“The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats
Reviewed in this column:
The Man who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé, trans. Sophie Lewis (Pushkin Press, London, 2012)
Requiems and Nightmares by Guido Gozzano, trans. Brendan and Anna Connell (Hieroglyphic Press, 2012)
The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andrew Duncan (PS Publishing Ltd, 2012)
Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford (William Morrow, NY, 2012)
At the Mouth of the River of Bees and Other Stories by Kij Johnson (Small Beer Press, 2012)
We Bury the Landscape by Kristine Ong Muslim (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012)
In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all. He wore pince-nez and a small black goatee, and was a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Records. In winter he would take the bus to work, and in fine weather he would make the journey on foot, in his bowler hat.
In this column, I try not to taxonomise the weird so much as point out places where it has lately manifested itself and discuss the nature of that manifestation; if it helps, think of the column as a field-spotter’s guide. In fairness, with a title like The Man Who Walked Through Walls, this collection of short stories, by the French writer, Marcel Aymé (Pushkin Press, London, 2012, trans. Sophie Lewis), doesn’t necessarily take that much spotting. But a title is one thing; the stories themselves might not live up to that promise.
Yet the first paragraph of the title story, quoted at the head of this section, immediately suggests otherwise. It’s a prime example of one way of presenting the weird, as part of something so ordinary as to be utterly unremarkable. Dutilleul’s ‘singular gift’ seems to be no more important to the narrator than his appearance or his daily habit, though of course this is also intended as a teaser, insofar as you read the line, continue on through the thrilling account of Dutilleul’s banal daily life before suddenly braking mentally and then backing up several sentences, to see if you really had just read what you thought you’d read. To find that, yes, actually, you had.
To judge from the stories gathered in this collection from Pushkin Press (and here I should note that quite apart from the quality of the stories themselves, this is an exquisite little paperback edition which sits sweetly in the hand, with everything about it being just right) this is very much Marcel Aymé’s modus operandi. He seems to work from the assumption that what he is saying is in fact perfectly ordinary; it is for the reader to remark upon its oddity. His job is simply to unfold the idea and take it to its logical extent. Thus, despite having discovered by accident, during a power cut, that he has the ability to walk through walls, M. Dutilleul goes to a doctor to see about having the skill excised because he has no use for it. The doctor’s pills seem unsuccessful, and Dutilleul carries on with life until he acquires a new boss, who makes his life a misery, at which point it occurs to Dutilleul that he may just have a way of getting his own back.
And granted, if you were to keep coming into your office to find the head of a particularly recalcitrant employee seemingly ‘hanging’ on your wall, making rude remarks, it might just tip you over the edge. And similarly, if you had genuinely just driven your boss to distraction, life might afterwards seem ever so slightly tame, prompting you to find new ways of amusing yourself, like … ooh, I don’t know, committing insoluble crimes, and then ensuring you were caught so you could commit impossible escapes …
Other stories in this collection include ‘The Sabine Women’, about the avatars of Sabine, who has the gift of ubiquity; ‘The Tickets of Time’, which deals with shortages by permitting non-productive members of society only a certain number of days of life per month, and ‘The Problem of Summertime’ which addresses the ways in which we control time. Other stories are perhaps more immediately absurdist rather than weird in their affect but Aymé’s fascination with the twisting of logic persists throughout.
I’d not come across the work of Marcel Aymé before this collection, and my understanding is that although he was a prolific writer very little of his oeuvre is now available in English (although Pushkin Press has published one previous collection of his stories). It seems to me to be a terrible shame that more is not available.
If the weirdness of Marcel Aymé’s fiction lies hidden in plain view, so to speak, the stories of an earlier writer, Guido Gozzano, seem to belong to a more familiar type, with first-person accounts of strange encounters, mysteries lying long unresolved, carefully evoked gothic atmospheres and so on, and yet even then something is still not quite ‘right’ about the stories. Somehow, they twist in the reader’s mind and set off in other, more unexpected directions. Take the opening story of Requiems and Nightmares (Hieroglyphic Press, 2012, trans. Brendan and Anna Connell), ‘The Real Face’: here the narrator is hearing what has happened to old friends while he has been away from Italy for a couple of years, among them the artist Nino Prandi. ‘The mad are like the dead: one must forget about them; life is pressing’ but something drives the narrator to decide to visit Prandi, be it sadness at return or some sort of vanity. ‘I wanted to see him again, be recognised, make him talk.’
The journey to the asylum, taken on foot, like a pilgrimage, gives the narrator the chance to recall his acquaintanceship with Prandi, a man obsessed with animals, whose studio contained ‘a fox, a lynx, a squirrel, an ermine, a caiman, a giant squid’, the last a thing so preposterous one doesn’t so much query the artist’s sanity as the narrator’s in claiming it. The artist’s fancy is that he can discern animal-like characteristics in his sitters, and when they sit for their portraits he incorporates these characteristics. And yet, strangely, while viewers often see the likeness, the sitters never do, much to the amusement of the artist’s friends.
What happened to Prandi while the narrator was away is never made entirely clear except that it would seem his habit of linking people and beasts has completely overwhelmed him; now he sees the creature rather than the human. The narrator’s conviction that with him it will be different, that he will somehow win through to Prandi’s sanity when everyone else has failed – his description of himself as ‘more than a relative’ intrigues the reader but lies in the text unexplained – is of course dashed. He leaves, only to find himself lingeringly haunted by something that Prandi said during their final meeting.
In some respects, ‘The Real Face’ is perhaps atypical in that it twists its shape only at the end. In another story, ‘A perverse desire has taken hold of me’, says one character, ‘a need to make others suffer as I do’ and it is this impulse that seems to drive so many of Gozzano’s tales, for the reader as well as the character. So often, Gozzano toys as much with the reader as with the characters, as in ‘The Handsome Hound’, promising much, offering strange temptations, only for the promise to be dashed at the last moment in an unanticipated moment of rejection. ‘The Altar of the Past’ offers a mystery of a locked room yet when the contents are revealed to the narrator, his incomprehension is all the greater for his failure to understand the reason for their presence in the first place. In the end, such is the power of Gozzano’s ability to develop an atmosphere, the more straightforward a story turns out to be in its resolution, the more disappointing it begins to seem. These odd little stories worm their way under the skin in a most peculiar fashion.
Like Aymé’s, Gozzano’s is a new name to me; a generation older than Aymé, born in 1883, he is clearly influenced by the European symbolist writers as well as by the likes of Oscar Wilde and, as Brendan Connell’s Introduction notes, by D’Annunzio and Arturo Graf. Again, this volume is a welcome addition to the bookshelves though I must also note that it is marred in places by a variety of typographical errors, some irritating, others, such as missing footnotes and inaccurate running titles, more annoying.
The other collections I’ll be looking at this time round come from contemporary American writers, so various considerations about the territorial and historical flavours of the weird will inevitably come into play. Andrew Duncan’s The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories (PS Publishing Ltd, 2012) is perhaps the most overtly ‘weird’ in terms of subject matter, in that Duncan has a taste for the Fortean and this often features in his writing. The stories in this collection deal among other things with ‘real’ zombies, voodoo, The Winchester Mystery House and Flannery O’Connor’s pet chicken. But it is not the subject matter that defines them as ‘weird’ for my purposes (no matter how peculiar a story’s subject might be, this does not necessarily and immediately transform it into a ‘weird’ story, as this column’s slush pile only too clearly shows). Nor, for that matter, is it the setting. True, Duncan’s work very often uses early twentieth-century southern US settings, which immediately suggest ‘southern gothic’, and a number of his stories are clearly in dialogue with such ideas, using the macabre and the ironic to look at social issues. At the same time, Duncan’s use of the fantastic somehow steps to one side even in a genre which supposedly employs the fantastical for particular effect.
‘Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse’ provides a good example of this. It’s based on true events: the young Mary O’Connor of Milledgeville had a pet chicken which she taught to walk backwards. It’s one of those offbeat stories so beloved of news reels in the early twentieth century and sure enough the internet offers up a brief clip of Mary O’Connor’s chicken. We know, of course, that Mary would become Flannery, one of the finest writers of the twentieth century but the clip offers a moment when this might have been all there was, the most exciting event of O’Connor’s life. At the same time, there would still have been that lingering question – not so why did she do it as what kind of child would do such a thing in the first place? A remarkable one, clearly, and one who will become a writer. And this, for me, is the joy of the story as the young Mary spars with her rather unimaginative family and a priest who is way, way out of his depth in dealing with a chicken called Jesus, and the repercussions of that encounter.
It is, though, ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’, that sticks in my mind most clearly as a ‘weird’ tale. Here, Duncan take the hobo story of a mythical land of plenty with lemonade springs and every other kind of comfort and wonder, and transforms it into a life-and-death struggle to maintain the very integrity of the belief when someone wants to leave the land of plenty – after all, why would anyone want to leave? It’s a good question though it’s also Duncan’s choice of viewpoint that makes this work so well. It seems strange to suggest that one might find the weird in a story that’s so offbeat to begin with but that’s the joy of this collection. Its weirdness seems so … well, ‘ordinary’, in that it appears to fit comfortably into the landscape and be unremarked upon because, well, this is how the world ought to be anyway, and yet still there are stories that catch the reader unexpectedly.
Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace (William Morrow, 2012) steers a similar course between the unremarked and the remarkable, though where Duncan’s stories begin from a position of seeming familiarity and gradually unfold into strangeness, Ford’s stories seem to begin from the point of being at least a little out of step with the world. Wherever one finds them, his stories somehow look as though they don’t quite fit, as though they could use a little easing at some point or other. I came across ‘The Coral Heart’ in a collection of sword and sorcery stories, for example, and though it was quite the best story in the anthology I was hard-pressed to argue that it was a sword and sorcery story at all. All the elements were there but somehow it was as though a connection wasn’t quite being made as it should be. Throughout, one was conscious of looking at the story as story, weighing its relative merits as what it claimed to be, while knowing instinctively that it was something else altogether … but what?
It’s a point Ford raises in the note to one of his stories, ‘Daltharee’, about a bottled city; it’s a story which, as he comments’, ‘just barely misses adding up and making sense’, a deliberate move on his part as ‘I was interested for a while in stories that are made to be consciously misshapen or broken in some way’. It seems to me, though, that this just barely missing adding up is a characteristic of a certain kind of weird story – the gap between sense and something else is infinitesimal, barely even visible, and yet in some way one cannot fail to notice it even while not seeing it.
This emerges most clearly perhaps in Ford’s first-person narratives, the ones featuring a writer called Jeff Ford and his wife, Lynn, the stories that actually look more like afterwords from the beginning. Is this a story? Is this something ‘real’ or is Ford spoofing the listener? The more one listens along, the more difficult it becomes to be certain just what is going on. ‘The Double of My Double Is Not My Double’ is a case in point: how many doubles can one person have, and do the doubles have doubles? The idea teeters on the brink of insanity but so long as you don’t examine it too closely the world just about holds together. Press too closely and everything we take for granted begins to crumble away. same for stories like ‘Down Atsion Road’ and ‘86 Deathdick Road’; perhaps it’s a New Jersey thing, though it spills out into so many of Ford’s other stories, like ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’, a story of jazz and an evening on the town that never seems to end so often does it change.
It took me a long time to work out what it was about the titular story in Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Small Beer Press, 2012) that was so strange, I mean, apart from the idea of a river of bees in the first place, though this didn’t seem to disturb me. I was doing something else entirely when the thought suddenly popped into my head: ‘the river of bees moves uphill’. It is the small moment of oddity that catches one unaware even as one accepts the reality of the broader peculiarity. Thus, we accept the fact that Linna and Sam, her elderly dog, are engaged in a journey rich in metaphor when they begin their road trip. Sam is clearly dying and the trip will most likely be their last together. We understand that Linna’s suddenly finding she’s driven as far as Montana is emblematic of her reluctance to let go of Sam. Even the idea of the Bee River, an intermittent phenomenon, isn’t that surprising; out beyond the urban boundaries, in the territory of freeways and big skies, why shouldn’t there be bee rivers as well? Why not find the source of the bee river? Officer Tabor recognises the call in Linna, perhaps unsurprisingly as his own father before him had similarly responded to the call. We know the outcome of this journey even before Linna undertakes it but still something strange persists. We accept the existence of the bee river and yet there is no reason for the bee river and no one seems to need there to be. And the mouth of the river lies uphill.
There is in this story a certain inherent trust in the universe to keep on doing what it does, irrespective of what we think, and most of Johnson’s most overtly ‘weird’ stories contain this. Indeed, in ‘26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss’, Geof, Aimee’s boyfriend, says as much, knowing that things for the most part make sense. Or rather, he accepts that things make sense, that 26 monkeys climb into a bath tub each night onstage, vanish and turn up later that night. It doesn’t actually matter that they go or indeed where they go, it matters that they come back. By the same token, does it matter that the dogs of North Park talk to Linna, in ‘The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change’? It’s not the talking that is significant but the stories themselves that are important. We must accept the things we most want to query.
All of which suggests that one strand of the weird invites us to reconsider entirely how we tell stories and how we understand them. I’ve been thinking about this every time I come back to Kristine Ong Muslim’s We Bury The Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012). Subtitled ‘An Exhibition-Collection’ it’s a collection of flash fictions written in response to a series of paintings. Reproductions of the paintings are not included in the collection, perhaps not surprisingly, although Muslim has provided a webpage with links to all the paintings she’s written about. The question has been all along, should I read/look simultaneously, or should I simply read and hope the fictions make sense depending on how I visualise the paintings. Or, and this seems to me to be the most interesting approach creatively, do I simply read, creating a story from my imagination as I link the pieces together, and simultaneously create a new exhibition in my mind’s eye?
Which has brought us a very long way from M. Dutilleul’s casual rejection and then embracing of his ability to pass through walls yet I suspect that the weird resides now, as it has always done, in that moment of decision to do or not do.