Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part II): How the History of Medieval Romance Shows Us Why Representation Matters

–This post is a continuation of my reflection on “Why Writing the Other is Always Radical”

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.

Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.

Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.

However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.

Always Historicize

As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”

The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.

In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.

For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?

In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.

Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.

In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.

It was this ideology, or some modern form of it, that inspired the Christchurch mosque shooter, who wrote slogans on his guns. “Charles Martel” and “Tours 732” commemorated the heroes of the chanson de geste and the historical events they reference (Elaine Graham-Leigh “Far-Right Terrorists and the Meaning of the Battle of Tours”).

In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.

The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.

The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight

I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.

From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.

The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.

Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.

This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.

What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose

“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.

[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste

(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).

At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.

The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.

Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.

Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.

In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.

Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.

This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.

If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Beat the Drums of Peace

The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”

Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.

When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).

Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.

To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.

If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.

Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF


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Why Writing the Other is Always Radical (Part I)

mosque
Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”

An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.

When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.

A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.

A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).

When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.

Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.

anonymity
Photo by Jaroslav Devia on Unsplash

Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.

Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.

Media and the Other

What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.

When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”

However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.

We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.

pro-immigrant rally
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.

Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?

Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec

This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.

(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).

During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.

This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.

The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s  who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).

two hijabi women talking
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Telling the Right Stories

Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.

The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.

Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.

The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.

The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.

This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.

As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.

Beat the Drums of Peace

Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.

In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:

His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.

How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?

As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.

Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.

When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.

Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.

I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.

Read Part II.

N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.

If you’d like to learn more about how to write the other in your fiction, read Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Congrès Boréal 2018: Differences between Anglophone and Francophone SF

Harness the Power of Dialectical Opposites to Enhance Your Storytelling

Part I: A Multicultural Utopia: Historicizing New Fantasy in Charles de Lint’s Moonheart


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Archival Hauntings: A Review of The Bone Mother by David Demchuk

David Demchuk, who attended Montreal’s Blue Metropolis festival earlier this year, is the author of a Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated collection of horror short stories, The Bone Mother. This was quite an accomplishment for a horror writer, especially since writers of horror fiction are so often excluded from the literary mainstream. The Bone Mother, set in the interwar period in Eastern Europe, is inspired by Slavic folklore and the stunning and slightly disquieting photographic archive of Romanian photographer Costică Ascinte.

To get the word out about this marvelous, yet terrifying book, I wrote a review of The Bone Mother for NewMyths.com, which you can go read.

I won’t say much else about it here except that the book itself seemed to dovetail nicely with my Master’s thesis, which investigated, in part, what the difference between magic realism and fantasy set in the primary world is, if there exists a difference at all. Demchuk’s novel does serve to blur the lines, but at the Blue Metropolis, he was adamant in insisting The Bone Mother is not magic realism but straight-up horror.

Purchase The Bone Mother on the ChiZine Publications website.

 

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might love:

At the Blue Met: The Children of Mary Shelley

Weird #1 The Other Side (excerpt) by Alfred Kubin (1908)

A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone Continue reading “Archival Hauntings: A Review of The Bone Mother by David Demchuk”

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).