Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pits and Purgatory

Review of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

(originally published in The Times Literary Supplement, posted here with permission)

The theologian Rudolf Otto described primitive religion as an encounter with the mysterium tremendum, a fear and trembling in the face of impersonal, fickle and ultimately unknowable divinity. At the root of all religion, he contended, is this dread of the “wholly other” – of what lies beyond mortal understanding.

The history of ghost and supernatural stories is replete with unknowable and fearful entities lurking in the dark, but they tend to rely heavily on ideas of the devil and other superstitions with Christian Middle Age roots. However terrible, they are easily dismissed by faith and the power of God. It is our sin that attracts them, and redemption can undo them. But by the late 1800s – with an increased interest in spiritualism and theosophy, and a sharp rise in the membership of magical societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – writers turned away from Christian imagery of the supernatural and back towards Otto’s mysterium tremendum, in search of stranger and older horrors. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and the frightening “The White People” became the precursor to a new type of strange fiction, an almost unclassifiable sub-genre that is not quite ghost story, not quite tale of monsters. It found its footing in the days of American pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, and, borrowing from the title of that venerable rag, has claimed the name “weird fiction”.

The fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer and the editor Ann VanderMeer have compiled the definitive collection of weird fiction: 110 stories from the early 1900s to the present, accompanied by substantial biographies of their authors. It is a massive undertaking, and its success lies in its ability to lend coherence to a great number of stories that are so remarkably different and yet share a theme: the phenomenal world is merely a shadow, and the numinous is an inscrutable, often hostile, reality. At their best, the stories in The Weird represent a kind of religious literature, echoing Flannery O’Connor’s view that the authentic religious writer “cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is”. The Weird is a catalogue of the horrors that lurk just on the periphery of our senses, and in our own hearts.

H. P. Lovecraft has long been held up as the pre-eminent author of weird fiction. He constructed an entire cosmology of ancient gnostic gods and fiends, their worshippers inhabiting old Massachusetts villages. Known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”, this grand narrative has inspired generations of writers and its own tiny industry. Nevertheless, Lovecraft comes out poorly in this anthology. “The Dunwich Horror” – considered to be central to his mythology – seems horribly laden with howlers such as “olfactory immaculateness” and “teratologically fabulous”. Instead, it is “The Willows”, by Lovecraft’s precursor Algernon Blackwood, that emerges as the great original weird story. Two companions sailing the Danube are forced to make camp on a small island covered in willow bushes. The island begins to exhibit a pulse of consciousness, an invisible presence that sends the narrator first into a kind of ecstasis and then into a delirium of terror. Nothing unusual is ever seen or heard directly. But an ancient force is here, demanding propitiation.

The early part of the twentieth century offers a number of fine tales: Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Hungry Stones”, the haunting story of a man who is given a tantalizing vision of another world; a wonderfully scary story of a lost race who have dug a subterranean world in A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit”; and Franz Kafka’s chilling “In the Penal Colony”. Later stories of note include “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges and “The Town Manager” by Thomas Ligotti, about a town under the thrall of mysterious administrators who toy with the residents’ lives.

Underlying many of the stories here is the dark psychology of surrealism, but compelling characterization is often lost amid the creeps. Nevertheless, even some of these are fine examples of experimental fiction, such as “Dust Enforcer” by the Iranian writer Reza Negarestani, a taxonomy of Middle Eastern demons told with zoological precision. Those that are driven by a compelling authentic voice stand out strongly. “The Forest” by Laird Barron follows a famous, troubled cinematographer as he is invited to witness an experiment by an eccentric scientist obsessed with contacting a coleopteran and primal intelligence that is secretly consuming the Earth. The cinematographer’s own psychological breakdown is mirrored in the slow decay of the world. Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter”, meanwhile, fulfills the promise of Lovecraft by presenting a realistic and credible character – an alcoholic district attorney who blames himself for the death of his son – who takes on a case, a small-town murder investigation, that ultimately reveals to him the absurdity of existence in the face of a cosmic horror, real or imagined.

One story still stands out as not only the finest in this anthology, but a masterpiece of fiction. “The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass” by the Polish author Bruno Schulz is the deeply sad and haunting tale of a man visiting his father at a strange hospital that keeps those who have died in a waking purgatory.

In one unsettling scene, the narrator spies his father in a restaurant, only to find him bedridden moments later. A normal sense of time is no longer “a continuous regulation and correction of its excesses”. Since the sanatorium has rendered his father’s death incomplete, the narrator says, “My father’s time and my own no longer coincide”. It leaves an impression of Schulz having conjured images and feelings from the reader’s own dreams.

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