Georg Heym

Weird #8: “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913)

“The dead man lay alone and naked on a white cloth in a wide room, surrounded by depressing white walls, in the cruel sobriety of a dissection room that seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.”

So begins the bleak tale of “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), a German poet and playwright who foresaw his own drowning death in a dream. Heym was a critic of romanticism and industrialism. His refusal of modernity’s optimism comes through in “The Dissection,” through its exquisitely detailed body horror and unflinching irony.

Georg Heym, author of “The Dissection”

The story, to some extent, reads like a Saw film, save for the poetic sensibility that elevates it. Some of the best lines include his body being compared to “some gigantic flower, a mysterious plant from Indian primeval forests that someone had shyly laid at the altar of death.” The cold urine of his punctured bladder glistens “like yellow wine.” The instruments of the doctors are “like vultures’ crooked beaks forever screaming for flesh.” A dissection has never been described in such rich horror.

It seemed to me a little too rich at times, but the worst part of the horror is arguably understated. It comes down to a single word: the doctors are described as “friendly men.” In other words, they were not the sort of people you could point to and say, “That’s a villain.” They were sociable people, like you and me, performing a horrible experiment motivated by nothing more than simple curiosity about the human body.

Heym died before the First World War. But if he had lived to see the Second World War and the rise of Nazi Germany, he may have heard reports of medical experiments like this in the concentration camps and recognized that his story had anticipated the worst depredations of the twentieth century. The fact the doctors in his story are “friendly” men reminds me of the observation made by Hannah Arendt and others that most Nazis were ordinary folks who passively decided to “just follow orders.” The Nazis were like the doctors in this story–“friendly men” who perpetrated war crimes.

Heym’s story also criticizes a wider trend in modernity. He indicts Enlightenment science’s drive to section up and divide, split apart, dissect, and, ultimately, destroy what it studies. In short, he critiques science’s blindness to the human consequences of knowledge gathering.

Archaeology, which as a discipline was founded on colonialist forms of knowledge, is a prime example of this. In archaeology, knowledge is produced by destruction, in the same way that medical knowledge is produced by dissection. Digging a trench to excavate artefacts destroys the context in which the artefacts were found. But at the same time, that destruction is necessary for the production of knowledge. This may be less true today, with radar and remote imaging techniques. But traditional archaeological techniques involve a dissection of the soil which results in the destruction of sites considered important to living societies who derive their cultural identity from them. In short, archaeological knowledge gathering has human consequences, even if the archaeologists are blind to them.

In “The Dissection,” Heym’s critique of science’s ethics is accompanied by a critique of romanticism. Eventually, the man being tortured escapes the horror of his situation in a vivid dream of his beloved. “I’ll see you again tomorrow. Here, under the window of the chapel, here, where the light of the candles falls about you,” runs his stream of consciousness. The passage appears at first to embody the Romantic idea that the mind and imagination can be a refuge against the travesties of the material world.

But then comes bitter irony. At the moment the man has this dream, the doctors take hammers and chisels to his brain, splitting apart the very organ that produces consciousness. The man dies quivering in happiness as “the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple.”

The scientists cannot learn the mechanism of the body which produces the mind without killing what they want to study. In the end, the mind is no refuge; it is dependent on the body. A romantic escape from the mechanistic realities of the modern world is impossible, or, at best, a temporary dream, a deceitful illusion.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915), yet another bleak, German weird tale, this time about a series of mysteriously linked suicides. (Here’s hoping the stories stay weird but cheer up a little in the future.)

Masquerade, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Weird #7: “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Mayrink (1912)

Gustav Mayrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” is a short, decadent tale. It takes place at a masqued ball in the court of a Persian prince, Mohammed Darasche-Koh, who is gravely jealous of the Count de Faast for the hand of a beautiful princess.

Due to its decadent literary influences, and its preoccupation with themes of surface and concealment, I feel like this story can be best described visually. Were this story to be produced for the screen, it would be a contender for the Oscar for Best Costume Design for sheer extravagance. And if animated in the classic, shadowy style of the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley–who is directly referenced as an influence in the text–it would win for Best Animated Feature.

Masquerade by Aubrey Beardsley, cover design for The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894

At the centre of this story is a marionette show staring the Persian prince, the Count de Faast, and the princess together–a production designed by the jealous Prince himself. The Count is placed in a thick glass bottle, alone, while the Prince sits cross-legged above it. What follows is a prime literary example of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” in which the cruelty becomes genuine, no longer an act.

In short (spoilers ahead), the masquers watch the Count’s real distress as he slowly suffocates to death for lack of air in front of their very eyes. The masquers are unable to tell where the Count’s part in the “Man in the Bottle” marionette show ends and where his genuine panic begins. In effect, the Count’s panic and subsequent death is the evening’s entertainment.

Only at the end of the play, when the princess as “The Lady in the Sedan Chair” finally appears before the audience, do the masquers fully realize the “nameless horror” of what they witnessed (74). In short, the Prince plays the audience and actors like marionettes, executing the perfect vengeance.

This story appeared to me, on a first read, to be witty, decadent, and highly aesthetic in a way that seemed difficult to write about. However, when during my second read, I was reminded of Artaud, I started to see how this story has continuous relevance today, when we think about cruelty and spectacle in the news we consume.

I’m not well-versed in Artaud. But to me, “The Man in the Bottle” suggests that cruelty to another human being becomes normalized when it becomes part of a spectacle. People are uncertain whether they should intervene in a crisis, because the cruelty becomes perceived as part of the “act.” Only when the “mask” of performance comes loose does the full scale of the cruelty become apparent to the audience.

It got me thinking about the idea of “entertainment media” and how certain news shows play up real acts of cruelty as spectacles of entertainment. It also got me thinking about how some people tried to console themselves in 2016 by joking that Donald Trump’s election run was just an art project, as if that could make his boorishness and cruelty more tolerable or normal.

When cruelty is represented as a spectacle in the media, it becomes socially normalized. At what point do we cease to perceive the news as representing the suffering of real people, and at which point do we start viewing the news primarily as a spectacle, seemingly divorced from human suffering?

The masquers watch the Count de Faast slowly suffocate for lack of air, thinking it is part of an elaborate stage production. The times being what they are, I cannot ignore the parallel between this method of execution and the suffocating chokehold placed on George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. People who continue to deny systemic racism exists seem to me to be an awful lot like the masquers, in how they may prefer to think of police brutality as some sort of illusion–not that they deny police brutality happens, but that they prefer to deny the systemic nature of it. In treating systemic racism as an elaborate masque, they, through their inaction, tolerate and enable the cruelty perpetrated before their very eyes.

I would like to think that most people regard the suffering of black people at the hands of the police with a more morally engaged and empathetic attitude than the frivolous masquers regard the Count. However, it would be foolish to ignore the wider point this story is making about the cruelty of human nature. The message of “The Man in the Bottle” could be taken as a cautionary tale not to let spectacle and illusion blind us to the inhumane cruelty happening before our eyes. But the tale also seems to suggest something darker and more indicting–that such spectacles of cruelty are a fundamental aspect of our experience of modernity in the first place.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Next week, I will be reading “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), which, as I am sure you can imagine from the title, is a charming, happy-go-lucky story of love and loss with no body horror whatsoever.

Weird #6: “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” by Lord Dunsany (1912)

The sixth entry in my Archaeology of Weird Fiction challenge is a classic weird tale by the fantasist Lord Dunsany, a story about the violation of the property taboo.

In “How Nuth Would have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles,” Dunsany tells a story about an aristocratic thief, Mr. Nuth. Though a businessman, Mr. Nuth’s tastes are highly refined and his service has no need of advertising. Given his unique status and skill set, he is set apart from the crowd as he steals tapestries and jewelry for his clients, who are envious of their neighbours’ country houses. He is more silent than a shadow.

One day, to challenge himself, the genius thief plans to heist the house of the gnoles, which has never been attempted by a thief before. And if you noticed the future conditional in the title of this weird tale, you probably realized he does not succeed.

Book cover of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
This post is part of the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Challenge

Lord Dunsany is a master stylist, and is enjoyable to listen to out loud. His sentences are perfectly paced to deliver the drama and suspense of Nuth’s approach to the gnoles’ house with his apprentice, Tonker. So much of the feeling of strangeness that this story produces is a result of the language he uses to describe the approach.

The description of the heist calls to my mind the approach to the Peruvian temple in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a weird tale author, Dunsany may well have influenced the pulp traditions that inspired Indiana Jones. Tonker and Nuth see an “early Georgian poacher nailed to a door in an oak tree,” while Tonker steps “heavily on a hard, dry stick, after which they both lay still for twenty minutes” (70). These points of tension ratchet the suspense higher, much like discovering the freshly poisoned arrows hints at danger in Indiana Jones.

These details fill the atmosphere of the story with a sense of intrusion and foreboding. Not only are the thieves intruding on the gnoles, but the weird is intruding on mundane reality. Dunsany expresses this in his description of the silence:

And the moment that Tonker touched the whithered boards, the silence that, though ominous, was earthly, became unearthly like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath offending against that silence …

70

The sense that something wrong has happened is tangible–and the punishment follows. It is significant that the moment Tonker breaks the taboo on property is the moment the unearthly intrudes. The intruder becomes the one being intruded upon, serving as a warning to other thieves.

Buried beneath this is a hint as to Lord Dunsany’s politics. At one point, his narrator says, “It must not be thought that I am a friend of Nuth’s; on the contrary such politics as I have are on the side of Property” (68). Indeed, though it uses ‘weird’ imagery to indulge in the fantasy of the violation of property, this story can be read as reconfirming the aristocracy’s right to private property.

After all, Mr. Nuth’s aristocratic privilege allows him to escape the dark fate of Tonker, his working-class apprentice. “Nobody ever catches Nuth,” the narrator says. His genius places him above punishment as he lets his apprentice take the fall for his own overreaching ambition; the fantasy of the tasteful, aristocratic thief is allowed to continue beyond the pages of the story.

In short, this story is an enchanting heist caper that can also be read as a window into the fantasies of the aristocracy to which Lord Dunsany belonged. It affirms the right of the aristocracy to private property, while at the same time indulging in a little escapism through a story that enables the audience to vicariously experience the violation of the property taboo as well.

City of the Shrieking Tomb by Patrick A. Rogers

I’ve recently started reading up on my Indian history to fill the immense, gaping holes in my knowledge. Most notably, I’ve read India: A History by John Keay. I am also listening intently to Kit Patrick’s History of India podcast, each of which have helped me learn the broad strokes of the subcontinent’s past.

It’s been a journey and a process. I may be slowly beginning to recognize names and references to Indian history, but I’m a long way from knowing it as well as European history.

The process of acquiring this knowledge has been challenging. While my stereotypes of European history make the general course of European history easier to remember, I only have a few points of reference for Indian history. For example, I have a stereotypical image of what Venice might have been like in the Renaissance, or Paris in the nineteenth century. But I can’t say the same for ancient Pataliputra or Taxila. The closest I get is Delhi and Agra under the Mughals.

While my unfamiliarity with Indian history has begun to change as my knowledge increases, sometimes I still feel like a clueless tourist, even though I’ve come to recognize names like Chandragupta Maurya and Muhammad of Ghor.

I’m still oblivious to the unspoken associations between events, the episodes that give colour to dry historical chronicles. I feel as if I’m missing out on some crucial context. But, knowing that I’m a visitor to these lands, I try to take it all in stride.

City of the Shrieking Tomb by Patrick Rogers provides a bit of colour—even if those colours are dark, crimson, and rotten. This horror tale takes the reader to a tiny pocket of India that has generally not made it into the history books. Reading it made me feel as if I was seeing something that, as a tourist, I was not meant to see. In fact, it was as if I’d been expressly forbidden from seeing it.

There is a dearth of information on the internet about the village of Humayunpur in Karnataka, the setting of this atmospheric horror novel. Google searches for Humayanpur do not turn it up (at least not that I could find), although there is a Humayunpur in the Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi. There is no Wikipedia page for Sultan Humayun Karabakh either, the tyrant of the village whose tomb at night shrieks with the cries of the doomed.

However, this lack of knowledge may not be surprising, considering the exceptionally forbidding atmosphere that clouds the village, and the villagers’ suspicion towards outsiders who might spread knowledge of the curse to the outside world.


Taj Mahal, Agra
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Persian_culture

City of the Shrieking Tomb follows the footsteps of Rick, a clumsy, dense westerner with a camera. He is, in fact, a professional photographer who finds himself stranded one day at a bus depot in Karnataka. Rick feels like the only foreigner in all the city of Gulbarga. Exhausted from the heat, desperate for a bus to Bihar, and wanting nothing more than to watch Hindi-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants at his air conditioned hotel in Hyderabad, he is frustrated and tired, ready to give up his quest to take pictures of Islamic architecture for a photography book.

There’s a certain bewildered clumsiness to the photographer that is both endearing and relatable to anyone who has ever been a tourist. Although I’m only an armchair tourist in India, I imagine, based on my experiences of travel in other countries, that I would have shared something of his bewilderment and exhaustion. Being immersed in a country with a culture and language that is not your own can be a struggle.

Fortunately—or unfortunately—Rick soon meets Awaz, a doctor who takes pity on him. He tells him he can reach Bihar if he takes a rickety bus towards his village of Humayunpur. There, the bus breaks down, and Awaz decides to host the photographer in his own home, to the mild protests of his wife.

Humayunpur turns out to be a village situated in the midst of an ancient fort. Spectacular Mughal-era tombs and mosques mark the village as a picturesque destination—everything the photographer ever dreamed of. This includes the immense tomb of the sultan, the dome of which is broken in half, a casualty of a tumultuous battle.

That night, Rick first hears the shrieks coming from the tomb. He slowly realizes—very, very slowly, I might add—that there is more to Humayunpur than meets the eye. Determined to put Humayunpur on the map, Rick resists Awaz’s repeated demands not to take any pictures of the ruins. Little does Rick know that he is walking into a story more ancient and terrible than he can conceive.

Rick’s stubbornness seems typical of western tourists, or at least typical of certain stereotypes. He is repeatedly described as “dense” by Narcissus, the village historian who never misses an opportunity to tease him about it. As the story develops, Rick’s greed for photographs brings him into conflict with the villagers, who resent his invasive presence. However, this does not stop Rick from wanting to visit the tomb of Sultan Humayun Karabakh himself—a decision that determines his ultimate, grizzly fate.

This novel’s strength is in how it shines light on a little-known aspect of Indian history: the rebellion of Yusuf Karabakh against Sultan Humayun Karabakh at the bequest of the Sultan’s wife. It builds suspense and, although it can be difficult to judge these things, it seems to me as if the author has had first-hand experience of India.

It was also enjoyable, for me at least, to watch Rick fumble like an (albeit sympathetic) idiot, right into the death trap that we expect him to stumble into all along. Horror readers who read horror for the joy of it will find nothing amiss. I wanted to yell at Rick to “get outta Dodge,” as Narcissus puts it, even though I knew full well he wouldn’t.

The novel’s main weakness is that the characters are rather one-note. Rick is always the stubborn, foreign photographer; Awaz is the helpful but worried local whose refrain is “No photos!”; Narcissus dumps information about the historical backstory of Sultan Humayun and the Black Flower Goddess and keeps reminding Rick just how “dense” he really is.

It would have been nice to see these characters adopting different roles in the story and expressing themselves in different ways. As a result, the story tends to drag on at times, even though it is quite short at only 120 pages. That being said, if you are willing to put up with the one-notedness of the characters, you will be satisfied by the knockout ending.

The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges – Source:
https://ilo.wikipedia.org/wiki

A new essay of mine has just been published with Graphite Publications! It builds off some ideas I express in my Master’s thesis, Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism, specifically the concept of critical irrealism.

As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.

Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.

Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.

I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.

While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.

https://graphitepublications.com/the-critical-irrealism-of-jorge-luis-borgess-aleph/

The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.

The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.

It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.

Both Malik and Borges use the vision of infinity contained in the Aleph/Cup of Jamshid to present an image of totality–and to subtly critique the possibility of representing that totality. In my article on Malik published in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, I argue that “Pauper Prince” adopts a critical irrealist aesthetic, just as Borges does in his story.

However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.

Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment by Claude Lalumière

Back in November, I met Claude Lalumière at the Yellow Door readings, where he read from his phantasmagorical mosaic Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment. His latest book details the history of a mysterious city-state and its erotically-charged populace of artists and madmen. It is a visionary piece of work filled with atavistic rituals, ancient goddess cults, and superheroes.

My interview with the author over the phone was published with Cult Montreal. Check it out!

You can order Venera Dreams as an ePub and Kindle edition from the publisher, Guernica Editions.

Weird #5 Casting the Runes by M.R James (1911)

Book reviewing can be a perilous profession, especially when the author of the book in question knows a thing or two about alchemy and Runic magic. In such cases, it is not advised to write an overly negative review, for fear of reprisals on the part of the sorcerer in question. Unfortunately, in M. R. James’s 1911 weird tale “Casting the Runes,” the reviewer, Mr. Harrington, learns this lesson the hard way, and let his fate be a lesson to those in his profession!

M.R. James is a classic author of weird fiction and one of the more influential writers included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. According to the anthologists, he has influenced H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, and Tanith Lee. His ghost stories are “widely regarded as among the finest in English literature” and they forego the “Gothic trappings” of the supernatural tale to innovate the evolving genre of the weird tale (56). There are no dark castles, vampires, ghosts, or stormy nights in “Casting the Runes,” but there is a bizarre ad on an electric tramway: a notice of the death of Mr. John Harrington, who once negatively reviewed Mr. Karswell’s History of Witchcraft and lived just long enough to regret it.

The man who sees this notice is Mr. Dunning, a specialist in alchemy working for the British Museum and a consultant responsible for the rejection of the same manuscript. Karswell seeks revenge for the rejection of his poorly punctuated book of sorcery, which was, “in point of style and form, quite hopeless” (58). But are the evil rituals of Mr. Karswell more credible than the book’s grammar?

It turns out that Mr. Harrington died shortly after receiving a program at a musical concert that contained a slip of paper printed with a set of red and black runes. The cunning Mr. Karswell, who wrote a chapter on “casting the Runes” in his book, speaks of this form of magic in a way that seems, to Henry Harrington, the deceased’s brother, “to imply actual knowledge” (64). Dunning becomes his next target. Thus, it is up to himself and Henry Harrington to stop Karswell from taking out an uncanny form of revenge.

“Casting the Runes” offers a variation on the empiricism versus supernaturalism dialectic at play in much supernatural fiction. It is fairly common to see supernatural fiction writers pit a scientific explanation of uncanny phenomena against a supernatural explanation, like Blackwood does in “The Willows” and Crawford does in “The Screaming Skull.” Most frequently, the narrator struggles to resolve this epistemological conflict, but falls victim to the supernatural forces at play. However, M.R. James follows a different tact from the authors included thus far in the VanderMeer anthology.

Harrington and Dunning are able to put this epistemological conflict aside to deal with Karswell’s threat as a solvable problem, treating magic under the assumption that it works. In the end, after executing a switch of luggage with Karswell on a train, Dunning and Harrington cast the runes that had been intended for Dunning back onto Karswell himself. Later, he is “instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower [of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville], there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment” (67). Harrington had learned the rules of rune casting from his brother’s death and puts this knowledge to use in order to help save Dunning. This is a substantial innovation. It is almost as if, by shedding the medievalism of traditional Gothic fiction in which modern people become victimized by the ghosts of the past, James has led the weird tale into the brave new world of the modern era, where this ancient phenomena can be controlled by humans and put to utilitarian use.

As a final note, it is interesting to see how the supernaturalism/empiricism dialectic maps onto a conflict between print culture and oral culture in “Casting the Runes.” Karswell’s book is not only unbelievable, but incompetently written, and one senses that the reason the publishers were so dismissive of Karswell had as much to do with his incompetence at the printed word as his being a magician. Yet, when communicating orally, Karswell’s competence is undeniable. The book “was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise” (64). Yet, Harry Harrington admits that Karswell “spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge” (64). The conflict between empiricism and the supernatural is here drawn along lines of print literacy; though Karswell’s magic is unbelievable in print, the truth of his magic is apparent when communicating orally. The runes themselves, an “odd writing” (63), may even suggest an uncanny in-between form of writing that blurs the boundaries between a largely oral pagan culture and our print-dominated modern culture.

This concludes my discussion of “Casting the Runes.” Next week, I will discuss “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912), a work of weird fiction by that classic author of fantasy Lord Dunsany.

Weird #4 Srendi Vashtar by Saki (1910)

In “Srendi Vashtar” (1908) by Saki, a sickly boy named Conradin has a lively imagination exasperated by the dreariness of his Edwardian childhood. Having been given five years to live by a doctor whose “opinion counted for very little” (53), he declares, in the midst of his loneliness and boredom, that his polecat-ferret is a god. Founding his own personal religion, he names the “great ferret” Srendi Vashtar (54), an appellation whose syllables could have been lifted from Vedas.

This fourth story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is a short story by one of Edwardian England’s most satirical wits who was also a master of the macabre. Saki is the pen name for Hector Hugh Muro, who likely based Conradin’s puritanical cousin on his personal experience growing up in North Devon. According to Wikipedia and Emlyn Williams, he chose the name ‘Saki’ not because he was overfond of sake, the Japanese rice wine, but because ‘Saki’ is the name of a cup bearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. 

“Srendi Vashtar” not only skewers the stuffiness of Edwardian society, but strikes me as a send-up of the pagan revival trope. More than anything else, this story reminded me of Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, in the sense that it too comes across as a variant of the Greek myth of Bacchus and Pentheus. Ovid in The Metamorphoses describes how the cult of the god of wine and sex, Bacchus, gains high popularity in the city of Thebes. Pentheus, roughly the ancient Greek equivalent of a puritan, tries to shut the cult down but after denouncing it exhaustively, he is torn to pieces by a frenzied crowd of Bacchus worshipers.

In the same way, Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s guardian, tries to get rid of the great ferret, Srendi Vashtar. In the end, Conradin prays to his god, chanting “loudly and defiantly the hymn of his threatened idol:

Srendi Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts

and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace,

but he brought them death.

Srendi Vashtar the Beautiful.” (55)

In the end, Srendi Vashtar gets the better of Mrs. De Ropp and “Conradin made himself another piece of toast” (55).

Next week, I review another classic weird tale, “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1911).

Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).

Weird #2 The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908)

“The Screaming Skull” (1908) by Francis Marion Crawford, the second story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, takes us into the mind of disturbed retired sailor as the skull of a possibly murdered friend haunts his guilty conscience. Told in the first person in what the editors call “an outstanding early example of modern monologue, verging on steam-of-consciousness at times” (11), Crawford’s story is also an outstanding example of the fantastic literature of uncertainty.

“No, I am not nervous,” the narrator assures us. “I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one” (11). Those familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator will see through the narrator’s posturing and recognize the equivocation at play. However, the narrator’s commitment towards finding a naturalistic, rational explanation for the screaming skull that haunts him earns enough of the reader’s trust.

Tzetan Todorov defined his idea of the ‘fantastic’ in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. His definition of the term was much narrower than what we consider fantastic literature today, but the concept he describes fits this story perfectly. Todorov’s fantastic is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (25). Todorov famously breaks down Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat” to highlight how the narrator switches back and forth between being convinced that the events he witnesses have a naturalistic explanation and being convinced that what he sees must be supernatural. This narrow genre relies completely on the narrator’s feeling of uncertainty as it struggles to decide whether a haunting is genuinely supernatural or not.

Todorov could have called “The Screaming Skull” a paradigm of ‘fantastic’ literature–except that the uncertainty is ultimately resolved at the end. In this supernatural tale, the rational mind of an ex-sailor, one Captain Charles Braddock, the narrator, is pitted against a suggestion of a supernatural cause lying behind the death of his friend Mr. Pratt, a country doctor.

Mr. Pratt tells the narrator that he suspects his wife is planning to poison him. During their conversation, Charles alludes to a legend about a woman who poured molten lead into the ears of her four husbands, murdering them while they slept. After Mrs. Pratt turns up dead, Mr. Pratt suffers profound grief and anxiety. He “grew thinner and thinner, till his head looked like a skull with parchment stretched over it very tight” (12). Finally, he is found dead on the beach with markings on his neck and a human skull lying in the sand, placed in such a way that it appears to be staring at his face.

Did the skull itself kill Mr. Pratt, or did his death and the coincidental placing of the skull have another explanation? This question comes to obsess Charles until the very end of the story, when the supernatural reality of the skull is confirmed. Thus, “The Screaming Skull,” though it features strong elements of Todorov’s ‘fantastic,’ ultimately becomes what Todorov would call the ‘marvelous,’ or a genuine supernatural tale.

Charles’s sense of guilt also has something to do with why he feels such a powerful repulsion at the thought of the screaming skull. He suspects that it might be Mrs. Pratt’s skull, screaming at him to remind him of his terrible guilt. If Mr. Pratt actually murdered Mrs. Pratt, which Charles suspects, then it would also be true that Charles as good as killed Mrs. Pratt himself, since Charles, in a spirit of grim amusement, suggested the M.O.: the pouring of molten lead into the ears of a slumbering spouse.

Charles becomes obsessed over whether he will find a ball of lead rattling inside the skull. Its existence would prove that it was, in fact Mrs. Pratt. His need to avoid the terrible burden of guilt by association motivates his intellectual hesitation.

“[M]y taste never ran in the direction of horrors,” Charles tells the narrator, “and I don’t fancy you care for them either, do you? No. If you did, you might supply what is wanting to the story” (15). Equivocal statements like this suggest that a supernatural explanation for Mr. Pratt’s death does exist, although Charles is suppressing his admission of this reality. Acknowledging the existence of the marvelous would resolve his ambiguities, but he remains meticulously stubborn. As Charles proceeds, like a detective, to locate any evidence of the skull’s commonplaceness, all he uncovers is further proof of its supernatural properties, until it becomes increasingly clear that he is latching at straws and is on the cusp of madness himself.

Next week, I will dig into the next strata of my archaeology of weird fiction and review Algernon Blackwood’s florid descriptions of the natural world in his famous weird tale, “The Willows” (1909).