101 Weird Writers #45 — Stefan Grabiński

'Something Vindictive Resides in Soot': Stefan Grabiński’s Transmutative Imagination

stefan_grabinskiThis post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Stefan Grabiński (1887 – 1936) was a Polish writer of horror fiction who considered himself an expert on demonology and magic. Some critics have called him the ‘Polish Poe’ or the ‘Polish Lovecraft’, and suggested he believed in the supernatural forces in his stories. Known primarily as a novelist, he wrote many short stories, including those under the name Stefaen Zalny. Grabiński was popular in his day, until a trend toward more realistic fiction doomed him to obscurity. The importance of translations by writer Miroslaw Lipinski to bring Grabiński to an English-language readership – for the collection The Dark Domain (1993) – cannot be understated. The tale included in The Weird, ‘The White Weyrak’ (1921), exemplifies the writer’s talent for atmosphere and strangeness.

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One thing the sheer range of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange & Dark Stories demonstrates is that writers who feel the pull of the strange are a varied breed, divers in their backgrounds, in their races and ethnicities, in the parts of the world they hail from, in their social statuses, in their concerns and interests. But there is one trait a good many of them share, a trait writ large in much weird fiction: a horror of the quotidian round, a desire to escape the demands of humdrum daily life. Some writers of the weird fantastic seek to flee the mundane into the sensual realms of eroticism or narcotics; others look for solace and oblivion in alcohol; and for others, rationalism and scientific materialism are a bulwark against the confusing realities of ordinary life, its unfairness, its senselessness.

In Stefan Grabiński the longing for a flight from the everyday was especially pronounced. In his work this desire takes the form of a visionary hunger, a lusting after something beyond the material, and an attempt to mould and transform the material realm with his imagination.

He was someone with particularly good reason to wish for escape from the first. On February 26th 1887, in Kamionka Strumiłowa, a small town in the eastern provinces of Poland, now part of the Ukraine, he was born, the son of a judge. But, though born into a reasonably well-off middle-class family, his childhood was not a comfortable one. He was a sickly child. His taste for the fantastic was nurtured early. Encouraged by his mother, who was a great lover of literature, the young Grabiński read whilst laid up in bed; his illness, a constant reminder of his mortality, and his introspective personality led him to dark fantasy and to an interest in the occult. He would later, while a student, find out he had tuberculosis; at first afflicting his bones, and later spreading to his lungs, it was to cause him pain for much his life. The disease was common in his family, his father suffered from it, and it was perhaps passed from father to son at a young age, a possible explanation for Grabiński’s childhood frailty. Whatever, though the discovery as a young adult he was fated a life of ill health might have darkened Grabiński’s worldview, it’s probable his gloomy and esoteric perspective was formed on his childhood sickbed.

Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz

After Grabiński’s father’s death the family moved to Lwów, capital of Polish Galicia, which is where Grabiński, a little later, attended university, reading Polish and classical literature. After graduating in 1911, he began working as a teacher of Polish. He would remain a teacher the rest of his life, a job he was by all accounts very good at, but which he found frustrating as he felt it sapped his creative energy. He found work mostly in gymnasia in and around Lwów, though for a short while he did also have a job in Vienna, at a time when his contemporary from nearby Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz, was studying Fine Arts there. It’s not known whether the two great Polish fantasists of the early twentieth century met, but it is interesting to speculate on what they might have made of each other. Their approaches to the Weird were very different – Schulz, a writer of etiolated and strange nostalgia, Grabiński, much more brutal, and interested in the impact of modern technologies on contemporary life.

Lwów was a very cosmopolitan place, and the vibrant mix of cultures undoubtedly fed Grabiński’s writing. He began writing short fiction in 1906, supported by his mother, his first reader and critic. He self-published his debut in 1909, Twilight of Faith, under the pen-name Jan Żalny (Żalny means sorrowful). It disappeared. His second volume of tales, On the Hill of Roses, published in 1918, after the upheavals of WWI, had a more encouraging reception however. Karol Irzykowski, a Polish decadent writer and leading literary critic of the time, thought highly of it calling Grabiński a striking original.  Then in 1920, Grabiński published a collection of his railway stories, The Motion Demon. It was a popular, partly due to the interest in rail travel of the time, and was well regarded by critics. Irzykowski called it a perfect example of its genre and hailed Grabiński the ‘Polish Poe’. Irzykowski, a Marxist, perhaps saw in the milieu of the tales something of a critique of the industrial, but Grabiński is not thought to have been particularly politicized. His take on the railways was more personal, mystical.

The Motion Demon established Grabiński as a successful writer. It was followed by further collections, Pilgrim’s Madness (1920), and A Mystery Tale and The Book of Fire (both 1922). The latter, like The Motion Demon, has a unified theme, that of elementals, demons of the elements. It is in this collection ‘The White Wyrak’ appeared.

Grabiński never regained the heights of his early tales, and the fame and material comfort they bought faded quickly. He tried his hand at novels and dramas, but they lacked the tautness and economy that made his short fiction catch fire and were too dependent on obscure occult iconography and terminology. He travelled about outside of Poland, including a trip to Italy where he visited Venice, a setting that inspired his longest short prose work, ‘Passion’. But, during this time, his deteriorating health increasingly kept him housebound. He became bitter. In 1929, his tuberculosis spread to his lungs, with haemorrhaging. And his financial situation grew increasingly precarious. Still he continued to work, and in 1936, published a novel, Itongo Island. It received bad reviews. And was to be his last book.

On the 12th November 1936, aged 49, he died. On his death bed, he complained bitterly about having been misunderstood and forgotten in his native land.

Grabiński may have been dubbed the Polish Poe and been an avid reader of the American’s work, but he was quite unlike Poe in many ways. Poe, though fascinated by what might lie beyond the limits of contemporary scientific knowledge, was averse to mysticism. Grabiński by contrast, rejected materialism and embraced Neo-Platonism and the esoteric. He was intensely spiritual throughout his life, a pantheist who read the Christian mystics, Eastern religious texts such as the Indian Vedas, and works of theosophy and demonology.

Polish decadence also influenced Grabiński, and there is certainly a decadent turn to his writings, but his explorations are much more insular than those of the decadents; though there are traces of licentiousness and eroticism in stories like ‘Fumes’, ‘Passion’, ‘Sarah’s House’, and ‘The Black Hamlet’, in them lust has terrible consequences. This facet of Grabiński’s work may be partly autobiographical. In 1917 Grabiński married Kazimiera, a music teacher, and they had two daughters together. But in 1921, at the height of his success, she left, taking their children with her. Grabiński returned to his mother, never to remarry. His close relationship with his mother and his disastrous marriage may have affected his attitudes towards women: in his stories they are sweet, pliant, or voluptuous, vampiric, and monstrous, very often all at the same time. But this is not to say that his femme fatales are conventional, or that he was a prurient but prudish misogynist in his work. Grabiński had an abiding interest in psychoanalysis and in plumbing his own psyche, and this informs some of the strange sexual currents in his tales; in the story ‘Szamota’s Lover’ for instance, the narrator and the woman who ruins him are finally revealed to be one and the same.

Grabiński termed his fictions ‘psychofantasy’ or ‘metafantasy’. His mode of the fantastic was turned inwards, to explore the psyche, the inner life, and the life of the emotions. It was also addressed to the metaphysical, the philosophical. Grabiński took influence from philosophy, from classical philosophers like Plato and Heraclitus, and from contemporary thinkers. He was a particular admirer of Henri Bergson and it may be that he saw in Bergson’s work something that chimed with his idiosyncratic take on the hidden world. Bergson’s philosophy could be said to lie somewhere between materialism and idealism, rejecting both, and Grabiński’s idiosyncratic worldview fused the material and the occult, creating a kind of mysticism of modernity. He saw in progress and scientific advancement a force that could reveal the world’s hitherto hidden weirdness – a prospect that held fear, but also a component of awe and ecstasy. In his stories Grabiński is modern, does not turn to the past, to the rich folklore of Poland. But he also had a notion that the modern world was a place where man’s original sense of self and of harmony with nature was being erased by machines, materialism, bureaucracy, advances in the study of the mind. There is dread in all this in his work, but also a revelling in what may come. In fact Grabiński wrote, in an essay on his writing, that his guiding motives were ‘wonder and fear.’

The fusing of demonic forces with aspects of modernity in Grabiński’s work is most apparent in his railway stories. Grabiński’s take on locomotives is mystical – based on an esoteric theory of motion. He merged Bergson’s theory of élan vital – the idea that the evolution can be explained by an internal vital impetus – with scientific theories of motion from Newton and Einstein. The British evolutionary biologist, Julian Huxley, famously mocked Bergson’s notion of élan vital by arguing that it no better explained life than the operation of a railway engine could be explained by its élan locomotif. In Grabiński’s cosmicism of motion, the idea of an élan locomotif is in no way worthy of ridicule.

The melding of the occult and technological may be most obvious in Grabiński’s railway tales, but it is also clearly the guiding principle of ‘The White Wyrak’. In this story, a master chimneysweep addresses his ‘boys’, his gang of sweeps, and tells them a grisly tale of the profession. As a young journeyman sweep, working for a man named Kalina, a literate, intelligent, and philosophical boss, he had a dread and strange experience. Two of his closest companions in the gang disappeared after being sent to clean out a chimney in an old brewery. This brewery had been for some time disused, thought cursed, blighted in the local imagination after its last owner hanged himself following financial ruination. This is a fine bit of sleight of hand on Grabiński’s part, hinting at a conventional ghost story, wrong-footing the reader. Then a gardener moves into the shunned brewery, having bought the place for nearly nothing.

The narrator and Kalina go out to the brewery to look for the missing boys. On the way there, Kalina waxes mystical, begins to talk of the preternatural qualities of soot. ‘Soot is dangerous,’ he tells the narrator, ‘particularly when it accumulates in narrow, dark spaces unreachable by the rays of the sun.’ He goes onto to describe soot as if it possessed a life force, something like Bergson’s élan vital. ‘Soot is treacherous, my boy, soot lays dormant inside dark smoke chambers and stuffy furnaces, and it lies in wait – for an opportunity.’ This is a potent odd moment, which fuses the occult and the material, and intimates that the realm of the material and seemingly inanimate can be malicious and inimical to humankind, in a way that anticipates later weird tales such as Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Black Gondolier’, a tale of the dim life and malefic will of crude oil.

At the brewery, the narrator and Kalina are directed to the chimney. The narrator insists on climbing and encounters within the wyrak, a creature born of soot, but ‘snow-white,’ ‘with a pair of huge, owlish yellow eyes,’ ‘part monkey, part large frog,’ a hideous being who has drained the life from the poor lost sweeps. The narrator cleaves the beast’s skull with a hatchet, and it drops down the chimney. Then, when the body is dragged into the light, it deliquesces, before reverting to ‘a large mass of soot – glittering and black like tar.’ Standing over this lump, Kalina pronounces, ‘From soot you came, and to soot you shall return.’ A parody of the biblical formula. But also suggestive of the transmutations that the alchemists believed in and sought to uncover.

The fuliginous has, sequestered away in the dark of the chimney, literally occulted, for a time become its opposite, pure, white as snow, yet evil, malicious. These sorts of complex reversals are characteristic of Grabiński.

Perhaps as a child, lying in bed reading Poe, Grabiński saw strange forms in the blacking on the inside of his oil lamp’s glass chimney. Perhaps he performed the homely alchemy of the silver egg illusion, in which an egg, coated in soot by being held over a gentle flame, appears to gleam when dropped into water. Whatever, clearly transmutation and soot were linked in Grabiński’s mind.

One of the substances the alchemists used in their experiments was white arsenic, arsenious oxide, a white powder formed by the sublimation of arsenical soot. Maybe this is the origin of the white wyrak.

The wyrak’s birth from soot and return to it anticipates the work of a later twentieth century inheritor of Bergsonian thought, Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze the cosmos is one made up of vital fluxes and flows, in which all things have creative energy, and life is a tussle between ‘becoming’, transformation, and stasis, in which things rise up from and return to an originary chaos Deleuze terms ‘chaosmos’. Deleuze’s ‘chaosmos’ can be considered as analogous to the prima materia, or first matter, of the alchemists, which was thought to be a primeval formlessness from which all matter arises.

For some weeks after the incident of the white wyrak, the story’s narrator and Kalina are afflicted by a disease of the skin, large white pimples appearing all over their bodies. But in time these pustules fade leaving no trace. In another of Grabiński’s tales, ‘The Black Hamlet’, soot and illness are also linked, though the narrator of this story does not escape as lightly as that of ‘The White Wyrak’.

Having fallen asleep drinking tea in an armchair in his rooms, the narrator of ‘The Black Hamlet’ finds himself on a lonely road, walking through a barren landscape. He walks on, crosses a stream, then finds the terrain around him changes rapidly:

The grass disappeared, replaced by the glistening, metallic blackness of coal. Everything was covered with thick coal-dust, lumps of slag, dross and tarry soot.

He enters a gloomy hamlet of ramshackle black houses by a polluted lake, where ashes lie on the ground. There is a stench of sulphur and asphalt. There’s no greenery, save some sere bushes bearing putrid fruits that crumble in the narrator’s fingers into dust, ‘empty like a puff-ball.’ Strange black vultures circle overhead. The narrator catches sight of a group of people, hooded, shaking rattles. He then sees, in a doorway, an alluring woman. She takes him into her hut, which is luxuriously furnished. The woman is sensuous, and after a time the narrator and she kiss. She then bites him and reveals she is a leper, the daughter of the King of Lepers, and that she has possessed him for the leprous tribe. Seizing a dagger from the wall, the narrator stabs her, then runs, pursued by the village’s strange inhabitants and the evil black birds. He faints, before coming to in his rooms, the dagger in his hand, a bite on his cheek, and coal dust on his shoes and in his room. It is thought, when he tells others of the incident and hands himself over to the police as a murderer, that he has merely suffered a nervous breakdown, but he later develops the signs of leprosy.

At the opening of the story, before he tells his account, the desperate, cursed narrator ponders the difference between dreams and reality:

Is there another reality beyond this one? Can one, sometimes, in some exceptional circumstances, cross over to the other side? Can one bring back a ‘souvenir’ – ha, ha, ha! – a ‘keepsake’?

Grabiński’s work often touches on the blurred lines between dreams and reality, often concerns the power of the imagination to transform the world, to reveal hitherto hidden properties, for good and ill. He may have been, by a colloquial definition, a solipsist, but in the philosophical sense he is anything but. His stories betray a belief in an external reality, but one which is mutable to a mind potent and focussed enough. In the introduction to his Creative Evolution, the book in which he sets out his thesis of élan vital, Bergson, in an aside, as a counterexample to his thesis that consciousness is tied to the material, and thus to evolutionary processes, writes:

A mind born to speculate or to dream, I admit, might remain outside reality, might deform or transform the real, perhaps even create it – as we create the figures of men and animals that our imagination cuts out of the passing cloud.

It may be that Grabiński took a hint from this. In his story, ‘The Area’, he formulates a fictional counterpart, an obscure visionary writer, Wrzesmian, whose work, unlike that of other authors, which is always tied to the real world, is totally fantastic, disunited from reality and free from influences, allusions, and allegories. But even this leaves him unsatisfied and, led by a theory that any thought or fiction, no matter how audacious or insane, can one day be materialized, he abandons words as a creative medium. For many years he works on the projection of his thoughts, but with little success.

But then he begins, with his imagination, to create an unseen world within a gloomy abandoned villa across the street from his rooms. He calls forth from the eerie house frail figures. They grown in number, and in the degree of hatred apparent in their expressions. Then one night they beckon Wrzesmian over, and he obeys. When he enters the house, they demand his blood, to fortify them, give them a fuller life. They tear him apart. Afterwards something is born from a water butt in the house, a monstrosity that staggers out from the house heading for the treeline of a distant forest. But it dissolves with the first light of dawn, all Wrzesmian’s intense imaginings dispersed. This story can be read as an allegory of Grabiński’s own approach to composition, his fear his writings would somehow cause him harm, and his despair they would not last. But it also illustrates the transmutative principle that seems to have been at the bottom of Grabiński’s philosophy; a psyche intense enough can act on base matter and call forth life, though it may be a life both hostile and ephemeral. In the story Wrzesmian describes his ‘firm conviction that any thought, even the most audacious, that any fiction, even the most insane, can one day materialize and see its fulfilment in space and time.’

Grabiński’s highly distinctive worldview, his hope that through fiction he could act upon reality and transform it, was a powerful and unique addition to the Weird. In his stories, he is like the narrator of ‘The White Wyrak’ passing on the weird lore of his profession to his boys, to his successors, a lore that has made possible many subsequent strands of strange writing. And as Kalina, the narrator’s own master says:

Something vindictive resides in soot, something evil lurks there. You never know what will emerge from it, or when.

And what historically has been one of the most common substances used in the manufacture of ink? For handwriting and for printing? Blacking and ash. Soot.

3 replies to “101 Weird Writers #45 — Stefan Grabiński

  1. Great article. I loved that story in the collection, and also read The Dark Domain which has a ton of original ideas I’ve never seen used elsewhere, despite it’s age.

    Quick question, I wondered if you guys were going to put together a best weird fiction list for 2016 like you did for 2015?

  2. Such authors will never become popular and it’s great. Their creations are fathomless for people with the routine lifestyle and prejudiced outlook. The world will become utopian if the majority starts reading Grabiński. Poor Stefan, his imagination and clairvoyance were magnificent, his personality remains otherworldly to this day, but somehow his ego couldn’t comprehend why he was misunderstood. He should have been grateful for being considered weird because only the weirdest ones may fathom his ideas and find keys to arcane secrets.

    I highly appreciate that mysterious moment when I discovered Stefan Grabiński, when I read the first sentence of his creation… I suppose it was “The Grey Room”. Then, I even didn’t know that each new story is more bizarre and grotesque than the other… I couldn’t anticipate the effect of “Szamota’s Lover” on my brain. It blew my mind, indeed, though I’m quite immune to the whimsicality. From that very first sentence, I felt the connection with this book, it’s one of those precious literary gems a fastidious booklover is looking for…