The Gallows-Horse

"In its larval stage of development, it began to fully appear as a...linguistic crypto-object."

With the publication of Cyclonopedia, Reza Negarestani catapulted to the forefront of the most interesting uncanny writers of the twenty-first century. Given that his work partakes heavily of nonfiction forms and of philosophical approaches to The Weird, even though also quite visceral, Negarestani may not be to everyone’s taste. But he is clearly the most original weird fiction writer to appear in recent years, lauded by, among others, China Mieville (who first introduced us to his work). We were so taken by Cyclonopedia that we reprinted an excerpt in our The Weird compendium and also commissioned the following brilliant original story, “The Gallows-Horse,” for our anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. It was written based on the Mieville art also reproduced below. - Ann & Jeff VanderMeer


Museum: Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects, Saragossa, Spain

Exhibitions: The Secret History of Objects; The Center for Catoptrics and Optical Illusions; Hall of the Man-Object

Creators and Causes: Objects themselves; Deviant phenomenal models of reality; Neurolinguistic and cognitive distortions

Dates of manifestation: May 4, 1808 – 1820(?); July 1936-January 1961; January 2003

Title: The gallows-horse

Objectal mediums: Gaspar Bermudez (Spanish, 1759 – 1820), Thackery T. Lambshead (British, 1900 – 2003)

Also known as the Edifice of the Weird, the gallows-horse is the highlight of the Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects. Simultaneously being displayed in three distinct and permanent exhibitions, the gallows-horse presents the four basic criteria of the museum — Immateriality, Intangibility, Elusiveness and Ephemeral manifestations. Gallows-horse was first brought to the attention of the museum’s board of experts and trustees by an international collective of researchers consisting of art and science historians, linguists and philosophers who were commissioned by the Universities of Oxford and Exeter to index and organize the notes and memoirs of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, a prominent British medical scientist, explorer and collector of esoteric arts and exotic objects. These notes, according to the research collective, include references to various objects and artworks collected by Dr. Lambshead during his lifetime. Whilst the majority of these references have been traced to tangible corporeal objects currently on display in various international museums, there were also scattered allusions to objects which did not have any record in museums or private collections. Either ravaged by a fire which broke out in Dr. Lambshead’s private residential collection or lost during his lifetime, nearly all of these objects — thanks to engineering and technological interventions — are now visually reconstructed through digital simulation.

(Art by China Mieville)

In the late stages of documentation, however, the research collective came upon a concluding remark written by Dr. Lambshead regarding an alleged and final item added to the collection before his death. In a presumably closing remark marking the completion of the collection, Dr. Lambshead writes:

January 28, 2003: It is not about the question of part-whole relationships, it is not even about the question of possible combinations of different objects, it is about the self-improvising reality of objects — unapproachable and incommensurable with our perception — that could rise to gallows horse just as it could rise to either horse or gallows, or something fundamentally different, or nothing at all. Even in its most kitsch material forms, the gallows-horse rises from the pandemonium of objects. A collection without such a thing is simply a tawdry carnival that spotlights human perception and displays our mental bravado instead of objects themselves. […] Today I erected the gallows-horse as the final and crowning piece of the wonder-room.

It is this emphatic reference to the final and crowning piece that made us reexamine [his] notes in search of the gallows-horse,” says Professor Rachel Pollack, one of the researchers appointed to index and categorize the bulk of writings penned by Dr. Lambshead. The first reference to the gallows-horse dates back to January 10, 1936, when Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead writes in his journal “The sky is clear and the gallows-horse reigns; canaries sing from crogdaene.” For more than two decades, references to the gallows-horse persist always in the context of such enigmatic sentences that undulate between brief cryptic notes and self-invented semantic structures, and are always preceded by an exact date. For example a note from July 15, 1953, reads, “The Salamian began to sink Ariabignes’ boat. When a man runs out of the steam of history, it is in our best interest to restore the history to a previous state when that man did not exist or make that man mount the gallows-horse.” Or “December 3, 1958: In the wake of recent incidents, my pain is rekindled every night either by the fear of death or even worse, by the fear of riding the gallows-horse at a gallop.”

I. Gallows-horse at The Secret History of Objects (Second floor, Room 6)

The letter to the Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects states that none of the early references to the gallows-horse written between 1936 to 1959 described or even identified it as an object or a thing. During this period the gallows-horse continually appeared in the form of a chameleonic crypt or a cipher that opportunistically mimicked the semantic context of the sentence or the phrase it inhabited. It has been unanimously confirmed by the members of the research collective that in its larval stage of development between 1936 to 1959 before it began to fully appear as an object – at least as objects are commonly known – the gallows-horse has been a linguistic crypto-object with parasitic behaviors. “Like a menace which must be assimilated by its foes to defeat them from within,” the research collective emphasizes, “the early form of the gallows-horse tends to adapt — in the most esoteric way — whatever meaning the sentence that hosts it conveys. This uncanny linguistic crypto-object demonstrates its independent reality by moulding the world of the conscious and thinking subject around itself, literally thinking the subject that thinks it.”

During its incubation period, the gallows-horse was simply feeding off of contexts and linguistic connections in Dr. Lambshead’s notes and memories in order to build an empty cognitive carapace around itself. In this period, therefore, the gallows-horse cannot be understood in terms of an emerging thing, whether this new thing would be an idea, a thought or a corporeal object. Adamantly refusing to be considered as something (let alone a unified thing made of a gallows and a horse), the gallows-horse is the very personification of the primordial death of all meaning par excellence that oscillates between sense and non-sense depending on its mode of deployment against the parameters of human perception. In this early linguistic incubation period, the deeper you dig into the context where the gallows-horse is buried, the more promiscuous you find the gallows-horse is in relation to its semantic and semiotic neighbors. In digging for the true gallows-horse, you simply dig out nothing. In its basal form – that is the gallows-horse before it is born as a distinct idea and is manifestly imagined – the gallows-horse can be anything precisely because it is nothing.(1)

The Secret History of Objects is proud to present Naught-horse-Naught-gallows, an equivocally inexistent object that linguistically manifested as the gallows-horse from 1936 to 1959 throughout notes attributed to Thackery T. Lambshead — a meaning-feigning crypto-object which not only reveals a tenaciously alien yet meaningless expanse behind its ideated components which are “horse” and “gallows” but also worms itself into the semantic foundation of its context, eroding it so thoroughly that only a depth devoid of meaning, significance and ghosts remains.(2)

II. Gallows-horse at The Center for Catoptrics and Optical Illusions (Second Floor, Room 9) 

The second life of the gallows-horse as an intangible object began December 15, 1959, when for the first time Dr. Lambshead directly addressed the gallows-horse as an object by obliquely writing on the ambivalent aspects of the gallows-horse:

I dreamed of myself dancing on the gallows-horse, hanging to its neck, swaying on its back, trotting with the rest of the herd. How can a horse take you to the gallows when the gallows is the horse? It is not a euphemism for death nor does it realize the literality of a horse carrying the convict to the gallows. As far as the nomenclature is concerned, it can be the horse-gallows as much as it can be the gallows-horse. There is no distance between the gallows and the horse to be either stretched or traversed. Yet despite the absence of such a distance, the gallows and the horse retain their distinct identities, the horse is still a horse and the gallows is still an inanimate edifice. But the curious aspect of this object is how can the horse and the gallows be united as one without one being the extension of the other or without a substantial change in their nature necessary for the intimacy and entanglement of the animate with the inanimate?

For less than two years, a scarce number of comments on the gallows-horse were made by Dr. Lambshead. These comments have frequently been presented in the form of bewildering riddles regarding the unified nature of the gallows-horse as one object in which both the gallows and the horse retain their distinct identities in one way or another without veering toward monstrous or marvelous categories. This “period of second advent” (as it is stated in the letter to the Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects) lead the research collective to believe that what Dr. Lambshead was calling the gallows-horse should be none other than the Equcrux which is also known as the cross-horse or the Spanish sphinx.

During the Spanish War of Independence (1808−1814), two days after civilian residents of Madrid stood in rebellion against the occupation of the ruthless French army and one day after the massacre of the same Spanish civilians by Bonaparte’s army, on May 4, 1808, on a hilltop outside of Madrid a small French task force handpicked by Marshal Joachim Dandy-King Murat had prepared the gallows for hanging a Spanish traitor who was also a renowned and talented portraitist named Gaspar Bermudez. Being an artist friend of Francisco Goya, Bermudez certainly did not share Goya’s more patriotic sentiments. He had been providing the French troops with vital military and inside-palace information since the beginning of war. But on the first of May, he had inadvertently given erroneous information to the French army stationed in Madrid, contributing to the rebellion of the second of May and the flowing of French blood in the streets of Madrid. Marshal Murat had ordered the execution of Bermudez immediately after repressing the uprising, but he later changed his mind and decided to subject the Spanish artist to a humiliating mock execution instead. This was mainly due to the popularity of Bermudez as a gifted portraitist among Royal and wealthy French patrons including Murat who had Bermudez paint seven different portraits of himself.

Reportedly minutes before sunrise, the French soldiers take Bermudez to the gallows riding on a horse, they perform their short everyday ritual by putting the noose around Bermudez’s neck and charging the horse. The gallows having been manipulated by the French soldiers possessed two adjacent nooses, a fake and a real noose. Once the horse leaps forward, Bermudez finds himself — perhaps after a minute or two lost in terror — with a second noose around his neck, fallen on his chest on the ground. As he raises his head, he sees the sun dawning and an opaque light that permeates between the gallows, the neighing horse and a patch of swampy ground in which the horse is rearing, transiently filling the gap between all three objects (that is the waterlogged patch of earth, the horse and the gallows). And Gaspar Bermudez beholds what he later calls the Equcrux, a spectral object consisting of three distinct identities (the soggy earth, the horse and the gallows) seamlessly fixed upon each other in a fashion that the horse was beheaded by the gallows and the quaggy patch of earth was inseparable yet categorically distinct from the hooves. The Equcrux, according to the Spaniard himself, was an object that had been created outside of the infinite possibilities which were given to the worlds of the horse, the gallows, the waterlogged earth and even the aurora as separate objects; it was a spectral gradient between the animate and the inanimate, a frozen instance of transgression from the realm of the individual objects toward a universe in which things were always anonymous until now.

The figure of the Equcrux enjoyed a brief popularity after the war when Bermudez claimed himself as a war hero and mass-produced the spectral object as a kitsch symbol of the horrors of war branded as the Spanish sphinx, an object made of stuffed leather and wood in the form of a horse in rearing position whose body was attached to a modeled gallows from the base of the neck so that it had as its head, literally, the gallows. However, due to production constraints and additional costs it had been decided by Bermudez himself to abandon the third object, the quaggy patch of water which in the first models was unsuccessfully made of straw mixed with resin. In the course of a few years, the Spanish sphinx lost its national popularity after Gaspar Bermudez was finally brought to the Spanish court as a traitor and a national shame. The last vestiges of the Spanish sphinx as a figure of terror were erased from memories and flea markets when Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War was finally published in 1863.

As a part of The Center for Catoptrics and Optical Illusions, an inoperative replica of the Spanish sphinx has been installed with a patch of wet soil, a taxidermized horse and a wooden gallows brought together in an illuminated cubicle where these objects can no longer be conceived as the gallows-horse.

III. Gallows-horse in the Hall of the Man-Object (Third Floor) 

In 1920, an unpublished essay by the Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein entitled Gaspar Bermudez: A Case Study in the Spontaneous Shape of Trauma recounts a different analysis of the Spaniard’s spectral object. As Spielrein writes in the introduction to her essay, she came across a surprisingly well-preserved copy of a personal diary attributed to a Spanish portraitist named Gaspar Bermudez through a German collector and became growingly interested in the life of this obscure artist and his vision of the cross-horse. The diary, as Spielrein remarks, opens a secret passageway into the life of this enigmatic Spanish artist. A major portion of the diary deals with Bermudez’s intimate fascination with horses which obsessively asserts itself as a form of identification of his self with a horse or a drove of horses. The diary reveals that in conjunction with his main profession as the portraitist of Spanish and French nobles yet hidden from the eyes of the public, Bermudez had the habit of making self-portraits of himself as horses with different — subtly human— postures and facial expressions. This complete identification of his self and ego with a horse, Spielrein argues, eventually became a mental basis for the figure of the Equcrux or the cross-horse. During the mock execution, the humiliating blow that was inflicted on Bermudez’s outgrown and mutated ego forced the self — that is the Spaniard’s self — to shed part of itself in order to cope with the extreme and unbidden force of trauma that asserted itself not as a French executioner but as the gallows that firmly stood before his overthrown self and prostrate ego.

The act of shedding a part of the self in order to save the rest is in fact common among organisms (such as lizards shedding their tails or the so-called scratching tic) as a primitive yet powerful means of self-preservation. The curious and interesting aspect of Bermudez’s traumatic experience is that while he was degraded at the foot of the gallows, it was not his human self that cut off a part of itself but his earlier identification of his self with a horse. Since Bermudez’s ego had already fully identified with a horse, at the moment of the traumatizing blow, it was his equine self that cut parts of itself in order to save the integrity of the rest of the horse (or more accurately Bermudez’s full mental identification with a horse). When Bermudez’s ego dismembered itself to ensure the survival of the greater part, a void was left in his nervous system, a deep hole punctured in the horse that had already replaced the mental human image of his self. Knocked down at the foot of the gallows and his ego dismembered, Bermudez’s equine self had no option to restore its “lost chunk” (Spielrein) other than by filling in the new cavity with the invasive force of trauma that could neither be expelled nor be allowed to shatter the entire nervous system. The Cross-horse is precisely the mental object created by these traumatic tensions and breaches in Bermudez’s psychic structure, the beheaded horse was permanently trephinated by the gallows which was but the mental identification of the traumatic force. Spielrein writes that not only the damaged cervical vertebrate of the horse tightly locked into the wooden end of the gallows but also the intrusive traumatic force of the gallows impaled the horse from precisely where it had already torn off one of its parts. The upright pole of the gallows was re-erected as the restored cervical vertebrate of the horse, the triangle formed by the cross-beam its new cranium and the noose-hole the space between the mandible and the higher jaw.

An offspring of a traumatic invasion, a traumatic object with a spontaneous anatomical structure, the Equcrux intriguingly does not signify a receding tendency toward earlier states of the evolutionary chain. In other words for Bermudez, the trauma of the mock execution did not — unlike other instances of trauma and toppling of the ego — cause the individual to relapse into an earlier state of evolution when the species was still crawling due to the lack of spinal developments. On the contrary, the Equcrux melds the bestial locomotion or four-legged model of walking with the anatomy of a straightened spine which characterizes the bipedal species. The quadrupedal horse gets a new spine that exhibits the traits of a straightened — perhaps even too straightened — spinal curvature that has been transplanted by the L‑shaped and the obsessively perpendicular composition of the gallows. For this reason alone, the spinal anatomy of the Equcrux cannot be compared with the spinal formations in monstrous mental categories such as that of a centaur in which the curved spine of the horse shifts to the less curved spine of the human. In the Equcrux the spinal curvature is not produced by extending a more curved spine to a less curved one, it is the creation of a mathematical marriage between a curve (the quadrupedal spine) and a straight line (the gallows).

Spielrein continues by stating that from the day of the great humiliation onwards, the Equcrux became the sole mental and artistic image of the Spanish portraitist for it was not really a passing traumatic object any more but his very self and psychic structure that had turned into a full-fledged object. After a month-long pause, Bermudez recommenced writing his diaries which were this time exclusively dominated by his ambitious rants about replicating the Equcrux by any means or method of fabrication, and his immutable and recurring dreams wherein he was always a drove of gallows-horses rushing down in great numbers from a hilltop toward a city.

The Equcrux or Gaspar Bermudez as was traumatically conceived in the form of the gallows-horse is currently kept in the Hall of the Man-Object in an empty vitrine labeled Gasper Bermudez, the gallows-horse. A motto runs under the label: ¡Suelta a los raros!


(1) “It has been suggested that mimicry such as that of a chameleon is an impulse for dissolving back to the environment from which the individual was once relatively segregated; it is a force that is temporarily lent to the individual entity by nature. In using mimicry, the individual unconsciously utilizes the impulse for dissolution (or death) in order to gain some kind of profit (surviving, preying or living in harmony with something else). But in reality, in using mimicry the individual exercises the indifference of its environment to meaningful change and intention, that nature does not have any interest or motive to create meaningful differences and that even in its most cunning and meaningful acts the individual affirms the dissolution whereby all differences (including its own) and meanings are eradicated. The semantic mimicry that the gallows-horse undertakes is, in the same vein, neither a tendency to return to a meaningful semantic environment nor a meaningful yet cryptic act in itself. Instead, it is an act that reveals the fragile construction of meaning as the aftereffect of a compulsion to return to a meaningless abyss that precedes all patterns, signs and signifiers. The gallows-horse communicates a meaning by mimicking its sentential environment, and in doing so it demonstrates how meaning is the result of mimicry which is in fact a compulsion to flatten all semantic differences and return once again to the meaningless abyss that lingers behind the words horse and gallows, as well as any other word, sign, idea or image.” (Richard Graansvort, From Cryptography to Neurolinguistic Mimicry in Thackery T. Lambshead’s Memoirs, London: Samuel Buscard Institute, 2009)

(2) Shortly after the death of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead and the publication of a number of his memoirs, the pseudonymous Pravda Online columnist Novena Brines published an exposé on the life of the British scientist. According to Brines, Lambshead was an overseas coordinating officer of MI6 whose scientific journeys and seemingly scandalous communist sympathies were only shields to protect his true identity. Among the documents and sources that Brines cites as evidences and clues is Lambshead’s memoirs. Brines particularly focuses on the name gallows-horse. He considers gallows-horse as a codename or what he calls an operation-marker. Brines argues that in the majority of cases, the name gallows-horse marks an imminent launch of an operation. In his exposé, Brines cites as an example the note “January 10, 1936: The sky is clear and the gallows-horse reigns; canaries sing from crogdaene.” He explains that the note is dated one day before the British MI6 officers departed from Croydon Airport toward the Canary Islands in order to move and protect General Francisco Franco for the nationalist military coup that began with the code “Over all of Spain, the sky is clear” and ignited the Spanish Civil War. Brines, however, fails to provide any more convincing examples or concrete documents and mostly resorts to rumors to the extent that in a public apology, Pravda’s editor-in-chief called Brine’s speculation “a wild conspiracy theory more fitting for an American gossip column than Pravda”.

Reza Negarestani is an Iranian writer and philosopher who has worked in different areas of contemporary philosophy, speculative thought, and politics. These studies inform his stories, which tend to use the shell of nonfiction forms in a Borgesian way, often as a delivery system for the weird. His most recent book is Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), which is at once a horror fiction, an atlas of demonology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire. Perhaps the most innovative and audacious weird text of the decade, the book fuses Lovecraftian horror and Middle Eastern history with occult war machines and the U.S. “war on terror.”