Some Europeans - Novelists, Satirists, and Poets - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Some Europeans
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

French and German supernaturalism attained notable heights with a few chosen authors of this period—authors who worked successfully in both the short story and the novel. One work needs to be discussed if only to dismiss it from our enquiry. The film adaptation of Le Fantôme de l’opéra (1910; translated into English as The Phantom of the Opera, 1911) by Gaston Leroux (1868—1927) has become a canonical work of early horror cinema, but the novel itself is much less of a weird tale than the film, and perhaps not a weird tale at all. Throughout the early parts of the work there is frequent citation of an “Opera Ghost”—a skeleton wearing dress clothes—who has a private box in the Paris Opera House. There is some suggestion that the Phantom somehow caused a diva’s voice to break so that her talented understudy, Christine Daaé (whom the Phantom lusts after), can take over the role, and there is also an incident (based upon an actual occurrence) where a chandelier crashes down upon the audience, killing one person; but none of this is presented as supernatural. Indeed, the Phantom is not in fact a skeleton but merely a horribly disfigured human being; as Christine herself says, “he is not a ghost; he is a man of Heaven and earth, that is all” (109). Although the celebrated 1925 silent film copies the book when Christine pulls off the Phantom’s mask to reveal his hideous face, the film goes on to make the overall scenario much more horrific than the book itself. Other features in the narrative—an influx of rats in the underground chambers of the opera; a kind of torture chamber in which those who are trying to rescue Christine from the Phantom’s clutches are temporarily confined—are, at best, instances of natural rather than supernatural horror. The novel is much more of a detective story than a horror tale—fittingly so for the author of the classic mystery novel Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1907; translated as The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1908).

The most prominent Francophone writer of weird fiction during this period is the Belgian Jean Ray (pseudonym of Raymond Jean Marie de Kremer, 1887—1964), although he also wrote in Flemish. His several story collections—Les Contes du whisky (1925; Whisky Tales), La Croisière des ombres (1931; The Shadow Cruise), Le Grand Nocturne (1942; The Great Nocturne), Les Cercles de l’épouvante (1943; The Circles of Terror), and Les Derniers Contes de Canterbury (1944; The Final Canterbury Tales), contain much good work amidst an array of failures and false starts. Ray’s greatest problem—an ironic one given that he gained the nickname of the “Belgian Edgar Allan Poe”—is a diffuseness and lack of focus that mars his weird conceptions. “House of the Storks” (“Storchhaus, ou la maison de la cigogne,” 1960) tells of an inn that is alive and appears to eat its occupants, but the execution lacks tightness and rigour. “The Marleyweck Cemetery” (“Le Cimetière de Maryweck,” 1943), set in a kind of fantasy London, is a more effective story of headstones and statues in a cemetery coming to life. It features a distinctive fusion of cynical humour and horror, something Ray handled with surprising success.

The celebrated tale “The Mainz Psalter” (“Le Psautier de Mayence,” 1930) deals with a ship of that title that sets sail north of Glasgow and appears to enter another dimension, whereupon sailors disappear, other entities seem to board the ship, and so forth. The tale is deliberately chaotic in treatment, but somehow succeeds in its manifest purpose of shaking the reader’s grip on reality. Ray’s other famous tale, “The Tenebrous Alley” (“La Ruelle ténébreuse,” 1931), tells of an apartment house that appears to be besieged by invisible presences. One tenant disappears—one of dozens around the city that have done so overnight. The narrator, a woman, befriends one creature by feeding it milk—a point that makes one realise the manifest influence of Maupassant’s “The Horla” on the tale.

Ray’s short novel Malpertuis (1943) highlights many of his virtues and weaknesses. The deliberately fragmented narration perfectly suits the bizarre nature of the scenario. Here an old man has left a will requiring his potential heirs—both members of his family and others—to occupy a house named Malpertuis in order to collect his inheritance. They do so, with the result that Malpertuis becomes a kind of self-contained world (not entirely unlike what Shirley Jackson would do fifteen years later in The Sundial) where the social, romantic, and sexual tensions among the various inmates become exaggerated and baleful. One by one the occupants die off—will there be anyone left to collect the inheritance?

It proves that the old man, Cassave, was a Rosicrucian who was attempting to bring back the ancient Greek gods. However, after so many years of neglect, the gods have become decayed from their pristine condition in classical antiquity, with the result that they have turned into monsters. Some of the apparently human figures in Malpertuis are actually lesser Greek gods in disguise; one of them, Eisgengott, is none other than Zeus himself. Later, the Furies appear in the form of three sisters. All this is a reasonably effective attempt to infuse horror into classical mythology, but overall the treatment of the theme falls victim to Ray’s customary inability to focus on the theme at hand.

Another French writer whom we must treat, if again only tangentially, is Maurice Level (1875—1926). Level, as is well known, became celebrated for the plays he wrote for the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris, dating to as early as 1906; many of these plays were based on the more than 800 short stories he wrote in a relatively brief career, only a small number of which have been translated into English. Level is the prototypical practitioner of the conte cruel, “in which” (as Lovecraft wrote) “the wrenching of the emotions is accomplished through dramatic tantalisations, frustrations, and gruesome physical horrors” (S 41). And yet, in spite of the complete absence of supernaturalism in Level’s work, it is difficult to deny him at least a toehold in the realm of horror literature. If nothing else, Level’s tales have all the compactness and “unity of effect” that Edgar Allan Poe believed was the signature feature of the short story. Level’s immediate literary influences in this regard were probably Guy de Maupassant (who is cited in the novel Those Who Return [L’Ombre, 1921]) and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the master of the conte cruel whose work preceded Level’s by a few decades; but these two writers themselves drew extensively upon the structural perfection of Poe’s short stories as models for their own work, and Level manifestly did so as well. Without a wasted word, Level’s tales progress from the first scene to the last in a manner that fully exhibits the conflict of emotions that is at their heart, but without the flabby digressions and irrelevancies that often mar even the most accomplished of novels. Level’s tales reveal such an economy of means that nothing could be added to or extracted from them without destroying their very fabric.

The emphasis on terror, even if it is of an unambiguously non-supernatural sort, makes the reading of Level’s tales at times an excruciating experience. It is not that there is any excess of physical violence involved: “The Last Kiss” is probably the most extreme in this regard, with its unflinching display of the hideous effects of acid when thrown upon a man’s (and, later, a woman’s) face. “The Kennel” is loathsome in its suggestion of a corpse being fed to hungry dogs. But beyond this, the terror in Level’s tales is chiefly psychological: the terror of an impoverished prostitute being forced to service the executioner of her lover; the terror of a man coming upon definitive evidence that his lover was buried alive; the terror that a mother feels when she suspects that her new-born baby is the child of a madman… . Many of the scenarios Level constructs may seem a trifle contrived and artificial, but his purpose to study the emotional extremes of those who find themselves confronted by madness, guilt, and paranoia.

There is a considerable social element in many of Level’s tales—an element that similarly links them to the Grand Guignol’s concern for naturalism, a literary movement that emphasised the plight of the outcast and impoverished and sought to display the harshness and injustice of a social fabric built upon radical inequities in wealth and social position. Many of Level’s stories feature beggars or other characters on the margins of society who plunge into crime to exact vengeance upon a society that has left them no other means of combating economic injustice. “The Beggar” is prototypical in this regard: a beggar tries to bring help to a man who is being crushed by an overturned cart, but he is driven away by the man’s family because they believe he is only looking for a handout. In the end, the beggar can only express a certain wry satisfaction that the man’s own family effectively caused his death.

Overall, few authors have displayed greater psychological acuity, greater craftsmanship in the manufacture of short stories, and a more unflinching gaze at the grotesque crimes that human passions are capable of engendering; and few have exhibited those crimes and those passions with loftier artistry.

In German literature we are also faced with a number of writers who are, from our perspective, on the borderline of the weird; none more so than the Austrian Franz Kafka (1883—1924). Kafka’s earliest short stories date to the 1910s, and “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”) was written in 1912. “The Metamorphosis” contains one of the most famous opening lines in all modern literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (89). (It has commonly been assumed that Gregor has turned into a cockroach, but the word that Kafka habitually uses—Ungeziefer—really means “vermin,” and at one point the charwoman calls him a dung beetle.) Gregor had been a young man dutifully going to an office every day, supporting his parents and his younger sister, and his chief concern throughout the tale is how his family is now going to get enough money to live on. Failing to exhibit anything but repugnance, shame, or irritation at his transformation, Gregor’s parents treat him abusively: his father seriously injures him by pelting him with an apple; his room is used to store excess furniture; less and less attention is paid to feeding him properly or keeping his room tidy. Eventually Gregor crawls back into his room and dies. His family insouciantly looks forward to a better life, finally rid of the inconvenience of housing a gigantic insect.

As with all Kafka’s work, the events in the tale are symbols for broader concerns. Numerous interpretations of the story have been put forward; e.g., that Gregor’s metamorphosis is a metaphor for his unconscious desire to slough off financial responsibility for his family, or that it points to the dehumanization of the industrial proletariat. Kafka, although at the outset he states bluntly, “It was no dream” (89), is clearly intent on incorporating the imagery of nightmare into his narrative, as he does in much of his other work, especially his three novels. In the end, the story will remain capable of sustaining multiple interpretations. Its basic scenario is quintessentially supernatural, although Kafka himself does not appear to have been very familiar with previous works of fantasy and horror; and it will remain an imperishable parable of victimisation and the crisis of identity.

This tale is, however, only one of several that speak of transformations between human being and animal, or are presented from the viewpoint of an animal. “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” (1917; translated as “A Report to an Academy”) tells of an ape who is captured in Africa and realises that his only means of escape is to imitate human beings, with the result that he becomes virtually human. “Forschungen eines Hundes” (1931; translated as “Investigations of a Dog”), “Der Bau” (1931; translated as “The Burrow”), and “Josephine, die Sängerin, oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (1924; translated as “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) are told from the standpoint of a dog, a badger, and a mouse, respectively. In “Der Dorfschullehrer” (1931 [written 1914—15]; translated as “The Village Schoolmaster”), a giant mole appears in a village, but much of this satirical narrative is spent in pedantic debates between a schoolmaster and other characters as to who should receive credit for the discovery of the creature. “Blumfeld, ein älterer Junggeselle” (1946 [written 1915]; translated as “Blumfield, an Elderly Bachelor”) is a harrowing tale of a man plagued by two bouncing balls that seem to follow him all around his room—a symbol for the uncontrollable irrationality that inevitably enters modern life.

Kafka’s three novels, all published posthumously and none of them quite complete, hint at the supernatural without ever including any scene or phenomenon that could definitively be termed supernatural. Amerika (1927) deals with the adventures of a young German, Karl Rossmann, in the United States. Kafka had never been to America, and his work accordingly becomes a kind of topographical fantasy where almost anything can occur. Der Prozess (1925; translated as The Trial, 1935) is the celebrated account of Joseph K., who is accused of an unspecified crime and is forced to spend much of his time in legal manoeuvring to clear himself; it might be termed weird only because every character—including, at times, Joseph K. himself—acts in an implausible or irrational manner. As for Kafka’s greatest novel, Der Schloss (1926; translated as The Castle, 1930), it might be thought that the basic scenario—a character named only K. seeks entry into the castle of Count Westwest, only to fail after innumerable attempts—might suggest the Gothic castle, although there is no evidence that Kafka was familiar with any of the major works of Gothic literature.

Kafka’s work is so complexly symbolic and metaphorical that its surface events become insignificant save as pointers to the philosophical, political, religious, and sociological messages he is seeking to convey. It would be misleading to consider him a contributor to the supernatural tradition, but his imperishable exhibition of the absurdity and futility of modern existence may well have influenced subsequent writers of horror and supernatural fiction.

More central to the weird tradition is the bountiful work of Gustav Meyrink (1868—1932), author of many novels and tales of the supernatural. It is perhaps unfortunate that his most celebrated work is Der Golem (1915; translated as The Golem, 1928), for this is by no means his most concentrated venture into supernaturalism. Indeed, it is not clear that anything supernatural happens in the novel at all. The putative subject of the book, derived from the Jewish cabbalistic tradition—the Golem is an artificial creature made of clay and animated by a magic charm placed between its teeth—ends up playing little actual role in the work, and the Golem figure never actually appears. Instead, the text focuses upon Athanasius Pernath, a gem cutter who lives in the Jewish ghetto of Prague (he himself is not Jewish), who is arrested for the murder of a man named Zottmann, spending months in a hideous jail reminiscent of the dungeons of old-time Gothic fiction. But, in all honesty, the novel is simply too diffuse and unfocused to be effective; Meyrink is trying to do too much, bringing in occultism, local colour, psychological analysis of the numerous characters, and much else. I am not even sure what the ultimate point of the work is, especially when it is revealed at the end that the whole scenario was simply a dream.

Other novels by Meyrink are more concretely supernatural, but even they tend to be discursive and rambling affairs. Das grüne Gesicht (1916; The Green Face) is a potpourri of horrific themes; E. F. Bleiler, in his introduction to The Golem, gives some idea of what is involved: “the Wandering Jew, the embodied soteric personality of the universe, supernatural judgments, the gods of ancient Egypt, reincarnation, prophecy, madness, voodo, glamour, doppelgängers, eternal life in death, confrontation with the female principle of the universe, Cabbalism, and many other motives” (xiii). Walpurgisnacht (1917) returns to Prague for its setting, weaving a bizarre mix of magic, telepathy, and reincarnation. Der Engel von westlichen Fenster (1927; The Angel of the West Window) flits between the sixteenth century and the present and involves black magic, alchemy, and drugs, and could be Meyrink’s greatest weird novel. All these novels were translated in the 1990s by Mike Mitchell and are well worth seeking out.

Although Meyrink wrote some “strange stories,” the master of German weird short fiction was Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871—1943), whose reputation suffered a collapse when he briefly associated with the Nazi party. His three most important collections of tales—Das Grauen (1907; Horror), Die Besessenen (1908; The Possessed), and Nachtmahr (1922; Nightmare)—contain much good work. Several of Ewers’s tales reveal a cheerful morbidity, such as “Gentlemen of the Bar,” in which various prisoners about to be guillotined tell of how they had reached that unenviable position; and “My Burial,” a literal tale of graveyard humour in which a recently buried man tells, in the first person, of the buffooneries that occurred during his own funeral.

But the most characteristic stories by Ewers provocatively treat supernaturally of sexual themes in a manner that remains bold even today. Consider “The Death of Baron Jesus Maria von Friedel,” in which the Baron finds himself occasionally taken over by a strange female creature within himself; the different personalities are represented by radically different diary entries. In an ending reminiscent of “William Wilson,” the Baron shoots himself—but it remains unclear who shot whom. In “The Tophar Bride” a character mummifies the girlfriend of his roommate so that she becomes a Tophar Bride—the wife of a pharaoh who, by Egyptian tradition, is mummified alive. In “The Typhoid Mary” one Marie Stuyvesant is summoned to an informal trial by six men who accuse her of being a kind of spiritual typhoid Mary, corrupting all who come into contact with her. This tale is not so much a weird tale as a moral debate, and Marie presents a compelling case that she herself is an amoralist and that her various “victims” would probably have been corrupted anyway.

Ewers’s most celebrated tale, “The Spider” (“Der Spinne,” 1907), concerns a medical student, Richard Bracquemont, who becomes fascinated by an attractive young woman dressed entirely in black. She is spinning, and “The threads she spins must be infinitely fine” (158—59). On a whim he names her Clarimonde—and no reader can fail to catch the reference to Théophile Gautier’s celebrated tale of seductive vampirism, “La Morte amoureuse,” whose protagonist is named Clarimonde. Richard is increasingly distracted by Clarimonde, finding himself unable to pay attention to his studies. At last he kills himself—and a dead spider is found crushed between his teeth. It is later discovered that the apartment across the street has been vacant for months. This tale would seem to be nothing more than a highly artful account of a femme fatale were it not for an apparent digression in which Richard tells of seeing a male and female spider on a web outside his apartment building. The male is weak, but nevertheless manages to make love with the large and imposing female spider; but afterward, as he is attempting to escape, she pounces upon him and “sucks out the young blood of her lover in deep draughts” (165). It is evident that we are to regard the mysterious spider-woman as at least a figurative, and perhaps actual, vampire. Although the narrative does not suggest that Richard’s own blood has been literally sucked, his hapless obsession with the woman points at a minimum to psychic vampirism.

It is not clear that we need give much attention to Ewers’s various novels, well-known as some of them are. Der Zauberlehrling (1907; translated as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1927) is the first novel of a trilogy about the Nietzschean figure Frank Braun. It bears almost no relation to the poem of that title by Goethe, which inspired the symphonic poem by Paul Dukas and the 1940 Disney film; instead, Braun hypnotises a young woman into believing she is a saint, and she is ultimately crucified. There is no reason to think that anything supernatural has occurred here. The same can be said for Alraune (1911; translated in 1929), where the female creature of the title is the product of artificial insemination of a degraded prostitute by a vicious sex murderer. The final novel of the trilogy, Vampir (1920; translated as Vampire, 1934), is, in spite of its title, even less fantastic than its predecessors.