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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Bloch (Wikipedia)

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

Black and white photo of author Shirley Jackson

Weird #34: “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson (1950)

Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” may be the subtlest weird tale in the VanderMeer anthology yet. It reads like a low-stakes story about an older couple, the Allisons, deciding to stay on after Labour Day at their summer home in the country. However, it develops a subtle undercurrent of dread that sharpens into horror.

Most readers know Jackson from “The Lottery,” a mainstay of high school curriculums, or The Haunting of Hill House, which is considered “one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century” (311) and was loosely adapted into a Netflix special.

Jackson is a master of horror, but it’s also worth noting that she was equally skilled at writing women’s fiction–two aspects of her style that are related.

These stories, many of which are about friendships between women, use precise details of domestic life that add material realism to her fiction. Her dialogue captures the way women and men spoke in the 1950s, while her subtext often reveals the social and psychological pressures to which women were often subjected. Even in stories that have no trace of horror in them, her interest in the fears that many women experience is apparent.

These stories appeared in the New Yorker and the New Republic but also in venues such as The Women’s Home Companion and Mademoiselle. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Women’s Home Companion became more focused on lifestyle articles than short stories after the war, perhaps reflecting a broader cultural shift away from short stories–something also seen in the failure of genre fiction pulp magazines around this time–in favour of more marketable (and less thoughtful) nonfiction lifestyle articles for baby boomers.

A 1940s cover from The Women’s Home Companion. “The Summer People” was originally published in Charm.

Honing her skill for realism in these literary markets, Jackson would use her talents to craft the uncanny effects in the horror fiction for which she is known.

For Freud, the word “uncanny” is “unheimlich” or un-homely. It is a feeling of anxiety that emerges when something strange appears in a familiar setting, or when something familiar appears in a strange setting. To borrow an example that Nino Cipri used in a horror workshop last year, think of a staircase in the middle of a forest–where does it lead? The familiarity of the staircase is incongruous in the strangeness of a forest. Such decontextualized objects allow us to project our own fears and fantasies onto them.

It is also possible for strange things to happen in a familiar setting, which is why haunted houses can be so disturbing. The very familiarity of a house is what makes it so shocking that something bizarre or subtly menacing can happen inside it. Broadly, this tension between familiar and strange is where the power of Jackson’s horror fiction lies. And this is as true of The Haunting of Hill House as it is of “The Summer People.”

The Allisons are an older couple, New Yorkers who summer in the country and “invariably [leave] their summer cottage the Tuesday after Labor Day” (311). However, this year they break routine, deciding to stay at their cottage past Labour Day to take advantage of the good weather in October.

It’s an innocent enough start. But as in so many other weird tales and horror stories, it’s this break in habit, this violation of a taboo, this modest display of nonconformity that will result in punishment.

When the Allisons announce their plans to stay and go about procuring kerosene and other essential goods for their cottage, the country folk they encounter express surprise that “nobody ever stayed at the lake past Labor Day before” (312). The phrase is repeated several times throughout the story, a refrain used by the villagers that adds ominousness to this particular holiday, this threshold of the seasons that must not be crossed.

Mrs. Allison optimistically says they’re going to “give it a try” but one local, Mr. Babcock, grimly replies, “Never known til you try” (312). The grave tone he use gives the statement a sense of warning.

John Clute in The Darkening Garden says that “horror is that category of stories set in worlds that are false until the tale is told.” The raw, undisguised truth of the world’s horror is revealed at the story’s end. Babcock is suggesting that if the couple stays, then they will see this terrible truth for themselves.

However, since the couple does not take Babcock’s words as a warning, the Allisons decide to remain in the country. Trouble begins to upset the Allisons when their kerosene supplier says he won’t be able to deliver to their house after Labour Day because his son, who usually does the deliveries, has to go back to school. “You never been here after Labor Day before, so’s you wouldn’t know, of course,” he says (315).

But minor inconveniences like these become bigger frustrations when Mr. Allison’s car breaks down. Also, to add atmosphere to the creeping sense of dread, a thunderstorm begins to slowly move in, the sky “smiling indifferently down on the Allison’s summer cottage” (317). There’s almost a sense of cosmic horror in the image–a thin mask of benevolence covers up the essential indifference of natural world towards human kind. It’s a quick, quiet image, but it arguably draws on a similar alienating vision of humankind’s small place in the cosmos as Lovecraft draws in his fiction.

One moment of uncanniness occurs when the couple receives a long-awaited, dutiful letter from their son. The couple are very familiar with his handwriting and letter writing style, but when Mrs. Allison reads the letter, she says it reads strangely: it just doesn’t sound like her son’s writing. She can’t explain why, but she just feels that it was not written by him. “Did some kind of doppelganger write it?”, the reader is left to ask.

Soon, the couple find themselves truly isolated, when their cottage’s wall-mounted phone goes dead. The storm delays its arrival “as though in loving anticipation of the moment it would break over the summer cottage” (317). The Allisons huddle up together in their house listening to a New York station on their radio: “Even the announcer, speaking glowingly of the virtues of razor blades, was no more than an inhuman voice sounding out from the Allison’s cottage and echoing back, as though the lake and the hills and the trees were returning it unwanted” (317). The familiar, modern sounds of radio are rendered strange and alien in the natural landscape of the country. The passage suggests that there are two worlds, the country and the city, and that the country is indifferent to the aspects of the city that the Allisons have brought with them.

Finally, Jackson masterfully reveals a subtext that readers were not aware existed before, when Mr. Allison says, “The car had been tampered with, you know. Even I can see that” (317). Mrs. Allison is quick to realize the phone line must’ve been cut as well (317). The realization that these apparently accidental failures have human intention behind them is the Truth that announces the end of the story. Mrs. Allison realizes she’d known the villagers were out to get them ever since she “saw the light down at the Hall place last night,” referring to their closest neighbours (318).

The story ends with the old couple huddling close together against the storm, unable to act, only waiting for the unspeakable to happen.

The open ending permits several readings. First, it is still possible that the couple only imagined that the car and phone lined had been intentionally tampered with. In this case, the threat is only in their mind, triggered by the anxiety and friction that follows their decision to break from their familiar routine. Second, the villagers could have only been playing pranks on the city folk–tampering with their car and phone line but not exactly conspiring to commit murder. Third, the villagers may be out to kill the Allisons. Possibly, their house will be lit on fire using the kerosene that the kerosene man refused to sell them. Or maybe the Halls will stone them while they’re lying in bed, in a callback to “The Lottery.”

However, in a sense, these endings are irrelevant to the story itself–that’s why Jackson leaves the ending open. The story ends before any one of these possibilities happens because (in keeping with Clute), once the Allisons realize the truth, it is no longer possible for the story to continue because the full horror of their reality has already been recognized. The horror is not in what might physically happen to them (if they are destined to meet a violent death) but about their gradual realization of the truth.

the beauty of this story is in its understatement. It’s a story that invites you to imagine the ending in your own way. It also lends itself to several re-readings, to searching the story multiple times for any missed subtext. It may be a quiet story, but the dread nonetheless leads to a shocking end.

Shirley Jackson, author of “The Summer People”

Next week, I will be writing about Margaret St. Clair’s “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951).

Weird #22: “Genius Loci'” by Clark Ashton Smith (1933)

Clark Ashton Smith

“Genius Loci” by Clark Ashton Smith is a striking inclusion in this weird fiction anthology. It is a much simpler, quieter story than Smith’s more famous pulp fantasy adventures. A significant influence on Lovecraft, Smith may be best known for his highly wrought prose style and his fantastic short stories and poems about vanished continents and civilizations.

I first grew acquainted with Smith by reading the The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, a Penguin Classics book. I picked it up in Toronto when I presented on my Master’s thesis for the Academic Conference for Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy (ACCSFF) in 2019. During the same trip, I also had the chance to glimpse Clark’s artworks in a book held by the Toronto Public Library in the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. Smith’s interests in painting and poetry certainly come through in “Genius Loci.”

Though it can be easy to criticize Smith’s artworks as amateurish and his prose as overwrought, some of his artworks and short stories (especially his poetry and prose poems) do more than tell a story: they conjure a specific mood that Lovecraft considered essential to the weird tale. “Genius Loci” does this but on a much quieter scale than his other works.

Like so many of the preceding stories, this is also a survivor’s tale told by the narrator, who is a writer living in the countryside with Amberville, a renowned painter. Amberville becomes fascinated with a particular spot in the landscape that seems to ooze with an undefinable sense of menace and evil. The painter is both attracted to, and repulsed by, the dreadfulness of the bony, dead willow growing above a stinking, scummy pool. “The spot is evil–it is unholy in a way that I simply can’t describe,” says Amberville (223). Yet, the spot takes over his mind. The painter can soon think of little else than visually and artistically pinning down exactly what gives the site its awful appearance.

A genius loci, Latin for “spirit of a place,” was considered the guardian of a place in Roman religion (Wikipedia). In modern architecture, it refers to the concept of that un-nameable quality that gives a building its unique feeling. In a sense, it is a personification of a place. The habit of seeing an inanimate setting as having human features recalls pareidolia: the mind’s habit of seeing human faces in non-human objects.

Do you see the twisted, horrific faces?

Initially at least, this seems to be what Amberville has experienced in this particular spot on the Chapman estate. When describing his composition, he says he was “impressed immediately by a profound horror that lurked in these simple elements and was expressed by them as if by the balefully contorted features of some demoniac face … The evil conveyed was something wholly outside humanity–more ancient than man” (224). Later on, he remarks that the Genius Loci “has the air of a thirsty vampire, waiting to drink me in somehow, if it can” (226).

Why is it that seeing faces in of animate things can create such a disturbing sense of horror? It may have something to do with the fact we are inherently disturbed to see faces in things in which we do not expect to see them.

This spotting of the familiar in the unfamiliar Freud called unheimlich–unhomely–which in English is often translated as “uncanny.” The uncanny can serve to explain why we feel uncomfortable when we see a staircase in the middle of the forest, or see a face in a piece of wood. But in my opinion, the uncanny alone cannot explain the specific sense of dread and menace that Amberville sees on the Chapman property. For example, a benevolent Genius Loci would still be uncanny. So what can account for the overpowering sense of evil?

A suggestion of what might be at work here, and in a great deal of other weird fiction, can be found in Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject.

Julia Kristeva

In Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection, Kristeva’s opening paragraph describes the abject, a term whose relevance to weird fiction should be apparent:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection, 1

Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” describes the weird tale as requiring an “unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” which in light of Kristeva, actually maps well onto the abject as she describes it above (“a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable”). The painter in “Genius Loci” is seduced by the malignant, outside force of the landscape he desires to paint; in addition, there is also a powerful urge or necessity to resist seduction and resist the evil.

Indeed, Chapman’s grove could be said to be “an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned.” The painter is both repulsed and summoned by the Genius Loci, as many weird tale protagonists have been, from Ewers’s “The Spider” to Merritt’s “People of the Pit.” And like the fates of Bracquemont and Stanton, whose desires are only satisfied in death, the painter is drawn towards the Genius Loci as a moth to a flame, where he drowns in the stagnant pond, becoming part of the haunting landscape himself, where his presence continues to haunt the narrator of the tale after death.

Since the abject is a useful term that I may be returning to in future posts, I should write a little more about it here. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the abject is defined as “what the subject’s consciousness has to expel or disregard in order to create the proper separation between subject and object” (2069). The abject remains unconsciously desired, but is transformed into something filthy and disgusting in an act of repression. For example, “both matter and mother are abjects for the fantasy of self-creation” (2069). In establishing any identity, there must be a thing rejected because it is seen as filthy or evil.

The abject often manifests when this separation between self and other breaks down in moments of horror. Horror fiction is often based on the violation of boundaries and taboos: the boundaries between the human and the material, the human and the animal, the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, and the self and other. According to Wikipedia, for Kristeva,

the abject […] is used to refer to the human reaction (horrorvomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, or between the self and the other.

Powers of Horror, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Powers_of_Horror&oldid=995069481

This breakdown occurs in “Genius Loci” when Amberville sees the face of Chapman, an old man, in the branches of the dead willow. The reason this pareidolia produces such revulsion in Amberville is thus not only because he’s “seeing things” that aren’t there but because he has witnessed that the division between a human being and the material world has dissolved. This has implications for his own humanity, since if another human being could become so transfigured by the vampiric glade, then he can be transformed too.

Seeing a dead body produces a similar feeling in us. We see the stiffness of the body and recognize the fact that it is made of matter as material as grave dirt. Then we realize that we ourselves also inhabit a body, which is, in reality, just as material as the dead one. For most of our lives, we repress this reality and express our revulsion of the body, especially the dead body, because we will also cease to exist except as a material body. Belief in the eternal soul is a symbolic belief that rejects the permanence of the body as abject–but when you look a dead body, you become aware that there’s not so much difference between the dead body and you, whatever your beliefs about the soul.

However, having an abject is necessary to maintain our functionality and perhaps our sanity as well. Arguably, it is the abject that keeps us sane, because it instills the human mind with “the inability … to correlate all its contents” (Lovecraft “The Call of Cthulhu”). In a way, one aspect that makes the followers of Cthulhu insane is their contact with the Real–what Lovecraft identified with the true, cosmic scale of the universe, terrifying in its vastness.

To return to “Genius Loci,” if Amberville notices that there is now no difference between Chapman and the landscape, then it could mean there is no difference between himself and the landscape either, except on a symbolic (not “Real”) level. He sees the landscape as evil because it is an abject for him, so that he can retain his own sense of self. However, as an abject, the Genius Loci is also unconsciously desired, leading to the back-and-forth repulsion and attraction that draws the painter inexorably nearer to the landscape and to his death.

As I read more and more weird fiction, the more I’m noticing that this pattern seems to be a key dynamic of the genre.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” (1935).

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.

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.