, however, the first story in the collection to explicitly feature archaeology and past civilizations as a source of the weird (except perhaps in “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore).

Two men exploring the far northern reaches of Alaska come across a hazy mountain with five peaks outstretched like a hand where a strange light is glowing. A frightened man near death crawls up to their campfire and tells them he has just returned from those very mountains. He narrates the story of his encounter with the People of the Pit. Having reached the mountains from the other side, the horrified speaker recounts how he journeyed down the bottleneck of the seemingly infinite pit that lies between the mountains, to finally reach the massive, primeval city at the bottom.

Made a captive of the invisible, glowing creatures who live at the bottom of the pit, the man participates in their chanting rituals and eventually comes to see the inner sluglike forms. Horrified, he breaks his chains and escapes. The man finishes his tale and soon dies. The explorers cremate the man according to his wishes and scatter his ashes to prevent the People of the Pit from claiming his body after death.

According to the editors, Merritt was heavily influenced by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female American science fiction and fantasy writer and inventor of dark fantasy, who published under the pseudonym Francis Stevens and wrote weird tales about lost civilizations. Merrit, in turn, influenced H.P. Lovecraft, who himself was an admirer of Stevens/Bennett. All three authors are included in The Weird.

“The People of the Pit” follows the formula of an explorer/scientist who journeys to the frontiers of the (to Europeans) known world to investigate a curious phenomenon, only to encounter horror and terror and supernatural dread. Some of Merrit’s other scientists, like Throckmartin in The Moon Pool and Goodwin in The Metal Monster, use the scientific process to get themselves out of seeming supernatural quandaries, and do so successfully. These novels are better spoken of as science fantasy. However, “The People of the Pit” destabilizes the efficacy of science, calling into question its ability to categorize extraordinary phenomena, in the way that much weird fiction does.

The explorers note the whispering coming from a strange light on the mountain, which “can’t be the aurora” (101). Indeed, it is not a “crackling sound like the ghosts of winds that blew at Creation racing through the skeleton leaves of ancient trees that sheltered Lilith” either; rather, it holds “a demand. It was eager” (101). It evades the categories of Judeo-Christian mythology and science and attracts their curiosity with “inexorable insistence” (102) in a way that recalls the Sirens from the Odyssey. This phenomena that evades their categories and classifications produces a curiosity that can lures and seduce men to their doom. In a way, this whispering is the equivalent to Tagore’s marble palace and Ewers’s Clarimonde. It demonstrates the sensual’s domination over the rational, a modernist dichotomy.

Drawn by the mystery of the mountain, which is a kind of El Dorado given the “Athabasean” legend of gold streaming out from the peaks (102), the survivor recalls his first sign of the unusual: a road. Since he is far from civilization, the existence of an ancient road in the wilderness is unexpected in how it suggests the ancient presence of a technologically advanced human civilization. “Lost” civilization tropes often carry the problematic assumption that non-Western, non-white people could not have possibly built monumental structures, urban centres, or possessed advanced technology.  Perhaps, then, the Athabaseans’ ancestors, or those of another Indigenous nation, had built this city once, long ago. However, “The People of the Pit” does not specify who used to live here; that fact has been lost to time and history and is one of the many unsolved mysteries that confront the survivor as he ventures past the city, over the mountains, and into the pit.

Currently, I am teaching a 12-week course called “Imagining the Past: Fiction & Archaeology” in which I am leading discussion on fictional texts about archaeology and history. In this course, we’ve been talking a lot about what motivates archaeologists–for some it is a quest, a curiosity about the world, or a need to fill out the answers to a burning question rather than face the blankness of the unknown. Merritt’s story features and explorer and honourary archaeologist whose curiosity about the world leads him to his doom.

While celebrating this curiosity in a certain way, Merritt also exposes just how little of the world is actually known. In 1918, places like northern Alaska may still have contained regions remote enough that most Americans could believe a Pit of this size and scale could exist. However, what seems to have driven Merritt to write this story is not enthusiasm for mapping uncharted frontiers, but rather an awe at that very unchartedness. He revels in exposing precisely what is unknown, and those who investigate it too closely pay a price.

Perhaps he was a romantic, reacting against modernity’s exhortation to map the last pockets of difference on the earth’s surface. Rationalism and irrationalism, sensuality and reason are at war in Merritt’s work.

Cover of The Metal Monster by A. Merritt from Fantastic Mysteries Magazine
A. Merritt’s novel The Metal Monster featured in a Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels joint issue

The survivor is drawn to his doom by the pit. Curiously, this image anticipates the Tower in VanderMeer’s Annihilation: a spiral staircase leading down, down, down to a seemingly infinite depth. “It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll!” writes Merritt (104). The pit has a hoard of possible meanings: a journey to the unconscious or to the underworld, a quest for the base of reality itself, the end of all questions and inquiry–a base that does not really exist.

In a further parallel with Annihilation, the walls are inscribed with an inscrutable text. In “People of the Pit,” that text is visual. The inscriptions along the wall of the spiral staircase in Merritt, left behind by unknown peoples, contain figures that hold back a vaguer, underlying image: an “impression of enormous upright slugs” (104). Later, when the survivor reaches the city at the bottom of the pit, he sees inscriptions on an altar of “formless things that gave no conscious image, yet pressed into the mind like small hot seals–ideas of hate–of combats between unthinkable monstrous things” (106), suggesting the abstracted forms of primitivist paintings.

The mention of a upright slugs connects the People of the Pit to the Crawler in Annihilation. Both are described as grotesque sluglike creatures who glow and whose form seems too much for the human eye to take in at once. Both are sublime monsters because they surpass our senses’ ability to see and our brains’ ability to make understand them.

To better illustrate, VanderMeer describes The Crawler as follows:

[I]t was no longer golden but blue-green, and the blue-green light was like nothing I had experienced before. […] As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. […] It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough. (176)

Compare this with Merritt’s description of the People of the Pit:

Great transparent snail-like bodies–dozens of waving tentacles stretching from them–round gaping mouths under the luminous seeing globes. They were like the ghosts of inconceivably monstrous slugs! […] They did not crawl or walk–they floated! They floated and were–gone! (108)

While VanderMeer’s prose is less exclamatory, the similarities are clear. The monstrous bodies of the People of the Pit and the Crawler are abject and grotesque due to their being in excess of the very categories used to define them. They throw in question humanity’s ability to classify phenomena and understand the universe. They throw in question the very capacity of language–the very language the authors use–to describe them. They are a splinter irritating the universe with their own incomprehensibility, exposing the world for its illusions.

In short, “The People of the Pit” is a quintessential weird tale, destabilizing Enlightenment assumptions about reality and the knowability of the universe, suggesting there are whole worlds and civilizations that lie beyond our senses and our understanding–a position that would go on to influence Lovecraft.

Next week, I’ll be writing about the ‘father of the Japanese short story’, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and his weird tale, “The Hell Screen.”

Liana

Weird #11: “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini (1917)

a green man waterspout“The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini is a simple enough story of a man whose skin has turned completely green.

He explains how he became infected with this unique illness. Seduced by the mysteries of science’s unexplored frontier, Olivares goes on an expedition to the Brazilian interior in search of new forms of plant life. There he discovers a plant that “seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science,” a plant that cannot wholly be categorized as vegetable, but which has the appearance of “human limbs without skin” (98). Pricked by a thorn, he soon experiences the first subtle symptoms of what becomes a wasting disease that turns his skin green and leads to other mutations besides.

Soon, Doctor Benito Olivares literally becomes a green man: half-vegetable, half-man.

Appearing in the Italian journal The Illustrated Journal of Travel and Adventure Over Land and Sea in 1917, “The Vegetable Man” reads like a traveler’s tale from a distant corner of the earth. Like Indiana Jones, Doctor Olivares is an adventure scientist like you might find in a pulp story who is dedicated to “[penetrating] the virgin forests” and pushing the frontier of knowledge (97). However, with that sense of guarded mystery comes a sense of intruding into what nature never intended humanity to see. Twice, the Guaraní Indians try to warn him about the samples he took of the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants.

Perhaps most uncanny are the leaves of this plant. Resembling a prickly pear, they have “two oval scuttulem” on them, resembling “two very human eyes that seemed to stare out at me in an unpleasant and sinister way” (98). When the green man pulls off his gloves, his hands are revealed to have been turned into these same, shapeless leaves, with uncannily human eyes.

Doctor Olivares claims to have been born in Santos, Brazil, and he donates his samples of the Olivara vigilans to the Museum of Natural History in Buenos Aires. This puts Ugolini’s story in the vicinity of another great weird fiction writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Buenos Aires is Borges’s storied home city; in his famous story, “The Aleph,” Santos happens to be the Brazilian town where Pedro Henriquez Ureña supposedly found Sir Richard Francis Burton’s manuscript on the Aleph.

Details like these have me imagining a weird fiction “shared universe.” What would Borges (who suffered from blindness) have thought of Olivara vigilans, a plant he would have been unable to see with his own eyes, even though the plant itself could “see” him?

I was astonished to find tangential links to Jeff VanderMeer and H.P. Lovecraft in Ugolini as well. For one, Olivara vigilans is described in a similar way to how Lovecraft describes the shoggoth fossils in At the Mountains of Madness. Both straddle the uncanny line between the vegetable and the animal. For instance, Lovecraft describes the shoggoth as a “barrel-shaped fossil of wholly unknown nature,” defying categorization, such that Lake cannot decide whether they are “vegetable or animal.”

In comparison, Ugolini’s scientist describes Olivara vigilans as “a living contradiction” in terms of classification, a plant that is “in itself an order, family, species, variety …  with palmate leaves that were thick and fleshy” (98). The discovery upends the categories scientists use to classify and order the physical world, throwing such artificial boundaries into doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, the liana, “the octopus of the forest” (98) which strangles trees in the grove where Olivares finds the Olivara vigilans, is almost an echo of the strangling vines that move around in the fungal lettering left behind by the Crawler in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even more of  a strong echo are the all-too human eyes growing out of the plant’s leaves, which call to mind the all-too human eyes of the dolphin the Biologist glimpses in Area X. The implication in Annihilation is that those who visit Area X somehow get transformed into animals, yet retain uncanny traces of their humanity. In a similar way, this is Olivares’s fate; he becomes “reclaimed” by the natural world after being infected with the Olivara vigilans‘s poison.

As I continue to notice parallels between VanderMeer’s work and the stories he and his wife, Ann VanderMeer, included in this anthology, I am strongly reminded again of what Borges wrote in “Kafka and His Precursors”: every author creates their own precursor. The weird fiction authors included in this anthology may have seen each other as influences, or they may not have done so. But VanderMeer acts as both author and critic, creating the predecessors of the New Weird as a literary movement through his role as editor of this anthology, even as he drops teasing hints as to who his own, personal precursors may have been. Even if “The Vegetable Man” did not inspire Annihilation directly, they are both holding a conversation with the same literary zeitgeist.

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

Next week, I’ll be getting into pulp adventure with Abraham Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” I have discussed one of Indiana Jones’s predecessors, Merritt’s The Moon Pool, elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll be in familiar territory when I write about it next week.

Rabindranath Tagore

Weird #10: “The Hungry Stones” by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

Rabindranath Tagore, who “is credited with originating the Bengali-language version” of the short story form (91), wrote several ghost stories. However, according to The Weird‘s editors, “The Hungry Stones” (1916) is the most “overtly weird, or supernatural” of his tales. It is the kind of short story known as a yarn, a rapturous tale told by a narrator who is probably making it all up, but who is nonetheless entertaining. Thus, there is no expectation for the storyteller to be believable or realistic, although the narrator’s story is framed through the viewpoint of a more trustworthy “I.”

My acquaintance with Tagore is limited, but he is a giant of Indian letters. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize and his advocacy initiated a literary renaissance at a time when the Indian independence movement was gaining steam. His Bengali-language novel Ghaire Baire, or The Home and the World, dramatizes the conflict between his love for European culture and his sympathies for the revolutionaries of the Indian independence movement, who were revolting against European culture. This novel was somewhat famously reviewed by Gyorgy Lukacs, the Marxist literary theorist, who compared the revolutionary Sandip to Gandhi, even though Gandhi had not yet come into his fame.

In a sense, “The Hungry Stones” is also a revolt against European culture–a revolt of the senses and of the imagination against drab modernism. The order of India’s colonized, modernist present is upset by India’s glorious, sensuous and sensual Mughal-dynasty past.

The story begins with the narrator encountering an eccentric but confidently knowledgeable and talkative man on the train, who claims knowledge of the Vedas and the Persian poets. I had a sense of the narrator as a modern Indian since he has “no pretense to knowledge of the Vedas” despite the fact he shows enough devotion to be returning from a “Puja trip.” The strange man seems touched by divine knowledge. The narrator’s companion, a theosophist, claims he might be supernaturally inspired by an astral body.

While waiting for a connecting train, the two men are held captive by the fellow, who has their attention for hours as he tells his yarn.

The man claims he was a collector of cotton duties in the service of the Nizam of Hyderabad in the city of Barich, in which there is a marble palace built for Emperor Mahmud Shah III’s pleasure. The palace still stands, abandoned. When the man ventures inside, he is confronted with the loneliness of the deserted building. However, at night, he hears, but does not see, the pattering feet and the charming giggles of Persian damsels as they playfully chase each other and bathe in the reservoirs. The speaker feels a thrill of desire and curiosity and becomes raptured by the dream of the marble palace, so much so that his ordinary life, in which he wears a short, English coat and tight breeches, becomes an absurd dream. “It seemed as if a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through,” he says (91), suggesting how the two eras of history are parted only by a voyeuristic veil. In a way, colonial India was also characterized by this sense of the simultaneity of different historical eras, with the modern and the medieval coexisting side by side.

Though this story is certainly more delightful than Hans Heinz Ewers’s grim “The Spider,” it still makes a similar connection between seduction, decadence, madness, and death. In Ewers, Bracquemont’s fate is at one point compared to that of a spider who lures another spider into her web and eats him. In Tagore, the cotton duty collector is lured by one Persian maiden in particular who “beckoned [him] with her five fingers bedecked with rings to follow her cautiously” into “one of the thousand and one Arabian Nights … a trysting-place fraught with peril” (93). He becomes ecstatic with the richness of this new world, where he dresses like a prince, shedding his modern clothes. The Arab maiden treats him with “a caress and many a kiss and many a tender touch of hands,” seducing and entrapping him so that he gives up his “queer English coat and hat for good” (94). The palace consumes him like Ewers’s spider. Only the cry of Meher Ali, the madman whose cry is “All is false!” brings the speaker to his senses and saves him from staying a third, fatal night.

“The Hungry Stones” is an orientalist fantasy of desire, which may appear strange coming from an Indian, rather than the usual European living out his exotic sexual fantasies. However, I propose that if Tagore does participate in the orientalism of the European literature he admired, then it can be argued he simultaneously reclaims those fantasies for his own, native tradition.

Tagore’s story merits the label “weird fiction” partly based on the description of the marble palace, whose hungry stones consume the speaker. “I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice,” he says (91). This description of architecture as a living organism devouring the trespasser reminded me of editor Jeff VanderMeer’s description of the Tower in his weird fiction novel, Annihilation. In Annihilation, a biologist is drawn deep into an underground tower where a dangerous monster lurks in its depths. She notices the walls are not stone, as she previously thought, but some kind of organic matter, and that the Tower could be an organism itself, swallowing her. Although Tagore does not use this image as literally as VanderMeer does, the emphasis placed on the palace having digestive juices is visceral and strikingly similar.

The speaker goes on to describe the palace at the end of the narrative: “The curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach” (96). The speaker was not the first man to be enraptured by the ghosts of the palace; it has long been a place of death and heartache.  The horror of joining the multitudes of men who have experienced frustrated desire is equivalent to the horror of consumption. However, rather than join them, the speaker alone manages to hold onto his sanity and tell his story, much like the protagonist of a Lovecraft story.

Though this Tagore story is explicitly supernatural, in the end, the frame narrative adds grounds for deniability. The yarn-spinner, like Scheherazade, finishes his story only to hint that he will soon begin a new one about the secret misery of the Arab maiden. However, the connecting train soon arrives, and the two friends must move on to Calcutta. The frame narrator claims that the whole story is a pure fabrication, while his theosophical friend disagrees.

Their argument permanently ends their friendship.

Next week, we’ll be travelling to Italy to discuss “The Vegetable Man” by Luigi Ugolini, a children’s author who wrote a sequel to Pinocchio. It was translated for The Weird into English for the first time by Brendan and Anna Connell.

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Yin and Yang
Photo by Alex on Unsplash

This is an article I wrote for Medium.com.

I recently attended a screenwriting workshop in which I was told not to listen to screenwriting gurus. The key to writing a good story is not in placing an inciting incident on page 23. Rather, it is in understanding the inherent rule behind storytelling itself, the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites.

This is a principle present at every level of storytelling, from the three-act structure to individual scenes, beats, or, in prose fiction, even individual sentences.

The screenwriting charlatans will tell you: put the inciting incident on page 23. But they never ask, “Why?” This is the problem addressed by John Yorke in his excellent book Into the Woods, which discusses the dialectical basis of narrative. My screenwriting workshop instructor recommend it to me, since it offers a much better perspective on storytelling than most screenwriting gurus provide.

Yorke argues that the three-act structure is based on the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites and that the dialectical structure permeates every aspect of art and storytelling.

But what does he mean by dialectical?

In philosophy, dialectics is the process of arriving at the truth through counter argument. The stronger the counter argument, the stronger the argument becomes. It follows the following structure: a thesis is stated (“All swans are white”), an antithesis is presented (“But there are black swans”), and a synthesis resolves the two (“Swans may be both white and black”). At the end of this process, the philosopher arrives closer to the truth.

Yorke’s observation that narrative is fundamentally about observing the world, processing it, and arriving at a conclusion came as a revelation for me. I’d encountered Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the three-act structure before, but I’d never had it explained to me like this. Few books on the writer’s craft explain the “Why?” behind narrative structure so compellingly.

Which is why I’ve decided to take Yorke one step further. In his book, he focuses on the three-act and five-act plot. However, if you look at prose fiction under a microscope, paragraph by paragraph, the dialectic juxtaposition of opposites reiterates itself fractally, even at the sentence level. This plays a crucial role in keeping readers engaged page by page.

You can write compelling prose by harnessing the power of dialectical opposites. Before I explain how, however, let me first go over how dialectics apply to the three-act structure, since the same principle will apply at the sentence level.

pigeons
Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash

Dialectics in the Three-Act Story Structure

Many stories, from The Godfather to Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth–and even Pixar movies–follow a dialectical three-act structure. Like a dialectical argument, the stories break down into acts consisting of a “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis.”

A typical three-act story begins with a first act that presents the status quo. The second act challenges the status quo, precipitating a crisis, and the third act reconciles the two states, resolving the conflict. In this way, the structure of a dialectical argument maps onto narrative; an overarching theme is argued, counter argued, and synthesized.

For example, in the first act of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a war veteran who wants nothing to do with the mafia. In the second act, he makes the irrevocable decision to participate in the mafia. By the third act, he’s stepped into his father’s shoes as the head of his crime family and has become the devil; his innocence is forever lost.

In the thematic struggle between innocence and power, the dialectical synthesis results in Michael’s spiritual death—a tragedy.

Although some writers use the three-act structure to mark changes in interpersonal conflict or even setting, treating it as a dialectical structure that charts character change can be more useful. After all, taking The Godfather for an example, Michael’s inner journey is one between opposites: from innocence to violence. And the way these opposites resolve is through a dialectical structure.

Pixar movies work in opposites as well: a trash-cleaning robot who finds himself on a cruise ship in space (Wall-E) and a fish from the big ocean who finds himself in a dentist’s fish tank (Finding Nemo). The audience is compelled by these opposites to see how the stories eventually resolve.

It’s a principle that also works on the micro-level of a sentence.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Dialectics on the Sentence Level

Moving from screenwriting to prose fiction, I’ve observed that sentences may also exhibit a dialectical structure. In compelling prose, opposites are often presented within a sentence to create tension between two ideas or images.

Names of emotions might contrast, such as fear and curiosity, or a set of images, such as a rainstorm in the desert. In the reader’s brain, a synthesis occurs, suturing the gap between the disparate images in order to create meaning and flesh out an image that is only presented in fragments. The reader is engaged, because the prose inhabits a contradiction.

It’s relatively easy to learn this technique and apply it to your own prose. As an example, I’ve provided an excerpt from one of my personal favourite novels: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s prose style is laced with inherent tension, a simultaneous sense of forward momentum and dread.

In this scene, two characters, the surveyor and the biologist (the first-person narrator), are exploring an underground stairway for traces of a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial organism.

“Should we go back?” the surveyor would say, or I would say.

And the other would say, “Just around the next corner. Just a little farther, and then we will go back.” It was a test of a fragile trust. It was a test of our curiosity and fascination, which walked side by side with our fear. A test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe. The feel of our boots as we advanced step by careful step through that viscous discharge, the way in which the stickiness seemed to mire us even as we managed to keep moving, would eventually end in inertia, we knew. If we pushed it too far.

(Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, 39)

Starting from the top, the reader is immediately confronted with the question of why both the surveyor and the biologist could have spoken the dialogue. Why not specify who said what? The reader, even if only on an unconscious level, attempts to resolve this contradiction through synthesis.

As a reader, I formed the opinion that it must reveal more about their situation to know that it doesn’t matter who is talking at any single moment. They’re both reluctantly pushing the other deeper into the thrall of curiosity.

Next, inner emotional conflict is demonstrated by the contrast between fear and curiosity. These contrasting emotions are not precise opposites, but they’re far from identical in a conventional sense. Before the reader vicariously experiences these emotions, they must confront the intellectual problem of how the emotions “fear” and “curiosity” may be related.

Can fear and curiosity be the same emotion? VanderMeer doesn’t simply give the reader the answer. What he does is say that these emotions walk “side by side” (a personification recalling the biologist and the surveyor, who also walk side by side). This way, the reader’s imagination is engaged in imagining what this “fearful curiosity” must feel like.

Andrew Stanton and Bob Peterson, the writers of Finding Nemo, once said: “Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two … Never give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer” (qtd. in Yorke 113). To give his readers a taste of the complex emotion he wanted them to experience, VanderMeer gave them fear and curiosity and let them imagine the rest.

The power of VanderMeer’s prose comes, at least in part, from his ability to suggestively juxtapose disparate words and images. The reader must synthesize these in order to create meaning. Providing the reader with the emotions “curiosity” and “fear,” VanderMeer allows the reader to decide for themselves what feelings the biologist is experiencing.

Now, at one level, synthesis is part of the fundamental process of reading and experiencing the world. Readers do it all the time, no matter the quality of the prose. However, when the text presents irreconcilable contradictions, the dialectics of the text become more powerful and the reader engages even more.

Just as the philosopher gets closer to the truth when faced with a stronger counter argument, so do readers become more engaged when words and images are more starkly contrasted.

To return to Annihilation, the ideas of knowledge and danger are juxtaposed again later: “The test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe.” Here, the word choice is more complex, since the phrasing emphasizes the opposites of the conventional values of knowledge and safety. The biologist may prefer ignorance, which is ironic given her profession as a scientist. It also suggests that, perhaps, the biologist also wishes to be put in danger.

The reader synthesizes these contradictions, which compels them to read on.

staircase
Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash

Lastly, there’s the image of how the viscous slime sticks to the soles of the biologist’s boots, resisting her desire to step deeper down the stairs to discover the organism. On a linguistic level, “moving” and “inertia” are both opposites. Their appearance within a single sentence creates contradiction, probably in a more powerful way than if they’d been placed in separate sentences.

Opposites charge sentences with dialectical tension. The biologist is both descending the staircase and being resisted. But will her movement or inertia win out in the end?

This tension compels the reader to read on. Oppositions of this sort carry the reader right on through the story.

You could imagine that the sustaining tension emerges from the inner and outer conflicts of the characters. But on a stylistic level, contrasting word choices and structuring sentences as contradictions are crucial ingredients. I would even venture to say dialectical language can sustain reader interest irrespective of the idea of “character and “conflict.”

In conclusion, juxtaposing opposites can imbue inherent tensions into the reading experience, making your pose irresistible to readers. By harnessing the power of dialectics, your story structure will be stronger at a fractal level: both in terms of plot, and in terms of style.

In the words of the great philosopher and literary critic, Gyorgy Lukács, “The essence of art is form; it is to defeat opposition, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force” (qtd. in Yorke 231). Embed that centrifugal force in your sentences and plot, and you can infuse your prose with the storytelling power of Jeff VanderMeer in Annihilation.

Weird #5 Casting the Runes by M.R James (1911)

Book reviewing can be a perilous profession, especially when the author of the book in question knows a thing or two about alchemy and Runic magic. In such cases, it is not advised to write an overly negative review, for fear of reprisals on the part of the sorcerer in question. Unfortunately, in M. R. James’s 1911 weird tale “Casting the Runes,” the reviewer, Mr. Harrington, learns this lesson the hard way, and let his fate be a lesson to those in his profession!

M.R. James is a classic author of weird fiction and one of the more influential writers included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. According to the anthologists, he has influenced H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, and Tanith Lee. His ghost stories are “widely regarded as among the finest in English literature” and they forego the “Gothic trappings” of the supernatural tale to innovate the evolving genre of the weird tale (56). There are no dark castles, vampires, ghosts, or stormy nights in “Casting the Runes,” but there is a bizarre ad on an electric tramway: a notice of the death of Mr. John Harrington, who once negatively reviewed Mr. Karswell’s History of Witchcraft and lived just long enough to regret it.

The man who sees this notice is Mr. Dunning, a specialist in alchemy working for the British Museum and a consultant responsible for the rejection of the same manuscript. Karswell seeks revenge for the rejection of his poorly punctuated book of sorcery, which was, “in point of style and form, quite hopeless” (58). But are the evil rituals of Mr. Karswell more credible than the book’s grammar?

It turns out that Mr. Harrington died shortly after receiving a program at a musical concert that contained a slip of paper printed with a set of red and black runes. The cunning Mr. Karswell, who wrote a chapter on “casting the Runes” in his book, speaks of this form of magic in a way that seems, to Henry Harrington, the deceased’s brother, “to imply actual knowledge” (64). Dunning becomes his next target. Thus, it is up to himself and Henry Harrington to stop Karswell from taking out an uncanny form of revenge.

“Casting the Runes” offers a variation on the empiricism versus supernaturalism dialectic at play in much supernatural fiction. It is fairly common to see supernatural fiction writers pit a scientific explanation of uncanny phenomena against a supernatural explanation, like Blackwood does in “The Willows” and Crawford does in “The Screaming Skull.” Most frequently, the narrator struggles to resolve this epistemological conflict, but falls victim to the supernatural forces at play. However, M.R. James follows a different tact from the authors included thus far in the VanderMeer anthology.

Harrington and Dunning are able to put this epistemological conflict aside to deal with Karswell’s threat as a solvable problem, treating magic under the assumption that it works. In the end, after executing a switch of luggage with Karswell on a train, Dunning and Harrington cast the runes that had been intended for Dunning back onto Karswell himself. Later, he is “instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower [of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville], there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment” (67). Harrington had learned the rules of rune casting from his brother’s death and puts this knowledge to use in order to help save Dunning. This is a substantial innovation. It is almost as if, by shedding the medievalism of traditional Gothic fiction in which modern people become victimized by the ghosts of the past, James has led the weird tale into the brave new world of the modern era, where this ancient phenomena can be controlled by humans and put to utilitarian use.

As a final note, it is interesting to see how the supernaturalism/empiricism dialectic maps onto a conflict between print culture and oral culture in “Casting the Runes.” Karswell’s book is not only unbelievable, but incompetently written, and one senses that the reason the publishers were so dismissive of Karswell had as much to do with his incompetence at the printed word as his being a magician. Yet, when communicating orally, Karswell’s competence is undeniable. The book “was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise” (64). Yet, Harry Harrington admits that Karswell “spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge” (64). The conflict between empiricism and the supernatural is here drawn along lines of print literacy; though Karswell’s magic is unbelievable in print, the truth of his magic is apparent when communicating orally. The runes themselves, an “odd writing” (63), may even suggest an uncanny in-between form of writing that blurs the boundaries between a largely oral pagan culture and our print-dominated modern culture.

This concludes my discussion of “Casting the Runes.” Next week, I will discuss “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912), a work of weird fiction by that classic author of fantasy Lord Dunsany.

Weird #4 Srendi Vashtar by Saki (1910)

In “Srendi Vashtar” (1908) by Saki, a sickly boy named Conradin has a lively imagination exasperated by the dreariness of his Edwardian childhood. Having been given five years to live by a doctor whose “opinion counted for very little” (53), he declares, in the midst of his loneliness and boredom, that his polecat-ferret is a god. Founding his own personal religion, he names the “great ferret” Srendi Vashtar (54), an appellation whose syllables could have been lifted from Vedas.

This fourth story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is a short story by one of Edwardian England’s most satirical wits who was also a master of the macabre. Saki is the pen name for Hector Hugh Muro, who likely based Conradin’s puritanical cousin on his personal experience growing up in North Devon. According to Wikipedia and Emlyn Williams, he chose the name ‘Saki’ not because he was overfond of sake, the Japanese rice wine, but because ‘Saki’ is the name of a cup bearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. 

“Srendi Vashtar” not only skewers the stuffiness of Edwardian society, but strikes me as a send-up of the pagan revival trope. More than anything else, this story reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, in the sense that it too comes across as a variant of the Greek myth of Bacchus and Pentheus. Ovid in The Metamorphoses describes how the cult of the god of wine and sex, Bacchus, gains high popularity in the city of Thebes. Pentheus, roughly the ancient Greek equivalent of a puritan, tries to shut the cult down but after denouncing it exhaustively, he is torn to pieces by a frenzied crowd of Bacchus worshipers.

In the same way, Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s guardian, tries to get rid of the great ferret, Srendi Vashtar. In the end, Conradin prays to his god, chanting “loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Srendi Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts

and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace,

but he brought them death.

Srendi Vashtar the Beautiful.” (55)

In the end, Srendi Vashtar gets the better of Mrs. De Ropp and “Conradin made himself another piece of toast” (55).

Next week, I review another classic weird tale, “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1911).

Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).

Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).