Review: “Spells” by Michel de Ghelderode

Spells from Wakefield Press collects thirteen tales by Michel de Ghelderode, best known as a prolific dramatist, and includes work that has been anthologized alongside other such luminaries of the Weird as Jean Ray and Jean Muno.  Each tale contains some unique take on the idea of “spells,” often with a focus on the realistic interpretations of the word. De Ghelderode takes care to carefully sow frequent instances of “spells” in their secular usage alongside the uncanny as if to subtly and gradually conflate the two.  In this collection, a spell is less often an invocation of the supernatural than it is a state of mind that one is overtaken by, and such states take on the function of borderland between public and private, material and uncanny.  The arrangement of the stories in Spells is particularly noteworthy.  Although all of them fit well together when considering theme, tone, and character, the table of contents here is such that often one story will refer with various degrees of directness to the preceding one in minor plot details, particularly in the sequence “A Twilight”→“You Were Hanged”→“The Odor of Pine.”  It would be a stretch to describe the collection as “a novel in stories,” but there is a strong thematic unity that has the effect of building a kind of mythos that connects diagonally to Christianity while still being unique to the author.

Permeating these works is a fascination with urban life — European city life circumscribes the consciousness of the protagonists in most of these stories.  In their urban wanderings, buildings and public squares become a kind of living relic of history looming over the moments of citizens and revealing that the relationship between past and present is far more complex than we often assume, and that it may be more of a two-way street than we’d like to believe.  The secrets lurking behind the 20th century European streets, tucked away in obscure courtyards, or hidden in the inventory of a forgotten shop call to mind some of the same fascinations of setting that one encounters in the New York- and Paris-set weird fiction of Robert Chambers, or perhaps Jean Ray’s “The Shadowy Street,” which literalizes this general idea and builds an entire plot out of it.

Even as there is temptation, generally speaking, to account for great evil by turning to the supernatural, de Ghelderode’s fiction takes care not to entirely remove it from human agency.  It seems safe to assume that this tendency is at least in part abetted influenced by Europe’s escalation into World War II that would have been contemporaneous with the creation of many of these stories.  Threaded through virtually all of them are persistent reminders that hell might well exist entirely independent of a supernatural order: “Why, this is hell!  It’s this monstrous city, its everyday existence. And the damned? They’re my hideous fellow men and me too in their sordid flock!.” (“The Devil in London,” 29)  The observable and rational are sufficient in some ways to account for the idea of hell, and yet the devil may ultimately put in an appearance anyhow.  The ennui that pervades “The Devil in London” and “The Collector of Relics” evokes the sense that this corporeal existence is simply not the one we were meant to inhabit, a sentiment that will strike many readers as sharing a kinship with the modern author Thomas Ligotti.  If the book stumbles on occasion, its main obstacle is an excessive reliance on the same character type that so frequently makes such observations as the one above: the lone, depressed, sick, unmoored, solitary male wanderer in search of distraction from the malaise of the mundane.  Or a “demoralized soul,” as he puts it in “Fog.”  Indeed, one might lift any number of lines from these stories and find sentiments common to both Ligotti and de Ghelderode.  In “Rhotomago,” the protagonist exclaims that he “… pursued my own journey into the unfathomable, dreaming that for once I was sleeping without dreaming!” (83)

The strength of prose and complexity of theme are more than sufficient to recommend the book despite the limitations imposed by the use of relatively unvaried protagonists, but it will likely stand out as a weakness to some and has been discussed by scholars engaged with de Ghelderode’s work:

Voiced by dedicated solitaries, the narratives discount social or even human relationships…Women too are in short supply; Ghelderode, in a draft prospectus for a planned further collection of stories, promised that women would feature more centrally but, as it turned out, no such stories were written.” (Introduction, x).

Women characters are certainly in short supply; however, it is a mistake to view the “dedicated solitary” as necessarily eschewing the importance of social and human relationships.  It seems not just shortsighted but counterproductive of de Ghelderode to craft so many tales in which the thesis is that “hell” could consist of “this monstrous city” and “my fellow men” but then have a glaring omission of such a large demographic that could add more depth to such treatments.  However, that caveat aside, I submit that the frequent juxtaposition of supernatural and sociohistorical forces under which the protagonists labor is done precisely as a means not of discounting social relationships but of critiquing them from a broader perspective, even as de Ghelderode’s critique could be improved if it were broader still in terms of which people are represented in the story.  It is worth noting a distinction between a lack of close friendships as a “solitary” (this is certainly true of most of the protagonists) and a discounting of human relationships entirely.  Introverted though the narrators may be, there is ample direct, ground-level social interaction that forms crucial components of plot and serves as a vehicle for such critiques, particularly in stories like “The Collector of Relics, “You Were Hanged,” and “The Odor of Pine.”

Octave Mirbeau

Although both Ligotti and de Ghelderode have clear predecessors in the Decadent movement, we can see a much closer connection to the Decadents with the historically proximate Belgian fantasist.  Echoes of French author Octave Mirbeau abound in the cynical frankness and casual cruelty with which one character in the story “You Were Hanged” discusses old and new means of execution contrived by societies in different historical periods.  The characters in most of the stories commit their fair share of transgressions, but the author is careful to foreground such individual ignoble acts against a backdrop of larger systemic cruelties like executions, which comprise an essential part of the structure of sociohistorical power operating in conjunction with the supernatural of de Ghelderode’s fiction.  The hypocrisy that underlies the use of powerful institutional violence against individual transgressors of social order is a theme that one will find in many forms in such literature, and it features prominently in this collection as well.  For example, one of the strongest stories, “You Were Hanged,” takes as its premise a discussion about state-sanctioned violence and explores differing moral responses to it as its specific tools of execution change with history, and supernatural events force the protagonist to confront such horrors from a perspective uncannily removed from the present in an effort to dissect the idea of “progress.”  The recursive relationship between materialist and supernatural concerns is introduced immediately in the first story, “The Public Scribe,” which features a wax dummy “tasked” with recording the ephemera of history in the material form of writing while undergoing a transformation that could not be accounted for by material processes.  Events disembodied by time become history, and here history becomes reembodied as it reattains material form.  The animation of abstractions like time and history recurs frequently throughout the collection and reveals an underlying anxiety about the power they hold over life.

While any astute reader will undoubtedly come away with a great deal to digest from these stories in terms of philosophical discussion, the literary craftsmanship that makes them so effective is remarkable.  Returning for a moment to “You Were Hanged,” for example, one can note several details that at first appear trivial but are threaded through the story such that the conclusion renders a completely different and nuanced significance to them than expected.  The cumulative effect of this is also contingent on any number of subtleties of language that seem to have been well preserved by the translator:

I was under the clear impression that I’d been in that place [Saint-Jacques Plain] forever, and that my existence had never extended beyond that oblong square.” (153)

In a brief sentence and with the pointed use of “oblong”, de Ghelderode and Maclennan create a complex symbol that coheres perfectly with the themes of the story and the larger collection by inextricably entwining life, death, and social constructs that precede and survive the individual.  In this story as in several others, time and history explicitly become forces alive in ways that are usually invisible to us.  One might well encounter “the breathing of clocks” (159) in an inn adjacent to a setting of historical cruelties.  Sometimes this is direct and catastrophic and at others more restrained in a manner that might remind readers of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  In much the way that an innocuous post in a wall may in another era have been the final destination for a condemned person, de Ghelderode frequently explores the significance of the idea of the historical relic in changing social contexts: common items afforded outsized importance as a byproduct of human action, history being an amalgamation whose power becomes greater than the sum of its parts and in turn acts on its descendants.  Many of the stories here are built around a “tunneling” effect of time, with two sets of significant events set apart by a lengthy interval during which the narration distances itself from events on the ground.  The cumulative effect is a volume of weird tales that remind the reader that history asserts itself upon the individual even while quietly hiding in the background.

The Public Scribe” serves as one of the more subtle treatments of the erosive effects of time on human existence. In it we see a plot device, the infamous mannequin, that has become a fairly commonplace fixture of the weird.  The animate and the inanimate are juxtaposed in an exploration of the ways in which the uncanny valley of the mannequin threatens to usurp the former.  De Ghelderode himself wrote plays for marionettes and was influenced by puppet theater, and he seems to have a particular fascination with exploring exactly where the border between life and not-life resides (or if it can be safely said to exist at all).  Perhaps he’s drawing on his fascination with time and asking us, “what is a mannequin but the appearance of humanity frozen in an instant of time?”  Throughout the collection are frequent appearances of masks and other similar manifestations of these themes. Their usage in a context that consistently emphasizes the degradation and horror of corporeal existence begs the question:  which is truly the more unsettling prospect – attaining human consciousness or experiencing the loss of it?  The author is careful to present both sides of the equation in “The Public Scribe.”  If from the broader perspective of history the human condition is akin to “musical and so fatally beautiful herds, deported to the cruel abattoirs where the beasts are sacrificed.” (“A Twilight”, 146), then it seems a foregone conclusion to de Ghelderode that neither prospect could be a clear preference, and therein lives true horror.

De Ghelderode’s sense of the fantastic exists at times within a Christian context and at others within an apparently invented, at-times haphazard one that achieves much by way of implication and subtlety, even as it remains unclear as to whether the author aspired to create a singular mythos like Chambers’s King in Yellow tales.  In Chambers, there is a constant current of madness and the incomprehensible lurking just beneath the surface of events, and de Ghelderode’s fiction has a similar quality. This is significant especially when considering the biographical data; as the author fell into ill health in the time preceding and during the stories’ creation, scholar Roland Bayen conjectures that his “stories bear witness to an ‘increasing neurosis’, indeed are ‘the fruits of crisis’” (Introduction, viii).  But Chambers is not the only fixture of the weird that we might be tempted to admit to the discussion.  The hallucinatory, landscape-disrupting visions that occur in several of the tales in Spells have a vivid, bold, and intense quality.  For an author with such an interest in place and its influence on consciousness, it is not surprising that crises of the personal are strongly linked to crises of geography and the like.  In particular, such an occurrence in “Fog” might well remind readers of Belgian contemporary Jean Ray’s story “The Mainz Psalter”, with both stories featuring conjurations of hidden worlds lurking adjacent to our own.  De Ghelderode writes:

During this respite I entertained many such speculations, and all the more easily in that I didn’t have to deal with my usual rational self. Alas! No ecstasy goes without a reversal.  The state of grace left me.  And I felt myself in danger.  Streams of lights climbed the walls, this time coming from down below, coarse reflections of nocturnal fairs lit up with opaque red and green smoke. What I saw could only be an invention of delirium: mouths once more, down at ground level and reaching toward me.  A monstrous host surrounded me of which only the mouths were visible.  Oh! Abject mucous membranes salivating and spitting, swallowing words that I sensed were sordid and that I congratulated myself on not understanding…I was abruptly galvanized by the image of a nearby hell over which I was cataleptically suspended.” (136)

In Spells, there is a malevolence to the universe that becomes apparent whenever the supernatural manifests on the page, but the author is careful to always give the devil his due and remind the reader that human action and events play a part in that malevolence.  There’s a persistent association of social evils and the uncanny, particularly as in “You Were Hanged” and “The Odor of Pine”.  Readers will also note a more direct engagement with real-world religion than in many of the authors of weird tales to which he’s most comparable, which is perhaps not surprising given the overlapping of theme with preceding European authors like Mirbeau, who wrote nothing of the supernatural but obsessively critiqued the real-life figures purporting to be conduits to it.  De Ghelderode’s writing has been described by scholars as anticlerical, but his fascination with religious relics, churches, and other physical remnants of Christian belief systems reveals what seems best described as nostalgia made problematic and ambiguous by the ways in which he ties such holy artifacts to social ills.  Mortal sin, atonement, and many other religious constructs form the core of anxiety that plagues some of the protagonists, but they exist alongside and entwined with the materialism represented by real historical tribulations that seem to carry an equal weight that survives into the present.  In “The Collector of Relics,” for example, norms of both religious and secular life are simultaneously tested and transgressed by the protagonist as a byproduct of his own personal contrarian obsessions.  As the narrator states regarding whether or not to discover what might lurk inside a dim antiques shop: “I’ve found myself tempted to cross the threshold.” (69)  Like Bataille’s Story of the Eye, there is an animus in the character that conflates these two categories of social norms under a reactionary, impulsive, and accelerating disgust.  It becomes clear by the conclusion of “The Collector of Relics” that the reader would be advised to allow for multiple interpretations of the idea of crossing thresholds as the protagonist continually pressures the collector to pursue progressively more taboo objectives, and the preservation of this ambiguity in translation is vital for understanding the story.

De Ghelderode’s fiction has not been broadly available to English readers, and this edition of Spells will hopefully do its part to remedy that.  The consistent execution and thought-provoking, nuanced premises in these stories are enough to render them overlooked classics (at least, to non-Belgian audiences) — there are no real low points to speak of, and it seems unsurprising that the stories are among the final efforts produced by an author with a lengthy and well-developed body of work.  In short, Spells will have much to say, some of it new and some of it quite familiar, to most readers of the weird.

One reply to “Review: “Spells” by Michel de Ghelderode

  1. I think Ligotti has stated somewhere that Faliol, the protagonist of his story “Masquerade for a Dead Sword”, is named after a Ghelderode character.