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).

Weird #23: “The Town of Cats'” by Hagiwara Sakutarō (1935)

Hagiwara Sakutarō

Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” comes as a slight change of pace. There’s no cosmological horror. No gruesome murders. No existential despair (well, maybe a little), and no ghosts either. There’s a mood of uneasiness, but it’s the uneasiness you feel when you’ve lost your way during a pleasant summer walk.

“The Town of Cats” is Sakutarō’s only short story. The author is known as an innovator of colloquialism and free verse in Japanese poetry, and although I have no acquaintance with the rest of his work, I can guess how “The Town of Cats” might express some of his ideas regarding the poetic imagination. For instance, “The Town of Cats” gives a sense of Sakutarō as a poet with definite metaphysical leanings: “All philosophers must … doff their hats to the poets when they discover that the path of reason only takes them so far. The universe that lies beyond common sense and logic–the universe that is known intuitively to the poet–belongs to the metaphysical” (236).

The narrator of this story is a poet and a drug addict who is currently recovering at a hot springs resort. Every day he takes a walk for his health. However, due to a condition of his inner ear, he has almost no sense of direction. He is even liable to get lost within a few meters of his own home.

One day, he happens upon a cheerful town that seems unreal, projected on a screen. Then he realizes this town is merely his own, familiar neighbourhood, but seen from a perspective where the compass points have all reversed. This change in perspective completely changes the way he imagined this space, leading to him seeing the boring old town in a new way.

All this is setup for his encounter with the Town of Cats. In a nearby town, he hears legends and folktales of two secretive towns: one said to be possessed by dog spirits while the other is possessed by cat spirits. Only a few have ever seen the okura, the spirits’ true form. The narrator does not believe the legends, but listens intently for “anthropological” purposes (235).

However, while on one of his walks, he loses his way and finds himself in a Borgesian “labyrinth of countless paths” (236). Searching for civilization, he stumbles upon a town beyond his wildest dreams: a marvelous town that is a picture-perfect image of a prosperous Japanese town, with a barber shop, photography studio, and an observatory, and plenty of shady, narrow streets. The town has a hushed, tranquil silence, a certain grace and sense of absolute harmony.

The town is described in terms resembling a poem. The narrator says it is “an artificial creation whose existence relied on the subtle attentions of its inhabitants,” just as a poem relies on the subtle attentions of the poet. “It was not just its buildings. The entire system of individual nerves that came together to create its atmosphere was focused on one single, central aesthetic plan” (238). This decadent description of the town reads like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, especially the meticulously designed chambers of Prince Prospero’s mansion in “Masque of the Red Death.” Poe once said that a short story should strive to produce one single effect in the reader, which sounds quite similar to Sakutarō’s insistence that every element in this town contributes to one aesthetic plan. Of course, this leads to the unanswered question of who’s aesthetic plan it is.

However, as with any poem, this rigid form of harmony is delicate and can be easily shattered into a million pieces by a single disruption. The sense of extreme uneasiness the narrator feels is the threat that it could all become undone if so much as one element drops out of place. This “extreme anxiety” causes the “serenity of the town [to] become hushed and uncanny. I felt as if I were unraveling a code to discover some frightening secret” (238). The smell of corpses fills the air. One senses an air of dystopia to this town, where everyone is made to confirm to a perfect ideal of not only aesthetic, but social harmony–an ideal that is impossible to sustain without a revolution threatening the sense of order.

After a sound like a kokyū, the truth of the town is revealed. A black rat appears in the middle of the street and then the universe stops “dead” (239). Cats appear everywhere: in windows, on the street. There are no longer any people in the town, just “cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, and more cats!” (239) This eruption of the underlying, spiritual reality of the town lasts as a brief sense of chaos and mischief–what John Clute might call a Revel (“The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror”).

When he regains his senses, the narrator sees that the town is just the same, boring town with “the same tired, dusty people who live in every country” (239). The narrator remarks that “an entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card had been turned over to reveal its other side” (239). There are other dimensions beyond the one we see every day, and this riddle has haunted the narrator since childhood.

By becoming lost during his walk, he crosses into another dimension and sees the cat spirits rise. Like Zhuangzi, who did not know if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, he does not know which town was the “real” town. All he’s willing to say in the end is that the Town of Cats does exist, that it is not simply the delusion of a drugged poet.

Sakutarō defied the conventions of his time to become a poet of free verse. If the Town of Cats was a poem, it could be one of the meticulously crafted, but rigidly conventional Japanese poetry forms against which he was attempting to rebel. The existential fear felt by the narrator at contemplating the collapse of that perfection was an anxiety that must have haunted his experiments in free verse–a desire to sustain the harmony of form, while knowing such a thing is impossible.

In Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” such aesthetic perfection is desirable, but its static, corpselike lifelessness is all too suggestive of death, its very harmony merely presaging its inevitable collapse. Like Poe, Sakutarō evokes the same decadent sense of aesthetic harmony and lifelessness in his description of the Town of Cats.

Next week, I will be examining Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn” (1936).