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: 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