Weird #33: “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” by Olympe Bhêly-Quénum (1949)

The first African writer included in The Weird, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum is a Beninese writer whose story “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” is a visionary journey from childhood to adulthood, from death to new life. Simple in its structure, yet primal in the emotions in conjures, Bhêly-Quénum’s story was called a “rêve a l’état brut” by André Breton, the French Surrealist. It is something of a surrealist ghost story in which the weird penetrates during an experience of being lost in the woods, much as it does in Dante’s Inferno and Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats.”

When an eleven-year-old boy gets lost in the woods while waiting for his father to return, he encounters a woman “wrapped in a white lappa” that conceals her body and discovers her “emaciated face, the face of a fleshless skull” (305). A vision of Death, she follows him throughout the forest as he frantically searches for his father. When he does find him, the child discovers that he failed to re-cross a river that his father re-crossed while trying to return to him–an image that could be symbolic of the child remaining, in some sense, in the realm of death afterwards.

Curious about whether the vision of the woman is real or not, the boy fearlessly returns to the woods to encounter the skeleton again. The child does not fear the skeleton. Despite his sheltered upbringing, he has already known the death of his grandparents and so he does not fear death as others do. He takes the skeleton’s hand and lets her lead him through the forest.

One saying of his grandfather’s resonates for him: that to navigate the forest he must act like a chameleon, “which rarely misses its destination because it knows how to adjust itself to its surroundings and never looks back” (306). The child does not understand what his grandfather meant, but he takes Death’s hand anyway and follows it through the forest, to a cave penetrated with tree roots, to a crypt where the skeletons of people who might be loved ones sit up, crossing their legs and arms. It is a journey to the underworld.

When he returns, he passes through Wassaï, “a house of joy without a keeper,” a place of sexual initiation where he “experienced unforgettable little tremors brought about by girls I did not know” (309). He wakes up on the side of a mountain and descends following a river, where he soon rediscovers the railway line and returns to his village.

Upon his return, his family is having a funeral for him, and he appears to them in the flesh, alive. He reassures his parents that he is not dead, but warns them not to ask him to explain what happened to him. He has come back from the dead.

As a final remark, the narrator says, “How long did this dream last? I shall never know” (310), implying that the dream of death-in-life and life-in-death has continued into the boy’s mature years, when he is narrating the story. Perhaps it is the condition of the human race itself that we must exist in this dream state between life and death.

The story is remarkable in its poetry but also the matter-of-fact way that the child interacts with the skeletal woman who represents Death. He is not shocked–he does not reject the skeleton as an “abject”–but rather accepts death as part of his world, as a part of himself. He claims to have no emotional reaction to seeing the things he sees, even when it comes to the skeletons in the crypt.

What a different emotional arc this story has compared to some of the stories of ghosts featured earlier in this anthology! Where an author like Lovecraft would turn the grave into something horrifying and abject–yawn–Bhêly-Quénum takes it in stride and lets a more profound theme shine through his work like “a light entering the place from heaven knows where” (308).

There’s certainly a Surrealist spirit behind this story, not only in the inclusion of strange and unusual images, but in the attitude the narrator has towards those images. In the same way that the boy takes Death by the hand, the Surrealists take the unconscious by the hand and let it lead them where it wants to go–not matter how strange or disturbing the journey is. In a way, the grandfather’s advice about the chameleon–to adapt to your surroundings and keep going forward, without looking back and becoming self-conscious or fearful–can be applied to the ideal state of mind of the Surrealist at work. It’s also reminiscent of the underworld myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Ouidah, the birthplace of the author, known as “the Voodoo Capital of the world,” is the site of a sacred forest known as Kpasse. Although I don’t know much about Voodoo, it would be interesting to learn how different the perspective of a Voodoo practitioner in reading this story would be from my own. The skeleton woman in this story may be an allusion to a specific figure within this religion. As a Westerner, I interpreted her as a general symbol for “Death.”

I found this one image of an ouroboros, a symbol of the eternal cycle of death and life. It is one of the symbols that the child in “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” sees during his walk with Death, and it’s located in the sacred forest in Benin. The snake biting its tail echoes the circular pattern of the Hero’s Journey and makes a satisfying image to contemplate as an illustration of this story.

Next week, I will be writing about Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950).

A Persian image of a colourful bird

Weird #32: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945)

I have set myself the task of speaking about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” but it would be impossible to tell you the number of ideas that spring to mind when I contemplate the story, since they occur to me simultaneously and human language is only sequential.

Imagine a point in space in which all other points are visible: a point of light that contains all lights, the perfect seeing-stone. Now imagine that the scenes of human life and nature that you would see upon gazing into it. It would be a dizzying experience to say the least, but this is the experience of one who reads “The Aleph.”

Somehow, Borges manages to pull off his conceit of making his readers visualize an object of such absurd but sublime proportions. He does so though a series of suggestive literary allusions to the Aleph throughout history and by making the Aleph the only absurd thing in an otherwise realistic story.

Borges is known as a mystic, a blind sage, and an architect of labyrinths. His writings have inspired surrealists and poststructuralists, with his most famous story being perhaps “On Exactitude in Science,” in which a Chinese Emperor orders the creation of a map that is exactly, point-for-point, the size of his kingdom–a frequently referenced fable of postmodernism.

In addition, countless authors have referenced his work. Neil Gaiman references “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the Sandman comics, through the images of Dream’s massive library and when Destiny’s garden. Likewise, Umberto Eco was inspired by this literary Daedalus when designing the labyrinthine library that burns to the ground at the end of in The Name of the Rose–with the monk Jorges’s name eerily suggestive of the Argentinian author’s.

Though he is not “a ‘weird’ writer per se,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Borges often treats of the “inexplicable” in his fiction (296). Indeed, “The Aleph” probably includes the most inexplicable phenomenon in the VanderMeers’ collection yet.

Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aleph.jpg

The story is simple enough. The narrator, Borges,a stand-in for the author, mourns his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo, and wishes to remember her very facet and angle. Gradually, he comes to know her cousin, Carlos Argentino Danieri, whose last name contains the first and last letters of name of Florentine poet Dante Alighieri.

Like Dante, whose Divine Comedy was a medieval epic of the divine cosmos, Danieri has given himself over to a grand oeuvre: an epic poem known as The Earth, which centres “on a description of our own terraqueous globe” (297)

Danieri reflects that communications technologies like the telegraph have shrunk the size of the world and that it should now be possible to write a poem treating of the entire planet as a subject. If this story had been written today, he might have tried to versify Google Earth. It is an impossible task, yet it is a goal to which he has applies himself, and not without hubris.

The ironic thing is that The Earth, based on fragmentary excerpts provided by the author, is a wholly unremarkable poem. Yet, Danieri praises his own unmemorable verses, to the extent that the narrator realizes “the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting poetry admirable” (298), a scathing critique of criticism that would do Ben Lerner proud (see The Hatred of Poetry). But the tone of the story shifts when Danieri reveals the source of his inspiration: the Aleph.

Danieri’s house is in danger of being demolished to make way for a café expansion. But Danieri needs the house to finish his oeuvre. Why? Because the Aleph is in his basement, “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (300). He has known about the Aleph from childhood and has been contemplating it as he writes his topographical epic.

The poet prevails upon Borges to enter his basement to see the Aleph for himself, at which point Borges realizes that he could be a madman, planning to murder him like in an Edgar Allan Poe story. However, these paranoid speculations are put to rest when he sees the mighty Aleph positioned under one of the basement steps.

What follows is a description of a marvellous encounter, in which the Aleph is compared to the four-faced angel from the book of Ezekiel and to the Simorgh, the bird of Persian legend, “a bird that somehow is all birds” (301). It is Alain de Lille’s “sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (301). Later in the story, it is compared to the mirror of Iskandar dhu-al-Qarnayn–an Islamic name for Alexander the Great–which is supposed to have revealed his whole kingdom at a glance. It is even linked to Merlin’s crystal ball, alluded to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The description of what exactly Borges sees in the Aleph takes up a long paragraph consisting of one of the more memorable list-descriptions in literature:

Under the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it was spinning; then I realized that the movement was an illusion produced by the dizzying spectacles inside it. The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors on the planet, (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years before in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw clusters of grapes, snow, tobacco, veins of metal, water vapor, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand …

(301-2)

The list goes on to pile on potentially infinite details, reduced to a rich series of emblems. By this accumulation of detail, Borges makes it possible for the reader to believe, for a moment at least, that such a sublime object really exists.

Finally, the narrator emerges from the basement, still stunned by seeing the corporeal remains of the beloved Beatriz, whose shrivelled, worm-eaten bones he has now seen from infinite angles. He takes his revenge on Danieri by denying that he saw anything at all, implying he is a madman.

Eventually, the house is demolished, the Aleph lost, and the narrator wanders the world with a feeling of déjà vu everywhere he treads. Gradually, his memories of the Aleph fade away.

In a postscript, however, Borges writes that he suspects he encountered a false Aleph that day in Danieri’s basement. A manuscript penned by Sir Richard Francis Burton confirms that the universe itself is believed to reside in a pillar in Cairo’s Al-Amr mosque. “Does that Aleph exist, within the heart of a stone?” asks the narrator. “Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?” (303) The story ends with his lamenting of his own forgetfulness as he loses his memories of Beatriz.

The allusions to various works of philosophy and literature make “The Aleph” a rich and powerful text. I don’t know if there really is such a legend about the Al-Amr mosque in Cairo, but the present building has been rebuilt and restored several times. The original pillars taken from pre-Islamic temples would have been lost by now, if the universe ever did dwell inside one them.

There is something magical about how texts, through the sheer power of references, can make readers believe that a thing as absurd as the Aleph can really exist, in a geographically precise location. In a sense, “The Aleph” is thus not only a fascinating “What if?” story: it is a story about how references and allusions between texts can change our perception of reality, whether the reality of a space below a basement step or of the literary quality of a mediocre poem.

Borges demonstrates that language bears no resemblance to the Real, since it is just as impossible to describe what the Aleph reveals as it is possible for language itself to alter one’s perception of reality. In this way, “The Aleph” questions and, indeed, mocks, our construction of consensual reality. (See what else I’ve written about Borges’s critical irrealism.)

The richness of these allusions makes them fascinating to contemplate, in the way of benign conspiracy theories and pseudo-archaeological theories about “the secrets of the Pyramids” and other such “hidden histories.” Maybe the real Aleph is out there, waiting to be discovered by an intrepid adventurer. However, delving deeper into these allusions does reveal real, hidden connections that are suggestive of how Borges came up with the idea for “The Aleph.”

For instance, though Hebrew legend and the Kabbalah played a role in Borges’s conception of the Aleph, another source behind it comes from Sufism, by away of Sir Richard Francis Burton. I discovered that although the Burton manuscript that Borges mentions does not exist (to my knowledge), Borges may have learned the legend of the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay,” which accompanies his translation of the One Thousand and One Nights.

Burton became a Sufi while stationed in Sindh and would have read The Conference of the Birds by the Persian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar while writing his Kasidah. Burton explains his understanding of Attar’s work in what Edward Rice calls “a short, very arcane two pages” (Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, 462). In this passage, the British explorer explains in detail how the Conference is an allegory of the Sufi path to achieving oneness with God, a solution to the question of “We and Thou” (qtd. in Rice 464).

Borges may have thus learned about the Simorgh from Burton’s “Terminal Essay” and not necessarily directly from a translation of Attar. This could be another case of a reference taking precedence over the original, to the point where what’s significant for Borges is not so much Attar as Burton’s two pages referencing Attar.

This opens the discussion to the connection of the Aleph to Sufism more generally. When confronted with Sufism, I think immediately about Usman Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” a novella with more than a few parallels to “The Aleph.” In this Tor.com novella, which has been recently published in a short story collection, Malik, a Pakistani Sufi author, tells a modern fairy tale about the famous jam-e jam, or the Cup of Jamshid. The Cup has Aleph-like properties, allowing users to see the world of the jinn and explore the depths of dimensional space. I’m not sure Malik was directly inspired by Borges (though it is likely); however, he did take inspiration directly from Islamic Sufi sources such as Ibn Arabi, whose Meccan Revelations are the source of the novella’s epigraph. The Cup of Jamshid is Malik’s Aleph.

This is fitting since Borges mentions “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khosru,” another name of the Cup of Jamshid, as being among the Aleph’s analogues (303). Furthermore, it is Burton, the Sufi, who supposedly provides this analogy. Thus, each of these images–Cup of Jamshid, Simorgh, and Aleph–are linked.

Alif, the fist letter of the Arabic alphabet. (SnappyGoat.com)

Given these connections, it might be possible to read “The Aleph” as expressing a Sufi mystical conception of achieving oneness with the Infinite (God). This is fascinating because it provides a link between weird fiction (the subject of this blog series) and mysticism.

Is it possible to read weird fiction texts as mystical texts? Does such a reading work for some texts and not for others? The Arabic poet Adonis’s book Sufism and Surrealism may be suggestive and useful to advancing such a thesis, since it argues about a connection between Sufism and one of the literary streams that have influenced weird fiction. It is doubtful that a category as resistant to labels as weird fiction can be called mystical, but an answer to this question will be a topic for another another time.

At risk of beginning another tangent, it is time to move on from Borges. However, if you’re interested in reading more about what I think about this story, you can read my essay “The Criticial Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.”

Next week, I will be writing about Beninese writer Olympe Bhêly-Quénum’s “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” (1949).

Weird #31: “The Long Sheet” by William Sansom (1944)

“The Long Sheet” by William Sansom hits in a personal way. It is a Kafkaesque and Dantesque journey through a prison where a detailed method of torture serves as a reflection on different social attitudes towards work. When you read it, you may also feel criticized about your work habits.

As the editors indicate, it was published before the English translation of “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka was published, yet takes a very similar approach. It can be thought of as “weird fiction” for the same reason as Kafka’s story: it uses “weird ritual to illuminate society” (290). Instead of a mechanical torture device, however, the method of torture in Sansom is much simpler in outward appearance.

The story opens with an appeal to a common experience:

Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone dry–with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captives at Device Z when the warders set them the task of the long sheet.

(290)

The prisoners of Device Z have been placed in separate rooms within a tunnel-like steel box, across which is stretched a long, white sheet soaked with water. They are given the task of wringing the towel bone dry–not just dry enough to air out, but completely purged of moisture–in order to earn their freedom. This is a task not of a few minutes but of months and years. What’s more, the warders employ cruel tricks to complicate it, such as releasing just enough steam into the room to hinder them and ensure the prisoners will make no progress unless they work constantly.

Given this Sisyphean task, the prisoners in each room develop their own culture of work. The rooms become like circles of Dante’s hell–circles where the punishment administered is the same, yet the prisoners’ suffering varies, according to their attitude to the work. In a sense, they are prisoners of their own minds as much as prisoners of the steel box.

For example, in Room Three (Sansom presents them out of order), there are two couples and a Serbian grocer who develop a routine to accomplish their task. However, the attention they pay to their routine becomes too habitual, to the extent that they lose sight of the task itself. They “put in their time at the office” and then return home to give themselves a well-deserved break, with the result that the towel stays wet and they remain prisoners. A child is born to one of the couples, a child who will never be free due to the influence of the constricting routine their parents have established.

As if that wasn’t enough to drive you to despair, Room Two and Room Four contain equally hopeless people. In Room Two, there’s a man who tries to take as many shortcuts as possible, which are each thwarted by the wardens to his own detriment and that of his fellow prisoners; a man with deep-rooted childhood fears of wet towels who “will never be free” because his fear hinders him (292); a distracted man who fumbles his grip on the towel constantly; and a man who enjoys wringing the towel dry only to watch the steam dampen it again, who “liked to watch the fruits of his labour rot” (293). Each of these men are imprisoned as much by their own attitude as by the metal walls of their cubicles.

In Room Four, there is a group of people, including a twelve-year-old girl, who have already given up on freedom. They take no risks and are resigned to their fate. They put no effort towards wringing the towel at all, to the extent that even the young girl, who may have harboured ambitions, has absorbed Room Four’s slackness (put intended).

Finally, in Room One, Sansom presents a glimmer of hope. There is a group of men and women who are reluctant to engage in unproductive labour but choose to do so anyway, because at least, by applying themselves, they can achieve their freedom eventually. Their philosophy runs like this: “it is not the production that counts, but the life lived in the spirit during production” (294).

The towel wringing is an essentially pointless task. These human beings have been alienated from any productive value their work can give them. But they can feel a certain amount of freedom by applying themselves to their work with a go-getter attitude. Under this energy, they apply themselves, and refine their technique, constantly evaluating the best way to wring the towel. They work hard in shifts, without tiring themselves out, and refine their technique.

Applying their full energy and creativity to the problem at hand, after seven years they succeed in wringing the towel dry and earning their freedom–only for the warders to drench the towel with a blast from a hose. The wardens do this because the prisoners already have their freedom. “Freedom lies in an attitude of the spirit,” say the wardens. “There is no other freedom” (295).

That last line crushed me as I was reading it. Sansom seems to suggest that there really isn’t any freedom at all, aside from one’s personal attitude. The warders’ actions represent this reality: we work our whole lives at school or at a job and dream of freedom, but ours is a world of work. Even when, or if, we retire, we’ll never be free from work. You need to look for freedom inside yourself instead.

In a way, writing this blog feels like wringing our a wet towel week after week. Will it bring me any benefit? I’m not sure, but I do it anyway because I have faith that I’ll get something out of it in the end. Perhaps this is the only freedom there is.

This story seems particularly well-suited to a Marxist interpretation as well. It can be seen as exposing the capitalist lie that a go-getter attitude and “positive thinking” really makes you free. After all, perhaps this idealism only makes a more docile and more materially productive workforce, labouring strenuously on tasks that produce commodities, but not on tasks that directly benefit them. Believing that freedom lies in attitude of spirit may comfort the worker, but really it distracts them from their real condition of alienation. Real freedom can only happen when workers control work for themselves and seize the means of production. The fact the warders can “dampen your towel” at any time shows the real relation between worker and employer, and that what may really be needed is a revolt against the warders, rather than playing the game by their rules.

The limits of this would be that even after a communist revolution, we would still need to work. Attitude may well be all the freedom we can exercise. At least, if one applies oneself to the task of towel-wringing with faith, tenacity, and ingenuity, one will not become a prisoner to oneself, like the inmates of Rooms 2, 3, and 4. In Camus, it’s the inner attitude of defiance that gives Sisyphus his sense of dignity; in Sansom’s “The Long Sheet,” there’s a similar existentialist observation about the human condition.

Next week I will be turning to a story that has obsessed me for a long time: “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945). I could easily turn what I have to see on this story into a series of posts, but I will try to keep it brief.

Self-portrait by Leonora Carrington

Weird #28: “White Rabbit” by Leonora Carrington (1941)

A Leonora Carrington self-portrait (Wikipedia)

Leonora Carrington, a British-Mexican author and artist, is best known for her surrealist paintings and sculptures, but her literary output provides “a tantalizing glimpse of ways that surrealism might have had more influence on the weird tale” (277). Her story “White Rabbits” certainly gives a sense of dread and terror and decay in a “weird” way, while also exploring the violation of taboos in a surrealist way.

According to André Breton in his First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, “surrealism is pure, psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing or in any other way, the true function of thought, thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations” (quote taken from Sufism and Surrealism by Adonis, “Extracts from Surrealist Writing”). Surrealism seeks to liberate the mind and break the taboos imposed on thought by social conventions, in an effort to capture thought in its purest state. Often, this means that surrealist art takes on a dreamlike quality, such as in Carrington’s own paintings.

Weird fiction and surrealism thus seem to be two aesthetic modes that pair extremely well together. Both can be used to question the social constructs that human beings use to regulate and control reality. Both can be used to fog the categories by which we classify objects. Both attempt to describe reality in a piercing way, through a prism that gives a clearer view of reality through its distortion of surface reality.

But what does a surrealist weird tale actually look like? The best way to answer that question would be to read “White Rabbits” itself.

In “White Rabbits,” the narrator moves into a dimly lit home in New York, where she encounters a woman who carries out a dish of bones to feed a flock of ravens, using her long, black hair to wash the dish when they are done. Already, several taboos are broken: the handling of the bones (no word that the bones aren’t human) and the dichotomy between dirty and clean, encapsulated by the washing of the plate with a part of the human body. These suggest the woman does not follow the rules of wider society and, depending on how you understand these behaviours, they might even cast doubt that she is a human being as we understand it.

The narrator and the woman exchange pleasant smiles. Then the woman casually asks the narrator for “decomposed flesh meat” (278). Not sure if the woman is joking at first, the narrator eventually decides to do her new neighbour a favour by buying some meat and letting it go to rot over the course of a week before giving it to her.

When she delivers the meat to the woman in her home, she feeds it to her pets: a group of carnivorous, white rabbits “who fought like wolves for the meat” (278).

Her husband, Lazarus, appears, stating that he is upset that the narrator has been permitted to enter the house. The woman defends her and then suggests that the narrator stay with them, in that house, forever: “In seven years, your skin will be like stars, in seven years you will have the holy disease of the Bible, leprosy!” (279).

The terrified narrator runs away, “choking with horror,” yet unable not to look back as, in one unforgettable image, the woman waves goodbye: “her fingers fell off and dropped to the ground like shooting stars” (279).

These images are charged and cannot help but produce a shudder in the reader. There is something unsettling and uncanny, in particular, about a white rabbit–a peaceful, vegetarian creature–that gorges on rotten meat like a wolf. Though comic images from Monty Python and the Holy Grail came to my mind while reading this story (an association that did not exist in 1942), they did not get much in the way of the raw, unsettling, remorseless way Carrington writes the image. White rabbits also carry certain connotations from Alice in Wonderland: the narrator narrowly avoids tumbling down a rabbit hole into a backwards, bizarre world.

As uncanny as the rabbits are, however, what might be more uncanny about this story is how Carrington twists the casual, neighbourly relationship between the narrator and the leprous woman into something twisted. Part of the process of moving into a new home or apartment is befriending one’s neighbours by doing them small favours. It’s a form of hospitality, a code to follow, and simply one of the kind things people do for one another. Carrington reimagines this relationship as an extreme, grotesque version of itself, rendering the homely unhomely.

The code exists as the artificial construct it is revealed to be, but the normality of it is stripped bare. The neighbour’s request for a piece of rotting meat hints that there is something strange about this relationship. What’s more, the neighbour’s attempt to trap the narrator into their creepy, abject way of life breaks the bond of hospitality completely, an ancient code that in the Western tradition goes back to the Odyssey. The neighbour is a Polyphemus who raises carnivorous bunnies and attempts to trap the narrator in her leprous cavern of a home.

Carrington’s charged images are highly effective, so much so that it leaves me wanting to read more stories like this. Why did surrealism not have a greater effect on weird fiction’s development? The combination of surrealism and the weird is clearly potent, and, in my opinion, is more unsettling than weird fiction that takes on the conventional structures of horror.

A white rabbit
Behold the face of terror. (Wikipedia)

Next week I will be examining Donald Wollheim’s “Mimic” (1942).

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).