Review: Written in Darkness, Mark Samuels, 2017.
Good weird fiction doesn’t lend itself to long reviews. The powers of the story are weakened when surprises are prematurely revealed. The effects of carefully paced narration are distorted or not conveyed. Latinate words like “alienation”, “identity”, “penance”, and “transformation” are cold and insufficient words of thematic taxonomy.
And Samuels’ collection is good weird fiction of a bleak yet, as Reggie Oliver notes in his introduction, exultant sort. The tone and effect may remind one of Thomas Ligotti, an author Samuels has called the greatest living writer of weird fiction. Yet Samuels rejects that writer’s materialistic nihilism.
So, I’m going to lightly touch on the stories first and then wrap up with some thoughts and analysis laden with spoilers.
The most memorable, the most disturbing and, seemingly, least weird story is the opening one, “A Call to Greatness“. Its setting is mostly historical; its concerns are very contemporary. Egremont, a wealthy, young, but world-weary functionary of a European Union he regards as sick and dead with apathy, sits in a cafe waiting to meet a stranger who has sent him some material to read. The stranger shows up, and we see what’s in those documents: a 1921 account of the White Cassock Baron Maximilian. The Baron was a real person, Baron Robert Nicolaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, and it’s his picture on the cover of the book.
The story opens with a quote from the chilling Order 15 to the Baron’s troops:
‘Truth and mercy’ are no longer permissible. Henceforth, there can only be ‘Truth and merciless hardness’. The evil which has fallen upon the land, with the object of destroying the divine principle in the human soul, must be extirpated root and branch. Fury against the heads of the revolution, and its devoted followers, must know no boundaries.
“The Ruins of Reality“ takes place in a really bleak future, so chaotic and depressed that mass unemployment and suicide are common and there’s no longer resources for the usual pacifiers and distractors: tv, video games, the internet, drugs and alcohol, and sports. But salvation seem at hand as the N Factory comes to the narrator’s town with its gruesome posters of modern ills it promises to correct.
“Outside Interference” mixes the ambiance of dead teenager and zombie movies with quotidian workplace drudgery. The narrator and his co-workers, the slacker contingent of their company, get sent to a remote and dilapidated building to transcribe that office’s paper records to electronic forms before the location is closed. But, when one emerges from an elevator ride to the unknown subterranean levels of the complex with charred fleshed and unburned clothes and strange white eyes, the horror begins.
Workplace horror also features in “The Hourglass of the Soul“ with its IT protagonist sent on a trip to his employer’s secret subterranean complex in the Gobi Desert. But I found this story underdeveloped and too short after the revelation as to what that complex holds.
An retired tv journalist, not even liked by his fellow traveler Marxists in the profession, stars in “The Other Tenant“. (A journalist was also the most immoral character in Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger.) At home, he hears weird shrieks and babblings from the too-loud tv of the next door apartment. Complaints to management go unanswered, so he decides to investigate.
“Alistair” is the most traditional story of the collection with its tale of a man a bit puzzled as to why his wife wants to move back to her childhood home. He’s also puzzled at his general lack of affection for his son, and jealous of the close bond between his wife and the boy. All is explained on the revelation of a secret. This one is set in London around Highgate Cemetery.
“My World Has No Memories“ has bits of Baudelaire and H. P. Lovecraft (not in the Cthulhu Mythos sense) and, in its nautical setting, William Hope Hodgson. A man awakes at sea. Not only is he missing memories to locate his sense of self. He can’t locate the ship’s position in the world. The GPS and radio are out, and the stars seem different. And there’s a repulsive something in a jar on board and human bodies bobbing outside. It was another of my favorites in the collection.
“My Heretical Existence“ appeared in a tribute anthology to Bruno Schulz, a figure I’m totally unfamiliar with. Perhaps I would have liked the story better if I was. Unlike “The Hourglass of the Soul”, it wasn’t obscure. It just didn’t move me. The narrator, who lives in a city of exiles, wanders into a secret street and has a disturbing encounter with the patrons of the Under the Sign of the Hourglass Stilled Pub.
“In Eternity — Two Lines Intersect“ was written for an Arthur Machen tribute anthology, and it shows some of that writer’s themes: reverence for nature, the occult secrets of the city, and Christian mysticism. Its narrator, after being released from the hospital for some unknown malady, requires social isolation. Not having much money, he rents a vacated apartment filled with its previous tenant’s possessions. There are odd annotations in the books, strange sounds from the radio, and the narrator begins to view the wooded hill outside his window differently.
Additional Thoughts and Criticisms (with Spoilers)
The document Egremont reads in “A Call to Greatness” is from a British reporter (presumably fictitious) attempting to interview the Baron in 1921. He is kidnapped into the Baron’s army, and the only thing that saves him from execution by the Baron is the St. Christopher medallion around his neck.
The Baron is conducting a fanatical assault on godless modernity. There are no neutrals in the struggle. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. It only matters that you have one. Godless men, their wives, and their children are to be killed. After all, they will either grow up godless too or seek revenge. (This is the Baron of the story. I don’t know enough of the historical Baron to comment on the differences between the two.)
The reporter is coerced into participating in the Baron’s war until the Baron is eventually captured by the Russian government and executed.
Egremont finishes the account of the Baron, and the stranger who has given him the account demands to know what he thinks.
Before Egremont can answer, the man is hauled off by two men who claim he is an escaped inmate of a mental asylum.
But it’s not that simple. Egremont’s meeting with the man was planned ahead of time and not impromptu. The asylum the men claim he escaped from doesn’t exist. And the man looks a lot like a photo of the Baron Egremont finds.
As he was being hauled away, the Baron proclaimed his captors demons. Are they? Is the Baron to be seen as some sort of Slavic King Arthur come to Europe in a time of need? If so, why is he imprisoned? If not, why is he still alive? Is he a revenant clinging to the world out of a sense of unfinished business?
And is he calling Egremont to greatness?
The morality and politics of this story are more ambiguous than they seem.
There is no doubt the Baron is a murderous fanatic. He reminds one of Islamic fanatics. Yet the Baron is ecumenical unlike Islam. The only divide he sees is between the religious of any stripe and those who have no religion.
And maybe the Baron represents an uncomfortable truth. Perhaps, in his prediction that the Bolsheviks are purveyors of a demonic faith and subtle lies, symptom of a disease which must be eradicated, that they will kill millions, he represents an uncomfortable truth that blood must be spilled ruthlessly to prevent greater evil and even more bloodshed. The Baron’s way may be ultimately more merciful. One may gasp in horror that this is the “end justifies the means” philosophy. But that’s a vacuous phrase. What justifies any mean but the end?
One is tempted to see the Baron as a call for a counter-jihad against Islam, but his target is the atheist, and, while Samuels personally is definitely anti-modern and devout, I have never heard him endorse such ideas. (And one, of course, should not assume congruity between an author’s personal convictions and their imaginative speculations.)
There are other possibilities.
The epigraph from the Baron’s Order 15 is not the opening epigraph of the story. The first is from G. K. Chesterton and speaks of the “detached and irresponsible” figure of the Asian mystic, which the Baron certainly is, and their “terrible levity”. Are we to see the Baron as not offering a true solution to our worldly or spiritual crisis?
Is the Baron’s “call to greatness” to Egremont really an example of the demonic subtlety he accuses the Bolsheviks of? Is he not some survival of the Baron but something else?
On first reading of “The Other Tenant”, I was unconvinced at the conclusion. Its protagonist is a radical Marxist who is fine with violence but adopts the manners of the establishment. He has overthrown his Catholic faith for something else: “The only loyalty is party loyalty. The party and truth were indivisible.”
What he finds in that apartment next to his is — nothing. Nothing except an unplugged tv playing the screams and confessions of a man. And then he realizes he is the man. The confessions of “all of the hypocrisy, all of the foul deeds and the lies he’d perpetrated during his life” are his. He picks up the wood and hammer in the room and begins to crucify himself.
It all seemed an unconvincingly sudden change of heart until I thought about it. He has a miraculous vision mediated through technology. His faith is reawakened, and he seeks penance. Might his reawakened conscience and faith be “The Other Tenant” and not the presumed neighbor he never actually had?
“The Ruins of Reality” is very Ligotti in its tone but not its imagery. The N Factory is, I suspect, the Nihilism Factory of modernity. The horrors on its recruitment posters aren’t problems to be solved. They’re the products of the N Factory, and we all work there under the management of the Dead Dreamers “But, after all, a job is a job.” The tale is noticeably sweeping in its nine indictments of modernity and the “machine-identity” of our age.
The machine provides, in the imagery of a static-filled sky and static-filled eyes used in “Outside Interference”, a powerful metaphor for a secret, chaotic language and general state of affairs. (It’s an interesting quirk that it survives into an age of digital media with no such manifestation of malfunction on modern devices.)
I’m still not sure if the prevalence of Slavic names in the tale mean anything.
The title “In Eternity — Two Lines Intersect” is puzzling. I think it symbolizes the two yet one nature of the narrator who discovers that his apartment’s previous inhabitant was him, the unity and grace of the Graal, which may be in the church on the hill outside the window, is where the eternity the two world-lines of his identity merge.