“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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“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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“The Hill and the Hole”

Don’t worry. There will be more on Arthur Machen. I have read and will be reviewing more of his work.

However, a few months ago, two to be exact, I watched a rather mediocre movie on Amazon based on this story.

Being a Fritz Leiber fan – at least of his non-sword-and-sorcery, I looked it up.

Review. “The Hill and the Hole”, Fritz Leiber, 1941.

Unsurprisingly, this 1942 story was first published in Unknown since it partakes of that magazine’s mixture of science and rationality with horror and fantasy. 

Our protagonist, Tom Digby, is somewhere in the Midwest surveying for the US Geological Service. 

He encounters an anomaly. He can’t get an accurate reading on a hill’s height using a transit and altimeter. 

A girl who lives on the land the “hill” is on, warns him that it is, in fact, a hole as his instruments say. Furthermore, “They” live there, and They don’t like to be disturbed.  She even tells him another man went up the hill a couple of years ago and “They made him dead.” 

Digby meets his boss, Ben Shelley, for lunch, and Ben shows him the last topographic map for the area. It does, indeed, show a hole instead of a hill. 

Digby asks Shelley to help him take another reading. Ben mentions some oddities about the death of the last man who tried to survey it. He was suffocated. 

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“A Fragment of Life”

Essay: “A Fragment of Life”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

This is a wonderful story with many elements.

It’s a slice of middle-class life circa 1904, a superb example of Machen’s theme of finding the numinous, mysterious, and wonderful in everyday life (here, as usual, in the streets of London); an attack on the commercial and scientific materialism of his day as well as apocalyptic Protestantism; and a sort of a bridge with his earlier “The White People” and his later The Secret Glory. It is a dark comedy, domestic drama, and a religious quest.

Machen wrote this short novel between 1899 to 1904. It was originally serialized in four installments, but Machen was dissatisfied with the final installment and rewrote it when the story was republished in House of Souls.

The style of the story is closer to the Machen style of The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations and the early sections of The Hill of Dreams than the later sections of that novel. We follow our hero as the mundane mask of the world is removed and the mystery and glory behind it revealed.

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“The White People”

Review: “The White People”, Arthur Machen, 1904.

Cover by Daniel V. Sauer

Written in 1899, this story is regarded as one of Machen’s best. After Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, it was H. P. Lovecraft’s favorite weird story. He liked it for its indefinite and dreamy plot, qualities it certainly has in its section titled “The Green Book”.

In 1899, Machen was a man in “dreadful misery and desolation and dereliction of the soul”. His first wife had died that year from breast cancer. They had been married 11 years. Then one morning, while walking with his friend, Machen was transformed.  He realized the “great sorrows of life” were passing trifles.

A new productive period started that included the writing of this story.

The Green Book is the journal of a dead girl, written when she was at least thirteen or fourteen, maybe older. It talks of how she talked to white people she saw when she was in the crib.

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The Hill of Dreams

Essay: The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe

In 1896, the year The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations was published, Machen said, in the introduction to a 1923 edition of this novel, he decided to stop being, in the words of critics, a “second-rate imitator” of Robert Louis Stevenson.

This was not quite all the truth, but there was a good deal of truth in it, and I am glad to say I took my correction in a proper spirit. I resolved to try to amend my ways.

There would be

No more white powders, no more of the calix principis inferorum, no more hanky-panky with the Great God Pan, or the Little People or any people of that dubious sort.

He planned this novel in in 1895, and it was not done until the spring of 1897. His plan was frequently revised, concluding chapters abandoned and restarted. He despaired, at times, of ever finding a way to completion.

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“The Nameless Offspring”

It’s this week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing

Review: “The Nameless Offspring”, Clark Ashton Smith, 1932.

Cover by Jason Van Hollander

Coincidentally, Arthur Machen, subject of several recent posts, has a connection to this story. Smith had read his “The Great God Pan” and decided he would like write a story with a woman impregnated by something inhuman.

It’s an effective story though it does rely on the great coincidence of the narrator, Henry Chaldane, accidentally ending up, while on a motorcycle trip through England, at the isolated house of Sir John Tremoth. He just happens to be a friend of Henry’s deceased father.

Henry vaguely remember the story of what happened to Lady Agatha Tremoth, Sir John’s wife. She went cataleptic and was mistakenly buried alive. 

The day after she was interred in the family vault, Sir John doubted that Agatha was dead. He went to the crypt and found Agatha sitting upright. Somehow, she got her nailed coffin lid off.  She was shattered in brain and body and remembered only a hideous, unhuman face looming over her. Its limbs were semi-human, and the figure seemed to go about sometimes like an animal. 

Nine months later, she gave birth to a monstrous child and died. The child was locked away from the world. 

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“The Shining Pyramid”

Review: “The Shining Pyramid”, Arthur Machen, 1895, 1926.

Cover by Matthew Jaffe.

It’s not only the last of Machen’s stories about writer and pseudo-detective Dyson, but it also decisively ends an era of Machen’s literary career.

Like all the Dyson stories, it’s told in a series of episodes. The story was first published in 1895 and slightly revised for a 1925 publication. As usual in this series, editor S. T. Joshi went with Machen’s preferred version.

In “The Arrow-Head Character”, Dyson and his friend Vaughn are discussing the latter’s recent trip to the country. 

They haven’t seen each other in three years, and Vaughn came to see Dyson right after getting off his train in London. He speaks of a haunting and invites Dyson out to the country. Dyson likes London in September. It’s exciting, and he doesn’t want to leave.

Vaughn says the country isn’t always peaceful. It has its mysteries. For instance, Annie Trevor, a beautiful girl, disappeared walking to her aunt’s house about five or six miles away. There were no pits to fall into or cliffs to fall off along the way. The villagers, “bad as the Irish” in their superstitions, have an explanation involving fairies. 

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