This 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.
Eric Basso (1947 — ) is an American poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, born in Baltimore, Maryland. “The Beak Doctor” novella reprinted herein has had a cult following among avant-garde gothic writers since it was first published by the Chicago Review in 1977. Since then he has published a novel, several plays, many poetry collections, and a book of nonfiction. In part, “The Beak Doctor” reads like a modern, more Joycean version of the first selection in this anthology, Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side,” in that the nameless city is plagued by a strange sleeping sickness. Despite being criminally overlooked, Basso is an important part of the landscape of weird fiction. As part of Eric Basso Week here on Weird Fiction Review, we are proud to present an examination (and appreciation) of “The Beak Doctor,” as written by regular contributor Larry Nolen. — Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
Now I will try to keep awake. The fog. They must have come for me before morning. Empty streets. Across a dimly lit room. She lay in the shadows. The steps. One at a time. Not that I’m old. It was the mask. Plaster chipped off the walls. She lay asleep on a couch. A network of cracks and branching veins like the surface of an antique painting. Chiaroscuro. Figures half formed. And she was naked. Little water-blots the color of rust. An odor of disinfectant emanated from the bannisters. Mothballs. The smell on my hands as I return there. From the bottom of the rickety stairs I could make out the febrile glow of a bulb screwed into the pitted ceiling on the landing. Step-shadows dwindling over the tips of my shoes as I neared the top.
Eric Basso’s novella, “The Beak Doctor” (1976) is a fascinating example of how a writer can utilize syntax to create a sense of dissolution, alienation, or weirdness. Each sentence in this opening paragraph contributes to the creation of an eerie, dark, desolate state. We first learn that there is apprehension behind the desire not to fall asleep, that there is something in the fog, a nebulous “they,” and “they” have visited the narrator at some point before he begins his narration. This mystery is further stoked by references to a “she” lying asleep on a couch nearby, with “figures half formed” around her nude body. Musty “mothball” smells and “febrile” lights serve to heighten the atmospheric effect of this creepy enigma that the narrator struggles to comprehend. It is astonishing that in a single paragraph, Basso has not only established the setting but also constructed it in such a fashion that the environs are as much a central part of “The Beak Doctor” as the erstwhile protagonist.
As the story unfolds and the narrator wanders through a city afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness, he encounters strange sights, such as a “headless shirt with no visible legs. One bare arm reaches slowly for the glass stem. Suddenly the hand draws back, as though a spark had passed from the smoky helix through the tip of one of its fingers.” There are even deeper, weirder mysteries to be encountered as he moves on through the city.
“The Beak Doctor” is an early example of how Basso utilizes sounds, smells, and strange sights to create arresting prose and poetic passages, a creative direction found in much of his writing. In his first, and thus far only, short fiction collection, also titled The Beak Doctor, the story “Gothick Eschatology” depends heavily upon the atmosphere created when “a wheezing bellows noise caroms off the brinks at her back: air whistling through a hairline fissure in the dome of the bell.” Such a detail helps enhance this gothic-inspired tale of anguished longing and horrific discovery. Basso does not always use auditory and olfactory depictions to create the desired narrative effect (in the story “Equus Caballus,” also found in The Beak Doctor, it is his use of intruding narratives that serves to jar the reader from any presumed comfort with the story). However, such details are employed in “The Beak Doctor” to explore the darker, more uncomfortable elements of human life, as hinted at in this paragraph:
The rain, half drowned by the din of a huge ventilation fan, came down in torrents on the corrugated roof. He was straining over a load of weather-beaten paperbacks. One small gap left in the shelves. For the girl in white under the leaning oak by moonlight, with the mansion tilting its cavernous porches, ricketing back in the distance. His face, lit from below by the jaundiced flame of a cigarette lighter. An upper room. Confessions under the draftsman’s lamp. Unaccountable losses. Crosswords. Enough to fill the absences between the sound of a gravelly morning voice.
Often, writers either use modifiers in the wrong places or they fear that using them will create stilted “purple prose” that ruins the narrative flow. Basso for the most part employs these modifiers expertly. Re-read the above passage and see if your mind lingers a bit on “weather-beaten paperbacks” or “cavernous porches.” There certainly is something unsettling about a “jaundiced flame” that creates this sickly, off-kilter portrayal of what might otherwise seem to be an average, ordinary room. But these descriptions, evocative as they may seem, serve to complement a greater internal battle that is being fought. “Confessions under the draftman’s lamp” seems to hint at something affecting a human soul; this is amplified with the comment that this was “enough to fill the absences between the sound of a gravelly morning voice.” Instead of focusing on sounds and how they relate to human relations, Basso chooses, in this instance (as he does elsewhere in the story), to emphasize the absence of such jovial sounds.
In the passages between the ones cited so far, the mystery of the sleeping city is slowly revealed. The bodies found laying about the city are in turn deposited into the care of a possibly nefarious entity to be found on the other side of the afflicted city. As the narrator travels across a landscape strewn with malfunctioning machinery and dense, ominous fog, the narrative becomes more and more detached, as if it were an entity that has alienated itself from its narrator. Things seem to be on the verge of dissolution, as described in part of a paragraph three-quarters into the story:
Temperature seems to play a crucial role in determining the degree of dematerialization of any given part of the body. The pathology, here, is elemental. The tip of the nose, the ears, the toes, and often the buttocks, being anywhere from a quarter to a full two degrees cooler than the normal bodily temperature, tend to retain their density over a longer period of time than those organs and tissue which are normally concealed by the epidermal layer. One way to retard the illness, then, would be to keep the patient constantly exposed to the cold which, however, would almost certainly result in pneumonia or some other complication. The process of dematerialization is such that, once the cutaneous envelope becomes affected, the glands, the musculature, the lymphatic and circulatory systems, being from one to four degrees warmer, will already be too far gone by the time the skin has begun to effervesce, removing all possibility of an early diagnosis. The incubation period is unknown. One cannot be absolutely certain that the dematerialization is in any way connected to the endless sleep.
Basso balances the horrific dissolution of a body with a cold, clinical voice that strips the horror away, leaving instead a detached description that is unsettling because it is simultaneously intimate (could such a thing happen to us/the narrator?) and distant, as if the narrator has become alienated from not just his fellow humans, but also life itself. Alienation certainly is an integral part of Basso’s work, whether he is writing prose, drama, or poetry. It plays a major role in the conclusion of “The Beak Doctor” and in much of his writing in general, including several of his other fictions (the dramatic final scene in “The Beak Doctor” has a parallel with the conclusion to “Gothick Eschatology,” where the protagonist struggles to remove the veil that lies across the face of a beloved one). All told, “The Beak Doctor” and the other stories in that eponymous collection carry a variety of elements that reappear in other works. “Equestrian Scenes” and “Equus Caballus” both contain an intensity of language and metaphor that are emblematic of the stories found in this collection, a quality also found in Basso’s later poetry and dramas. Meanwhile, the mini-stories contained within “Logues,” with their short, sharp, staccato bursts, read almost like an embryonic form of the dream passages written down in Revegations.
The weird in ”The Beak Doctor” and in several of his other works symbolizes our own inept struggles to constrain, contain, and conceive just what constitutes those elemental forces that shape our daily lives. Basso’s writing unsettles us because his narratives pierce us to the quick, laying us open to forced consideration of things that we dare not dwell upon, lest we risk our sanity. Very few writers have this ability, and in “The Beak Doctor,” as with his dramas, prose, and poetry, Basso plumbs the depths of human repulsion/fascination with the unconscionable in a memorable, unsettling fashion.