“The Dissection”

And, with this, I’m finally current with weird fiction discussions over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Dissection”, George Heym, trans. Gio Clairval, 1913. 

This is a very short story, a bit over a page long. 

It is, as the VanderMeers note, more of a prose poem, an evocative and precise description of an autopsy. 

As the hammers start on the protagonist’s skull, we get a vision of a “fragrant summer evening” and of the woman he loved. 

The man speaks to her: “I will see you again every evening in the hour of dawn.  We will never part”. 

And then we get

And the dead man quivered in happiness on his white death table, while the iron chisels in the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple. 

That alludes to the body, in Christianity, being the temple of God.

Is Heym cynically mocking earthly pretensions of eternal love or is the man returning to a dead lover or somehow viewing her post mortem? 

I’m not really sure I would call this a weird story and suspect it’s in the anthology more because Thomas Ligotti speaks highly of it and the editors’ fondness for foreign language material in their anthologies than any weird quality. 

Still, it’s evocative and doesn’t wear out its welcome.

The Secret Glory

The Machen series continues with a book I unexpectedly liked perhaps because, in our tumultuous times, I found it comforting though I am in no way a mystic or religious. One can definitely sympathize with its protagonist’s indifference to the world.

It also, I suspect, served as a partial model for Mark Samuels’ A Pilgrim Stranger.

Review: The Secret Glory, Arthur Machen, 1922, 1998.

Partially written during his years of grief following the death of his first wife and before he remarried, Machen finally finished this novel in 1907. Parts were serialized, but the novel didn’t see publication until 1922 and even then its last two chapters were excised, summed up by, as editor S. T. Joshi notes, a not very good epilogue by Machen. The full novel, which I read, was finally published in 1998.

In a preface, Machen lays out what this novel is, a combination of two things: a satire on English public schools and the Holy Grail.

Machen was not impressed by the fatuous accounts of English headmasters, particularly their enthusiasm for sport over academics. Football, he thought, was not a preparation for life. However, in an essay “About My Books (reprinted in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said he found parodying these kinds of memoirs useless: “These Eton masters on their late Head read like an extravagant parody of my parodies.”

As to the Holy Grail, that was a subject that fascinated Machen. He wrote several essays on the Holy Grail with his friend, occultist A. E. Waite. They were collected in The Secret of the Sangraal and Other Writings.

This book is also, incidentally, considered the first work of literature to bring the Holy Grail into a contemporary setting.

While some claim this book is overly long and dull, it’s only 222 pages at full length, and I did not find it boring. 

Our hero is Ambrose Meyrick, sent off to Lupton. In Machen’s view, British public schools served as factories to produce a predictable type of men to fill in slots in the Empire’s administration. There is a very funny scene where we learn that the sorts of men Lupton produces are those who will not retract their opinions and judgements no matter what facts they are confronted with.

Ambrose comes to hate the school but conforms to it marvelously, even in sports, after a thrashing by his uncle, a schoolmaster there. Part of the novel follows the uncle’s career disappointments.

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“Mr. Justice Harbottle”

There’s not much reading or blogging going on at my house right now, but I did finally read this subject of the Deep Ones group discussion over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872.

Cover by Anyka/Fotolia

The story starts out with a complicated and dry prologue which explains this account, like Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, comes from the papers of Dr. Hesselius with the notation it comes from “Harman’s Report” and Hesselius’ own interest in “The Interior Sense, and the Conditions of the Opening thereof”. This opening is the story’s weakest point, but it does tell us we will get an “intrusion of the spirit-world upon the proper domain of matter”.

From the prologue, I couldn’t exactly tell who is narrating this tale among the names given, but it doesn’t really matter. 

We open the story proper with that narrator telling us how, 30 years ago, a man showed up in his office for an early payment of a quarterly annuity he gets. He wants some money early because he needs to move out of his house “on a dark street in Westminster”. We get a nice description of the gloomy house which constantly has a sign saying it’s for sale or rent.

It seems to be haunted because, one night, the man saw a closet door open and two figures emerge.  One was a “particularly sinister” dark man. The other an older man,

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The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

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“An Assignation”

It’s a much belated discussion of a piece of weird fiction we recently discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “An Assignation”, Sean O’Brien, 2012.

An assignation is exactly what this story, told in the second person, is about. 

It’s long on atmosphere and subjectivity and short on plot, but the story captures the exhilaration of leaving it all behind when the protagonist takes the train out of Paris for a romantic assignation in a provincial town.

The woman is beautiful and perfect and, she admits, she also gave a false name for their meeting. 

They have never met before, but, over an evocatively described meal and wine, things go well, and the two head off to her place. 

We hear how the protagonist’s life has been leading up to this moment. 

But, with the lines

This is what you always had in mind. This is what all those others were the preparation for, for such a night as this, the thirsty self ‘s apotheosis. You wish that both of you could live forever.

we begin to think he might have something murderous in mind though, of course, there is an innocent alternative to those words. The story could imply that he is a would-be murderer or has already killed. 

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Dr. Stiggins

It’s time for another piece of non-fiction from Arthur Machen.

Review: Dr. Stiggins: His Views and Principles, Arthur Machen, 1906.

While Machen’s Hieroglyphics is still read and appreciated, this book is not.

In fact, Machen fan and scholar Mark Samuels says, in “Where Angels Fear to Tread: Some Reflections on ‘Dr. Stiggins’ and Arthur Machen”:

It is no exaggeration to say that Arthur Machen’s 1906 polemic Dr. Stiggins is the book that is the most likely to make devotees of the author force a pained smile and rapidly change the subject. Not even the infamous The Canning Wonder (1925) – with its interminable musings upon a vanishing act and a court case so dull that the reader gasps at its tedium – comes close to it. Dr. Stiggins receives a reaction more akin to that of distaste; like the expression of a person who recalls having been locked in a room with a hectoring stand-up comedian whose act depends upon sharing his prejudices.

In his “About My Books” (in The Secret Ceremonies), Machen said of it:

There are good things in it for those who like controversy, and also many weary pages. It was written in a hurry – 30,000 words in a fortnight – was badly printed on bad paper, was barely noticed by the Press (two reviews, I think), and fell stone dead on publication.

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“Stone Cold Fever”

No, I have not put this blog to sleep.

Things are probably going to be sparse around here for a couple of months for reasons I won’t get into.

For instance, this is a story discussed on LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group three weeks ago.

Review: “Stone Cold Fever”, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., 2009.

Stone Cold Fever
Illustration by Peter Szmer

As is if often the case, I wasn’t too fond of this Pulver story. 

It’s a noirish story that isn’t even a truly weird story, but a crime story about searching for a missing boy..

The story reveals some lazy tendencies of Pulver.

The story is told by a vigilante who works in collaboration with some other people. There’s the possibly psychic Shadow, Shade, and the boss, Toni, conveniently the sister-in-law of a state’s attorney general.

The crime to be investigated and avenged here is the disappearance of Kathy’s son.

Kathy just happens to be the sister of Pam, a possible girlfriend of the narrator’s when he was in a band and before he was drafted for the Vietnam War. Yes, he’s a maladjusted Vietnam Veteran: “They said the War was over, you can lie down now – I told them to kiss my ass.”

Adding to the cliches, when he returns from the war he just happens to come upon “five Nazi creeps” raping Pam with Kathy in a closet. Perhaps, Pulver is speaking metaphorically about the Nazis ‘cause real-life, honest-to-god Nazis are pretty scarce on the ground now and also in the 1970s and 1980s, about the time that scene takes place.

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