Stefan Grabiński

Weird #16: “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński (1921)

Stefan Grabiński

Since the Witcher film and video games came out, and since Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of monster-hunting dark fantasy novels were translated, English-speaking North Americans have been introduced to whole slews of new fantastical creatures from Polish folklore. These creatures include many that might have been unfamiliar to readers of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Even Jorge Luis Borges seems to have missed accounting for many of them in his Book of Imaginary Beings.

In Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, for instance, readers were introduced to strange creatures such as the kikimora, amphisboena, and mecopteran, alongside more familiar entities from European folklore, such as nymphs, rusalkas, strigas, chimeras, and dryads. (Some Eastern European monsters also appear in The Bone Mother by David Demchuk.) However, “The White Wyrak” by Stefan Grabiński adds one more for the books. Described as “the Polish Poe,” Grabiński introduced me to the wyrak, a creature described as being a cross between a monkey and a frog.

The Gollum-like Philippine tarsier, or Wyrak upiorny in Polish

I’m always pleased to have the opportunity to expand my Pokédex of imaginary creatures. It is difficult to find more information on the wyrak online, but a quick search does reveal two things: 1) wyrak in Polish means “mistake” (Google translate); and 2) it is also a Polish name for the tarsier, a very real creature who astonishingly matches its half-mammal, half-amphibian description.

Much weird fiction demands the reader’s effort in reconciling contradictory descriptions (such as the half-vegetable, half-animal shoggoths In the Mountains of Madness), in order to suggest the impossibility of imagining a particular creature. Sometimes creatures are described as liminal, straddling two categories, in order to suggest the arbitrariness (perhaps even the “wryak-ness,” or mistakenness, if wyrak means “mistake”) of our own scientific categories. When Polish naturalists encountered the Southeast Asian tarsier, they must have instantly recognized it as a creature from their own folklore.

However, the wyrak in “The White Wyrak” doesn’t climb trees; he climbs chimneys. The story is narrated by a young journeyman chimneysweeper who works for his master, Kalina, a jack-of-all-trades and devotee of Saint Florian who likes to tell tale tales. One of those tall tales seems to come to life one day, when they encounter the wyrak after two of the younger journeymen, Antarek and Biedron, go mysteriously missing on a routine chimney-sweeping job at an abandoned brewery.

The brewery was abandoned when the last brewer went bankrupt and hanged himself. As Kalina explains, “The boilers and machines are supposed to be evil. They’re of an old system. No one wants to take the financial risk of replacing it with a new one” (150). The risk involved in investing the capital necessary to replace the machinery means the place has remained abandoned long enough for the man-eating wyrak to take up residence in the chimney. Realistic details like these make the presence of a monster believable. Even if we don’t believe in the monster, we can at least believe in the severity of debt, which also eats men alive.

Kalina is wise in the ways of the world and the chimney sweeper’s craft. But it is hinted that his knowledge extends beyond the ordinary. He warns the narrator, saying, “Soot is treacherous, my boy, soot lays dormant inside dark smoke chambers and stuffy furnaces, and it lies in weight–for an opportunity. Something vindictive resides in soot, something evil lurks there. You never know what will emerge from it, or when” (150). Even if you don’t believe in monsters, Kalina offers sage advice. His profession is founded on the necessity of chimney sweeping due to the danger that accumulated soot can spontaneously ignite if it isn’t cleaned regularly. In a way, the wryak is the perfect metaphor for the very real, mundane danger of fire risks.

To tackle the chimney, Kalina drops a ball on a rope from the roof, while the narrator climbs up from the bottom. In the middle of the chimney, they see the “huge, owlish yellow eyes” of the wyrak as it holds “in his front claws what seemed like a human arm, which hung limply from a corpse” (151). The remains of the young apprentices are discovered, and the narrator hits the wyrak with a hatchet, slaying it. As it dies, they attempt to retrieve the creature’s body, but it dissolves into a “small milk-white substance,” becoming nothing more than a pile of soot as it exits the chimney (152). The monster leaves Kalina and the narrator with a bizarre case of white pimples due to their contact with the monster, but these soon disappear.

“The White Wyrak” contains a tidy resolution: the monster is slain. The supernatural strangeness disappears nearly as soon as the corpse exits the chimney. In this respect, and in terms of the sober realism with which he writes, Grabiński is most unlike Poe and Lovecraft, to whom he is also compared. The characters act rationally (at least in this story) and deal matter-of-factly with the presence of a wyrak. The story’s realism includes specific details of the chimney sweepers’ profession, such as their tools and even gems like his description of the “layers of easily flammable ‘enamel’ [that] glowed with a cold metallic luster” in the chimney (151). Though the chimneysweepers may be shaking in their boots, from the cool sobriety with which they approach the problem, one might think they were merely cleaning out a routine accumulation of soot.

As a weird tale, “The White Wyrak” has a tidy resolution, unlike more disturbing weird tales where uneasiness lingers long after the tragic story is “resolved.” However, perhaps we should not be lulled by the chimney sweepers’ rationalism. After all, Kalina’s apprentice is now aware that his master’s tall tales have a firm basis in reality. He, like the reader, has learned that the world is inhabited by monsters in its interstitial spaces, leaving unanswered the question of how many more monsters are out there, hiding in our ordinary world.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The Night Wire” (1926) by the American pulp fiction writer H. F. Arnold.

Franz Kafka

Weird #15: “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (1919)

“In the Penal Colony” (translated by Ian Johnston) was an interesting choice to include in The Weird. The obvious Franz Kafka story to include would have been The Metamorphosis (included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Classic Fantasy), which is certainly weird and alienating in the way much weird fiction is, including that of Alfred Kubin, which Kafka’s writer’s group influenced. But perhaps The Metamorphosis would have been too obvious a choice. Which begs the question: What exactly makes “In the Penal Colony” a better choice for this anthology?

The editors state that “the story’s reliance on strange ritual and its luminous clarity are grounded in a modernity that … represented a new approach to weird fiction” (133). Where the supernatural was a central aspect of the weird tale in earlier writers, Kafka has no concern with the past or its superstitions. Instead, it is grounded firmly the mechanistic horror of modernity, the “strange ritual” of which, while not occult, does tend to release humanity’s seemingly innate barbarism.

The elaborate torture device at the centre of the story, through its level of detail, becomes immense, becoming a symbol for more than the brutal task it is meant to accomplish. In fact, the story can be interpreted as an allegory for the cruelty exacted in modern society under the name of justice, and the tendency of good-meaning people to passively tolerate it.

It throws up a host of associations, from the punishing justice systems in the European colonies of the time to the cruelty of Nazi Germany. In contemporary society, it speaks to debates about the death penalty and torture. It can also read as an allegory of how cruelty is enacted and tolerated in prisons, the justice system, and police force, particularly as it affects BIPOCs.

Franz Kafka

The story is about an Explorer who who is invited to the penal colony by the Commandant. There he receives a guided tour of the torture apparatus by the Officer, an old man who has been maintaining and running the machine for years. The machine itself is composed of three parts: the Bed, the Inscriber, and the Harrow, the purpose of which is to lower the tips of needles onto the body and carry out the execution.

The Condemned is fitted into the Bed of the machine, where he is strapped down. Responding to the Explorer’s questions, the Officer explains that the Condemned Man has not been told his own sentence. “It would be useless to give him that information,” says the Officer. “He experiences it on his own body” (136). Indeed, the Inscriber marks the bodies of the criminals with the name of their crime. This exotic form of torture certainly pegs the story as weird, much as the torture in Georg Heym’s “The Dissection” (1913).

The Officer describes his method of ascertaining the man’s guilt:

Guilt is always beyond a doubt. […] If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so on. But now I have him and I won’t release him again.

(136)

This is not “guilty before being proven innocent.” The Officer’s idea of justice is “guilty.” Period. The Officer’s sense of justice is a travesty, and closer to fascism than anything else.

The Officer explains the man was instructed to stand watch and salute his captain on the hour. However, the captain apparently complained that when the man was to salute at two o’clock, he had fallen asleep. The Officer believes the captain’s testimony, calling it “the facts” (136). He doesn’t have to hear anything more, taking the testimony of the captain at face value, without hearing the Condemned’s story.

This reminds me of how Black victims of police shootings are so often presumed to be guilty, or violent, when police are called to respond to a crisis or a disturbance. In such altercations, efforts are rarely, if ever, made to learn both sides of the story. Perhaps the stories are heard eventually, but only long after the Black victim has been needlessly killed. The Officer represents this tendency to take the complaint at face value and use it as an excuse to perpetrate cruel, unnecessary violence in the name of “justice.” Though Kafka’s story was published in 1919, he anticipated not only the injustices of the Nazis but described the dynamics of injustice that still persist in North American society after hundreds of years.

The Explorer, a foreigner in the penal colony, believes that “the injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond a doubt” (139). However, he finds that actually taking action to destroy the machine that inflicts such unjust suffering is precarious. He reflects on his status as an outsider, saying, “It is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. If he wanted to condemn this execution, or even hinder it, people would say to him: You are a foreigner–keep quiet” (139). Non-intervention keeps him from taking decisive action.

Franz Kafka statue (Prague)

Furthermore, the Officer has his own designs. He gives the Explorer a long speech about the machine has seen better days–it has a squeaky wheel, and replacement parts are hard to come by. He waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the old Commander himself would officiate at the executions and crowds of people would gather to see it. And he complains about the current Commander, who he senses is slowly trying to undermine him with the goal of eventually getting rid of the machine. In fact, the Commander may have invited the Explorer to the colony for the very purpose of asking his opinion on the island’s particular customs regarding executions. In short, if the Explorer were to help the Officer and voice his favourable opinion of the machine during a public meeting with the Commander, he would be doing him a favour.

To do so, it would be necessary is for the Explorer to hide his true opinions, before speaking his unshakeable opinion during the meeting. The Officer essentially grooms him to speak like a politician:

Unless someone asks you directly, you should not express any view whatsoever. But what you do say must be short and vague. People should notice that it has become difficult for you to speak about the subject, that you feel bitter, that, if you were to speak openly, you’d have to burst out cursing on the spot. I’m not asking you to lie, not at all. You should give only brief answers — something like, “Yes, I’ve seen the execution” or “Yes, I’ve heard the full explanation.” […] Naturally, [the Commandant] will completely misunderstand the issue and interpret it in his own way.

(142)

The Officer’s instructions are a precise description of how politicians speak complacently about problematic, unjust policies. Rather than risk alienating voters who may approve of such policies, politicians, even those who wish to reform, often speak meaninglessly on the issue, cloaking their own opinion, and they do so in term such as the Officer has just described. This vague language enables the injustice to persist.

The Officer then ask the Explorer to voice his approval of the machine during the meeting with the Commandant. But in the end, the Explorer says, “No” (145). He says that he will be leaving the penal colony on the boat the next day. In the end, his desire not to get caught up in the colony’s affairs outweighs his desire to take action.

The Officer puts on a smile, but inside, he knows his bid has been ruined. Unexpectedly, he frees the Condemned from the machine. Then he strips naked, breaking his sabre in half and throwing it into a cesspit. Lying down on the Bed of the machine, he kicks the lever to begin the torture, setting the machine upon himself. As it spins into motion, the machine begins to fall apart, with gear wheels falling out of the Inscriber. Needles stab his body, killing him plain and simple. In the end, “his gaze was calm and convinced [and] the tip of a large iron needle had gone through his forehead” (147).

The Officer’s condemnation of himself and freeing the prisoner is striking, and the Condemned is obviously confused by this reversal. I believe the Officer dies because he has seen that the time of his torture machine is at an end. The Officer was simply holding true to his own absolutist idea of justice and applying the same law that he had applied upon the Condemned on himself. Rather than dismantle the model of justice he believes in, he, like Javert in Les Misérables, commits suicide rather than question the worldview by which he has lived.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “The White Wyrack” (1921) by the demonologist and Polish weird fiction author Stefan Grabiński, sometimes known as the Polish Poe. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m wondering if in Gabriński we won’t see a kind of precedent for Andrzej Sapkowski and his Witcher books.