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).

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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).

Weird #1 The Other Side (excerpt) by Alfred Kubin (1908)

In the spreading of the weird fiction virus, “which book was first sick?” (Miéville, “Afterweird,” 1116). Alfred Kubin’s novel Die andere Seite (The Other Side) can be thought of as ‘Patient Zero,’ or at least the one Ann and Jeff VanderMeer thought acceptable to identify for the purposes of their anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. It is doubtful that the true Patient Zero can be identified at all. However, Miéville admits “we’re tempted to hunt [it]” (1116). The Other Side may be as close as we can get.

Kubin, an Austrian writer influenced by E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe, published his novel in 1908 and an excerpt translated by Mike Mitchell is text #1 included in The WeirdThe Other Side bridges the gap between old traditions in supernatural writing and new, more modern twentieth-century forms. In the literary history created by the anthologists, the composition of The Other Side is chosen as to represent the moment weird fiction begins to take shape.

Fittingly enough, for a genre Miéville describes as a “burrowing infestation” (“Afterweird” 1115), The Other Side begins with a disease. From the first line, the story is haunted by a sense of the inescapable: “An irresistible sleeping sickness had Pearl in its grip” (1). The omniscient narrator describes a fictional city falling victim to what is at one point explicitly compared to the sleeping spell in the Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. An American, who later becomes a prophet of doom, is the only one unaffected by the sickness, like the Prince in the fairy tale in question.

The sleeping spell spreads rapidly. Society stops what it is doing and falls asleep. This pointedly fails to lead to revolution, despite the opportunities a sleeping populace presents. A political speaker “suddenly bent down over the table, lowered his head and started to snore rhythmically” and the military “training to prepare… for the threatened revolution … just lay down on the ground” (1). With very few exceptions, the entire city is affected for six days, or “at least that was the time calculated by the barber who based his estimate on the length of his customers’ stubble” (2).

By the time the town awakens, however, the real trouble begins, for “during out long sleep another world–the animal kingdom–had spread to such an extent that we were in danger of being swept aside” (2). Creatures large and small have multiplied and infested the city. Foxes and vultures, deer and ibexes have turned Pearl into a terrifying zoo, where beasts may be hunted in the streets for food.

Here the narrative departs the scenario of a modernized fairy tale and enters fully into territory we recognize as ‘weird.’ Human beings and their civilization are being eclipsed by a power larger than themselves: the animal world. The city plunges into decay as wildlife retakes the urban core. The imagery here reminded me of films like 28 Days Later and I am Legend, minus the zombies. The Other Side‘s publication in 1909 proves that such post-apocalyptic visions are not exclusively the domain of contemporary culture.

The novel’s translated prose describes the devastation with a keen imagination and  sensuousness reminiscent of magic realism. There are plagues of locust, serpents, and buffaloes. Castringius, one of the characters, has an apartment with “bats hanging like smoked hams from his curtain rail” (4). Soon the decay of the city is not only evident in the animal infestations but the decay of buildings and artworks, as “precious objets d’art succumbed to an irresistible inner decay without any reason being evident” (5). Kubin, influenced by the Decadent movement, has provided us with this phenomenal representation of decline. It is barely a coincidence that this imagery is eerily reminiscent of the corruption of the painting in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Other Side introduces several important images and patterns of thought that will become prominent in later weird tales. For example, Kubin represents the blurring of the categories by which humanity defines its place in the world: “the nights were wreathed in a strange half-light that blurred all the contours” (5). Furthermore, one’s body and even one’s thoughts become prisons before the inevitability of death and decay. “Oh, if only I could stop thinking, but that functions automatically,” cries the narrator. “There are no certainties that are not countered by uncertainties!” (9) This despair captures the uncertainty and unease that weird fiction will continue to articulate in its later iterations.

How can narrative closure be reached amid such anxiety? It turns out that the only way Kubin can conclude this portion of his novel (keeping in mind that only an excerpt is included in the anthology) is through the narrator’s recognition of a fundamental contradiction in human experience. “Incapable of extended thought, I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence,” he says (10). The final revelation he experiences “closed off the abyss of my doubts and anxieties.”

This statement should, if anything, make the reader feel deeper anxiety. “I took strength from the consciousness of my own impotence”: Kubin’s existential irony suggests that human beings are powerless before their environment, but can nonetheless gain some strength by acknowledging this fundamental lack of power. It is almost a variation of Socrates’ famous maxim that he is wisest because he knows that he knows nothing.

However, is this statement really as optimistic as it sounds? Admittedly, it does not sound very optimistic already. But added to the basic gloominess of this conclusion is the philosophical implication that the realization of our impotence does not by itself guarantee that we can have actual power. It is, after all, the fundamental nature of humanity to be impotent. Realizing our powerlessness by itself cannot give us real power, or it would contradict the terms of this thought experiment. Therefore, it can only give us inner strength.

Realizing that we are the puppets of other forces in the universe cannot by itself rescue us from our fundamental condition of enslavement. As puppets, we cannot cut our own strings. The best that can be hoped for is a certain stoicism as we recognize our place as puppets within the larger system that controls us.

There’s your cheery thought for the day.

The Weird opens with Kubin’s observation of an existential contradiction. Although it is not a very optimistic vision, the infestation of the weird has begun and I’ve cracked the topsoil in my archaeological study of weird fiction. On that note, I leave you until next week, when I will express my thoughts on The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford (1908).

The Alchemists’ Council by Cynthea Masson

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I happened to receive a free copy of Cynthea Masson‘s The Alchemists’ Council (ECW Press, 2016). It introduced me to a transdimensional universe in which alchemy is treated as a metaphor for ecological sustainability. I’ve never read alchemy treated in this way before and the subject matter was treated in a complex, dialectical fashion that I found really appealing.

It was such an engaging read that I reviewed it for The Bull Calf Review. You may read the full review here.

http://www.thebullcalfreview.ca/cynthea-masson

The current issue of the Bull Calf Review has also published reviews done by several of my colleagues, Zain R. Mian and David Pitt. It has also published my Poetics teacher from my undergrad years at McGill, Joel Deshaye, as well a review by the 2016-2017 Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke. The Bull Calf is an “accessible, academic, and diverse tri-annual collection of reviews and retrospectives” and was founded at McGill in 2010.

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Announcing the Archaeology of Weird Fiction Project

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I was introduced to the world of weird fiction.

My roommate for the weekend, Usman T. Malik, introduced me to the  Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series (Undertow Publications), where a short story of his, “Resurrection Points,” had been published recently. His enthusiasm for his genre of choice, the weird tale, was contagious.

Soon I had discovered ChiZine Press’s lineup of dark fiction novels and short story collections and I had picked up Jeffrey Ford’s collection A Natural History of Hell. These stories, particularly those in the Ford collection, astounded me with their imaginative situations, their mythologies, and their bold use of language. Although I had not been exposed much to H.P. Lovecraft, I began to read his classic weird tales as well. I had caught the bug.

Before I knew it, weird tales had infected my brain. It was just as China Miéville described in his “Afterweird” to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories: weird texts “will eat the books you read from today on … That is how the weird recruits. … These stories are worms” (1116).

These textual tapeworms led me to write an essay on the Weird and Usman T. Malik’s fiction in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, an academic journal based at McGill University. The ways this genre twists language and representation became an object of fascination for me.

It was not long before I discovered the vast range of texts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had compiled together in their anthology. Texts from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first are gathered here within the same sprawling volume, encompassing authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Rabindranath Tagore, James Triptree, Jr., George R.R. Martin, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and Jamaica Kincaid. The anthology also includes contemporary authors of the New Weird, such as China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti. In all, 110 texts appear in this collection, each originally published between 1909 and 2010.

The Weird creates the predecessors of the New Weird movement, an act of canonization. However, Miéville emphasizes that this compendium “does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion–of crawling and wringing time–there is no Weird. All canons are tombs, yes, but this collection is a post-elegy, wearing / an eaten shroud / –a long-dead rag for the dead” (1116). Weird fiction frustrates our categories and subverts our reassurances of permanency and order.

This project is an excavation of that canonical tomb. It is an archaeology of the weird.

My goal will be to post weekly reflections on each story in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s compendium–all 110 stories, covering more than a hundred years of weird fiction writing. I hope to learn something about how the genre developed the way it did. I also hope to figure how the weird produces some of the stylistic effects it is famous for making. And lastly, like a pulp archaeologist in the adventure serials, I may find my cold, rational logic challenged by the sudden manifestation of the realities human beings were never meant to understand…

It promises to be fun.

My first post will be on an excerpt of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908), the first story included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology. The posts will appear weekly on Saturday mornings.

“In the Ruins of Shambhala”

My short story “In the Ruins of Shambhala” has appeared on 600 Second Saga, a flash fiction audiobook podcast. It’s my first publication outside of a student literary magazine and you can listen to it here! It is narrated by Mariah Avix.

I wrote a first draft of this story while at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and presented it at the Odyssey public reading at Barnes and Noble. The idea of the story came to me as a kind of sidetrack while working on my novel, which takes place in a similar, though not identical, milieu. A couple of characters from Michael Ondaatje novels crossed together in my imagination–specifically, the deminer Kirpal Singh from The English Patient and Ananda from Anil’s Ghost–and in my own consciousness, the composite of these two figures became inextricable from the plot of a Lost World story. The setting of my story is based loosely on the Hindu/Buddhist myth of Shambhala–to elevate the drama, I suppose.

I view this story as a commemoration of the men and women who work to preserve cultural heritage sites in dangerous places. A great example of individuals who do just that in real life are the archaeologists at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, who place themselves at risk daily to preserve the past.

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I may not have posted for a while, but I wanted to share this success with as many of my readers and listeners as I can. I have had plans over the last few weeks to give this blog a new start and possibly a re-brand. I’ve had the idea of reviewing short stories as I read through fantasy/weird fiction anthologies, such as the massive volume known as The Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and the slimmer but no less rewarding The New Voices of Fantasy by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman. I hope that some of my present responsibilities will free up soon so I can dedicate time for these ambitious projects.