dingy sanatorium beds by a window

Weird #25: “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass'” by Bruno Schulz (1937)

Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz’s “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” reads like someone telling you a vivid, detailed dream: a dream that they had while mourning the death of their father after an wasting illness.

Not everything that happens in the story makes sense after a first read. But the bizarre things the protagonist encounters seem to be symbols of his psyche, allegories of anxieties related to this period of mourning. When my grandfather died, I had dreams of him still being alive myself. But what if a Sanatorium advertised that you could meet your dead father again, if only you took the long train ride out to it?

This is that story and so much more. It is deliciously slow, languid, and bleak, constructing a mood of deadness and sleepiness from the first sentence onward. Yet the core of the story–a son who desires to meet and comfort his ailing father in the hospital where he’s staying–retains an emotional relateability that makes the story accessible, despite its dreamlike warping of time–and other, stranger appearances.

I think this may be my favourite weird story in the anthology so far. There are no ghosts or eldritch creatures here, unless the father can be counted a kind of ghost. Joseph, the protagonist, arrives at the Sanatorium after traveling a long railway line filled with labyrinthine cabins with almost nobody riding with him. One senses the train to be a kind of Charon guiding him into the underworld to see the shades of the dead.

Joseph has come to the Sanatorium to see his father, who has fallen gravely ill. However, when he meets Dr. Gotard, the doctor reveals that his father has actually died long before. He says, “You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. [But] here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet” (250). In effect, time is relative at the Sanatorium and his father exists in two simultaneous states: at home, he is dead, while here he is alive.

Alive and always very sleepy. Even at the Sanatorium, there are two versions of Joseph’s father: the father convalescing who sleeps in bed and the busy father who runs a small shop in the town centre. In the shop, the son insists that his father should take it easy, that he’s sick and working too hard, but his father resists the draw of sleep. “It was obvious that only the excitement of his feverish activity sustained him and postponed the moment of complete collapse,” Joseph says (253). But his father says the business of the stall beats back his dreadful boredom: “And so one manages somehow to live” (251).

He means it literally. It’s as if his work not only gives him a reason to live, but makes it possible for him to live at all.

This strange doubling of Joseph’s father is far from the weirdest thing in this story, which is filled with atmosphere and strangely jarring images. The door to Joseph’s father’s room opens “like unresisting lips that part in sleep” (250), a metaphor that captures the mood exactly. When Joseph receives a parcel with a letter saying his order for a pornographic book will be delayed, he receives a strange telescope in compensation, which envelops him and advances “like a large black caterpillar … into the lighted shop–an enormous paper arthopod with two imitation headlights on the front” (253). Though the image seems phallic, its sheer strangeness defies any reductive Freudian interpretation. Yet, this surreal transformation seems to follow the logic of dreams.

At a later point in the story, war is declared. The nature of the conflict is unclear, but the enemy emboldens the discontented local townspeople. What follows is an ominous, dreamlike description of a fascist parade. The people

come out in the open, armed, to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants. We noticed, in fact, a group of these activitist, in black civilian clothing with white straps across their breasts, advancing in silence, their guns at the ready. The crowd fell back onto the pavements, as they marched by, flashing from under their hats ironical dark looks, in which there was a touch of superiority, a glimmer of malicious and perverse enjoyment, as if they could hardly stop themselves from bursting into laughter.

(257)

The swastika is not mentioned explicitly, but it’s clear that these men are Nazis. If the black shirts and white bands are not enough of a hint, then the ironic glances and air of superiority are enough. I’ve personally seen these same faces in newspapers and online images, only they were wearing red MAGA hats instead of black shirts. Schulz could be describing a civilian parade in support of the Nazis or the white supremacist mob that demonstrated in Charlottetown–or even the recent mob that stormed and looted the US capitol on January 6th.

The invasion of the Nazis into the bizarre dream world upsets the order of life. Suddenly, his father is in danger. The Nazis appearing is particularly ominous, given the fact that the author himself, Bruno Schultz, would eventually be killed by the Nazis only five years after the publication of this story.

Joseph’s father tells him to return to the Sanatorium, which is when Joseph encounters the most bizarre thing guarding the entrance, a surreal Cerebus–an attack dog that has the form of a man. The man-dog chases him until it reaches the end of its leash. Joseph unchains the man-dog, pitying it, and earning its sympathy. The man-dog then follows him around as Joseph tries to get rid of it and find his father. Then he fears what will happen when his father encounters the dog. This is when he remembers that his father is, actually, dead. The dream is ending. He escapes the Sanatorium by train just as he arrived, and he never leaves it, wandering the many carriages as a beggar wearing a railwayman’s uniform.

It’s quite striking how the appearance of the Nazi-like figures presage the end of the dream, as if the threat they pose also disrupts the Sanatorium’s privileged relationship to time. So many images in this surreal piece beg to be interpreted at length, and the whole story proceeds with an inner logic of its own that cannot be easily grasped, but which seems to make sense on the level of dreams.

For example, what could be the dog’s significance? A chained man who appears from a distance to be a dog reminded me of what a dehumanized Nazi prisoner might look like. Yet, the image is sustained: the man-dog is fully a dog, though he has the exterior features of a man: “his jaws [are] wide open, his teeth bared in a terrible growl, … a man of middle height, with a black beard” (258). Why does it attack Joseph and why is Joseph so eager to get rid of it after he frees it from its chains?

In the end, what could the railway itself symbolize, particularly given Joseph’s decision in the end to live on it “continuously”? (259) Does the train represent a return to ordinary life, or to a state somewhere between life and death? It is notable that Joseph is never said to return home, to his native country where his father has died. He remains suspended between worlds, on the heterotopia of the constantly moving train.

“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is a rich story with many dimensions to it, and worth noting for the mood it creates and its beautiful description of the bleak forest surrounding the Sanatorium. This has certainly been one of the genuinely “weirdest” short stories in this anthology so far. It is also a profound exploration of the dislocation of grief.

Next week, I will be examining Robert Barbour Johnson, a pulp writer for Weird Tales magazine, and his weird tale “Far Below” (1939).

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.