Last year, Weird Fiction Review took a close look at a nearly forgotten treasure of cosmic horror, The Rim of Morning by William Sloane. Following on our enjoyment of that two-novel collection, we decided to delve into a slate of other releases from New York Review Books Classics, one of seven imprints published by The New York Review of Books. Since its first release in 1999 (Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica), NYRB Classics has resurrected hundreds of excellent novels, story collections, and works of nonfiction that might otherwise have languished in obscurity or remained unavailable in English, and they aren’t afraid to tackle high quality literature that explores the Weird. In 2015, they released Shadows of Carcosa, which featured classic authors of the form that will be familiar to most, such as Machen, Blackwood, Lovecraft, and Poe. The following is a look at some of our other favorites from their diverse roster that will appeal to WFR readers.
Memories of the Future, Autobiography of a Corpse, and The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
“Sutulin lurks in the confines of his standard issue 86-square-foot apartment until the stranger with the briefcase and the dark tube knocks. After purchasing the strange liquid inside, he diligently applies it to the walls between which he paces — or rather, attempts to pace – so frequently and anxiously. His thoughts are a refrain of “What if?” and its many variations. Will the neighbors find out? Will they inform on him? A brief panic passes through Sutulin the next morning when he finds his furniture farther apart than it should be, but perhaps now he can pace properly, at least.
Upon returning from his job later that day, Sutulin is disturbed to find the Quadraturin is still, ironically, at work and distorting the dimensions of his room beyond expectation. Disorientation replaces his sense of confinement, and he fears to open his eyes when he awakens the next day. The darkness behind his eyelids becomes the darkness that now obscures the corners of his room, which the light no longer reaches. The landlady and an agent of the Remeasuring Commission pound insistently at the door — they will need his unrecognizable apartment. For official purposes. Sutulin extinguishes the remaining light and tries to hide the cavernous, growing anomaly behind him from the authorities. They move on. For now.”
So unfolds the narrative in “Quadraturin”, the opening story in Memories of the Future. The “everyman” experimenting with a mysterious substance that allows his tiny room to grow to incomprehensible size calls to mind aspects of Dick and Borges, particularly the latter’s logic-defying library constructs, and Krzhizhanovsky achieves a sense of carefully honed dread that will likely appeal to any fan of cosmic horror or strange science fiction. Pieces like “The Land of Nots” and “The Runaway Fingers”, which also deal enthusiastically with reality-defying events and concepts, read as a kind of slapstick fabulism sure to appeal to readers who enjoy the sheer inventiveness of work in the Bizarro field but want a level of philosophical and literary concern that might more commonly be shelved with the classics of 20th century fiction. The author is at his best when he strikes a balance among his vivid imagination, satirical wit, and ability to escalate tension and dread. Krzhizhanovsky’s works of fiction were largely unpublished in his lifetime for reasons relating to both business and politics, and it is a testament to his abilities that they remain relevant, well-told works of literature in the 21st century.
It is difficult to know quite what to make of many of his stories on a first read, and the same holds true with one of his longer works: The Letter Killers Club, a novella concerning a club (of sorts) that regales its members with increasingly absurd and improbable tales that, taken together, cohere to form the thematic backbone of the novella proper. The club’s ostensible purpose is philosophical in nature: to ‘dismantle’ the written word by conjuring tales that become increasingly conceptual and abstract. In these inner tales, specifics are purposely annihilated and replaced with archetypes and forms, which are then abstracted even further. An actor is taken over by a Shakespearean ‘Role’; bawdy pastorals are deconstructed into ambiguous philosophical treatises on the carnivalesque, and apocalyptic scenarios of technological revolution transform into speculation about the uses and limits of science. One might be tempted to think of The Letter Killers Club as a kind of ‘pataphysical exercise were it not for the fact that at the heart of its absurdities lie clear questions about very real philosophical problems that are addressed in great literature of every variety: What is the nature of the human experience and the narratives we use? What is the role of technology in our lives? To what degree are concepts innate or preexisting vs. performative? Much of the absurdity underlying Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction comes across as a natural product of the theme of alienation and its many variants, which is one of the most common uniting elements of weird literature.
Chocky by John Wyndham
Fans of Williams Sloane’s novels in The Rim of Morning will find much to appreciate in this short novel that straddles the borderland among science fiction, cosmic horror, and psychological thriller. The final novel published in the author’s lifetime, Chocky is a more restrained affair than the works for which Wyndham is primarily known, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, and The Midwich Cuckoos. When young Matthew Gore strikes up a series of conversations with an imaginary friend, his parents are inclined to let the phase run its course, but as strange revelations begin to arrive they begin to question the nature of the relationship.
Wyndham succeeds at producing an effective tale that is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scope, managing to create much tension by way of implication rather than overt threats. Originally conceived as a novelette for Amazing Stories, the author later expanded it into the form the story takes in this release. The tale’s efficacy benefits from the greater investment in developing the Gore family’s dynamics and their individual, conflicting drives, and what emerges is a story that is as much about the human as it is about the otherworldly.
The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
Praised by noteworthy figures that include Thomas Mann, The Black Spider is a 19th century parable of cosmic horror that retains its power to this day. As numerous characters gather for a baptism in a Swiss village, one recounts a tale of good and evil that took place centuries before in the same valley. This tale turns on a familiar “deal with the devil” premise as the villagers attempt to deal with seemingly impossible tasks set to them by a sadistic duke. Exactly the manner in which the titular spider comes into play I will leave out, but suffice it to say ’tis no ordinary spider, and it wreaks unimaginable havoc on the villagers. Gotthelf manages to surprise and shock at just the right moments with details that push the boundaries of the parable form, and the world he envisions is one in which Evil is reaped from the seeds sown by the Good.
As the villagers are terrorized, they try selfishly to beat the devil at his own game – to have their cake and eat it too – and it is only by turning away from this selfishness that they are able to thwart the spider (though perhaps only temporarily), which seems impossible to kill. Centuries later, in the present, the baptism attendees find that the events from the inner story don’t quite seem willing to stay there. While it features a simple but effective frame story, taut pacing, and genuine suspense, if The Black Spider can be said to suffer from any weakness, it would be that the story tends toward moralizing explicitly on too many occasions, which at times mitigates the impact of an otherwise effective horror story. Nevertheless, The Black Spider has been adapted for film, opera, stage, and radio, which is a testament to its broad appeal and effectiveness as a horror tale.
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns
This slim novel by Comyns appears at first glance to share much in common with the classic social realist novel of humiliation, a la Dickens or Hardy. The travails of the young protagonist seem never-ending – a cruel father, a sick and dying mother, a manipulative would-be surrogate, a mentally ill companion and attendant mean-spirited employees, and the uncertainty of transitioning into adulthood without clear prospects. However, Comyns astutely deconstructs the Bildungsroman tradition to which she is initially referring by introducing a rather strange ability that Alice Rowlands, the protagonist, discovers within herself — the ability to float.
The title itself comes across as an intentionally cold reference to Alice, the protagonist– she is neither a Tess of the D’Urbervilles nor an Oliver Twist. Rather, she is a function of her father, whose cruelty to his daughter is almost commensurate with the treatment of the animals in his care. Comyns delivers the story with a calculatedly dispassionate prose style that reflects the narrowness through which Alice must live her life, devoid of opportunity and most activities that might offer her reprieve from her difficulties at home. The few friends with whom she can relate become less and less accessible during the progression of her circumstances. As her situation becomes progressively more dire, she discovers an unusual “gift” — the ability to float. Rather than merely using this intrusion of the fantastic into Alice’s grim world as a parallel to a deteriorating emotional state, Comyns withholds any kind of catharsis and forces the fantastical to be subsumed by the callous and exploitative behaviors that have formed the trajectory of the story. There is a hard truth at play here: no matter how special, there are limits imposed by forces beyond our control that cannot be transcended. The conclusion, in the form of a newspaper report, pulls back even further from the disastrous events resulting from a public demonstration of her abilities, forcing the reader to consider the nature of spectacle and its relation to society’s most casual cruelties.
The Glass Bees by Ernst Jünger
“I had always looked for the impossible. All the systems which explain so precisely why the world is as it is and why it can never be otherwise, have always called forth in me the same kind of uneasiness one has when face to face with the regulations displayed under the glaring lights of a prison cell. Even if one had never been born in prison and had never seen stars or seas or woods, one would instinctively know of timeless freedom in unlimited space.”
Fans of Ballard and Kafka will likely find much to enjoy in this strange, anticlimactic novel that wears the outer garments of science fiction while simultaneously mining an unease that is very much a part of the Weird tradition. Like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, there is an underlying sense of unbelonging coursing through the story that emerges from its preoccupation with the end of one era and a rapid, vaguely defined transition to a new one. The protagonist, Richard, is a soldier from another time — a period described in flashback with frequent, vague allusions to vast changes that have swept over his society.
Jünger places the horseback soldier in direct counterpoint to a frightening vision of mechanization and automation that have transformed the world into something which he struggles to recognize and describe. Indeed, it seems he is only capable of describing the world as it once was, and he utterly lacks a vocabulary to articulate the wonders that have displaced him. As he contemplates taking an ominous job for a tycoon of the new world, he is forced to confront his limits in an odd psychological test that is as unsettling as it is thought-provoking. As the reader learns of the violence that underpins Richard’s ascent to adulthood, Jünger asks, amongst other things: what, if anything, differentiates human cruelty from mechanized cruelty, and how do we describe the distinct ways in which they characterize the world?
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
What can one say about Don’t Look Now that hasn’t already been said? One of the finest tales of disquiet and suspense of the 20th century, it was reprinted in its entirety for The Weird and remains one of Du Maurier’s best known works. The eponymous novella and “The Birds” form the backbone of this selection of the author’s short fiction, curated by Patrick McGrath (a fine practitioner of neogothics and psychological suspense in his own right). There are also several lesser known gems that are equally deserving of an audience, such as “The Blue Lenses” and “La Sainte-Vierge.”
The stories selected for inclusion here focus mostly on Du Maurier’s stranger side, with various takes on ghost tales, clairvoyance, and other uncanny phenomena, but it is her consistently effective and economical plotting that makes the stories so successful, regardless of subject matter. Tension is built with careful precision and the veil is torn away at the most effective moment possible. Also on display in most of these stories is a perfectly tuned sense of irony rivaling that of Saki. This irony, particularly when situated within her supernatural and uncanny works here, allows her concluding lines to unsettle the reader on an even deeper level than all that came before. Even when not working with speculative material, as in the case of “Indiscretion,” there is yet a sense of unraveling, of the fragility of the protagonist’s position in the world that closely aligns with that of her weird pieces. “Escort,” in addition, functions as a fine update (for its time) of the ghost ship tale that puts its narrator through a harrowing experience while cleverly subverting the expected sources of conflict.
The Rider on the White Horse by Theodor Storm
Storm accomplishes with the muddy, frigid North Sea coastline what Thomas Hardy managed with the rural southwest of England and Emily Brontë did with the desolate moors. Like these two authors, Storm excels at anchoring plot and character to a fully realized geography while patiently marshaling the forces of conflict. In The Rider on the White Horse, Hauke Haien is a precocious young boy fascinated by a crucial dike that protects a small community from the sea. He comes of age throughout the course of an apprenticeship, a successful courtship, and his eventual ascent to the dikemaster’s position. Along the way, however, his community gradually turns against him in the face of proposed changes to their traditional system, and a strange white horse appears in his life in direct parallel to the accumulation of malice around him.
The strange, spectral visions that form the crux of the story and allude to the eponymous horse are also described as emerging from the landscape itself — from a muddy island barely removed from the mainland. But Storm keeps the appearances of these ambiguous apparitions in restraint, never losing sight of human imperfections to fuel the drama which leads to the mysterious origin of the rider in question. While developing the life of Hauke Haien, Storm weaves a variety of local theologies and superstitions into the narrative, artfully posing provocative questions about our concepts of the supernatural and the position of humanity within such orders — are we subject to the whim of hidden forces, or do we use create them for our own ends?