"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Reading Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett (2014)

by Matthew M. Bartlett (2014)

Welcome to a rebarbative rural Western Massachusetts. It is shot-through with monstrous facts and uncanny contexts of real aesthetic power and the moral voice of a sleep-deprived, keening Jeremiah.

Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett makes Mark Samuels' tales of a universe succumbing to entropy in slush piles of UHF static look like stories about hijinks at a vicar's tea party.

The collection contains over thirty stories. Some are brief slices of life, a few are more rounded. The entire collection can be read in a day, if not a single sitting. But I do not recommend such intense exposure. Like Ramsey Campbell, Matthew M. Bartlett not only depicts situations where perceptions are warped and lethally inaccurate, he attempts to impose those sensations on the reader through his fun-house strategies delineating setting, characters, events, and durations.

By far my favorite story, for its ability to subvert itself and keep upping the horror ante, is "when I was a boy – a broadcast."

It begins by posing as a reminisce of rural youth:

When I was a boy in Leeds, I had a friend named Christopher Dempsey who lived out on Cemetery Hollow Road. He had a younger brother named Alex and a backyard that emptied out into an expanse of woods that hid most of our boyhood exploits, which for a time were no less innocent than catching and eating frogs....

But menacing facts and events accumulate in the story's second and third paragraph:

....Christopher and Alex each seemed to be clothed in dirt. It smudged their faces at the corners of their mouths and settled into the cracked skin at their elbows and knees. Their toes were so encased in filth they were never once kicked out of King's Grocery for being shoeless; a glance at their filthy feet fooled most into thinking the boys had donned dense and dirty slippers.
    Their mother, though not as obviously caked and clotted with filth as her boys, seemed to be filthy with secrets. She was thick-hipped and black-haired and wore huge glasses and colorful faded sashes tied at her waist. She favored dark denim pantsuits and she smoked up hand-rolled cigarettes one after the other. She was ugly and beautiful and fat and curved and she did not wear lipstick neatly like Mother wore lipstick. She spent hours behind the closed door of her room listening to monotonous and eerie orchestral music. She read strange books. She was quiet and sullen and cursed at her boys and humiliated and hated them. She took to me instantly, foisting her boys off upon me on many a hot afternoon and staring strangely after me as we fled into the woods....

But "when I was a boy – a broadcast" is not simply a memory of the benighted Dempsey family. The narrator peels back and displays something more than lumpen crudity; this is a family, particularly a mother, diagnosed as a social disease:

....I turned to leave and She beckoned me from the doorway. She was wearing a ratty pink robe that hung open obscenely. Its browned sash curled like a snake at her feet. I seem to remember--though it cannot be--that a newly lit cigarette jutted from between her disturbingly large big toe and its curled neighbor, sending a seductive tendril of smoke up past the webbed blue veins of her thighs, past the sweaty cramped horizons of her belly, past the glitter stuck in clumps between her ample, dangling breasts, past her eyes, one of which twitched, past her hair, which was greasy and brown and frayed. I turned again to run and fainted dead away....

It quickly follows, however, that the social disease has conquered more than the Dempsey family. The narrator begins to get a sense of the rest of the iceberg:

....I cannot describe what was happening to me when I woke. It was my dream come true and my nightmare. Her face pushed into me everywhere. She pulled from me pleasures I'd never imagined and pulled and bit at my skin angrily until I shrieked and pulled away in pain and shame. Cigarettes lay broken and smoking in ashtrays all over the room. There must have been scores of them, providing ample light to see the faces watching us from all the corners of the room. I thought I saw Guy grappling with my father over scraps of raw meat. I remember a clock whose face was an obscene caricature of a black man, another whose hands were crudely rendered pricks. I remember a dog rolling on a milk-soaked carpet, its belly a mass of grotesque breasts. She saw me looking frantically about the room and covered my eyes with her hand, which smelled of sex and nicotine
     There was music playing, I remember, and there were whispers and bursts of jeering laughter. I think at one point a dog lapped at the bottom of my foot. I endured a cigarette burn whose ghost still haunts my eyebrow. I remember the sounds of someone vomiting. But mostly there was her, from every angle and in deep in every fold. Our bodies roiled and boiled and pushed into each other unspeakably. I was terrified of her, and terrified that it would end. I was sure I would die, for there were long stretches of time when her flesh filled my throat and seemed to be on the verge of somehow invading my very lungs. I wanted to die, and I wanted to go on forever....

At this point "when i was a boy – a broadcast" is about two pages from its pulverizing climax. I won't spoil it by describing it here, but the narrator both descends to and supercedes his community's depravities and crapulence.

Gateways to Abomination is not a reassuring book. It does not try to make the reader comfortable, even at the end. Bartlett's goal - a goal achieved - is to curdle readerly confidence in our own senses, our judgment, and in our apprehension of the world outside stories.

27 July 2019

Friday, July 26, 2019

Not my idea of a peaceful night: "The Face" by E.F. Benson

July 24 was the 152nd anniversary of E.F. Benson's birth.

On Facebook that day Ramsey Campbell singled-out Benson's "The Face" for particular praise.

A praiseworthy story of incredible uncanny power it is. If one were looking for a "missing link" between M.R. James and Robert Aickman, "The Face" would be an outstanding candidate. It's "gone in the night" climax will also strike a chord with Campbell readers.


....The gallery was crowded when she got there; there were friends among the sightseers, and the inspection of the pictures was diversified by cheerful conversation. There were two or three fine Raeburns, a couple of Sir Joshuas, but the gems, so she gathered, were three Vandycks that hung in a small room by themselves. Presently she strolled in there, looking at her catalogue. The first of them, she saw, was a portrait of Sir Roger Wyburn. Still chatting to her friend she raised her eye and saw it….

Her heart hammered in her throat, and then seemed to stand still altogether. A qualm, as of some mental sickness of the soul overcame her, for there in front of her was he who would soon come for her. There was the reddish hair, the projecting ears, the greedy eyes set close together, and the mouth smiling on one side, and on the other gathered up into the sneering menace that she knew so well. It might have been her own nightmare rather than a living model which had sat to the painter for that face.

"Ah, what a portrait, and what a brute!" said her companion. "Look, Hester, isn't that marvellous?"

She recovered herself with an effort. To give way to this ever-mastering dread would have been to allow nightmare to invade her waking life, and there, for sure, madness lay. She forced herself to look at it again, but there were the steady and eager eyes regarding her; she could almost fancy the mouth began to move. All round her the crowd bustled and chattered, but to her own sense she was alone there with Roger Wyburn.

And yet, so she reasoned with herself, this picture of him—for it was he and no other—should have reassured her. Roger Wyburn, to have been painted by Vandyck, must have been dead near on two hundred years; how could he be a menace to her? Had she seen that portrait by some chance as a child; had it made some dreadful impression on her, since overscored by other memories, but still alive in the mysterious subconsciousness, which flows eternally, like some dark underground river, beneath the surface of human life? Psychologists taught that these early impressions fester or poison the mind like some hidden abscess. That might account for this dread of one, nameless no longer, who waited for her.

That night down at Rye there came again to her the prefatory dream, followed by the nightmare, and clinging to her husband as the terror began to subside, she told him what she had resolved to keep to herself. Just to tell it brought a measure of comfort, for it was so outrageously fantastic, and his robust common sense upheld her. But when on their return to London there was a recurrence of these visions, he made short work of her demur and took her straight to her doctor.

"Tell him all, darling," he said. "Unless you promise to do that, I will. I can't have you worried like this. It's all nonsense, you know, and doctors are wonderful people for curing nonsense."

She turned to him.

"Dick, you're frightened," she said quietly.

He laughed.

"I'm nothing of the kind," he said, "but I don't like being awakened by your screaming. Not my idea of a peaceful night. Here we are."

"The Face" by E.F. Benson


26 July 2019

[Walter Pater]

From Gaunt's Aesthetic Adventure:

....At this stage he appeared to suffer almost from an excess of Christianity. He was considered 'a tremendous Ritualist'. He never ate meat in Lent and every night he murmured a Latin prayer. Anxiety was expressed lest Ritualism should lead this young Thomas a Kempis to Rome. The fact was far different. By the time he went up to Oxford, with an Exhibition from King's School in 1858, he had already lost all religious faith. A reading of the doctrines of Christian Socialism as expounded by Maurice and Kingsley which have brought others to belief caused him to doubt. He seemed now to take a malicious delight in shocking his devout friends and in saying sneering and disturbing things out of character. 'Be boy-like boys', said Pater in a parting monitorial address at the school, looking fixedly at Dombrain Pater who had rejoiced in being the most unboy-like of boys. 'Mephistophelian sneers', said the puzzled Rainier McQueen of his attacks on the Bible in the manner of Voltaire. It was horrifying to him to think that one of their holy 'triumvirate' could suggest: 'What fun it would be to be ordained and not to believe a single word of what you are saying.' Nothing could be more disconcerting than this demure devilment. It was not as if Pater had revealed serious doubts which could be wrestled with in communion with staunch friends such wrestlings might in themselves be called a religious exercise and perfectly proper. No, it was as if a demon had quite suddenly asserted itself in his mind. 'An enemy', said this demon, in Pater's own voice, 'to all Gothic darkness' and 'full of a better taste.' McQueen was horrified, heartbroken. 'Please desist from that kind of talk', he implored. To which Pater with quiet savagery replied, 'When I was at Canterbury I was a contemptible hypocrite'. His heresy was 'the cause of a rupture which could have come to pass by nothing else'.

Religious experience, shades of religious belief, were then the main preoccupation of Oxford. There were various religious sets like so many political parties the High Church set who wore their hair plastered very sleekly and close to the head, and went in for incense at seven shillings and sixpence a pound, the puritan Anglicans who liked the interior of St. Mary's because it was bare, the Broad Churchmen, prominent among whom were the Rev. Mark Pattison and Benjamin Jowett, the Regius Professor of Greek, who with five collaborators in the Essays and Reviews of 1860 had earned the title of the 'Seven Against Jesus'. Occasionally and to the sound of tears and sobs, someone would go over to Rome, with the effect of a wilful child who, reaching too far for a flower, had tumbled over a cliff.

And about none of these things did the new Pater, the Mr. Hyde Pater, now care in the least. He was indifferent. As to the painful case of one who had gone over to Rome he remarked dispassionately: 'In fact, as far as mere comfort of mind is concerned, I consider conscientious Roman catholics quite enviable'. As for himself he even went to the length of giving away or selling all his religious books, including a copy of The Christian Year. Robert McQueen wrote to his brother: 'Pater must be in a very bad state. What particular religion does he profess to belong to?' No one knew, though it seemed that philosophy had replaced religion in his mind from the fact that his favourite reading was Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Plato, the Germans Schelling and Hegel, and the story was told that he sat up all night reflecting on the absolute.

He profited or at least was affected by certain contemporary influences. He attended Mathew Arnold's lectures on Poetry. He was impressed by his attacks on the Philistine, his crusade for 'sweetness and light', his cosmopolitan attitude to letters. He read the books of John Ruskin. The decorative fluent prose of Modern Painters, the insistence on art as the supreme business of life, the reiteration of great names, Titian, Angelico and Tintoretto, with as much reverence as if they were Prophets of the Old Testament, all this undoubtedly turned him to the thought if not to the actual study of art.

So too must those authors whom he cared for enough to translate. He translated Plato and Aristotle. He read passages of Goethe and from him he derived a serene, a meditative approach to the classical perfection of Greece. He imitated Goethe in destroying his own early poems because of their Christian sentiment. By 1860 he was regularly translating a page from Flaubert whose great first book Madame Bovary had appeared three years before. The deliberate choice of words, the detachment from the bourgeois world, in which Flaubert is so much akin to his contemporary Baudelaire could not fail to strike the translator. His view of art, his sense of style, was built on this study of ancient Greeks, modern Germans and modern French.

Gradually Pater became more inscrutable. It was about this time (1860) that he grew that moustache which completed the mask-like nature of his expressionless features. He was a 'Caliban of letters', was very sensitive about his looks, had been heard to say, 'I would give ten years of my life to be handsome*. Meetings were held among his friends to discuss 'the External Improvement of Pater'. Various suggestions were made. It was agreed that a moustache was the thing if anyone dared try to persuade him. To their surprise Pater took kindly to the idea and shortly there burgeoned on his upper lip that formidable luxuriance which provided him with a distinct character not his own.

This sensitiveness about his own appearance helped to make him interested in ideal beauty. He could not bear ugly people. His friends were good-looking. He admired his brother Willie Pater, a tall, handsome guardsman type, with Dundreary whiskers and a fascination for women, because of his physical well being and comeliness. Walter Horatio had been known to speak of a boy at school who was uglier even than he in terms of the most utter contempt and with unrelenting sarcasm.

Perhaps through diffidence, a sense of his unattractiveness, or through a naturally sluggish habit he was no lover. Apart from a mild, a vague, a passing warmth for a cousin he was able to dispense with the tender passion and even his friendships were restrained and tepid. He abstained from love as he had abstained from cricket the better to enjoy contemplation. Any kind of violence became alien to the rhythm of his life and it was almost a sign of his avoidance of the spectacular, of energetic outward display and vulgar excess that he took only Second Class Honours in the Final Classical Schools in 1862. His visits to Heidelberg (to see his sisters who had gone to live there) were, however, supposed to have given him a special equipment in philosophy: he was reputed to have special knowledge of the systems of Schelling and Hegel. Because of this or some perception ofan inner and latent merit concealed by his reserve, his abstention from being brilliant, he was fortunate enough to be elected Fellow of Brasenose in 1864.

It is interesting that he should have tried to persist in his diabolical plan of becoming ordained. His friends 6pposed him (as Rainier McQueen said) for his own sake. Dombrain, the most bigoted of the young triumvirate, shut Pater completely out of mind. McQueen, more sensitive and affectionate but equally religious, sorrowfully 'spoke with him for the last time in this world'. He found it difficult to reconcile the 'ascetic and saintly boy' of his earlier acquaintance with this cold stranger. He wondered 'what the real Pater was'. But a clergyman, surely he must not be. 'If you make the attempt I shall do all I can to prevent it/ said his former master the Rev. J. B. Kearney. 'And I shall do so, too/ said McQueen. Both wrote to the Bishop of London imploring him in the best interests of their infidel friend to prevent his taking orders. The veto was upheld.

Aunty Betty was deeply grieved but he showed only a passing annoyance and instead settled quietly down to being a writer, in his academic haven.

His mental isolation was singularly complete. He presented to the world an imposing array of negatives. He was no administrator his attitude to undergraduate manliness being expressed in the remark that they were 'like young tigers at play'. He was no scholar, in the Oxford sense, and got rather quickly at sea in construing Virgil's Georgics. He had neither the capacity nor the energy for research and he had extremely few points of contact with his colleagues or with contemporary life at all. He conceived himself as a 'crystal man', a man of taste, that is to say with a mind adorned by 'the reminiscence of a forgotten culture', but entirely himself, unaffected by the age in which he lived, and cherishing his isolation from it.

His was an inward existence. He was content with the most frugal and monkish of surroundings and equipment. His rooms at Brasenose were small, simple, austere. The little chintz curtains, the stained floorboards that bordered the matting and the Turkey carpet, the few line engravings after Michelangelo, Correggio and Ingres, in themselves a frugal choice from among the riches of art, spoke of plain and very threadbare living. A bust of Hercules, somewhat out of place in these prim quarters, bore witness to an entirely abstract approval of the force its owner did not possess. 'Hercules, Discobolus, Samson/ apostrophized an admirer, 'these be thy gods, O Pater/ The only touch of adornment was the bowl of dried rose leaves which stood on the table. Even his books were few. A few small shelves held some battered paper-backed and cheap editions. When Pater wanted to read he went to the Bodleian or else borrowed a book from a friend. The adjoining bedroom, which lay along a narrow passage approached by a low Gothic doorway, was only a few feet wide and was in fact so cramped that the head of the bed had to rest, without legs, on a projection in the wall.

In his sitting-room he would settle down in the morning to wring a few reluctant, anxiously weighed words from his pen. The table would be covered with small lozenges of white paper each bearing a phrase or a word, with here and there a blue lozenge, this representing a key point. Such were his 'notes'. There is something in this neat and precise plan that reminds us of Pater's Dutch ancestry.

Having cast off religion and being without interest either in scholarship or in practical affairs Pater began to concentrate on the subject of Art. That he was much impressed by Swinburne is certain, though he knew him only slightly. It may have been partly through him that he imbibed the doctrine of Art for Art's Sake in the emphatic form which the French writers had given it. He became one of a circle of young poets and painters whose watchword it was. There was John Payne, the poet who had set forth Gautier's doctrine of aesthetic perfection in an essay on The Poets of the Neo-Romantic School in France: Arthur O'Shaughnessy of the British Museum, and the painters J. T. Nettleship and Simeon Solomon, in whose studios they often met. There is no question but that an essay on Leonardo which Swinburne wrote in 1864 inspired the style and a celebrated passage of Pater's own later essay on the artist. Here is Swinburne:

Of Leonardo the samples are choice and few: full of that indefinable grace and grave mystery which belongs to his slightest and wildest work. Fair strange faces of women full of dim doubt and faint scorn, touched by the shadows of an obscure fate; eager and weary as it seems at once, pale and fervent with patience and passion, allure and perplex the thoughts and eyes of men.

The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come' and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, a little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.

It was a very vague and dreamy conception of ideal beauty, yet with its own tension and quiet ruthlessness. One pursued beauty as Johann Joachim Winckelmann had pursued it with 'a feverish nursing of the one motive of his life'. In that Prussian archaeologist a 'religious profession was only one incident of a culture' in which the moral instinct like the religious or political was merged in the artistic. And great pains had gone into the fashioning of the sentences which set forth this superlative aim. The reserved and cautious man thought it necessary to weigh every word, to restrain the violent and importunate epithet so prone to appear, to bring into the 'passion' which so much coloured the theme that sort of frugality manifest in his own surroundings.

This spartan care for form was something new in English literature. English writers wrote to say something, to serve a moral end; but the series of essays contributed by Pater to the Fortnightly Review and published in 1873 as 'The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry' served no such end and seemed to many people very insubstantial in consequence. They seemed to Mrs. Mark Pattison an 'air-plant independent of the ordinary sources of nourishment a sentimental revolution having no relation to the conditions of the actual 'world'. They were not, as the writings of Ruskin were, an incentive to production, a call to contemporaries to emulate the past. They took no account of the kind of society in which art flourished. They established an attitude, of one attempting to put in words certain tenuous sensations, representing the 'sharp apex of the present moment between two hypothetical eternities'. Pater's writings were concerned with great artists, though the author knew nothing of visual art and as technical criticism his account of their work has little value. Pater sought, following Goethe, for the relation in which a work of art stood to the inner nature of the person contemplating it. To obtain flrom art as many pulsations as possible, 'to burn always with this hard gem-like flame', was 'success in life'.

In this egoistic vision of ideal beauty there lurked a poison the same poison as in the poems of Baudelaire, from the study of whom Pater may have imbibed it direct. It was the sense that something vaguely evil was to be found at the very centre of beauty, an evil not to be avoided but to be embraced and enjoyed (intellectually and imaginatively) by the writer. An excitement was given to the quest 'for the perfection of the gods by the idea that it held some corrupt and diabolic secret. There is a curious passage in Pater's early study of Aesthetic Poetry (omitted from the final version of the Appreciations) in which he was writing of William Morris, and grafted on to the poetry of Pre-Raphaelitism a sentiment of his own, with little relation to the subject. 'The colouring is intricate and delirious as of "scarlet lilies". The influence of summer is like a poison in the blood', he wrote. He envisaged' a strange complex of conditions where as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand, among people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, andro- gynous, the light almost shining through them'. Here is the spirit of the Fleurs du Mai, the sentiment of decay. In later essays, in the Imaginary Portraits, Pater elaborated in various ways the idea of some horror or demoniac element haunting peaceful lives and pleasant places, itself concealed beneath some outward fairness of aspect.

Jowett scented danger, The sturdy little Broad Churchman with immense forehead, the cherubic face and the barrel-bodied great-coat, was a practical man and as such he had little patience with gush about beauty, which was no concern of a scholar and a gentleman. Anyone going in 'for poetry and all that nonsense' aroused his irritation. But here was something more. He could not put a finger on it 'quite but there was a pernicious feeling in it. Undergraduates might get hold of the wrong idea and be led astray by this over-heated, artificial style of thing. The classics should be approached as a straightforward exercise in knowledge and not as a romantic excuse for self-indulgence. He was frankly alarmed at 'the mental and moral attitude' with which Pater was credited, none the less because he had once said to Pater, 'You have a mind that will attain eminence'. He tried by every means to keep him away from Swinburne, on whom he thought Pater would be a most dangerous influence. Seeing that Algernon openly professed to be 'dangerous', and that he and Pater had visited the same source for their inspiration, this seems rather ironical.

Pater went imperturbably on. It was one of his characteristics not to care in the least what was said or thought of him. "To burn always with this hard gem-like flame is success in life'. It is to be assumed that this illumination burnt in his mind as he bent his head with every mark of the reverence he did not feel in prayers in the college chapel which he so punctiliously attended; or as he waved a hand to a friend when limping along the High Street with a famous gesture, indeterminate, yet indicating in a delicate way that, while he was sensitively and even gratefully aware of the friend's presence, on this occasion he begged that it should be, without the exchange of words, understood, that it was quite impossible for him to pause, even for a moment, for the exchange of mundane courtesies. Life became, increasingly, a system of aestKetics. 'But why should we be good, Mr. Pater?' an undergraduate is supposed to have asked.

'Because it is so beautiful/ was the reply. Religion, like virtue, was an aesthetic subdivision. He liked to visit St. Alban's, in Holborn, the polychrome creation of the Gothic revivalist, William Butterfield, which was particularly 'High'; and also the principal Roman Catholic chapels, to admire the flowers, arum, jonquil and narcissus, banked before the altar, the clouds of incense, the splendid robes, the elaborate .ceremonies.' On the other hand the 'starveling ceremonies of the Low Church are not worth witnessing'.

'It does not matter what is said provided it is said beautifully.'

A languor of manner seemed the necessary accompaniment of this continued and exalted preoccupation with Beauty. In the withdrawal from the stirring and the bustling contacts of the ordinary world, it was desirable to explain that the sensations still retained their acuteness/ that they might even be exhausted by their own refinement. Thus Pater, walking one summer evening in Christ Church meadow with a friend, remarked to him, 'Certain flowers affect my imagination so that I cannot smell them with pleasure. The white jonquil, the gardenia and the syringa actually give me pain. I am partial to the meadow-sweet but on an evening like this there is too much of it. It is the fault of nature in England that she runs too much to excess/ There are few who suffer to any extent from the smell of meadowsweet. This is not to say that Pater was not altogether serious. At the same time the attitude appeared uncommonly close to a pose; and the 'flute-like modulations of voice' which he adopted had to some listeners the sound of affectation.

For Oxford it was an entirely new style of behaviour. The remnants of its eighteenth-century tradition, bluff and jovial, mighty eaters and drinkers, had no nonsense of this sort about them, nor had the typical men of the nineteenth century, grave, earnest, wrapped up in questions of religion. Pater opposed to the materialism of the one and the spirituality of the other a new form of self-indulgence.

....he met with opposition. Jowett took good care that he was not given the disciplinary office of Proctor (worth some 300 a year) and others beside Jowett were heartily contemptuous. Once at a dinner party in the Bradmore Road he began to discourse 'with spring flower sickliness' on the beauty of the Reserved Sacrament in the Roman Church. 'As though', snorted the Rev. Mandell Creighton, ofMerton (who was present), 'he was describing a house in which lay a dead friend/ A sturdy Protestant made a sarcastic remark and a closure had to be applied to the heated discussion which followed. There was a lack of understanding in Oxford which made Pater dislike the place.

His pupils were more impressionable than his fellow dons. Some of them sat at his feet in adoration, but his enemies were careful to point out that these worshippers were not usually very good in their examinations. The burning of the hard gem-like flame did not ensure success in the Final Schools and one young man, it is recorded, who excelled in aesthetic ecstasy 'got only a Fourth'....

by William Gaunt


26 July 2019

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Another death in Venice: The Quest for Corvo (1934) by A.J.A. Symons

The Quest for Corvo (1934)
A.J.A. Symons
(Valancourt eClassics)

With a century's retrospect, Rolfe was an unappreciated artist who never found a place for himself in life where his craft could be rewarded. But damn, it must have been a misery to know him. Unfit for adulthood or providing for himself, he imposed on acquaintances, then rained down calumny on them when they got sick of his resentments and paranoia. You can't help some people.

The book does signify the triumph of Symons after over a decade of patient scholarship.

....It was a deeper satisfaction still to know that every one of the works which had been left and lost in obscurity when Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe died suddenly and alone at Venice had been collected together by sympathetic hands, and that, alone of living men, I had read every line of every one. Nothing was left to be discovered; the Quest was ended. Hail, strange tormented spirit, in whatever hell or heaven has been allotted for your everlasting rest!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Rereading Dark Gods by T. E. D. Klein (1985)

Dark Gods came out in 1985, when I was just out of high school. I was an avid buyer of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine during Klein's editorial reign, and read his editorials and articles over and over again. I got a better horror education from Klein than anywhere else. Had I not - unbeknownst to me - been wrestling with undiagnosed autism, I probably would have gleaned just as much from his fiction as non-fiction. But novels and stories were up against my cherished habits of procrastination, intellectual distraction, and lack of intestinal fortitude.

I had the Dark Gods paperback for some time before I got down to reading it, and The Ceremonies is still my white whale.

Yesterday was Klein's birthday, which motivated me to revisit Dark Gods and reread a few stories.

(Notes from my reading of "Petey" two years ago this week can be found here.)

Reading notes on "Children of the Kingdom"

Previous familiarity with Machen's "The Red Hand," "The Shining Pyramid," and  "Novel of the Black Seal" will enrich any reading of "Children of the Kingdom," but they are not a requirement. Klein builds a beautifully articulated fictional superstructure for his tale, flexible and confident, completely free of the aesthetic immaturities that so often beset works of horror fiction.

When I picture Klein's 1977 New York City, it has the mise en scène of a film like The Out-of-Towners or The Taking of Pelham 123: a city constantly provoking its inhabitants, perpetually on the edge of breakdown, almost at the point of the Cities on the Plain in the John Marin painting.  

Rereading "Children of the Kingdom" last night and this morning, I underscored quite a few lines, trying to get a feel for how Klein shaped and presented as effortless what is a complicated and multifaceted narrative gem. It is not a condensation of the story.

....Different worlds can co-exist side by side....

....the people of each group will live their lives without acknowledging the other's existence.

....They are rough-looking and impetuous, these men; but they will seldom leave their kingdom for the alien world next door.

....Me, I think it was los ninos. Kids."

"Kids?" said my wife and I in unison, with Calzone half a beat behind.

"You mean children from the neighborhood?" asked Karen. She had just been reading a series about the revival of youth gangs on the West Side, after more than a decade of peace. "What would they want in a place like this? How could they get in?"

He shrugged. "I don' know, lady. I don' see them. I only know is hard to keep them out. They all the time looking for money...."

Wednesday, June 8, 1977

....I've never found the old to be wiser than anyone else. They've never told me anything I didn't know already.

But Father Pistachio… Well, maybe he was different. Maybe he was onto something after all.

At first, though, he seemed no more than an agreeable old humbug. I met him on June 8, when I went to visit Grandfather....

Saturday, June 11

...."My cousin's step-sister up on 97th, she say things just as bad up there. Say they's a prowler in the neighborhood." The metal chair sagged noticeably as Coralette shifted her weight. "Some kinda pervert, she say. Lady downstairs from her—Mrs. Jackson, down in 1-B—she hear her little girl just a cryin' out the other night, and see the light go on. Real late it was, and the chile only seven years old. She get up and go into the chile's room to see what happened. Window's wide open to let in the breeze, but she ain't worried, 'cause they's bars across it, like you got to have when you's on the groun' floor. But that chile, she shakin' fit to die. Say she wake up and they's a boy standin' right by her bed, just a lookin' down at her and doin' somethin' evil to hisself. She give a holler and reach for the light, and he take off. Wiggle his-self right out the window, she say. Mrs. Jackson, she look, but she don't see nothin', and she think the chile be havin' bad dreams, 'cause ain't nobody slippery enough to get through them bars… But then she look at the wall above the window, and they's some kinda picture drew up there, higher than the little girl could reach. So Mrs. Jackson know that what the chile say is true. Chile say she seen that boy standin' there, even in the dark. Say it was a white boy, that's what she say, and mother-naked, too, 'cept for somethin' he had on over his head, some-thin' real ugly like. I tell you, from now on that chile gwin' be sleepin' wid the light on!"

....According to his theory, the first men had evolved in the warm volcanic uplands of Central America, somewhere in the vicinity of Paraiso, Costa Rica—which was, by sheer coincidence, his own home town. For eons they had dwelled there in a city now gone but for the legends, one great happy tribe beneath a wise and all-powerful queen. Then, hundreds of millennia ago, threatened by invaders from the surrounding jungle—apparently some rival tribe, though I found his account here confusing—they had suddenly abandoned their city and fled northward. What's more, they hadn't paused for rest; as if still in the grip of some feverish need to escape, the tribe had kept on moving, streaming up through the Nicaraguan rain forests, spreading eastward as the land widened before them, but also pressing northward, ever northward, through what was now the United States, Canada, and Alaska, until the more adventurous pushed past the edge of the continent, crossing into Asia and beyond.

....On the wall someone had scratched a crude five-pointed shape halfway between a holly leaf and a hand....

Wednesday, June 15

....We had reached the Barberia/Barbershop, where an advertising placard in the window, faded by the sun, showed a beefy Mark Spitz look-alike, hair aglisten with Vitalis, attempting to guess the identity of a sinuous young woman who had just crept up behind him. Covering his eyes with two pale, finely manicured hands, she was whispering, "Guess who?" That unwarranted question mark annoyed me....

...."But our great-great-granddaddies don't seem to have gone in for it much, at least according to you. They sound pretty cowardly, in fact—pulling up stakes when another tribe showed up, running off like a bunch of kids, leaving the city behind… Sounds to me like they gave up without a fight."

I suppose I was needling him a bit, but it didn't seem to faze him.

"I think you do not understand," he said. "I never say it is another tribe. Is another raza, maybe, another people. One cannot be sure. No one knows where they are from. No one knows their name. Maybe they are what God make before He make a man. Legend say that they are soft, like God's first clay, but that they love to fight. Quick like the piranha, and impossible to kill. No use to hit them in the head."

We had reached the Barberia/Barbershop, where an advertising placard in the window, faded by the sun, showed a beefy Mark Spitz look-alike, hair aglisten with Vitalis, attempting to guess the identity of a sinuous young woman who had just crept up behind him. Covering his eyes with two pale, finely manicured hands, she was whispering, "Guess who?" That unwarranted question mark annoyed me.

"Is hard to say. Many different stories. In one the Chibcha tell, is because they have something on the face. Flat places, ridges, things like little hooks. Back of head, she is like the front; all look much the same. Me, I think this mean they wear a special thing to cover the head in war." He made a kind of helmet with his hands. "See? This way you cannot hurt them, cannot keep them out. They go where they want, take what they want. Break into the city, steal the food, carry many captives to their king. The lucky ones they kill."

"They don't sound like very nice people."

He gave a short, unmerry laugh. "Some Indians say that they are devils. Chibcha say they are the children of God, but children He make wrong. Is no pity inside them, no love for God or man. When God see that they will not change, He try to get rid of them. They are so strong He have to try one, two, three times! Chibcha call them Xo Tl'mi-go, 'The Thrice Accursed.'"

Wednesday, June 29

...."Is a present," he said, placing it reverently in my hand. "For you, also for your wife. I inscribe it to you both."

On the flyleaf, in trembly, old-fashioned script, he had written, "To my dear American friends: With your help I will spread the truth to all readers of your country," and, beneath it, "'We wander blind as children through a cave; yet though the way be lost, we journey from the darkness to the light.' —Thomas xv:i."

I read it out loud to Karen after dinner that night whileshe was in the kitchen washing up. "Gee," she said, "he's really got his heart set on getting that thing published. Sounds to me like a bit of a fanatic."

"He's just old." I flipped through the pages searching for illustrations, since my Spanish was rusty and I didn't feel like struggling through the text. Two Aztecs with a cornstalk flashed past me, then drawings of an arrowhead, a woolly mammoth, and a thing that resembled a swim-fin. "El guante de un usurpador," the latter's caption said. The glove of a usurper. It looked somehow familiar; maybe I'd seen one at the YMCA pool. I turned past it and came to a map. "See this?" I said, holding up the book. "A map of where your ancestors came from. Right on up through Nicaragua."


"And here's a map of that long-lost city—"

"Looks like something out of Flash Gordon." She went back to the dishes.

"—and a cutaway view of the main temple."

She peered at it skeptically. "Honey, are you sure that old man's not putting you on? I'd swear that's nothing but a blueprint of the Pyramid at Giza. You can find it in any textbook, I've seen it dozens of times. He must have gotten hold of a Xerox machine and— Good God, what's that?"

She was pointing toward a small line drawing on the opposite page. I puzzled out the caption. "That's, um, let me see, 'La cabeza de un usurpador,' the head of a usurper… Oh, I know, it must be one of the helmets the invaders wore. A sort of battle mask, I guess."

"Really? Looks more like the head of a tapeworm. I'll bet he cribbed it from an old bio book."

"Oh, don't be silly. He wouldn't stoop to that." Frowning, I drifted back to the living room, still staring at the page. From the page the thing stared blankly back. She was right, I had to admit. It certainly didn't look like any helmet I'd ever seen: the alien proportions of the face, with great blank indentations where the eyes should be (unless those two tiny spots were meant for eyes), the round, puckered "mouth" area with rows of hooklike "teeth…"

Shutting the book, I strolled to the window and gazed out through the latticework of bars. Darkness had fallen on the street only half an hour before, yet already the world out there seemed totally transformed.

By day the neighborhood was pleasant enough; we had what was considered a "nice" building, fairly well maintained, and a "nice" block, at least our half of it. The sidewalk lay just outside our windows, level with the floor on which I stood. Living on the bottom meant a savings on the rent, and over the years I'd come to know the area rather well. I knew where the garbage cans were grouped like sentries at the curbside, and how the large brass knocker gleamed on the reconverted brownstone across the street. I knew which of the spindly little sidewalk trees had failed to bud this spring, and where a Mercedes was parked, and what the people looked like in the windows facing mine.

But it suddenly occurred to me, as I stood there watching the night, that a neighborhood can change in half an hour as assuredly as it can change in half a block. After dark it becomes a different place: another neighborhood entirely, coexisting with the first and separated by only a few minutes in time, the first a place where everything is known, the other a place of uncertainty, the first a place of safety, the other one of—

It was time to draw the curtains, but for some reason I hesitated. Instead, I reached over and switched off the noisy little air conditioner, which had been rattling metallically in the next window. As it ground into silence, the noise outside seemed to rise and fill the room. I could hear crickets, and traffic, and the throb of distant drums. Somewhere out there in the darkness they were snapping their fingers, bobbing their heads, maybe even dancing; yet, for all that, the sound struck me as curiously ominous. My eyes kept darting back and forth, from the shadows of the lampposts to the line of strange dark trees—and to that menacing stretch of unfamiliar sidewalk down which, at any moment, anything might walk on any errand.

Stepping back to adjust the curtains, I was startled by the movement of my own pale reflection in the glass, and I had a sudden vision, decidedly unscientific, no doubt inspired by that picture in the book: a vision of a band of huge white tapeworms, with bodies big as men, inching blindly northward toward New York.

Wednesday, July 6

...."We'll call you if there's anything we need," said the cop, practically shutting the door in my face. As it swung closed I saw, for the first time, that there were four strips of masking tape near the top, around a foot square, enclosing a familiar-looking shape.

"Wait a second," I said. "What's that?"

The door swung back. He saw where I was pointing. "Don't touch it," he said. "We found it there on the door. That tape's for the photographer and the fingerprint guys."

Standing on tiptoe, I took a closer look. Yes, I had seen it before—the outline of a crude, five-pointed holly leaf scratched lightly into the wood. The scratch marks extended outward from the shape in messy profusion, but none penetrated inside.

"You know," I said, "I saw the same thing a few weeks ago on the wall of the laundry room."

"Yeah, the super already told us. Anything else?"

I shook my head. It wasn't till hours later, back in the solitude of my apartment, that I realized I had seen the shape in still another place.

They say the night remembers what the day forgets. Pulling out the crudely bound orange book, I opened it to one of the drawings. There it was, that shape again, in the outline of the flipper-like gauntlets which Pistachio claimed his usurpadores had worn.

I got up and made myself some tea, then returned to the living room. Karen was still at her Wednesday-evening class, and would not be back till nearly ten. For a long time I sat very still, with the book open on my lap, listening to the comforting rattle of the air conditioner as it blotted out the night. One memory kept intruding: how, as a child, I liked to take a pencil and trace around the edges of my hand. This shape, I knew, is one that every child learns to draw.

I wondered what it would look like if the child's hands were webbed....

Wednesday, July 13

....Certain things are not supposed to happen before midnight. There's a certain category of events—certain freak encounters and discoveries, certain crimes—for which mere nighttime doesn't seem quite dark enough. Only after midnight, after most of the world is asleep and the laws of the commonplace suspended, only then are we prepared for a touch, however brief, of the impossible.

But that night the impossible didn't wait....

....Blindly I groped for the door. I could hear someone on the other side, scrabbling to get out. At last my fingers found the knob. "It's okay," I said, turning it, "I'm here—"

The door exploded in my face. I went down beneath a mob of twisting bodies pouring through the doorway, tumbling out upon me like a wave. I was kicked, tripped over, stepped on; I struggled to rise, and felt, in the darkness, the touch of naked limbs, smooth, rubbery flesh, hands that scuttled over me like starfish. In seconds the mob had swept past me and was gone; I heard them padding lightly up the hall, heading toward the stairs.

Then silence.

I lay back on the floor, exhausted, unable to believe it was over. I knew that, in a little while, I would not be able to believe it had happpened at all. Though they'd left the stench of sewage in my nostrils, the gang—whatever they were, wherever they had gone—already seemed a crazy dream born of the darkness and the heat.

....amid the statistics and postmortems, the newspaper stories and police reports, there were other reports —"unsubstantiated rumors," the Times called them—of roaming whites glimpsed here and there in the darker corners of the city, whites dressed "oddly," or undressed, or "emaciated" looking, or "masked," terrorizing the women of the neighborhood and hiding from the light. A woman in Crown Heights said she'd come upon a "white boy" thrusting his hand between her infant daughter's legs, but that he'd run away before she got a look at him. A Hunts Point girl swore that, minutes after the blackout began, a pack of "skinny old men" had come swarming up from the basement of an abandoned building and had chased her up the block. At the Astoria Boulevard subway stop near Hell Gate, an electrical worker had heard someone—a woman or a child—sobbing on the tracks where, hours before, a stalled train had been evacuated, and had seen, in his flashlight's beam, a group of distant figures fleeing through the tunnel. Hours later a man with a Spanish accent had telephoned the police to complain, in broken English, that his wife had been molested by "kids" living in the subway. He had rung off without giving his name. A certain shopping-bag lady, subject of a humorous feature in the Enquirer, even claimed to have had sexual relations with a "Martian" who, after rubbing his naked groin, had groped blindly beneath her dress; she had a long history of alcoholism, though, and her account was treated as a joke. The following September the News and the Post ran indignant reports on the sudden hike in abortions among the city's poor—but then, such stories, like those of climbing birth rates nine months later, are part and parcel of every blackout.

If I seem to credit these stories unduly—to dwell on them, even—it's because of what had happened to me in the basement, at the start of the blackout, and because of another incident, far more terrible, which occurred later that night. Since then some years have elapsed; and now, with Karen's permission, I can speak of it.

I had been nodding off, lulled by the rhythm of Grandfather's snoring, when the telephone jerked me awake. For a moment I forgot where I was, but then I heard Karen's voice.

"Well," she said, "here I am, safe and sound, and absolutely exhausted. One thing's good, at least I won't have to go to work tomorrow. I feel like I could use a good twelve hours' sleep, though it'll probably be pretty unbearable in here tonight without the air conditioner. There's a funny smell, too. I just took a peek in the refrigerator, and all that meat you bought's going to spoil unless—Oh God, what's that?"

I heard her scream. She screamed several times. Then there was a thud, and then a jarring succession of bangs as the phone was dropped and left dangling from the edge of the table.

And then, in the background, I heard it: a sound so similar to the one coming from the bed behind me that for one horrifying second I'd confused the two.

It was the sound of snoring....

....I was impressed by how well she was bearing up. Even though she'd awakened alone in the dark, she had managed to keep herself busy: after relighting the candle and replacing the telephone, she had methodically gone about locking all the windows and had carefully washed the stickiness from her legs. In fact, by the time I got there she seemed remarkably composed, at least for the moment—composed enough to tell me, in a fairly level voice, about the thing she'd seen drop soundlessly into the room, through the open window, just as another one leaped toward her from the hall and a third, crouched gaunt and pale behind the bed, rose up and, reaching forward, pinched the candle out.

Her composure slipped a bit—and so did mine—when, six hours later, the morning sunlight revealed a certain shape scratched like a marker in the brick outside our bedroom window.

Six weeks later, while we were still living at her mother's house in Westchester, the morning bouts of queasiness began. The tests came back negative, negative again, then positive. Whatever was inside her might well have been mine—we had, ironically, decided some time before to let nature take its course—but we took no chances. The abortion cost only $150, and we got a free lecture from a Right to Life group picketing in front. We never asked the doctor what the wretched little thing inside her looked like, and he never showed the least inclination to tell us....

Wednesday, February 14, 1979

....Father Pistachio—he, too, is gone now, gone even before my grandfather. Although he has never been listed as such, he remains, as far as I'm concerned, the only likely fatality of the Great 1977 Blackout. It appears that, at the moment the power failed, he'd been on his way to visit Grandfather and me in the Manor, a short walk up the street. Beyond that it's impossible to say, for no one saw what happened to him. Maybe, in the darkness, he got frightened and ran off, maybe he had a run-in with the same gang that attacked me, maybe he simply fell down a rabbit hole and disappeared. I have one or two suspicions of my own—suspicions about the blackout itself, in fact, and whether it was really Con Ed's fault—but such speculations only get my wife upset. All we really know is that the old man vanished without a trace, though Grandfather later claimed to have seen a white paper bag lying crumpled and torn near the stoop of Pistachio's house....

....The light changed. I took one step off the curb, and heard something crackle underfoot. That was why I happened to look down. I saw that I had stepped upon a little mound of pistachio shells, red against the snow, piled by the opening to a sewer.

And I froze—for there was something in the opening, just beside my shoe: something watching intently, its face pressed up against the metal grating, its pale hands clinging tightly to the bars. I saw, dimly in the streetlight, the empty craters where its eyes had been—empty but for two red dots, like tiny beads—and the gaping red ring of its mouth, like the sucker of some undersea creature. The face was alien and cold, without human expression, yet I swear that those eyes regarded me with utter malevolence—and that they recognized me.

It must have realized that I'd seen it—surely it heard me cry out—for at that moment, like two exploding white stars, the hands flashed open and the figure dropped back into the earth, back to that kingdom, older than ours, that calls the dark its home.

Reading notes on "Black Man With A Horn"

The elegiac tone of "Black Man With A Horn" somehow matches its narrative strategy: several years worth of personal experiences and research results collaged-together into a fitting peroration.

The narrator is one of life and art's also-rans, a once a youthful member of "Lovecraft's Circle," now left to measure out his 70s with a coffee spoon, much like Grandfather Lauterbach in "Children of the Kingdom."

That is, until his paths cross with a missionary fleeing members of a Malaysian tribe like Pollock fled before the Porroh man.

Klein does a fine job constantly deflating the dignity of his narrator. A cultured and intellectual writer, he gradually realizes he is saddled with a fate akin to one of Lovecraft's own protagonists. And that his epitaph will be a typo.

Again, my underlinings from today's rereading are not meant as a plot precis, but as a way of following turnings and allusions in the narrative.

....I'd suspected it for years, of course, but only with the past week's conference had I been forced to acknowledge the fact: that what mattered to the present generation was not my own body of work, but rather my association with Lovecraft. And even this was demeaned: after years of friendship and support, to be labeled— simply because I'd been younger—a mere "disciple." It seemed too cruel a joke.

Every joke must have a punchline. This one's was still in my pocket, printed in italics on the folded yellow conference schedule. I didn't need to look at it again: there I was, characterized for all time as "a member of the Lovecraft circle, New York educator, and author of the celebrated collection Beyond the Garve."

That was it, the crowning indignity: to be immortalized by a misprint! You'd have appreciated this, Howard. I can almost hear you chuckling from—where else?—beyond the garve...

...."Well, I've been away." His fingers drummed nervously—impatiently?—on the arm of his chair.


He sat up, and the color left his face. "How did you know?"

I nodded toward the green flight-bag at his feet. "I saw you carrying that when you came aboard. You, uh—you seemed to be in a little bit of a hurry, to say the least. In fact, I'm afraid you almost knocked me down."

"Hey." His voice was controlled now, his
gaze level and assured. "Hey, I'm really sorry about that, old fella. The fact is, I thought someone might be following me."

Oddly enough, I believed him; he looked sincere—or as sincere as anyone can be behind a phony black beard. "You're in disguise, aren't you?" I asked.

"You mean the whiskers? They're just something I picked up in Singapore. Shucks, I knew they wouldn't fool anyone for long, at least not a friend. But an enemy, well... maybe." He made no move to take them off.

"You're—let me guess—you're in the service, right?" The foreign service, I meant; frankly, I took him for an aging spy.

"In the service?" He looked significantly to the left and right, then dropped his voice. "Well, yeah, you might say that. In His service." He pointed toward the roof of the plane.

"You mean—?"

He nodded. "I'm a missionary. Or was until yesterday."

...."They called themselves the Chauchas, near as I could make out. Some French colonial influence, maybe, but they looked Asiatic to me, with just a touch of black. Little people. Harmless looking."

He gave a small shudder. "But they were nothing like what they seemed. You couldn't get to the bottom of them. They'd been living way up in those hills I don't know how many centuries, and whatever it is they were doing, they weren't going to let a stranger in on it. They called themselves Moslems, just like the lowlanders, but I'm sure there must have been a few bush-gods mixed in. I thought they were primitive, at first. I mean, some of their rituals— you wouldn't believe it. But now I think they weren't primitive at all. They just kept those rituals because they enjoyed them!" He tried to smile; it just accentuated the lines in his face.

"Oh, they seemed friendly enough in the beginning," he said. "You could approach them, do a bit of trading, watch them breed their animals. You could even talk to them about Salvation. And they'd just keep smiling, smiling all the time. As if they really liked you."

I could hear the disappointment in his voice, and something else.

"You know," he confided, suddenly leaning closer, "down in the lowlands, in the pastures, there's an animal, a kind of snail, the Malays kill on sight. A little yellow thing, but it scares them silly: they believe that if it passes over the shadow of their cattle, it'll suck out the cattle's life-force. They used to call it a 'Chaucha snail.' Now I know why."

"Why?" I asked.

He looked around the plane, and seemed to sigh. "You understand, at this stage we were still living in tents. We had yet to build anything. Well, the weather got bad, the mosquitoes got worse, and after the grounds keeper disappeared the others took off. I think the guide persuaded them to go. Of course, this left me—"

"Wait. You say your grounds keeper disappeared?"

"Yes, before the first week was out. It was late afternoon. We'd been pacing out one of the fields less than a hundred yards from the tents, and I was pushing through the long grass thinking he was behind me, and I turned around and he wasn't."

He was speaking all in a rush now. I had visions out of 1940s movies, frightened natives sneaking off with the supplies, and I wondered how much of this was true.

"So with the others gone, too," he said, "I had no way of communicating with the Chauchas, except through a kind of pidgin language, a mixture of Malay and their tongue. But I knew what was going on. All that week they kept laughing about something. Openly. And I got the impression that they were somehow
responsible. I mean, for the man's disappearance. You understand? He'd been the one I trusted." His expression was pained. "A week later, when they showed him to me, he was still alive. But he couldn't speak. I think they wanted it that way. You see, they'd— they'd grown something in him." He shuddered....

....He turned away and stared at the approaching clouds. We were passing over Maine. Suddenly the earth seemed a very small place. "I'd heard some of the Chaucha women singing it," he said at last. "It was a sort of farming song. It's supposed to make things grow."

....he began flipping through the albums in the bin, snapping each one forward in an impatient staccato. Soon, the assortment scanned, he moved to the bin on the left and started on that.

....he gave a little cry, and I saw him shrink back. He stood immobile for a moment, staring down at something in the bin; then he whirled and walked quickly from the store, pushing past a family about to enter.

"Late for his plane," I said to the astonished salesgirl, and strolled over to the albums. One of them lay faceup in the pile—a jazz record featuring John
Coltrane on saxophone. Confused, I turned to look for my erstwhile companion, but he had vanished in the crowd hurrying past the doorway.

Something about the album had apparently set him off; I studied it more carefully. Coltrane stood silhouetted against a tropical sunset, his features obscured, head tilted back, saxophone blaring silently beneath the crimson sky. The pose was dramatic but trite, and I could see in it no special significance: it looked like any other black man with a horn....

....We passed through another doorway—Man in Asia— and moved quickly past the Chinese statuary. "I saw that in school." He nodded at a stumpy figure in a glass case, wrapped in ceremonial robes. Something about it was familiar to me,
too; I paused to stare at it. The outer robe, slightly tattered, was spun of some shiny green material and displayed tall, twisted-looking trees on one side, a kind of stylized river on the other. Across the front ran five yellow-brown shapes in loincloth and headdress, presumably fleeing toward the robe's frayed edges; behind them stood a larger one, all black. In its mouth was a pendulous horn. The figure was crudely woven—little more than a stick figure, in fact—but it bore an unsettling resemblance, in both pose and proportion, to the one on the album cover.

Terry returned to my side, curious to see what I'd found. "Tribal garment," he read, peering at the white plastic notice below the case. "Malay Peninsula, Federation of Malaysia, early nineteenth century." He fell silent....

.......The model next to it wears a green silk ceremonial robe from Negri Sembilan, most rugged of the Malayan provinces. Note central motif of native man blowing ceremonial horn, and the graceful curve of his instrument; the figure is believed to be a representation of "Death's Herald," possibly warning villagers of approaching calamity. Gift of an anonymous donor, the robe is probably Tcho-tcho in origin, and dates from the early 19th century....

....I wanted time to think. The Tcho-Tcho People, I knew, had figured in a number of tales by Lovecraft and his disciples—Howard himself had called them "the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos"—but I couldn't remember much about them except that they were said to worship one of his imaginary deities. For some reason I associated them with Burma...

But whatever their attributes, I'd been certain of one thing: the Tcho-Tchos were completely fictitious.

Obviously I'd been wrong. Barring the unlikely possibility that the pamphlet itself was a hoax, I was forced to conclude that the malign beings of the stories were in fact based upon an actual
race inhabiting the Southeast Asian subcontinent—a race whose name the missionary had mistranslated as "the Chauchas."

It was a rather troublesome discovery. I had hoped to turn some of Mortimer's recollections, authentic or not, into fiction; he'd unwittingly given me the material for three or four good plots. Yet I'd now discovered that my friend Howard had beaten me to it, and that I was put in the uncomfortable position of living out another man's horror stories....

....Whether Ambrose Mortimer still lived I didn't know, but I felt certain now that, having fled one peninsula, he had strayed onto another just as dangerous, a finger thrust into the void. And the void had swallowed him up....

....The newspaper story was headed wanted for questioning. Like the Mortimer piece, it was little more than a photo with an extended caption:

Thurs.) A Malaysian citizen is being sought for questioning in connection with the disappearance of an American clergyman, Miami police say. Records indicate that the Malaysian, Mr. D. A. Djaktu-tchow, had occupied furnished rooms at the Barkleigh Hotella, 2401 Culebra Ave., possibly with an unnamed
companion. He is believed still in the greater Miami area, but since August 22 his movements cannot be traced. State Dept, officials report Djaktu-tchow's visa expired August 31; charges are pending.

The clergyman, Rev. Ambrose B. Mortimer, has been missing since September 6.

The photo above the article was evidently a recent one, no doubt reproduced from the visa in question. I recognized the smiling moon-wide face, although it took me a moment to place him as the man whose dinner I'd stumbled over on the plane. Without the moustache, he looked less like Charlie Chan....

....Apparently the poor man must have been deathly ill, maybe even tubercular—I intended to get a patch test next week, just to play safe, and I recommend that you get one too—because it seems that, in the reverend's bedroom, they found something very odd: pieces of lung tissue. Human lung tissue."

....one of her bridge partners had had it on the authority of "a friend in the police force" that the search for Mr. Djaktu was being widened to include his presumed companion—"a Negro child," or so my sister reported. Although there was every possibility that this information was false, or that it concerned an entirely different case, I could tell she regarded it as very sinister indeed....

....On the field of rippling green fled the small brown shapes, still pursued by some unseen doom. In the center stood the black man, black horn to his lips, man and horn a single line of unbroken black.

"Are the Tcho-Tchos a superstitious people?" I asked.

"They were," he said pointedly. "Superstitious and not very pleasant. They're extinct as dinosaurs now. Supposedly wiped out by the Japanese or something."

"That's rather odd," I said. "A friend of mine claims to have met up with them earlier this year."

Richmond was smoothing out the robe; the branches of the snake-trees snapped futilely at the brown shapes. "I suppose
it's possible," he said, after a pause. "But I haven't read anything about them since grad school. They're certainly not listed in the textbooks anymore. I've looked, and there's nothing on them. This robe's over a hundred years old."

I pointed to the figure in the center. "What can you tell me about this fellow?"

"Death's Herald," he said, as if it were a quiz. "At least that's what the literature says. Supposed to warn of some approaching calamity."

I nodded without looking up; he was merely repeating what I'd read in the pamphlet. "But isn't it strange," I said, "that these others are in such a panic? See? They aren't even waiting around to listen." "Would you?" He snorted impatiently.

"But if the black one's just a messenger of some sort, why's he so much bigger
than the others?"

Richmond began folding the cloth. "Look, mister," he said, "I don't pretend to be an expert on every tribe in Asia. But if a character's important, they'd sometimes make him larger. Anyway, that's what the Mayans did. But listen, I've really got to get this put away now. I've got a meeting to go to."

While he was gone I sat thinking about what I'd just seen. The small brown shapes, crude as they were, had expressed a terror no mere messenger could inspire. And that great black figure standing triumphant in the center, horn twisting from its mouth—that was no messenger either, I was sure of it. That was no Death's Herald. That was Death itself....

....I found no mention of the Tcho-Tcho, and nothing on their gods.

This in itself was surprising. We are living in a day when there are no more secrets, when my twelve-year-old nephew can buy his own grimoire and books with titles like The Encyclopaedia of Ancient and Forbidden Knowledge are remaindered at every discount store. Though my friends from the twenties would have hated to admit it, the notion of stumbling across some moldering old "black book" in the attic of a deserted house—some lexicon of spells and chants and hidden lore—is merely a quaint fantasy. If theNecronomicon actually existed, it would be out in Bantam paperback with a preface by Lin Carter.

It's appropriate, then, that when I finally came upon a reference to what I sought, it was in that most unromantic
of forms, a mimeographed film-script.

"Transcript" would perhaps be closer to the truth, for it was based upon a film shot in 1937 and that was now presumably crumbling in some forgotten vault. I discovered the item inside one of those brown cardboard packets, held together with ribbons, which libraries use to protect books whose bindings have worn away. The book itself, Malay Memories, by a Reverend Morton, had proved a disappointment despite the author's rather suggestive name. The transcript lay beneath it, apparently slipped there by mistake, but though it appeared unpromising—only ninety-six pages long, badly typed, and held together by a single rusty staple—it more than repaid the reading. There was no title page, nor do I think there'd ever been one; the first page simply identified the film as "Documentary—Malaya Today," and noted that it had been financed, in part, by a U.S. government grant. The filmmaker or makers were not listed.

I soon saw why the government may have been willing to lend the venture some support, for there were a great many scenes in which the proprietors of rubber plantations expressed the sort of opinions Americans might want to hear. To an unidentified interviewer's query, "What other signs of prosperity do you see around you?" a planter named Mr. Pierce had obligingly replied, "Why, look at the living standard—better schools for the natives and a new lorry for me. It's from Detroit, you know. May even have my own rubber in it."

INT: And how about the Japanese? Are they one of today's better markets?

PIERCE: Oh, see, they buy our crop al! right, but we don't really trust 'em, understand? (Smiles) We don't like 'em half so much as the Yanks.

The final section of the transcript was considerably more interesting, however; it recorded a number of brief scenes that must never have appeared in the finished film. I quote one of them in its entirety:



INT: This Malay youth has sketched a picture of a demon he calls Shoo Goron. (To Boy) I wonder if you can tell me something about the instrument he's blowing out of. It looks like the Jewish shofar, or ram's horn. (Again to Boy) That's all right. No need to be frightened.

BOY: He no blow out. Blow in.

INT: I see—he draws air in through the horn, is that right?

BOY: No horn. Is no horn. (Weeps) Is him....

...."She says you spelled it wrong," Ellen announced.

"Who's she?"

"Just one of the flight attendants," said Ellen. "A young girl, in her early twenties. None of the others were Malayan. At first she didn't recognize the name, until she read it out loud a few times. Apparently it's some kind of fish, am I right? Like a suckerfish, only bigger. Anyway, that's what she said. Her mother used to scare her with it when she was bad."

Obviously Ellen—or, more likely, the other woman—had misunderstood. "Sort of a bogeyman figure?" I asked. "Well, I suppose that's possible. But a fish, you say?"

Ellen nodded. "I don't think she knew that much about it, though. She acted a little embarrassed, in fact. Like I'd asked her something dirty." From across the room a loudspeaker issued the final call for passengers. Ellen helped me to my feet, still talking. "She said she was just a Malay, from somewhere on the coast— Malacca? I forget—and that it's a shame I didn!t drop by three or four months ago, because her summer replacement was part Chocha—Chocho?—something like that."

....While we waited by a hatchway in the basement for my luggage to be disgorged, she told me the sequel to the San Marino incident: the boy's body found washed up on a distant beach, lungs in mouth and throat. "Inside out," she said. "Can you imagine? It's been on the radio all morning. With tapes of some ghastly doctor talking about smoker's cough and the way people drown. I couldn't even listen after a while." The porter heaved my bags onto the cart and we followed him to the taxi stand, Maude using her cane to gesticulate. If I hadn't seen how aged she'd become I'd have thought the excitement was agreeing with her.

....I went through the pile of books on my night-table, final cullings from the bottom of the travel shelf; most of them hadn't been taken out since the thirties. I found nothing of interest in any of them, at least upon first inspection, but before turning out the light I noticed that one, the reminiscences of a Colonel E. G. Paterson, was provided with an index. Though I looked in vain for the demon Shoo Goron, I found reference to it under a variant spelling.

....The author, no doubt long deceased, had spent most of his life in the Orient. His interest in Southeast Asia was slight,
and the passage in question consequently brief:

...Despite the richness and variety of their folklore, however, they have nothing akin to the Malay shugoran, a kind of bogey-man used to frighten naughty children. The traveller hears many conflicting descriptions of it, some bordering on the obscene. [Oran, of course, is Malay for 'man,' while shug, which here connotes 'sniffing' or 'questing,' means literally, 'elephant's trunk.') I well recall the hide which hung over the bar at the Traders' Club in Singapore, and which, according to tradition, represented the infant of this fabulous creature; its wings were black, like the skin of a Hottentot. Shortly after the War a regimental surgeon was passing through on his way back to Gibraltar and, after due examination, pronounced it the dried-out skin of a rather large catfish. He was never asked back.

I returned to my sister's house to find her in agitated conversation with the druggist from upstairs; she was in a terrible state and said she'd been trying to reach me all morning. She had awakened to find the flower box by her bedroom window overturned and the shrubbery beneath it trampled. Down the side of the house ran two immense slash marks several yards apart, starting at the roof and continuing straight to the ground....

....Here the tale degenerates into an unsifted collection of items which may or may not be related: pieces of a puzzle for those who fancy themselves puzzle fans, a random swarm of dots, and in the center, a wide unwinking eye....

....The past week has seen a new outbreak of the "incidents." Last night's was the most dramatic by far. I can recite it almost word for word from the morning news. Shortly before midnight Mrs. Florence Cavanaugh, a housewife living at 24 Alyssum Terrace, South Princeton, was about to close the curtains in her front room when she saw, peering through the window at her, what she described as "a large Negro man wearing a gas mask or scuba outfit." Mrs. Cavanaugh, who was dressed only in her nightgown, fell back from the window and screamed for her husband, asleep in the next room, but by the time he arrived the Negro had made good his escape.

Local police favor the "scuba" theory, since near the window they've discovered footprints that may have been made by a heavy man in swim fins. But they haven't been able to explain why anyone would wear underwater gear so many miles from water.

The report usually concludes with the news that "Mr. and Mrs. Cavanaugh could not be reached for comment."

....I think, in fact, it will be a rather appropriate end for a man of my pursuits—to be absorbed into the denouement of another man's tale.

Grow old along with me;
The best is yet to come.

Tell me, Howard: how long before it's my turn to see the black face pressed to my window?

Reading notes on "Nadelman's God"

Remember when (over 50 years ago) people had conniptions about Time magazine's "Is God Dead?" cover?

There are more gods today than you can shake a stick at. Granted, most of them are actually just crusted altars to petty bourgeois narcissism, but new gods are more than a mocking matter.

Klein's great comedy of suburban Demiurgic daemonism, "Nadelman's God," is all about the perils of calling up one's own personal deity. Especially hard on one's downstairs neighbors and former bosses.

The punchline is, for Nadelman, that it isn't even his god. Someone turned one of his old Promethean college verses into metal music lyrics, inspiring someone else to follow them as a recipe for building a deity called The Hungerer. In the end, his predicament drives the adamantly secular Nadelman i to an Orthodox synagogue for the first time in his life, burdened with an armload of Christmas presents for his family.

....There was a lesson to be drawn from those people in the bar, and Nadelman had not been slow to learn it. The world, he had discovered, was full of sad, lonely, pathetic people. They were basically good people, most of them, deserving of sympathy; worthy, even, of respect. But many of them-especially the sort who laid claim to celestial wisdom, preternatural power, magical loopholes in the laws of the universe-were not the sort of people he would care to have as friends. They were too disposed to fantasy, play-acting, and delusion: whatever would lend their dreary lives a bit of spurious drama. For too many of them, the occult was just a bridge between cosmology and kinky sex. They were, in a word, creeps.

....The poem, grandly titled "Advent of the Prometheans: A Cantata," was one of several that Nadelman had published in the Union Col-lege literary magazine, the Unicorn. He had written it as a protest against the compulsory Sunday chapei service that Union, as a Bap-tist institution, had in those days imposed
upon all undergraduates, Christian, Jew, and atheist alike. The poem had been, as he saw it, a kind of metaphoric rock hurled at the ancient chapel's ugly stained-glass windows, with their pious flock of prophets, saints, and Savior.

A more compelling motive, though, had been one of simple imita-tion: having spent half the year reading books on black magic, followed by a dalliance with Swinburne, Huysmans, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and the rest of their decadent crew, from the exquisite, blood-drenched torments of Lautremont to the batrachian-faced horrors of Lovecraft-in short, all the dark and sinister exotics to which adolescents are drawn-he had set out to write this kind of thing himself. The resulting work, a paean to some imaginary "leprous-featured rival of the Lord," had had ten distinct sections, each with its own peculiar meter, including a gaudily ornate "Invocation" near the end. It had been the longest poem, and by far the most ambitious, that Nadelman had ever attempted, or ever would again.

....He had moral doubts about the Lord, as well. He'd been raised not only on Santa Claus, but also on fairy tales, fables, and nursery stories; colorful fantasies in which goodness was invariably rewarded in the end, and evil punished As a child, he'd believed such things were true. He had also believed-thanks to his childhood picture books, the ones filled with fuzzy felt animals-that the only proper response to something furry was to reach out and pet it.

The world, as a result, had proved a bitter disappointment, punc-tuated here and there by nasty surprises. At age three he had reached out in the garden to pet the enticing yellow fur of a passing bumblebee, and had been rewarded with a wicked sting on the palm of his hand that left it swollen twice its size. At school he'd discovered that there were no heroes: that the weakest lived in terror of the strong, and that God seemed to favor the bullies.

Nor that he himself had much to complain of; save for the inevitable pains of growing up in this wor'd. his own life had always been comfortable enough. But the lives ofothers, the ones he saw depicted on the TV news and in the magazines, seemed overwhelmingly tragic.

It was hard to have faith in the justice of things when all around him people were dying in curious and terrible ways.

Sometimes, admittedly, the deaths of his fellow men had been easy to accept, merely demonstrating the good sense of
the universe. As a boy, he'd heard about an overeager deer hunter who had stumbled over a root and had blown the top of his head off; the tale had merely confirmed the Tightness of things. Years later he would hear reports about revolutionaries of one stripe or another who blew themselves to bits while building homemade bombs; he found such stories quite cheering. The cosmos was just, after all.

By the time he'd reached high school, he'd discovered that, with a little intellectual effort, he could justify damned near anything-and it certainly helped stave off despair. Innocent people, it turned out, were ill no real danger; it was only the guilty who died. Did cigarette smokers cough their lives away? They'd clearly brought it on themselves. Did some alcoholic poet drink himself to death? It served him right. When a planeload of nuns went down over the Andes, he told himself that this was what happened to people who tried to jam their religion down other people's throats. Pious do-gooders!

With a few small logical contortions, you could take the game still further. Was a socialite found stabbed to death in her apartment? The empty-headed parasite, she deserved it. Was a lawyer mugged? We've got more than enough lawyers, thank you. Selfish bastards! Did a doctor-wreck his private plane? Think of all the money that jerk was making! Another OD'ed rock star? How trite! A father of twelve killed by a hit-and-run driver? The thoughtless asshole, who told him to produce all those children? A family in Utah slain by a tornado? Only schmucks lived out there anyhow.

Sometimes the game became difficult-but doggedly he kept right on playing, if only to preserve his peace of mind. Did old men and women suffer strokes? Maybe they should have exercised more.

Were people dying right and left of heart attacks and cancer? Well, he'd make damned sure to watch what he ate.

There was a lesson to be drawn from those people in the bar, and Nadelman had not been slow to learn it. The world, he had discovered, was full of sad, lonely, pathetic people. They were basically good people, most of them, deserving of sympathy; worthy, even, of respect. But many of them-especially the sort who laid claim to celestial wisdom, preternatural power, magical loopholes in the laws of the universe-were not the sort of people he would care to have as friends. They were too disposed to fantasy, play-acting, and delusion: whatever would lend their dreary lives a bit of spurious drama. For too many of them, the occult was just a bridge between cosmology and kinky sex. They were, in a word, creeps.

Then one day, disconcertingly, he'd read about a young Colum-bia student killed by youths in the subway while going to the aid of a stranger. The guy had been the same age as Nadelman, from almost the same background, at the top of his class. They'd even had the same major.

Nadelman, at that point, gave up the game.

Not everyone would have, even then. A Job might have convinced himseif that all human beings were guilty, he as well as the rest; that all were living here on borrowed time; and that the Lord was therefore perfectly justified in killing anyone He damned well chose. But then, Nadelman had always regarded Job as a bit of a lunatic.

He himself had reached a somewhat
more reasonable conclusion: rather than worshiping God as a divine and highly arbitrary execu-tioner, it made more sense to see the position as vacant. There was no one in control up there. The office was empty. Nobody home.

Or maybe (and here was the germ of his poem) there was simply another god in charge, deranged and malign, delighting in cruelty and mischief. How else to explain the things he read each day in the headlines in the Post?

....And to think that the dumb bastard took Jizzmo's song seriously; he actually believed that the words Nadelman had cribbed from a rhyming dictionary and a bunch of college library books were a magical spell, and was now waiting patiently for the Holy Ghost to come and animate his garbage pile. Nadelman remembered something Rhoda's analyst had told her: "Reality is never enough for some people."

....His concern over what to do about Huntoon's letter proved academic, because Friday of the following week brought a postcard from him. The picture on the front showed the deserted dining room of the Sea Glades Manor. "On the Boardwalk at Long Beach, Long Island. Providing world-famous cuisine and unparalleled service for over forty years."

I tried calling you but they said its not a working number. You never wrote back how I could reach you or maybe your letter was lost in the mail but thats OK
because by following your Instruc-tions I am now in communication with your god & Hes everything you said. Thanks again for your courage & guidance. Dont worry no ones going to get punished except the ones who deserve it.

Nadelman felt himself sliding further down the feathery slope to the land of unreason. First the creep believed the Rival God was actually real; now he claimed he'd talked to him. Earlier that week one of the ad industry trade magazines had recounted the story-with unalloyed approval-of an Englishman who, writing a history of UFOs, had playfully invented a supposed sighting over Oxford, and of how annoyed he'd been when, for years afterward, the incident was cited as authenticated fact by dozens of other saucer books. The lie had become real. And a certain Welsh writer named Machen, the article went on to say, had written a story during World War I about the so-called "Angels of Mons," ghostly Saxon bowmen who'd come to the aid of embattled British troops. The story had become a full-fledged legend, with war veterans claiming in later years that they'd actually seen these spirits. "All of us in the communications industry can learn something useful from this," the article had concluded.

I dont see how you can deny the God. He says He knows you. He did breathe life into His servant just like in the song & He's everything you said He was. Well you did get one thing wrong, He does have a name. He's called The Hungerer....

....Was it possible?-that, in some latter-day Naming of Names, he had given the god life in the very act of naming it, and given its flesh substance with every new
line of his poem?

How weird that would be: the notion that the universe might in fact be listening to him, waiting upon his decisions, his carefully chosen words, responding to his commands. How had that line from the poem gone? '' 77/ create Me a Creator,' He would say"-a god made to order!

But what a dreadful responsibility to contemplate! For it meant that he might in some way be the original cause of the very things that had always appalled and horrified him, all the work of the dark god he'd invented: the fathers stabbed, the mothers raped, the children left to starve....

In conclusion

In the end, I think the four stories in Dark Gods are the strongest, most accomplished stories we've had from a U.S. horror writer. (Even "Black Man With A Horn," a pastiche but also a commentary that sends-up the predicament of the pastichist and his subgenre, manages to rise above the trap of melodrama an otherwise splendid story like "The Events at Poroth Farm" could not.)

It is a common refrain in the community of horror readers that Klein wrote too little in his career. I agree. But to paraphrase Lenin, I must also say, "Better fewer, but better."


17 July 2019