Classic Review: Kwaidan

There’s no doubt that weird fiction easily bears comparison to the folk tale. I imagine that many readers and writers of weird fiction developed their initial attraction to the more unsettling dimensions of literary creation by way of a particularly well-told folk tale. I vividly remember my own initial tinge of the uncanny gleaned from campfire ghost stories, and any child who pursued fairy tales from their whitewashed Disney iterations into the tomes of Grimm certainly experienced a similar rending of the veil (today there’s Creepypasta in lieu of the campfire yarn—one must admire the ghost tale’s tenacity).

What seems to lend the folk or fairy tale a certain openness to the “weird” is its dreamlike fluidity. Objects undergo outrageous transformations seamlessly in the haunted space of suspended causality. The inanimate realm of the fork and spoon can become the sudden locus of andromorphic relationship and no one suspects foul play. Boundaries aren’t so firm here, allowing characters to remain subject to the intercession of the archetype: the witch’s cabin in the woods, the living dead family cut off from civilization, beautiful ghosts that attach themselves to wandering heros only to become the agent of their unmaking.

All of these elements are present in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn’s magnificent collection of Japanese weird fiction. Hearn may not have obtained the status of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, or Clark Ashton Smith in what is typically conceived of as the pantheon of weird fiction. This isn’t for a lack of merit, even if much of Hearn’s work here was translated from Japanese texts. If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t talk more about Hearn because what transpires in these pages feels even weirder than the classic weird tale, an alien element not entirely due to the stories’ context external to the Eurocentrism common to weird fiction. The stories are short, hallucinogenic, and rooted firmly within the realm of the folk tale. Most importantly, they frequently obtain the chilling, uncanny depths that only the best weird fiction evokes in the reader.

Much like in medieval romances, cottages dot the landscape, small pockets of humanity abandoned by the forward thrust of civilization. Danger resides in these remote locales, even if they are temporarily shrouded in an appearance of beauty or hospitality. They are areas of magical transformation, thresholds between our world and the strange and often maleficent astral land beyond. In “Jikininki,” a Zen priest who has lost his way stumbles across a remote dwelling. The inhabitant, also a priest, refuses the traveler shelter, directing him to a nearby village instead. When he reaches the village, he obtains lodging in a house that happens to hold the corpse of a recently departed family member. The villagers warn the traveler against staying the night, citing an ancient local custom that requires abandoning the house and body at nightfall. The priest firmly adheres to his occupational role, offering to perform the pre-burial rites on the corpse in the family’s absence. Happily, they leave him to his duties. Under the shadow of darkness, an amorphous shadow fills the hut, consuming the body. The priest departs in the morning, finding his way back to the remote shack of the priest who directed him to the village the night before.There, he discovers that the inhabitant was the amorphous, flesh eating shadow, an undead jikininki cursed to repay a lifetime of greed.

Many of the stories in Kwaidan play develop in this simple, matter-of-fact progression, likewise delving into territory all the more unsettling for its lack of commentary or justification and all the more chilling for the ease of Hearn’s style. In the story above, the unexpected presence of the jikininki, described eerily as a noiseless “Shape, vague and mast,” is left sufficiently vague and otherworldly to maintain the aura of mystery a lesser writer would sacrifice for the sake of a concrete image. If this points to an aspect of Hearn’s work I admire, I’d call it taste. Hearn never appears to exploit his subject, letting it speak for itself in its understated remoteness, its glacial calm in the face of a metaphysics that accommodates, aside from a host of otherworldly beasts and goblins, current lives that fulfill the bloody karma of the past. Kwaidan is a haunted book, full of ghosts of history and ghosts of something more terrible still, something beyond karma and restlessly clawing through the holes in reality beyond which we hear the moan of a cold, cosmic wind.

In 1964, two of the stories from Kwaidan were combined with others from Hearn’s work to produce the titular classic of Japanese horror film (which I’ve written about on this site before). Although it remains a masterpiece in its own right, don’t expect the same slow, plodding pace from these stories. Readers should expect a similar reliance on color, however–the world of weird fiction isn’t always gray after all (see Jeff VanderMeer’s work, which I expect to write about in this segment one day). Hearn’s work is brilliant, unique, and absolutely essential for any reader looking to broaden their weird horizons.

Verdict: deserves way more hype!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: The Night Land (Guest Review by John Linwood Grant)

There has never been a book like William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), and there probably never will be again. And I really need to explain what I mean by that…

One of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. -H P Lovecraft

William Hope Hodgson (1887-1918) was not one of the literati of his time, not a chap widely circulating in the stylish Edwardian writing circles. He was an ex-seaman, son of a minor British cleric, and later a physical fitness instructor. He experimented with styles, wasn’t above being influenced by trends, and always wanted to catch the popular markets. That he should come up with this masterwork of weird fiction is therefore more than a little surprising from the start.

Not only is The Night Land quite different in setting and imagery from the work of almost all his contemporaries, it is also peculiar in its own right – a substantial volume with very few proper names and virtually no dialogue, occasionally given to maudlin romanticism, and written in a faux-historical style. A much-abbreviated, authorised version, The Dream of X, was also published in 1912, whilst editor Lin Carter helpfully removed some of the ‘excess’ and presented it in two volumes for his 1972 Ballantine paperback edition (this is the most reader-friendly version). The late, lamented Sam Gafford, a WHH authority, argued that The Night Land was written before Hope Hodgson’s other novels, despite its later publication date, and that afterwards the author abandoned its slightly extravagant approach to write more accessible works.

However, its style – an imagined 17th Century ‘romantic’ approach – does relate to the plot, which is the tale (distanced by a dream) of a young man who seeks to rescue a far-off lover, one he has never met, who he knows only vaguely by telepathic means, and who may be doomed anyway. Quite whether the style enhances the rest of the material or not is hard to judge, although sometimes the juxtaposition of almost hopeless old-fashioned love and nightmarish, far-future horror works rather better than you’d expect.

…it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness. -Clark Ashton Smith

It is indeed a stunning vision of an Earth millions of years hence. H G Wells’ 1895 Time Traveller briefly visited the last days of the planet, and H P Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon wrote in terms of distant aeons during the 1930s, but they never quite delivered the claustrophobic intimacy of mere humans simply trying to survive as does The Night Land. Remember, Hope Hodgson was a minor Edwardian author with some poetic skill and no formal scientific training, not an established figure like, say, Wells. Perhaps because of that, the book is not one of the more typical exciting futuristic worlds, strange dystopias, or star-spanning yarns. It is a tale set close to humanity’s tragic and apparently inevitable end, with small personal triumphs but no sweet promise in wait for the species.

The Earth is alone, and monstrously changed; the Sun is effectively dead. This is not the wry, hedonistic world found in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales. Here, the planet is bereft of the Sun’s light, of its warmth, and all that are left to sustain life are the residual geothermal energies, the volcanic churnings from below.

I heard a far, dreadful sound, down in the lightless East; and, presently, again—a strange, dreadful laughter, deep as a low thunder among the mountains. And because this sound came odd whiles from the Unknown Lands beyond the Valley of The Hounds, we had named that far and never-seen Place “The Country Whence Comes The Great Laughter.” And though I had heard the sound, many and oft a time, yet did I never hear it without a most strange thrilling of my heart, and a sense of my littleness, and of the utter terror which had beset the last millions of the world.

What remains of humanity is reduced to a single enormous arcopolis – the pyramidal, eight mile high Last Redoubt, alone in this utterly hostile land. Any other such redoubts have fallen, long ago – even their true fate is unknown – and people cannot survive outside this final sanctuary, because those beings beyond its perimeter are unknowable, bestial, or directly hostile to human existence on every level.

To the North, there stood, very far away, the House of Silence, upon a low hill… and the House was monstrous and huge, and full of quiet lights; and it was truly as that there had been no Sound ever in that House through Eternity.

The Last Redoubt is an astonishing act of imagination in its own right, and it is hard to see where it springs from in a literary sense – it is more akin to far earlier writers’ descriptions of Hellish or Heavenly cities. The Redoubt contains one thousand, three hundred and twenty lesser cities, gets its water from twenty-mile deep pipes running to lost seas, and has hundreds of underground ‘hydroponic’ levels, even more vast than the city above, which are artificially lit and sustained. Knowledge of flight has been lost, yet certain obscure technologies remain.

As for horror and weirdness – rather than science fiction – those qualities are here in full force. More than flesh is in peril, and those who venture beyond the Last Redoubt carry suicide pills to spare themselves from what might happen if they meet the Night Land’s denizens. Well before Lovecraft and others, Hope Hodgson conceived of vast beings crouching in the darkness, beyond human understanding.

Yet did we know them to be mountains of living watchfulness and hideous and steadfast intelligence.

These are truly alien things, not in any extraplanetary, exobiological way, but by their very nature – it isn’t possible to be certain if some of these beings even notice mankind, or if they have any purpose except to exist. Others appear to recognise humanity’s presence, but to be either intensely malign or mostly indifferent except when disturbed. Morlocks, to reference Wells again, would be light relief.

A million years gone, as I have told, came it out from the blackness of the South, and grew steadily nearer through twenty thousand years; but so slow that in no one year could a man perceive that it had moved. Yet it had movement, and had come thus far upon its road to the Redoubt, when the Glowing Dome rose out of the ground before it—growing slowly. And this had stayed the way of the Monster; so that through an eternity it had looked towards the Pyramid across the pale glare of the Dome, and seeming to have no power to advance nearer.

Lesser creatures – including possibly mutated or warped remnants of other humans – wait in the darkness ready to physically rend any stragglers who dare to cross the protective ‘earth current’ used to shield the Last Redoubt, whilst there are physical locations outside which are inimical in ways which are inexplicable… and so on.

In short, Hope Hodgson writes of a world in which humanity hopes only to sustain what it has, and may arguably no longer have a place. And rather than some coherent threat, he provides a crushing vision akin to later cosmic horror. There is no rationale; these many monstrous entities seem neither related to each other – no pantheons, hierarchies or recognisable cultures – nor propelled by any logic the protagonist understands. The House of Silence mentioned above is more terrifying precisely because you cannot comprehend its threat to the core, the soul, of any human who is drawn within. There is no Grand Plan which can be countered.

With its Night Hounds, its Place Where The Silent Ones Kill, and its Watcher of the North-East, to name but a few, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land should be a core text for lovers of cosmic horror. And to be honest, once you get used to the style – and you can do so – it’s also a terrific read.

Verdict: A landmark book, with a genius beyond its stylistic flaws.

by John Linwood Grant

Classic Review: Incredible Adventures

It’s impossible to say anything about Algernon Blackwood’s Incredible Adventures without contending with S.T. Joshi’s claim that it is “the premiere weird collection of this or any other century.” If I wouldn’t hazard praise as bold as Joshi’s, I certainly sympathize with his enthusiasm. It’s one of those collections, like Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco, that compels devotion–if I’m ever asked to list my favorite weird fiction, Incredible Adventures is one of the first to come to mind.

I imagine Blackwood writing with an uncommonly steady hand. A serene orderliness pervades his work. Each piece unfolds unhurriedly, which is more than simply a testimony to Blackwood’s confidence in his abilities. The veil concealing his other-world is best drawn slowly, and what is seen in these tantalizing glimpses is enough to haunt the reader, much as it haunts each story’s protagonists (it is often implied) well past the confines of the tale itself. But the curtain is always thrown back into place at the last moment, and we’re wrenched, like Lord Ernie (“The Regeneration of Lord Ernie”), from certain dissolution into Dionysian forces that thrive beneath the natural order.

It’s true that, among the five tales collected here, two of Blackwood’s most celebrated pieces, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” are absent. This should be no cause for worry, since Blackwood’s efforts here are similarly strong and thematically related. As always, “evil” is supernatural and never fully explained. It resides in the time-worn arenas of the Dark Romantics: in mountains, desolate landscapes, and ancient ruins. The Burkean sublime is always at hand, waiting to overpower the senses; in this way Blackwood is closely related to Lord Byron and Mary Shelley.

But Blackwood, like the best of folk horror authors, is a guardian of thresholds rather than a tourist of limit experiences. The work of Blackwood, like Arthur Machen, acknowledges the terrible lure of what I’ll call the “numinal”–there is the possibility of death, as we discover in “The Sacrifice,” but there is also great promise, as Lord Ernie finds in his brief but dazzling career following his close escape from the mountain fire worshippers. That the citizens of the town lower in the mountain in “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie” compare unfavorably to the fire worshippers above–they are dissolute, passionless, empty human husks–suggests something vital to life even in the elements the stories posit as the loci of horror. A faint glow limns the darkness beyond, but we must never imagine that we have the power to control it.

Blackwood’s cosmos is decidedly not an empty, mechanical thing set blindly on its steady decline. His characters, unlike Ligotti’s puppet-humans (but equally microcosmic reflections of the artist’s imaginal universe), are consequently flesh, blood, and full of mystery themselves, driven by desires they can’t begin to articulate even as these inner disturbances usurp the instinct of self-preservation. We can look in horror at Geroge Isely’s psychological deterioration (“A Descent into Egypt”), but we can’t deny the allure of Blackwood’s masterfully rendered Egypt.

Blackwood’s stories tend to be long, thorough, and, as I’ve stated already, magnificently unhurried. Don’t mistake these characteristics as warnings of a plodding read ahead–he never retreats from descriptions of strangeness. One comes to see that when Blackwood does retreat to the normal world, he does so out of a deep respect for the mysteries he’s suggested; there’s something utterly serious, almost reverent, in Incredible Adventures. This reverence is fitting for a writer who, perhaps more than anyone except Machen, has come to represent a unique strain of the weird predicated by Nathaniel Hawthorne (particularly his folk horror tales, such as “The Maypole of Merry Mount”). Also like Machen’s best work, nothing in Incredible Adventures feels derivative; Blackwood’s deeply reverent, imaginative, and otherworldly collection is bound to provide readers with chills for some time yet.

Verdict: Read it again!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: Teatro Grottesco

I admit to being totally smitten by the work of Thomas Ligotti before actually getting around to Teatro Grottesco. The Penguin edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe no less than changed my entire literary trajectory. Here it is, I thought, the collection I always knew was out there waiting for me.

Not that Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is perfect–what collection could be? While some stories, such as “The Frolic” and “Dream of a Mannequin,” left me perfectly breathless, others, like “The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise,” remained little more than puzzling curiosities. This isn’t to say that the experience of reading Ligotti didn’t leave me with images and questions I still haven’t stopped thinking about–it did, and there certainly aren’t many pieces of fiction out there that have exerted a similar impact.

Still, even though I bought it directly after finishing Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (along with The Spectral Link, which I have read but there’s no space to get into it here), I delayed reading Teatro Grottesco for years. It was an experience I wanted to relish, to meditate deeply on, and I didn’t feel the time was quite right until recently.

Is it better than Songs…? I think so.

Not a single story falls flat here–things get heavy, complexities of perspective abound, unexpected shifts crouch in every darkened corner ready to shake off the unwary reader, and the dread of existence is so thick it’s often funny, but it’s never boring. Ligotti has successfully honed the obsessively monomaniacal curiosities that grip his characters to a fever pitch, and the path their discoveries take never leads to the light. There is something hollow in these characters, something puppetlike, even when Ligotti isn’t dealing explicitly, like in “The Clown Puppet,” with the puppet theater. I’m reminded of the poet Dennis Silk’s justification for the elimination of the human actor in “When the Dead Awaken,” his essay on the “thing” theater:

[T]he personal actor has lost the thing in himself […]. He’s squandered his strength in a hundred personal emotions which he then inflicts on his role. But the thing-actor has guarded its strength. It’s a form of locked-up energy waiting for the right outlet. (228)

Ligotti’s protagonists are more “thing-actor” than human, hollowed by the fantastic repetition of their mechanical lives (“Our Temporary Supervisor,” “The Bungalow House”) or held in thrall by the enduring (and often communal) curiosity that leads them to a sudden prespectival shifts which amount to traumatic confrontations with the wholly negative Other (“The Town Manager,” Gas Station Carnivals”). There is no hope here, only the magnetic draw to the emptiness that ripples through the environment, poisoning the landscape with a black hole’s radiation that causes a strange decay that isn’t quite the same as disintegration, a fermentation that only looks like decay on the surface, turning a useless town into an absurd carnival, or a ruined factory to a factory of nightmares.

It’s true that Ligotti’s characters here, rather than victims of the inexplicable evils of the cosmos (“The Frolic”), are part of the mechanical deterioration of reality themselves. They are drawn, like the library employer irresistibly attracted to a voice recording entitled The Bungalow House in the titular tale, by a “locked-up energy” back to their sources, only to undergo an ontological shift that radically externalizes their inner emptiness. True to this emptiness, there is plenty of room within for Ligotti to seamlessly manipulate metaphors that reflect on the experience of reading weird fiction (“The Red Tower”)–one cannot help but feel a certainty that Ligotti writes from a place of empathy. He achieves what he does precisely because he knows how it feels to be alone and utterly captivated by an impossible blackness the rest of the world is unable to see.

Ligotti achieves a truly vertiginous terror unlike any other I’ve yet to come across in weird fiction. For this reason Teatro Grottesco is best read slowly, with a cautious finger against the pulse of the reader’s mental well being. Ask any reader who has experienced a deep affinity with this collection if I’m exaggerating.

It’s truly impossible to successfully characterize Ligotti’s work in such a short space. I can only encourage you to read it if you haven’t. For me, it’s only a matter of time before the smoke gathers and I’m compelled, like a puppet on its strings, to read My Work is Not Yet Done. But it must be the right time. In a way, the act of reading Ligotti is sacred.

Verdict: Too good to be true!

by Justin A. Burnett

Classic Review: The House on the Borderland

The House on the Borderland is my first successful reading of William Hope Hodgson, and one that I initiated with some trepidation, given what a slog the beginning of The Night Land was. The latter’s pseudo-archaic stylization and meandering plot didn’t exactly inspire me to press forward, particularly in the midst of the obligatory readings I was undergoing at the time. I quit it early on, something I do a lot (and unapologetically) as a reader–there’s only so much you can read in a lifetime, after all.

The House on the Borderland is different. The elements that interested me (without quite winning me over) in The Night Land are still front and center–the narrative-within-a-narrative structure (here a narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative… this was written in 1908!), the passing experimentation with textual deterioration, and the fearless dive into blatant unreality–only this time housed inside an immediately manageable and engaging plot that allows these elements to get to work right away.

Hodgson’s truly unsettling novel opens with two young men who stumble across the ruins of a house while on a fishing trip in Ireland. The ruins are perched on a seemingly impossible outcropping of rock that stretches over a deep hole full of water, and even in his description of the locale, Hodgson already displays a fearless mastery of scene that will serve him well over the ensuing 290 or so pages. A transcription of the journal the two men find inside the ruined house serves as the remainder of the narrative, and my god, what a tale it is.

After the protagonist (called simply The Recluse) recounts an unnerving hallucinatory(?) journey to the “Plain of Silence,” humanoid beasts besiege the cursed house, searching for a point of entry with nightmarish determination. The Recluse’s frenzied attempts to protect his home are merely the beginnings of a horrific tale that only grows more cosmic in scope as it progresses (unwinds), leaving the reader less and less tethered to a firm metaphysical vantage point. It’s difficult to overstate the lengths this novel will cross to undermine the reader’s place in the universe, aligning it much closer thematically to contemporary cosmic horror fiction than many of Hodgson’s weird contemporaries. In many ways, Hodgson’s novel renders the metaphysical emptiness at the heart of Lovecraft’s cosmos more acutely than much of Lovecraft’s own fiction.

This isn’t to say that Hodgson is better than Lovecraft. Just as Hodgson’s strong core of “negative transcendence” makes The House on the Borderland difficult to describe, it also makes for a frequently taxing read (albeit well worth the extra effort). There’s also the matter of long-lost romance that inorganically materializes in some of the novel’s most hallucinatory moments, a misstep that Lovecraft himself rightly counted against the integrity of the work as a whole. It’s nevertheless an error to write The House on the Borderland off as anything less than a giant in the world of weird fiction. The relative nature of time in the novel is perhaps its most well-handled tool; the scene where The Recluse watches the world around him accelerate dizzyingly into the future has proven chillingly tenacious.

Perhaps this malleability of time is what aligns The House on the Borderland, at least to my mind, with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and William Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (especially the former). All three works stand out as utterly unafraid to test the outer limits of imagination (even at the expense of the reader’s comfort), and more than a little of Wells’ bitter rendering of the far-distant future appears to be echoed here by Hodgson. It’s nevertheless impossible to see Hodgson as derivative, even if Wells’ subterranean Morlocks seem to faintly present in Hodgson’s own cave-dwelling Swine-Things. After all, Wells’ protagonist had the Eloi for company. The Recluse, although technically accompanied by a sister who is next to invisible throughout the narrative, remains increasingly alone.

Hodgson’s work remains somewhere in between the imaginative science fiction of Wells and the weird, atmospheric mastery of Algernon Blackwood. For me, Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland embodies the best–at least the best possible for his time–of both worlds. It is an inexcusable mistake for any fan of classic weird fiction to overlook his work, and I look forward to revisiting The Night Land with this utter triumph of his in mind.

Verdict: More than deserves its sterling reputation!

by Justin A. Burnett