There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Some Weird Stories of Robert W. Chambers

Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers is a useful ebook to have, but like many other oceanic bodies it is a place where one can easily get lost. (Most of his work is also free online here).

Chambers wrote entertaining weird and strange stories for several decades. His later tales, invariably humdrum, are brightened with humor employed at the expense of his more sniffy protagonists.

The later stories, including the sublime "The Maker of Moons," have typically not received the hosannas delivered to two early masterpieces, "The Repairer of Reputations," and "The Yellow Sign." The praise is richly deserved for these tales, which are virtually unequaled in their concentrated power and originality.

Below are notes and excerpts on stories read this week:

The Repairer of Reputations (1895)
The early stories of Chambers, like those of Machen, are glutted to satiety with contradictions rife of their period, the rosy-fingered dawn of Washington's imperial ascendancy.
    Our narrator seems to model himself, at least in his grasping arrogance, on Theodore Roosevelt. (Anyone who has not read Richard Hofstadter on T.R. should stop avoiding the pleasure). Otherwise, our narrator Mr. Castaigne might just as well be another psychotic Bonaparte manque.
    Was Chambers the first to write about the mind-shattering effects of a book? (He certainly would not be the last; his pastichists may never outnumber Lovecraft's, but like readers of The King in Yellow they are multiplying).
    .....During my convalescence I had bought and read for the first time, The King in Yellow . I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet.

The Mask • (1895)
Readers who enjoy tales of weird travails of artists and their connoisseurs have long prized tales like "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" and "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers."
     "The Mask" gives is a briefer view, but no less telling for that. (Do writers still have friends who paint and sculpt, and do they still visit their studios for slices of life? Or is an appetite for the moveable feast defunct? Who today realizes Pickman would have smelled of linseed oil and turps, and had a cadmium cough?)
    ..... "What you tell me of seeing Boris bending over you while you lay ill, and feeling his touch on your face, and hearing his voice, of course troubles me. This that you describe must have happened a fortnight after he died. I say to myself that you were dreaming, that it was part of your delirium, but the explanation does not satisfy me, nor would it you."

In the Court of the Dragon (1895)
....I was worn out by three nights of physical suffering and mental trouble: the last had been the worst, and it was an exhausted body, and a mind benumbed and yet acutely sensitive, which I had brought to my favourite church for healing. For I had been reading The King in Yellow.
    "The sun ariseth; they gather themselves together and lay them down in their dens." Monseigneur C—— delivered his text in a calm voice, glancing quietly over the congregation. My eyes turned, I knew not why, toward the lower end of the church. The organist was coming from behind his pipes, and passing along the gallery on his way out, I saw him disappear by a small door that leads to some stairs which descend directly to the street. He was a slender man, and his face was as white as his coat was black. "Good riddance!" I thought, "with your wicked music! I hope your assistant will play the closing voluntary."
    With a feeling of relief — with a deep, calm feeling of relief, I turned back to the mild face in the pulpit and settled myself to listen. Here, at last, was the ease of mind I longed for.
    "My children," said the preacher, "one truth the human soul finds hardest of all to learn: that it has nothing to fear. It can never be made to see that nothing can really harm it."
    "Curious doctrine!" I thought, "for a Catholic priest. Let us see how he will reconcile that with the Fathers."

The Yellow Sign (1895)
.....I did not know whether it was something in the turpentine or a defect in the canvas, but the more I scrubbed the more that gangrene seemed to spread. I worked like a beaver to get it out, and yet the disease appeared to creep from limb to limb of the study before me. Alarmed, I strove to arrest it, but now the colour on the breast changed and the whole figure seemed to absorb the infection as a sponge soaks up water. Vigorously I plied palette-knife, turpentine, and scraper, thinking all the time what a séance I should hold with Duval who had sold me the canvas; but soon I noticed that it was not the canvas which was defective nor yet the colours of Edward. "It must be the turpentine," I thought angrily, "or else my eyes have become so blurred and confused by the afternoon light that I can't see straight." I called Tessie, the model. She came and leaned over my chair blowing rings of smoke into the air.
    "What have you been doing to it?" she exclaimed
    "Nothing," I growled, "it must be this turpentine!"
    "What a horrible colour it is now," she continued. "Do you think my flesh resembles green cheese?"
    "No, I don't," I said angrily; "did you ever know me to paint like that before?"
    "No, indeed!"
    "Well, then!"
    "It must be the turpentine, or something," she admitted....

The Demoiselle d'Ys (1895)
"The moor is wild and desolate. It is easy to enter, but sometimes they who enter never leave it. There are no peasants' huts here."
    A beautifully observed story set in the Breton moorland.

The Prophets' Paradise  (1895)
A sequence of adequate prose poems.

The Maker of Moons (1896)
A brilliantly executed and powerful fantasy about the interpenetration of worlds, ours and a weird China, one of whose wizards comes to live in and alter our reality. For a time. This story sends its echoes forward to works like Machen's "N." and King's "Crouch End."
    ....We never were able to find either her dwelling place or the glade and the fountain again. The only thing that remains to her of her former life is the gold serpent in the Metropolitan Museum and her golden globe, the symbol of the Kuen–Yuin; but the latter no longer changes color.

A Pleasant Evening (1896)
More atelier life.
  "....They say she is idle and vain and pleasure-loving; they say she is hare-brained and reckless. The little sculptor on the ground floor, who was buying rolls from old Cabane, spoke to me to-night for the first time, although we have always bowed to each other. He said she was very good and very beautiful. He has only seen her once, and does not know her name. I thanked him; — I don't know why I thanked him so warmly. Cabane said, 'Into this cursed Street of the Four Winds, the four winds blow all things evil.' The sculptor looked confused, but when he went out with his rolls, he said to me, 'I am sure, Monsieur, that she is as good as she is beautiful.'"

The Purple Emperor (1897)
An American expat tells the story of jealousy and murder in a small town in Brittany. A very wryly observed tale.

Pompe Funèbre • (1897)
....When anything that is dying — sick and close to death — falls upon the face of the earth, something moves in the blue above, floating like a moat; then another, then others. These specks that grow out of the fathomless azure vault are jewelled flies. They come to wait for Death.
    The sexton also arranges rendezvous with Death, but never waits; Death must arrive the first....

The Messenger • (1897)
Not an antiquarian, but a spectral archeology story, again told by an American in Brittany. He is wed to a local woman with famous antecedents.
    "....There was one in the last century, here in St. Gildas. He cast a white shadow in the sun. He wrote in the Breton language. Chronicles, too, I believe. I never saw them. His name was the same as that of the old chronicler, and of the other priest, Jacques Sorgue. Some said he was a lineal descendant of the traitor. Of course the first Black Priest was bad enough for anything. But if he did have a child, it need not have been the ancestor of the last Jacques Sorgue. They say this one was a holy man. They say he was so good he was not allowed to die, but was caught up to heaven one day," added Lys, with believing eyes.
    I smiled.
    "But he disappeared," persisted Lys.
    "I'm afraid his journey was in another direction," I said jestingly, and thoughtlessly told her the story of the morning. I had utterly forgotten the masked man at her window, but before I finished I remembered him fast enough, and realized what I had done as I saw her face whiten.
    "Lys," I urged tenderly, "that was only some clumsy clown's trick. You said so yourself. You are not superstitious, my dear?"
    Her eyes were on mine. She slowly drew the little gold cross from her bosom and kissed it. But her lips trembled as they pressed the symbol of faith.

The White Shadow (1897)
....And so Sweetheart took her first step across that threshold of mystery, the Temple of Idols. And of the gilded idols within the temple, one shall turn to living flesh at the sound of a voice. And lo! where a child had entered, a woman returned with the key to the Temple of Gilded Idols.

Passeur (1897)
....Around the room the furniture stood ranged — a chair or two of yellow pine, a table, the easel, and in one corner the broad curtained bed; and behind each lay shadows, menacing shadows that never moved.
    A little pale flame started up from the
smoking log on the andirons; the room sang with the sudden hiss of escaping wood gases. After a little the back of the log caught fire; jets of blue flared up here and there with mellow sounds like the lighting of gas-burners in a row, and in a moment a thin sheet of yellow flame wrapped the whole charred log.
    Then the shadows moved; not the shadows behind the furniture — they never moved — but other shadows, thin, gray, confusing, that came and spread their slim patterns all around him, and trembled and trembled.
The Key to Grief (1897)
....He often thought of the camp now; of Bates, his blanket mate; of Dyce, whose wrist he had broken with a blow; of Tully, whose brother he had shot. He even seemed to hear the shot, the sudden report among the hemlocks; again he saw the haze of smoke, he caught a glimpse of a tall form falling through the bushes.
    He remembered every minute incident of the trial: Bates's hand laid on his shoulder; Tully, red-bearded and wild-eyed, demanding his death; while Dyce spat and spat and smoked and kicked at the blackened log-ends projecting from the fire. He remembered, too, the verdict, and Tully's terrible laugh; and the new jute rope that they stripped off the market-sealed gum packs.

In Search of the Unknown (1904)
Braiding short stories together into a novel probably vanished from popular fiction after the Second World war (with the exception of the science fiction genre). When there was a huge market for short stories, some authors could make masterpieces and earn a second paycheck. Oppenheim's book The Terrible Hobby of Sir Joseph Londe, Bart. Is a masterpiece of this kind.
    In Search of the Unknown links together a series of adventures featuring a man from the Zoological Gardens of Bronx Park, New York. He goes after specimens of birds, lizards, and other fauna thought extinct or merely unknown to science.
    Each adventure gives him a new young woman to woo, though they always choose a more suitable rival.
    ....Across the half-moon of beach towered another cliff, and, behind this, I saw a column of smoke rising in the still air. It certainly came from Halyard's chimney, although the opposite cliff prevented me from seeing the house itself.
    I rested a moment to refill my pipe, then resumed rifle and pack, and cautiously started to skirt the cliffs. I had descended half-way towards the beech, and was examining the cliff opposite, when something on the very top of the rock arrested my attention—a man darkly outlined against the sky. The next moment, however, I knew it could not be a man, for the object suddenly glided over the face of the cliff and slid down the sheer, smooth lace like a lizard. Before I could get a square look at it, the thing crawled into the surf—or, at least, it seemed to—but the whole episode occurred so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that I was not sure I had seen anything at all.

The Sign of Venus  (1903)
....A curious little chill passed over Hetherford.
    "I said it again and again — I don't know why. I remember the ring glittered; I remember it grew brighter and brighter. And then — and then! I found myself upstairs in the dark, groping over the dresser for the matches."
    Again that faint chill touched Hetherford.
    "I was stupefied for a moment,"she said tremulously; "then I suspected what I had done, and it frightened me. And when I lighted the candle, and saw it was truly my own room —and when I caught sight of my own face in the mirror —terror seized me; it was like a glimpse of something taken unawares. For, do you know that although in the glass I saw my own face, the face was not looking back at me."She dropped her head, crushing the ring in both hands. "The reflected face was far lovelier than mine; and it was mine, I think, yet it was not looking at me, and it moved when I did not move. I wonder —I wonder—"
The Case of Mr. Helmer • (1904)
....She sat beside him with never a word or sigh or whisper of breathing; and dream after dream swept him, like burning winds. Then sleep immersed him so that he lay senseless, sightless eyes still fixed on her. Hour after hour — and the white glare died out, fading to a glimmer. In densest darkness, he stirred, awoke, his mind quite clear, and spoke her name in a low voice.
    "Yes, I am here," she answered gently.
     "Is it death?" he asked, closing his eyes.
     "Yes. Look at me, Philip."

The Bridal Pair (1902)
...."Three years ago to-day," he repeated; "the anniversary has given me courage to speak to you. Surely you will not take offense; we have traveled so far together! — from the end of the world to the end of it, and back again, here — to this place of all places in the world! And now to find you here on this day of all days — here within a step of our first meeting place — three years ago to-day! And all the world we have traveled over since never speaking, yet ever passing on paths parallel — paths which for thousands of miles ran almost within arm's distance —"

Out of the Depths (1904)
A story of deep emotion and great poignancy.
    ...."I remember perfectly well how we met. Do you? You had just come back to town from Bar Harbor, and I saw you stroll in and seat yourself in that corner, and, because I was sitting next you, you asked if you might include me in your order — do you remember?"
    "Yes, I remember."
    "And I told you I was a new member here, and you pointed our the portraits of all those dead governors of the club, and told me what good fellows they had been. I found our later that you yourself were a governor of the club."

Police!!! • (1915)
Another collection of tales about lost tribes, cryptids, and Fortean creatures, along the lines of In Search of the Unknown.

The Third Eye (1915)
An expedition hunting three-eyed people of the Everglades.

The Immortal  (1915)
Naturalists search the Everglades for a tribe of transparent women.

The Ladies of the Lake • (1915)
Two zoologists lead a group of influential suffragists on a tour of Alaskan lakes named after them. They discover that
Lake Gladys Doolittle Batt is vrtually bottomless, and home to a species of very large fish. An amusing and light-hearted story.

One Over (1915)
....Professor Jane Bottomly was wished on us out of a pleasant April sky. She fell like a meteoric mass of molten metal upon the Bronx Park Zoölogical Society splashing her excoriating personality over everybody until everybody writhed.
     I had not yet seen the lady. I did not care to. Sooner or later I'd be obliged to meet her but I was not impatient.
     Now the Field Expeditionary Force of the Bronx Park Zoölogical Society is, perhaps, the most important arm of the service. Professor Bottomly had just been appointed official head of all field work. Why? Nobody knew. It is true that she had written several combination nature and love romances. In these popular volumes trees, flowers, butterflies, birds, animals, dialect, sobs, and sun-bonnets were stirred up together into a saccharine mess eagerly gulped down by a provincial reading public, which immediately protruded its tongue for more.
    The news of her impending arrival among us was an awful blow to everybody at the Bronx. Professor Farrago fainted in the arms of his pretty stenographer; Professor Cornelius Lezard of the Batrachian Department ran around his desk all day long in narrowing circles and was discovered on his stomach still feebly squirming like an expiring top; Dr. Hans Fooss, our beloved Professor of Pachydermatology sat for hours weeping into his noodle soup. As for me, I was both furious and frightened, for, within the hearing of several people, Professor Bottomly had remarked in a very clear voice to her new assistant, Dr. Daisy Delmour, that she intended to get rid of me for the good of the Bronx because of my reputation for indiscreet gallantry among the feminine employees of the Bronx Society....

Un Peu d'Amour (1915)
....Over me crept a horrible certainty that something living was moving under us through the depths of the earth — something that, as it progressed, was heaping up the surface of the world above its unseen and burrowing course — something dreadful, enormous, sinister, and alive!
    "Look out!" screamed Blythe; and at the same instant the crumbling summit of the ridge opened under our feet and a fissure hundreds of yards long yawned ahead of us.
    And along it, shining slimily in the moonlight, a vast, viscous, ringed surface was moving, retracting, undulating, elongating, writhing, squirming, shuddering.
    "It's a worm!" shrieked Blythe.

The Eggs of the Silver Moon (1915)
A humorous tall tale about rival entomologists at the Bronx Zoological Park.

9 June 2019

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