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.

A deep lake in the hills

Weird #24: “The Tarn'” by Hugh Walpole (1936)

Hugh Walpole

Literary fame and fortune is fickle. Hugh Walpole was a popular writer in the 20s and 30s who is mostly unread today. However, his ability to set a scene was excellent. He was well known for his historical novels, but also his supernatural fiction. The VanderMeers call “The Tarn” “a perceptive, clever, and all-too-true weird tale … our personal favourite” (241) and it can be seen why: it is a highly relatable tale of literary jealousy and sweet revenge.

Fenwick, the protagonist, is the author of a sombre novel, The Bitter Aloe, while his rival, Foster, wrote The Circus, a sentimentalist piece of garbage that is also a bestseller. The couple is a classic Ernie and Bert pair, with the addition that Fenwick is fantasizing constantly about brutally murdering happy-go-lucky Foster.

Fenwick blames the failure of his own book on Foster’s success. In the spirit of reconciliation, Foster invites himself over to Fenwick’s Lake District home, where he proceeds to pipe himself up with a false sense of modesty, saying that he has some talent “but not so much as people say,” before bragging that his success has allowed him to spend his time between the countryside, London, and “Italy or Greece or somewhere” (243). He’s also won a literary award: “Of course, a hundred pounds isn’t much. But it’s the honour,” he says (244).

Fenwick puts up with him quietly, giving every appearance of friendship and receptiveness, but secretly he wants to “push Foster’s eyes in, deep, deep into his head, crunching them, smashing them to purple, leaving the empty, staring, bloody sockets” (243).

Fenwick invites Foster for a walk along his tarn, which is a small, but deep lake at the base of a hill. There Fenwick takes revenge–Edgar Allan Poe style. Fenwick and Foster could easily be standing in for Montresor and Fortunato from “The Cask of Amontillado.” Like Montresor, Fenwick seeks to redress insult after suffering injury, all the while never hinting that he bears his victim any ill will. (The tarn itself also reminded me of the one in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”)

Walpole suggests the unsettling nature of the tarn through descriptions and use of dialogue to set the mood. For example, while explaining to Foster what a tarn is, Fenwick says that “some of them are immensely deep–unfathomable–nobody touched the bottom–but quiet, like glass, with shadows only–” (244).

Later, he says, “Do you know why I love this place, Foster? It seems to belong especially to me, just as much as all your work and your glory and fame and success seem to belong to you. I have this and you have that. Perhaps in the end we are even after all” (245). This line communicates the depth of his loneliness and his bitter desire for revenge. He then leads Foster toward a jetty and drowns him in the shadows of the deep lake.

On the way home, Fenwick fancies that a man is following him back. He even believes that “it was the tern that was following him, the tarn slipping, sliding along the road, being with him so that he should not be lonely” (246). After all, Fenwick is a very lonely man, and he appreciates the tarn’s company whenever he spends time alone by the lake.

But Fenwick does not find peace that night. In the middle of the night, the tarn appears as an apparition in his own bedroom, filling up his room with water, until it grabs him by the ankle and drowns him. In the morning, all that is discovered is his body and “an overturned water jug” (247).

As a weird tale, “The Tarn” is well-achieved–it does what it does in a classic way, and it does it very well. The ghost is like the genius loci from Clarke Ashton Smith, a spirit of the tarn that gives Fenwick his just desserts. But the way in which the tarn moves, in its slithering, sliding way, into Fenwick’s second-floor bedroom, appears quite innovative. The apparition symbolizes Fenwick’s worst fears–and his unacknowledged regret at murdering his one and only friend.

Walpole was clearly an writer familiar with literary fame, moving in the same circles as Henry James and Joseph Conrad. He may have been familiar with Fenwick’s gripes and probably experienced jealousy just as much as the fame and success Foster enjoys. Most serious, published writers probably feel some degree of professional jealousy at a given point in their careers. It’s never healthy to act on such jealousy, certainly not to the extent Fenwick does, but at the same time, the feeling is very real, and Walpole captures that feeling brilliantly.

A tarn.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loughrigg_Tarn_-_Oct_2009.jpg

Next week, I will be examining Bruno Schulz’s “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1936), translated by Celina Wieniewska.

an old, buckled leather-bound book

Weird #19: “The Book” by Margaret Irwin (1930)

Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” is considered both a ghost story and a weird tale. These two genres do not always coincide. In “Supernatural Horror and Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft says that the true weird tale goes beyond the ghost story’s formalism to give a certain atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplained dread of “outer, unknown forces” (“Introduction”). Irwin’s ghost story accomplishes this mood and atmosphere. Not only does the protagonist become aware of the haunting, despite his sceptism, but he comes to see his ordinary world as an illusion. His very rationality becomes twisted, supporting his fall into madness.

The formalism of the ghost story was explored by the Russian formalist Tzvetan Todorov in his famous analysis of “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. In his analysis, the reader of the ghost story bandies continually between being convinced that the haunting has a supernatural origin and justifying a natural explanation for the phenomenon. A ghost story can thus achieve three effects by time the tale achieves closure:

1) the reader reaches the conclusion that it definitely has a natural explanation, in which case it is known as an “uncanny” story;

2) the reader concludes that the haunting must truly be supernatural, in which case it is a case of the “marvellous”;

and 3) a perfect balance of ambiguity between the natural and the supernatural is achieved, in which case it is an example of what Todorov calls “the fantastic.” It is fantastic because the reader cannot decide whether it has a natural or supernatural explanation.

Very few stories achieve a perfect fantastic ending. But most ghost stories do play with the reader’s uncertainty of whether the haunting has a natural and supernatural explanation. It is this interplay that can be thought of as defining the form of the ghost story.

Irwin’s story, like many ghost stories, performs this Todorovian game with the reader. But it also establishes a mood–essential both to the weird tale and the effective ghost story.

The story begins when Mr. Corbett, filled with ennui upon reading a detective story, returns to his library to pick up another book to entertain himself. For one reason or another, a cynical, moribund mood has overcome him, and it colours his reading of every book he picks off the shelf.

Corbett cannot read even optimistic literature without seeing the skull beneath the skin. He sees Charles Dickens’ “revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “sickly attraction to brutality,” and calls Jane Austen “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations” (184-5). No explanation is given for this mood–he might have just become tired of the optimistic rationalism found in commercial detective novels.

When he replaces the Dickens book, he realizes that there is a larger gap in his bookshelf than there had been before. “This is nonsense,” Corbett thinks. “No one can possibly have gone into the dining-room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall” (184). It is the first sign of a haunting, of something potentially marvellous, in Todorov’s sense. Of course, he does not believe in ghosts, and he has no reason to suspect that there could be one in his house. However, the gap torments his mind once he goes to sleep. It becomes “the most hideous deformity, like a gap between the front teeth of some grinning monster” (184). By the time he awakes, the gap has disappeared. He thinks nothing of it.

Later, he seeks out an old Latin tome in the theological library. As he sets about interpreting it, he reads about the horrible rights of devil worshippers and falls sick. He returns to his family, who seem to be “like sheep”: “nothing in his appearance in the mirror struck him as odd; it was their gaping faces that were unfamiliar” (186). This passage is uncanny in the Freudian sense of unheimlich, or “unhomely.” Corbett sees his own family as other; what is homely and familiar becomes unhomely and strange. The mood conjured by the Latin book has made him see the unreality of his mundane existence, conjuring a mood that goes beyond that of the ghost story into weird tale territory.

It’s this combination of the ghost story form and the weird tale mood that makes Irwin’s “The Book” such a “weird” ghost story. The ghost is not only haunting Corbett; his experience of the ghost alienates him from his very sense of reality.

But the story’s strangest turn has yet to happen. Corbett notices that a few lines of Latin text are being added to the book every night. No one in his family is writing this text; it simply appears. He comes to read these lines as if they were words from an oracle, or a prophet. A practical man, when he reads the line “Ex auro canceris / In dentem elephanits” (“Out of the money of the crab / Into the tooth of the elephant”) (188), he invests his money in the African ivory trade. He makes a killing on his investment.

Due to this turn of good fortune, he learns to trust the book to tell him what to do. Every night he interprets new lines from the text. However, it takes a turn for the worst when he reads “Canem occide” (“Kill the dog”). He attempts to murder the family dog, Mike, who he does not like, with rat poison.

Fortunately, he fails, but his young daughter has a dream that night of a disembodied hand crawling among the bookshelves and picking out a particular volume. Corbett comforts her as the ominousness of the dream settles. Then that same night, he reads the next command: “Infantem occide,” or “Kill the child.”

In one disturbing moment, he resolves to use the rat poison to kill his own daughter:

Jean had acquired dangerous knowledge. She was a spy, an antagonist. That she was so unconsciously, that she was eight years old, his youngest and favourite child, were sentimental appeals that could make no difference to a man of sane reasoning power such as his own. Jean had sided with Mike against him.

(191)

In this passage, Corbett rationalizes his paranoid delusions much like Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His rationalism, which has affected his taste in literature and his scepticism of ghosts, is now precisely what drives him into unreality. Furthermore, his patriarchal rejection of sentiment (gendered female) as non-rational drives him to reject his common sense and commit the unthinkable.

However, in the end, he cannot bring himself to kill his own child. He throws the cursed tome into the fireplace. As a result, his body is discovered later. He is assumed to have committed suicide due to a sudden plunge in the ivory stocks. But the strangling finger marks discovered around his throat suggest a final, supernatural explanation for his death and all the preceding events: the severed hand from his daughter’s dream has killed him for disobedience.

What is so horrible about this story is not so much the supernatural itself as the all-too-willingness of human beings to obey such heartless commands. The second half of this ghost story bears certain similarities to “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers in how the void seems to whisper dark commands to the protagonist, commanding absolute obedience.

From a politico-economic standpoint, I also find it interesting that Corbett invests in the African ivory trade, which likely means he invested in the Congo, where the Belgians were responsible for genocidal abuses at the beginning of the century. The Belgian atrocities included cutting the hands off slaves engaged in the rubber and ivory trade. It is interesting that a severed hand then murders Corbett, who likely invested in this same industry. It is interesting to imagine the hand as the severed revenant of an African slave. Though the text itself may not support such a reading, the imagery is suggestive.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Flemish writer Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” (1930). Ray is one of the few authors in this anthology to have been published twice in The Weird.

Yog-Sothoth

Weird #18: “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft (1929)

H. P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft may often be thought of as the father of weird fiction for the scale of his influence. He is certainly one of the most important and central writers in the twisted bouquet of texts gathered in the VanderMeers’ anthology. However, he is not so much the founder of weird fiction than one of its first self-professed authors.

The scale of Lovecraft’s influence was felt by his contemporaries and vastly more so by his successors. But it is also reflected on the literary histories that were later made. Jorge Luis Borges might have been speaking of the author of “The Dunwich Horror” and “Supernatural Horror in Literature” when he said, in “Kafka and His Predecessors,” “His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (On Writing 87).

Like Kafka, Lovecraft created his own predecessors. Understood in Lovecraft’s own terms, they stretch back not only as far as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe, but as far back as the early Gothic writers. In fact, they could be said to go back far earlier, to the earliest superstitions of our human ancestors.

In his “Afterweird” to the VanderMeers’ anthology, China Miéville describes the indefinite nature of the weird canon, saying that its

edges are as protean, its membranes as permeable and oozing as the breaching biology of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror. We interpret it, of course: our minds are meaning-factories. But the ground below them is hole-y. There are cracks and chaos, meaningquakes. The metaphors we walk on are

scree

(1115)

The terrifying, invisible abomination of form that lies at the centre of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is thus metonymic for the (highly permeable) form of weird fiction itself. For Mieville, the weird is an “affect,” not bound by the categories of high or low literature, genre, nationality, subject matter, or even the category of supernatural fiction (1115). It defies our capacity for description through language. Like the worms that were around before the human race came to be and will still be here when it is gone, the weird is about that which exists separately from human affairs.

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft charts the historical development of the weird tale. He defines his subject as such:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a serious and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

(“Introduction”)

This definition contains the essence of the literary history he traces in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” The early Gothic writers who often included a rational, natural explanation of a ghostly haunting do not earn Lovecraft’s admiration, though he does commend writers who experiment with a certain sense of breathlessness in their style. The key figure separating these early experiments from the vein of horror Lovecraft finds most inspiring is Edgar Allan Poe, to whom “we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state” (“Edgar Allan Poe”).

For Lovecraft, the psychological realism of horror was crucial for the weird tale, as was the avoidance of any pandering to “the majority’s artificial ideas” such as genre conventions, happy endings, and moral or social lessons (“Introduction”). Lovecraft goes on to mention various authors in Britain and America whose work follows in the supernatural tradition, ranging from Rudyard Kipling, Lafcadio Hearn, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Bram Stoker, George MacDonald, and William Hope Hodgson.

(He even includes Joseph Conrad in this list, who “often wrote of the dark secrets of the sea, and the of the daemoniac driving power of Fate as influencing the lives of lonely and maniacally resolute men” (“The Weird Tradition in the British Isles”). Parallels between the nautical aspects of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” and Hodgson’s nautical tales of discovery are considered one with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the tradition of terror.)

“The Dunwich Horror,” can be read as the culmination of the literary values described in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This weird tale contains a gradual unveiling of an invisible horror, culminating in the revelation of the formless, shapeless monster at its heart.

Lovecraft’s debt to Poe can be seen in the first paragraphs, in which the tiny New England community of Dunwich Village is described as impossibly ancient in comparison to the lands around it. Dunwich fell long ago into decadence and decline, much like the House of Usher. Dunwich was apparently settled long ago by residents of Salem who fled the witch trials. As such, no building in the entire village was built more recently than the early 1800s and many of them date back to the 1600s.

Degeneracy as a result of strict endogamy plagues the “repellently decadent” natives of Dunwich (160). The albino Lavinia Wateley gives birth to a “dark, goatish-looking infant” who matures with an unusual speed (161). Young Wilbur Whateley soon becomes the apprentice of his father, Old Whateley, a sorcerer. By the age of four and a half, he resembles a fifteen-year-old boy and can speak fluently, becoming learned in the dark arts his father teaches him.

Artistic rendering of Wilbur Whateley by Reuben C. Dodd

On feast days, he and his father perform secret rites on the site of an altar on Sentinel Hill, performing occult ceremonies. Earthquakes and explosive sounds are heard coming from underground. The villagers fear and avoid the Whateley’s and their house; the dogs bark at the boy, who speaks with a voice that one suspects is produced by more than human vocal organs. Everywhere the rites are practiced, a peculiar stench can be detected. Furthermore, he is never seen without a tightly, buttoned-up shirt, as though his clothes are hiding the monstrous body beneath them.

Before his father dies, he tells his son to “Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition,” which is later revealed to be a reference to the Necronomicon (165). Wilbur seeks the Necronomicon at Miskatonic University, asking the librarian Henry Armitage to bring it back to Dunwich. Armitage catches a glimpse of the text and immediately forbids it.

This is what Armitage reads:

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. […] By Their smell can men sometimes know them near, but of their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind. […] They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. […] Man rules now where They ruled once They shall soon rule where man rules now.

(167)

Taking into account all that he knows about goat-faced Wilbur, Armitage reaches the terrible conclusion that he has been plotting the annihilation of the entire human race by attempting to summon Yog-Sothoth from the depths of interdimensional space. He decides that Wilbur must never be allowed to consult the Necronomicon, under any circumstances, for the good of the human race. He forbids Wilbur and phones ahead to warn the library staff at Harvard, where he goes searching for the forbidden tome next.

In the end, Wilbur breaks into Miskatonic Universtiy to steal the cursed book. Armitage hears a terrible scream and finds the body of Wilbur Whateley, mauled by a guard dog. His clothes have been torn, exposing the true form of his “teratologically fabulous” body:

Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfuly, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was pie-bald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.

Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, wound with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.

(169)

This description is worth quoting in full because of the expert way in which Lovecraft attempts to use language to describe not merely what “no human pen” can describe, but a body that cannot even be visualized “by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (169).

The description gains the reader’s trust with the easier-to-grasp image of the slightly anomalous torso, but then becomes gradually more outrageous. How could it be that this creature has dark, coarse fur on its tentacles? Is it a bear-like mammal or is it more like a cephalopod? It clearly has something of both categories, indicating how useless our categories are to defining the sheer Otherness of this being.

Even the eyes on the “hips” of the tentacles only seem to be undeveloped eyes. The tail is not really a tail but a feeler or trunk–the author isn’t sure which. The coup-de-grace comes when the annular markings around the trunk/feeler give some kind of evidence indicating they are mouths–or throats. But to make that visualization, the reader must forever abandon the limitations on their understanding of what could constitute a “mouth.”

As Graham Harman remarks in Lovecraft and Philosophy, this is “one of the greatest and most important of all Lovecraft passages” (161). Rather than succumb to a pulp trope and leave the description simply at “no human pen could describe it” (Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror” 169), Lovecraft chooses to describe “the specific manner in which the corpse resists description” using a “cubist” and “Husserlian” technique in which he multiplies “an absurd number of concrete features that are nearly impossible to unify” (161). In this way, Harman says, “language is overloaded by a gluttonous excess of surfaces and aspects of the thing” (25). This description foregrounds how human perceptions are always filtered by our eyes, by the dimensions we know, and the categories in which we sort the sensuous data with which we perceive the world.

All this is merely the prologue to the real Dunwich horror–which begins to unravel the moment Armitage gets on the case. Armitage becomes the protagonist, tasked with saving the planet from the apocalypse that Wilbur, the spawn of Yog-Sothoth himself, nearly succeeds at initiating before his death.

An invisible giant whose elephant-like footsteps are all that is visible of it wrecks the house of the Elmer Fryes, extinguishing the entire family line. Armitage rallies a competent team of men to track down the entity and stop it with a spell. Like one of Conrad’s duty-bound protagonists, Armitage chases after Yog-Sothoth to the peak of Sentinel Hill. Though competent, he is constantly aware of the unknown nature of the threat and the fact that all their tools and weapons are insignificant compared to the Dunwich horror’s size and power.

It is here that Curtis Whateley, part of the “undecayed” branch of Wilbur’s family, glimpses the terrible form of Yog-Sothoth himself. Lovecraft delivers the description in what can only be described as an unreadable mess, Lovecraft’s indefensible attempt at a transcription of an (albeit obscure) rural New England dialect.

Feel free to skip to the “translation” I’ve provided two paragraphs down from it, but the original text is here:

‘Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it–all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed close together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stove-pipes an all a-tossin’ an openin’ an’ shuttin’ … all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in Heaven–that haff face on top…’

In On Writing, Stephen King calls Lovecraft “a terrible dialogue writer” (180). Lovecraft only wrote about 5,000 words of dialogue in his entire career, according to King–a mercy to the human race, whose minds still remain sensible because of it. Even in this 1.88% concentration, a dose can be fatal to a reader’s sanity. However, translating this classist, country bumpkin-ese into the kind of plain English Lovecraft is fully capable of writing when more educated, privileged characters are speaking, the above passage would read like this:

‘Bigger than a barn … all made of squirming ropes … the whole thing sort of shaped like a hen’s egg bigger than anything with dozens of legs like hogsheads that half shut up when they step. Nothing solid about it–all like jelly, and made of separate wriggling ropes pushed close together. Great bulging eyes all over it… Ten or twenty mouths or trunks sticking out all along the sides, big as stove-pipes and all tossing and opening and shutting. All grey, with kinder blue or purple rings. And God in Heaven–that half-face on top…’

The body of the Old One is undefined, barely contained, filled with moving parts that are anything but stable. What strikes me most about this passage is the sense of the Old One’s body being formed of ropes bound together. Wilbur’s family resemblance to this entity is apparent in the eyes that he shares with Wilbur, and in the ambiguity of whether the things sticking out from its body are mouths or trunks.

According to Miéville, the Dunwich horror, as described by Curtis Whateley, is a metaphor, or metonymy, for the boundaries of the weird as a genre. Each text, or perhaps each group of texts, is like a tightly bound “rope” that forms part of the amorphous body of the creature. The weird, like the Dunwich horror, walks the earth as if it had no care for the human race at all. Its worm-like trunk-eyes are looking at us, but “that they watch us is as random as a rip” (Miéville, “Afterweird” 1115). The affect that defines the weird for Mieville is equivalent to the sensation of being watched by those rope-like, or perhaps worm-like, eyes.

The end of “The Dunwich Horror” was a little disappointing to me. Essentially, the invisible entity returns to the dimension from whence it came after shouting the name of its father, Yog-Sothoth. No action is needed from Armitage and his team. The daemon is revealed to be the twin brother of Wilbur Whateley, spawned from the same father, the Old One, Yog-Sothoth.

While it does not provide a happy ending, like much of the supernatural fiction that Lovecraft disliked, “The Dunwich Horror” does fail at creating a satisfying non-conclusion. The explanation that the Dunwich horror was actually Wilbur’s twin brother seems extraneous and bizarre.

It would have been far more interesting had Wilbur not truly “died” but become the Dunwich horror himself.

After all, the dog only destroys the physical, visible body of Wilbur, and the entire point of the story is that there exists a realm of invisible, incorporeal monsters who have existed since before the dawn of time. Perhaps Wilbur, despite being half-human, has retained these incorporeal abilities. Perhaps he could have become united in some way to the beast he had summoned.

Making Wilbur the Dunwich horror itself, Lovecraft could have at least avoided drawing upon extraneous information to explain to the reader what the Dunwich horror was. In this case, learning the explanation frankly dulled the affect of the horror. At least, that was the effect the story had on me.

I could have pointed out half a dozen other strengths to this story, despite its glaring faults. For one, the gradual revelation of the horror through the dispensation of information, clues, and connections was expertly done. I could see at once how effective this technique was, especially since it has been borrowed by Lovecraft’s modern-day imitators. For instance, Usman Malik does much the same trick in “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” during his buildup to an unspeakable blood sacrifice beneath a Buddhist stupa.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” (1930), which Mieville and writer Joanna Russ both call one of the most interesting supernatural stories they’ve ever read.

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

A Merritt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To better illustrate, VanderMeer describes The Crawler as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Ugolini
Luigi Ugolini

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

Rabindranath Tagore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their argument permanently ends their friendship.

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

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).

Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint

20150722_111003-1Does magic exist in the contemporary world? Charles de Lint’s mythic fiction brings supernatural beings into the context of the everyday and Forests of the Heart explores the contact between ordinary people and what he calls Mystery.

Bettina and Adelita are sisters, both partly Mexican, partly Indios, and raised by their grandmother to see la époco del mito, the time of myth. However, as they grow older, Adelita puts the childish stories away, while Bettina becomes trained by her grandmother to become a skilled curandera, or healer. After her grandmother disappears, she comes up north to Newford, the imaginary setting of many Charles de Lint’s novels and short stories, and finds work as a model for a high-end artist’s retreat.

Meanwhile in Newford the folk/Celtic music scene that de Lint writes about so well is thriving even as an especially frigid winter threatens to upset the normalcy of the city. Miki and Donal are sister and brother, a musician and artist, who came years ago to Newford from an abusive family background in Ireland. Hunter, a man who stands out somewhat because he has no artistic leanings at all, owns Gypsy Records, a music record store that forms a hub for local musicians. De Lint provides copious details about the ins and outs of running such a store, likely because he has had experience running his own store. The author’s talent as a folk musician likewise brings an irresistible spark of life to his depictions of the musical communities of Newford.

But it is not into this community that serves as our introduction to Newford. At first we see Ellie, a sculptor, at work with the city’s Angel network, which helps out the homeless. Work is especially needed now that the weather is getting steadily worse. Our first impression of her comes from her heroic act of saving a homeless man choking to death on his own vomit, by giving him a most unpleasant mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Her companion on these outings with the Angel relief van is Tommy, a young Native American whose many aunts seem, to Ellie, to be mythical characters than real women.

When Ellie meets a mysterious man, who may also be a woman, on the streets that night who gives her a business card with the name Musgrave Wood upon it, she feels the first inkling of destiny beckoning to her. Is it a sculptor’s contract or something weirder?

Meanwhile at the Irish pub, Miki, Donal, Hunter, and Ellie grow suspicious about a group of dark strangers who sit in the back of the room to hear the Irish reels. Donal claims that they are hard men, made bitter by years of drunken Irish angst, and that it is better you don’t look at them for too long lest they try to make you their friend–an honour conferred by a punch to the guts. The weird thing is that Bettina, across town, can see them too, standing without winter clothing in the cold snow smoking just outside her window. And she grows steadily more convinced that they derive from the same magic world her grandmother showed to her.

It turns out these dark men are none other than the Gentry, exiled Irish spirits who wander homeless in the city. And they want their revenge against the native manitous, or Mysteries, the rightful spiritual guardians of North America. Their plot to assert dominance over the Mysteries will cause much destruction and draw all of de Lint’s characters into a test against the destructive potential that lies in the bitterness and darkness that all human beings carry deep inside of them.

Although this is not a new novel by Charles de Lint, it is more recent than his classic work Moonheart, a product of the 1980s. I strongly suspect the winter storm was inspired by the ’98 Ice Storm, a turn-of-the-century ordeal that blew out the power in hundreds of cities across the eastern seaboard and is still etched clearly in my memory. The conflict of the musicians/artists against the dark forces of the Gentry gains something of the air of the Fisher King myth, where the salvation of the land itself and its fertility is at stake. What’s so great about this is everyone over a certain age can remember this Ice Storm and feel that much closer to the myth. That’s part of the payoff of setting fantasy novels in the here-and-now.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint