Stefan Grabiński

Weird #16: “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński (1921)

Stefan Grabiński

Since the Witcher film and video games came out, and since Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of monster-hunting dark fantasy novels were translated, English-speaking North Americans have been introduced to whole slews of new fantastical creatures from Polish folklore. These creatures include many that might have been unfamiliar to readers of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Even Jorge Luis Borges seems to have missed accounting for many of them in his Book of Imaginary Beings.

In Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, for instance, readers were introduced to strange creatures such as the kikimora, amphisboena, and mecopteran, alongside more familiar entities from European folklore, such as nymphs, rusalkas, strigas, chimeras, and dryads. (Some Eastern European monsters also appear in The Bone Mother by David Demchuk.) However, “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński adds one more for the books. Described as “the Polish Poe,” Grabiński introduced me to the wyrak, a creature described as being a cross between a monkey and a frog.

The Gollum-like Philippine tarsier, or Wyrak upiorny in Polish

I’m always pleased to have the opportunity to expand my Pokédex of imaginary creatures. It is difficult to find more information on the wyrak online, but a quick search does reveal two things: 1) wyrak in Polish means “mistake” (Google translate); and 2) it is also a Polish name for the tarsier, a very real creature who astonishingly matches its half-mammal, half-amphibian description.

Much weird fiction demands the reader’s effort in reconciling contradictory descriptions (such as the half-vegetable, half-animal shoggoths In the Mountains of Madness), in order to suggest the impossibility of imagining a particular creature. Sometimes creatures are described as liminal, straddling two categories, in order to suggest the arbitrariness (perhaps even the “wryak-ness,” or mistakenness, if wyrak means “mistake”) of our own scientific categories. When Polish naturalists encountered the Southeast Asian tarsier, they must have instantly recognized it as a creature from their own folklore.

However, the wyrak in “The White Wyrak” doesn’t climb trees; he climbs chimneys. The story is narrated by a young journeyman chimneysweeper who works for his master, Kalina, a jack-of-all-trades and devotee of Saint Florian who likes to tell tale tales. One of those tall tales seems to come to life one day, when they encounter the wyrak after two of the younger journeymen, Antarek and Biedron, go mysteriously missing on a routine chimney-sweeping job at an abandoned brewery.

The brewery was abandoned when the last brewer went bankrupt and hanged himself. As Kalina explains, “The boilers and machines are supposed to be evil. They’re of an old system. No one wants to take the financial risk of replacing it with a new one” (150). The risk involved in investing the capital necessary to replace the machinery means the place has remained abandoned long enough for the man-eating wyrak to take up residence in the chimney. Realistic details like these make the presence of a monster believable. Even if we don’t believe in the monster, we can at least believe in the severity of debt, which also eats men alive.

Kalina is wise in the ways of the world and the chimney sweeper’s craft. But it is hinted that his knowledge extends beyond the ordinary. He warns the narrator, saying, “Soot is treacherous, my boy, soot lays dormant inside dark smoke chambers and stuffy furnaces, and it lies in weight–for an opportunity. Something vindictive resides in soot, something evil lurks there. You never know what will emerge from it, or when” (150). Even if you don’t believe in monsters, Kalina offers sage advice. His profession is founded on the necessity of chimney sweeping due to the danger that accumulated soot can spontaneously ignite if it isn’t cleaned regularly. In a way, the wryak is the perfect metaphor for the very real, mundane danger of fire risks.

To tackle the chimney, Kalina drops a ball on a rope from the roof, while the narrator climbs up from the bottom. In the middle of the chimney, they see the “huge, owlish yellow eyes” of the wyrak as it holds “in his front claws what seemed like a human arm, which hung limply from a corpse” (151). The remains of the young apprentices are discovered, and the narrator hits the wyrak with a hatchet, slaying it. As it dies, they attempt to retrieve the creature’s body, but it dissolves into a “small milk-white substance,” becoming nothing more than a pile of soot as it exits the chimney (152). The monster leaves Kalina and the narrator with a bizarre case of white pimples due to their contact with the monster, but these soon disappear.

“The White Wyrak” contains a tidy resolution: the monster is slain. The supernatural strangeness disappears nearly as soon as the corpse exits the chimney. In this respect, and in terms of the sober realism with which he writes, Grabiński is most unlike Poe and Lovecraft, to whom he is also compared. The characters act rationally (at least in this story) and deal matter-of-factly with the presence of a wyrak. The story’s realism includes specific details of the chimney sweepers’ profession, such as their tools and even gems like his description of the “layers of easily flammable ‘enamel’ [that] glowed with a cold metallic luster” in the chimney (151). Though the chimneysweepers may be shaking in their boots, from the cool sobriety with which they approach the problem, one might think they were merely cleaning out a routine accumulation of soot.

As a weird tale, “The White Wyrak” has a tidy resolution, unlike more disturbing weird tales where uneasiness lingers long after the tragic story is “resolved.” However, perhaps we should not be lulled by the chimney sweepers’ rationalism. After all, Kalina’s apprentice is now aware that his master’s tall tales have a firm basis in reality. He, like the reader, has learned that the world is inhabited by monsters in its interstitial spaces, leaving unanswered the question of how many more monsters are out there, hiding in our ordinary world.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The Night Wire” (1926) by the American pulp fiction writer H. F. Arnold.

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.

The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges – Source:
https://ilo.wikipedia.org/wiki

A new essay of mine has just been published with Graphite Publications! It builds off some ideas I express in my Master’s thesis, Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism, specifically the concept of critical irrealism.

As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.

Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.

Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.

I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.

While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.

https://graphitepublications.com/the-critical-irrealism-of-jorge-luis-borgess-aleph/

The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.

The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.

It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.

Both Malik and Borges use the vision of infinity contained in the Aleph/Cup of Jamshid to present an image of totality–and to subtly critique the possibility of representing that totality. In my article on Malik published in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, I argue that “Pauper Prince” adopts a critical irrealist aesthetic, just as Borges does in his story.

However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.

MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

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Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges