Mark Samuels’ ‘Written in Darkness’

Tales of Darkling Ecstasy

Written in Darkness 3Written in Darkness. What does it mean to write in darkness? Once all writing was writing in darkness. Then the printing press dragged the written word from out of the obscurity of dead languages and the gloom of rush-lit monastic cells, and into the clear light of day. And the words (the words of the West) were not just written in the light, but written in light itself. Blazing letters were sent out into the world, to legislate, to educate, to proselytize, to dazzle, to blind; writing became a weapon as terrible as the rifle, a disease as infectious and deadly as small-pox, an enslavement as strong as irons and shackles. Now things have changed again, and we write in darkness and obscurity once more, in our cells, lit only by flickering screens. But our texts are no longer secret, are, instead, tragically, desperately ingratiating. The irony being that, for most of us, writing nevertheless remains an arcane, solipsistic labour.

There is, of course, a counter tradition, opposed to the stark clarity of Enlightenment writing and resistant to the textual profligacy of the internet age, a marginalized writing that takes and twists the earlier tradition of the esoteric tome, which could be either sacred or diabolical, but was always dark and obscure. This tradition of darkness, of obscurity, once oppressive, a way of ensuring knowledge and power remained in the hands of the hierophants, those tasked with the interpretation of the lore, became, in the era of the Enlightenment and the panopticon, and has now become, in that of technocracy and constant CCTV surveillance, a tradition which allows for the creation of a secret place, a corner of darkness where it is possible to escape what the philosopher Michel de Certeau (a thinker who knew his mysticism) called, ‘that implacable light that […] materializes the hell of social alienation.’

It is from this tradition weird fiction emerges. Occulted writings have always been central to the Weird, from the shadowy canon of lost and forbidden works that runs through the stories of the Weird Tales circle and the proliferating allusions to hermetic texts, both real and fabricated, in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, to the bizarre found manuscripts in recent novels such as Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

SamuelsSepiaMark Samuels is one of the modern adepts of this tradition. In the stories in Written in Darkness, he evokes the air of an encounter with the occulted, the unthinkable. The first tale in the collection, ‘A Call to Greatness’, is made up largely of a ‘historical’ document, with brief frame to give to the central text a dread import. It’s a slippery story. A disaffected contemporary bureaucrat, Hilaire Egremont, is sent some papers by an antic stranger, among which is a first-hand account of the campaigns waged against the Red Army by a White Russian general, Baron Maximilian. Maximilian’s beliefs commingle Russian Orthodox religion and Eastern mysticism, and there are hints he might have contact with with the ‘Hidden Masters of the World’. In vatic rants, Maximilian foretells the slow decay of civilization. ‘A Call to Greatness’ has the frisson of a hidden document and a deeply unsettling conclusion, which suggests that what is contained in texts may bleed out into the world in which they are read (this shock is compounded by the fact Maximilian has a historical counterpart, the ‘Mad Baron’ Roman von Ungern-Sternberg – it’s hard to shake the notion Samuels’s tale is reportage, not fiction).

In other stories, Samuels achieves this same disconcerting effect by seeding his fiction with references to weird classics. ‘My Heretical Existence’ contains allusions to Bruno Schulz’s work, but also to other weird tales, including one to Arthur Machen’s ‘N’, which gives the story’s conclusion a nightmarish wrench. ‘Alistair’ alludes back to Samuel’s own eerie ‘The White Hands’, and also to H.P. Lovecraft’s work; it tells of corrupted bloodlines and dog-like ghouls who emerge from the catacombs of London’s Highgate Cemetery at night. ‘The Other Tenant’ refers to Samuels’s ‘Apartment 205’ and, perhaps, slyly, to Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a horrifying novel of a man slowly transmuting into the previous owner of the rooms he is renting, a theme picked up again in ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’. The effect of these allusions is of a kind of cumulative ‘truth’ of the weird tradition, giving rise, again, to the sense Samuels’s work is less fiction than esoteric history.

Samuels is also deft at bringing the weird into modern settings, infusing our contemporary life with that sense of the heretical, insinuating a darkness into technocratic transparency, and writes workplace tales that marry Thomas Ligotti’s corporate horror with Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic absurdity, and in which, as in the seminal weird tales of Stefan Grabinski, items of modern technology become a source of horror: there’s a dread lift in the story ‘Outside Interference’ and the glitch in the computer programme in ‘An Hourglass of the Soul’ makes a nightmare truly hellish.

The weird tale is a mode of ambiguity and irresolution, of acrid smoke and cracked mirrors. Unlike its half-sibling, horror, it hasn’t inherited from the Gothic a hunger for endings, for defences held by or breached utterly, but has, instead, from Decadence, decay in its bones. The events of a weird tale will often tend towards a rending of the veil of appearance, but this dread revelation will be followed, not by resistance, by a desperate skirmish with the other, as in horror – for the Weird is implacable and always somehow desired – but by dissolution.

There are perhaps two key traditions of this. The first, influenced by doctrines of nihilism, by theories of biological and cultural degeneration, by entropy and quantum physics, has a narrative arc that ends in in chaos and madness and stasis; the bleak cosmicist ideas of Lovecraft and the anti-life thinking of Ligotti exemplify this type. The other derives from mysticism, and might be termed ecstatic; it can be seen in the stories of Machen, Schultz, and Algernon Blackwood, and ends with the self in transports, animated by some primal animism or blinding numinous, with the self beginning to change.

Written in Darkness brings these two strands of the Weird together. In the crucible of these tales, a horror of the implications of abstract scientific theories and a revulsion at modern dross and technology, are mingled with olden ritual and hermeticism and transmuted. Like all the best weird stories, these tales offer a vision of what lies beyond, and it’s a vision that’s bleak, but also awful, in the archaic sense of inspiring reverential fear; these stories combine the pessimistic with the mystic, the cosmicist with the cosmic.

Even the story, ‘The Ruins of Reality’, which is laced with allusions to Ligotti’s work, with its references to an ‘N Factory’ and depiction of a sinister image of puppets labelled ‘Dead Dreamers: Management’, ends with world transfigured into a Hell that is degenerate, but not moribund, is, instead, horribly and riotously fecund and described with relish: ‘Nature itself began to rot, and as whole species were wiped out, strange, new forms arose in their place, crawling from out the polluted wreckage.’ These stories are transmutative. Gilles Deleuze (another thinker with an abiding interest in the esoteric) wrote, ‘writing is inseparable from becoming,’ and that is certainly the case in these tales. In ‘My World Has No Memories’, which has the atmosphere of Michel Bernanos’ The Other Side of the Mountain, a sailor, lost at sea, finds himself undergoing a grotesque flowering. And in ‘In Eternity Two Lines Intersect’, a man recovering from a bout of anxiety leaves behind the quotidian world to sup from the grail, and though we can’t know whether this is delusion or profound truth, the tale ends in a rite of transcendence.

Written in Darkness is a powerful collection of weird tales. Samuels’s prose here is more agile than ever, lucid, yet ludic, pleasingly fustian at times, and keen-honed at others. It doesn’t quite have the unity that Samuel’s previous set of stories, The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, has (‘Alistair’ jars for this reader, lacking the bizarre power of some of the other pieces), but it’s a very strong collection. Written in darkness, yet ushering in a mystic radiance, these are tales of darkling ecstasy.