Weird #36: “The Hungry House” by Robert Bloch (1951)

The editors of The Weird call Robert Bloch “iconic,” an accolade which the editors also use to describe Kafka. This praise is well earned, due to Bloch’s position in American literature. If you’ve ever seen a slasher film, it’s because of him: he was the original author of Psycho, which was later adapted into a fairly famous film. Mentored by Lovecraft, adapted by Hitchcock, Bloch holds an important place in American culture.

“The Hungry House” is no slasher. It’s subtly written, showcasing all of Bloch’s talents. However, in some ways, it is just as iconic as Psycho.

Well, maybe a little less iconic. But it’s still probably the best haunted house story about the alienating effect of mirrors that you will ever read.

The story examines what we find so uncanny about mirrors psychologically. To quickly review, the uncanny occurs whenever we encounter something familiar in a strange context, or vice versa. Mirrors are thus part of the uncanny par excellence: they reproduce our own appearance where it has no right to be: in an object exterior to us.

Nothing is more intimately connected to our personality than our physical appearance and, yet, so rarely do we actually see ourselves. Even those who use mirrors often do not really see themselves: they see an ideal of beauty that they do not match up with. When you look in the mirror, someone (yourself) looks back. The effect can be alienating.

According to Bloch, “A mirror distorts. That’s why men hum and sing and whistle while they shave. To keep their minds off their reflections. Otherwise they go crazy” (325). However, “Women could do it[.] Because women never saw themselves, actually. They saw an idealization, a vision. Powder, rouge, lipstick, mascara, eye-shadow, brilliantine, or merely an emptiness to which these elements must be applied” (325). The human mind naturally tries to repress one’s reflected image, because on some level we find gazing at our own image intolerable.

The mirror is commonly thought to tell the truth: it simply reflects what is there. However, it may be psychologically easier to believe that a mirror distorts. The reality of our own appearance can be intolerable because it contradicts the truth we’ve already accept about ourselves.

This talk of mirrors and reality reminds me of the famous opening to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” (1). It is necessary to believe, for the sake of sanity, that a mirror distorts rather than tells the truth in order to remain sane.

But when a mirror cannot be trusted to tell the truth, what might it show instead?

In “The Hungry House,” Laura Bellman, daughter of one of the house’s previous owners, lives an isolated life in her house, the most beautiful woman in the state. She believes that her mirrors never lie about her beauty, even as her body ages and she begins to wear wigs and false teeth: “the mirrors told her she was unchanged” (329).

The mirrors return the image she’s had of herself since her youth. It’s like the opposite of The Picture of Dorian Gray: she ages, but her image does not. However, she believes her image is an accurate reflection, that her youth is eternal. Since she chooses to remain with her mirrors rather than “waste her beauty on the world” (329), she becomes a hermit surrounded by false images of herself.

An intervention by a doctor results in the confiscation of all her mirrors. As a result, she finally realizes she is old. When she happens upon her gaze in a window and sees “her wrinkled forehead” (329), she believes “this–this obscenity–was not her face” (329). She thus denies the reality of her own appearance: a moment in which the familiar becomes strange. In the end, she loses her senses and dances through the window-pane. Razor-sharp shards of glass tear out her throat (330).

Laura continues to haunt the mirrors after death because, even when she was alive, “she looked into mirrors until there was more of her alive in her reflection than there was in her own body” (331). It is the result of this alienation that is responsible for the supernatural haunting. In a sense, Laura continues to live as she always did.

This rationale for the ghost story is stating something profound, not only about ghosts, but about humanity’s attachment to objects in general. The mirrors hold a part of her personality. You only have to walk into the private room of a recently deceased person to gain a sense of their personality based on what they’ve left behind–we all leave an image of ourselves for the world that outlives us once we’re gone. In Laura’s case, those objects were mirrors, objects that, according to some superstitions, can entrap the soul.

Laura’s alienation also mirrors concepts of alienation more generally. It particularly reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s conception of “the precession of simulacra”: with the death of the original and the reality principle, the image becomes a “second nature” and replaces the original. The image becomes more “alive” than the material object. Laura finds reality–the Real, if you will–intolerable, and thus chooses to live a fragmented, alienating existence, in which her “true” self only exists in mirrors, to the extent that she her image in the mirror outlives her physical death.

Robert Bloch (Wikipedia)

Next week, I will be writing about Amos Tutuola’s “The Complete Gentleman” (1952).

Weird #27: “Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber (1941)

“Smoke Ghost” forms an excellent pairing with the previous story reviewed on this blog, “Far Below.” Both Fritz Leiber and Robert Barbour Johnson wrote modern, urban weird fiction, and while Johnson’s story takes place deep under New York City, the horror in Leiber’s story lurks on the rooftops. Leiber’s fiction is “a key forerunner of the urban weird of writers like Ramsey Campbell,” according to the editors (268).

To an extent, “Smoke Ghost” reminded me of the pioneering work of Charles de Lint, who virtually founded the genre of urban fantasy. De Lint’s fiction re-enchants the modern city, but it does occasionally find a place to describe for the horrors produced by our modern condition, in the same way that Leiber does in “Smoke Ghost.” I wrote a Master’s thesis on De Lint in which I explore how his horror locates the spectral and vampiric in the conditions of our capitalist modernity. The same could be said for Leiber in this story.

“Smoke Ghost” begins with Mr. Wran expressing a high concept:

Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? Just picture it. A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the uneasy resentment of the striker, the callous opportunism of the scab, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns.

(268)

Gothic tropes about wispy visitors from the Beyond, dressed in white, may have worked for the Victorians, but they have little relevance to mid-twentieth century life. A horror greater than any that can be found in a pennydreadful arrived with the First World War and its ensuring crises. The horrors and stresses of the modern condition create ghosts out of the living. “It’s time the ghosts, or whatever you call them, took over and began a rule of fear,” says Wran. “They’d be no worse than men” (269).

This provocative idea is then followed by a telling of Wran’s earlier sighting of a shapeless black sack on the smoky, gleaming rooftops of the city. He sees it while taking the elevated train home for work in the evening, as he usually does. He has a vision of the thing leaping from the roof towards the passenger car in a “parabolic swoop” (271). He even sees it “huddle and roll across the gravel” (271). Hoping that he is suffering merely from a nervous condition, he consults a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist makes him recall his early childhood memories in which his mother exhibited him as a clairvoyant. Since childhood, he had always had a talent for seeing through opaque surfaces like brick walls. However, his mother was convinced he could also see the dead, even though he knew his talents did not extend so far.

Eventually, science experiments under controlled conditions were performed on him, succeeding at demonstrating his rare gift. When a big test is ready to be performed on him, the young Mr. Wran grows resentful towards his controlling mother and fails it on purpose, making fools of the scientists who’d discovered him and insisted his talent was real. Now he believes this long-repressed childhood skill has returned to haunt him.

This part of the story testifies to Leiber’s interest in Jungian psychology and psychoanalysis. In suggesting how it might be possible that supernatural phenomena could remain unacknowledged by the scientific establishment, even though they exist and are even empirically verifiable, Leiber suspends the reader’s disbelief. Like many weird writers, he suggests that the lens through which we view the world often has as much to do with what we find in it as the things we actually observe, even to the point of altering what is observed before it can be seen.

The actual creature that haunts Wran is “a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul” (268). Later, it possesses Miss Millick in a scene on the city rooftops, where Wran bows down and swears to worship it, acknowledging the modern spirit’s right to rule the world. This is a scene John Clute would label a Revel: that is, a moment of final revelation in horror where the values of the world reverse, in a carnivalesque fashion. Mr. Wran acknowledges the dominion of the thing possessing Miss Millick over the human race itself; the lord of misrule is crowned king of the world.

In a moment that will seem distasteful to some readers, the creature that haunts Wran is shown to be partly inspired by race fear, or more specifically, the fear of black skin. It is first sighted by someone other than Wran when the psychiatrist complains about a peeping tom at the window. Wran guesses it must be a “Negro” looking through the window (273). The nervous psychiatrist shuts the window and says that it was a white man, a voyeur dressed in blackface (273).

It seemed unnecessary for me for such details to be included, apparently gratuitously, but since the entity is described as “a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul” (268), a ghost with a face covered in soot may well have been mistaken for a white hooligan in blackface. Nonetheless, it still seemed to me to be a strange detail to include.

Friz Leiber and Katherine MacLean (Wikipedia)

I didn’t post the previous week, so I plan on making two posts for this coming week, to bring us back on schedule. This Friday I will be examining Leonora Carrington’s story “White Rabbits” (1941), followed by Donald Wollheim’s “Mimic” (1942) the Monday after.

The goddess Arachne.

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

The goddess Arachne.
The goddess Arachne.

Trigger warning: suicide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a way, it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Addendum:

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

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