horror

BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a boneheaded child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.

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UZUMAKI BY JUNJI ITO

Words brought me here. Or, I should say, my desire to avoid them. Except that they are, of course, unavoidable. I feel them like a heavy weight that bears down upon my head, such that every crude sound my lips make is painful to me. The knitting-circle nattering of my mind is even worse. And this? What I am doing now? This is the third wall that completes my triangular prison. My run down, but secure prison. I don’t want to write, but words come, regardless. Painful and inadequate words; but if not this, then the gurgle or the drone. I sometimes wonder if the only solution is death, but death is, I fear, a canny bastard. How can one even contemplate or summon it without words? My weariness astonishes me.

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I tried to hide behind my eyes. To pass the time staring mindlessly at pictures. To feel without words. Yet I ultimately realised that I can only process and understand images through the filter of language.

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Uzumaki was part of this failed experiment. I had always searched for myself in books, but my aim this time was to escape, to escape my own narrative, my words, the words that not only define me but are, in fact, all that I am. However, the opposite occurred. I found myself in Junji Ito’s world, in his city contaminated by spirals. I understood the paranoia and the obsession of the locals. They see the spiral everywhere, in the shell of the snail, in the cochlea of the ear, in the twist of the hair, in the swirl of water and the drift of smoke.

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The book is full of grotesque images of the kind one would find in something like The Exorcist or Evil Dead. One episode, involving the reinsertion of a baby into its mother’s womb, and the drilling for blood by mosquito women, was particularly, and memorably, gruesome and unnerving. Yet part of what makes the book so impressive is that Ito’s horror works on two levels. There is the physical horror, whereby the body is manipulated, such that, for example, people are turned into snails and then often eaten; and there is also the psychological horror, the sense that, in the early stages at least, what is happening might be no more than ordinary human madness. In fact, even the most obvious examples of physical horror have a psychological element. The mosquitos, for example, with their endless buzzing, and the fear that they will penetrate the ear. There is, moreover, the spiral itself, and how Ito manages to transform this innocuous shape or pattern into something sinister, much like the way that Hitchcock did with birds.

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With the emphasis being on the visual, it is natural that the story, and the characters, are underdeveloped. The plot is episodic and it never really goes anywhere, except that the horror increases in intensity and gore. The ending is also unsatisfying, not so much because it doesn’t truly resolve anything, but because it suggests a love element that isn’t really there in the rest of the story.

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It is said of many horror films that they are morality tales. It is the bullies, the promiscuous, etc, that often make up the body count. The same is true of Uzumaki. Or, certainly, Ito at times appeared to want to make his story karmic in that way, with the bad people getting their comeuppance. Towards the middle of the book, he focusses on those who seek attention, both from the opposite sex and from their peers. One such episode ushers in Azami, Uzumaki‘s most celebrated character, who has a scar on her head that is said to make her irresistible to men. However, Ito doesn’t follow through on this idea and even if he had it isn’t sophisticated enough to make it a reason to pick up the book.

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Uzumaki is stunning in places, is worthy of the praise it has had, and the regard in which it is held, but not for anything that you would associate with conventional literature. Moreover, although my experiment failed, and it did not resolve any of my issues, or provide any answers, for the respite that it gave me, I am grateful.

THE TRUMPETS OF JERICHO BY UNICA ZÜRN

It is at the end of a relationship that the most revealing statements are made. It is as though it is only when there is no hope of resolving the issues, of moving forward together, that people are able or willing to honestly disclose their feelings. ‘I thought I was pregnant last year’, my ex-partner told me once all was lost, ‘but I was too frightened to tell you.’ It was her most hurtful admission. I was ashamed that I had communicated my misgivings about having children in such a way as to convince her that it would be better to deal with the worry alone than to share it with me. And yet I do wonder – if she had been pregnant and had wanted to keep the baby – how I would have taken the news. Outwardly I would have done all that I could to be supportive, but secretly, inside myself, would I have freaked out? The awful truth is that often, when I have come into contact with pregnant women, I have felt uneasy, especially in regards to the grotesquely swollen belly, inside of which there sits a living creature. There is something magical about it, yes, but unnerving also.

However, it wasn’t until I read Unica Zürn’s The Trumpets of Jericho that I seriously considered how a woman might feel in the same situation. I don’t mean that I would expect that every woman be happy about being pregnant, rather that, as I have selfishly blundered my way through life, it had not previously occurred to me that to be the one who actually has the living thing inside you might be a whole other level of existential terror, a kind of terror that the likes of me  – i.e. a man – cannot fully understand. Indeed, for Zürn’s narrator her pregnancy has been nine months of a ‘gruesome inner union.’ She openly, almost gleefully, attacks the unborn, calling it a ‘bastard’, a ‘hateful creature’, an ‘abomination’, and an ‘unwanted suckling’. It is this last phrase that is, in my opinion, the most significant. The child was not planned, and is not wanted. While it is true to say that she is partly responsible, the girl – she is only sixteen – has had her body, in a sense, invaded.

At the heart of her despair, and her disgust, is the realisation that the baby’s existence, its inevitable coming, signals the end of ‘the sweet days of youthful peace’. On one level this ‘youthful peace’ refers to her physical well-being. She laments how the child has ‘sucked all the strength’ from her, with her labour pains, for example, being so intense that they feel like ‘the sea moving beneath a storm.’ There is also a touch of vanity in her concerns, for she remembers the time when she was ‘still slim’ and notes how her ‘long, beautiful hair is getting damp from fear sweats.’ However, her strongest objection is that she will no longer be able to do as she pleases. To have a child is to be responsible for, and obligated and tied to, another human being, which requires your time, effort, and money; especially for a woman, and especially at the time at which the book was written. She sees the baby as a threat to what she calls the ‘dancing freedom of a proud young cat,’ and remembers fondly how she once ‘hurried with big steps from one lover to another.’

“For the whole land is flooded with a large and powerful wave of the deepest melancholy, and wherever anyone goes or stands, they think here of violent death.”

The Trumpets of Jericho is not a plot-based book, so it is no spoiler to reveal that the girl plans to kill the baby. Indeed, on the second page she states that she has ‘cold-heartedly’ decided that ‘the suckling must die.’ The intended infanticide speaks to her mental state, of course, and I will return again to that, but it is also one part of a overriding atmosphere of gothic horror, which at times is surprisingly playful. The girl’s situation is that of someone living alone in a tower. She has, she says, no friends. Her only company are ravens and, for a brief period, the bat that is caught in her hair. With a touch of welcome humour, she theatrically addresses the creature: ‘I honor you, you serious, uncanny night spirit/But please leave my hair, because you are bothering me during the serious business of bringing my child into the world.’ I was also amused by the grim intention to pack the remains of the murdered new born ‘in seven different packages and send them to my last seven lovers.’ A dramatic fuck you to whichever of these men is the father.

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On the back of my copy of The Trumpets of Jericho it is described as ‘a fierce fable of childbirth’, which is a fine phrase, but which is not, in my opinion, entirely accurate. Of course it is important, and it is, moreover, the most immediately engaging, eye-catching aspect of the text, but I don’t think Zürn’s work is reducible to that alone. In fact, although I have devoted all of this review to it so far, at least half of the book’s fifty pages have nothing to do with pregnancy or childbirth at all. The second half is given over to a series of surreal-poetic stories, told by the narrator, the majority of which feature death. For me, The Trumpets of Jericho is about madness and unhappiness, about, specifically, Zürn’s own madness and unhappiness, with an attitude towards childbirth being only one facet of this. Indeed, the girl describes herself, rather quaintly, as a ‘member of the Eccentric’s club’. More alarmingly, she speaks of an anger against life and longs to kill herself, by leaping from a window.

I don’t often refer to biographical detail concerning the authors of the works I review, for I consider it irrelevant in the main, but on this occasion it is worth pointing out that Zürn killed herself by doing just that: by jumping out of a window. There is, moreover, a moment in the text when Zürn, as the author, addresses you: ‘you see, reader, that I cannot bend my thoughts away from death.’ It is a brief slipping of the girl-mask, of the pretence at writing a piece of fiction. Another, more telling, slip occurs when she actually namechecks herself: ‘Unica’s heroes murdered.’ The second half of The Trumpets of Jericho, which is at times barely comprehensible, but is always beautiful, is like directly entering the gloomy labyrinth of her mind; and it is, in this way, much scarier than what precedes it, if not so ripe for critical analysis.

MALPERTUIS BY JEAN RAY

Following the separation of my parents I stayed for a while with my grandmother. I was around seven years old at the time. She lived in a flat, on a council estate in one of Sheffield’s most deprived areas. The living room window looked out upon a run-down concrete playground, which, eerily, never appeared to be in use, despite the large number of children in the neighbouring tower-blocks. The old lady did not own a TV, most likely because she could not afford one, and so would each evening tell stories about strange happenings – involving ghosts mostly – which she insisted she had herself witnessed. Yet most terrifying of all was the story of the circumstances surrounding her arrival in England. I was told that she had once been a member of an old aristocratic and wealthy Scottish family, but, for reasons that were unknown or unexplained, she was dispatched to a sanatorium while still in her teens. There she received electric shock therapy, and, upon her release, was subsequently disinherited and banished.

Whether any of that is true or not is, of course, debatable. I have, partly out of fear perhaps, but mostly in order to spare my mother any anguish or upset, never sought to verify what I was told. However, what is certain is that the unease I had felt upon entry into my grandmother’s home began to intensify to such an extent that it – the flat – was transformed, in my childish imagination, into a house of horrors, one that was large, unwelcoming, and labyrinthine. The ghosts, moreover, became real and malevolent and forever on the prowl. Indeed, according to my mother I began to have waking nightmares, visions, in fact, of a man sitting on the end of my bed, who only I could see. I also, she claimed, started to sleepwalk, and could be found most nights at the front door attempting to leave. Finally, my grandmother – may she rest in peace – was, I was sure, the mad conductor of these evils, rather than the inventor of them.

“Those who lie down to sleep in its vast rooms lay themselves open to nightmares; those who spend their days there are obliged to habituate themselves to the company of the atrocious shades of executed criminals, of men flayed alive, or walled up or otherwise tormented.”

Until I started reading Malpertuis I had forgotten all about my brief stay in a haunted house, although, as this review will show, I, comparatively, got off lightly. The novel was written by Jean Ray, a man who was described by a friend as ‘a Gothic personality’, and was published in 1943. The style, however, is reminiscent of something written at least a hundred years earlier, and the structure – with the use of the framing narrative – is similar to Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which first saw the light of day in 1805. Indeed, Malpertuis begins with a sort of preface, which describes the theft of a number of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief then explains that he has attempted to edit and order the manuscripts, which altogether would have ‘constituted a work of colossal size and minimal interest’, in an effort to turn them into a coherent narrative of ‘mystery and terror.’ The resulting story is, he claims, the work of four or five men in total, but the greater part – the kernel, as he calls it – is provided by the journal of Jean-Jacques Grandsire, a young man ‘marked with the brand of misfortune.’

For a book that I found so gripping, that I would call a page-turner, it seems odd that when I think about it now I realise that there is little in the way of plot. Jean-Jacques’s journal tells of a dying man’s family and friends gathering around him. Following his death, his will stipulates that the people there named must live in Malpertuis or forsake their large inheritance. From this point onwards – aside from one or two digressions – we follow Jean-Jacques as he explores the house and encounters all manner of terrible things. So, how to account for the feverish speed and rapt attention with which I read it? Well, one of the reasons that Malpertuis is so engaging is that it consistently poses questions for which the reader wants answers. Why must the characters live in the house? What is the significance of the shop attached to it? What is the link between Malpertuis and the island described in the opening chapter? Why is the beautiful Euryale so distant? What does the Abbe Doucedame know about the goings on in the house? And so on. In many ways, Ray’s novel is something like a Gothic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with Jean-Jacques acting as the detective.

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However, it is the terrible things that most hold the attention. Indeed, this was perhaps the closest I have come in my reading experiences to straight horror; and, I must admit, I had a blast. Take Lampernisse, a ‘skeletal creature’ with ‘spiderlike hands’, who lives in Malpertuis and obsesses over the lights, which he believes are being put out by a malevolent presence within the house. His ramblings about his plight are both oddly moving and chilling: “There was a time I sold animal black and lamp black, but I never gave anyone the darkness of night. I am Lampernisse. I am so good and kind, and they have cast me into outer darkness.” I am reticent to discuss the many other strange and horrible occurrences that litter the text for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read it, but I can’t resist mentioning that, amongst other things, there is something in the attic, there is a severed hand, there are faceless beings, and devilish beings with haunting mask-like faces, and a number of gruesome deaths.

Malpertuis was, according to the Abbe Doucedame, the name given to ‘the lair of the cunning and evil fox, Goupil’. In conversation with Jean-Jacques, he muses over whether the house that then took this name, the one in which Jean-Jacques etc. live, did so in order to denote evil or cunning. Yet he concludes that cunning is ‘the prerogative of the Spirit of Darkness’ and that therefore, whichever way you look at it, Malpertuis is, in his view, the house of the Devil. This can be understood in two ways, for, as already noted, there is horror inside the house, but the building itself is, in appearance, horrific also. On the facade there are ‘disagreeable carvings’, a facade that is, according to Jean-Jacques, a ‘severe mask’ that ‘fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.’ However, although it may seem as though the direction in which we – the reader and the characters – are heading is Satanic, that the mysteries of the novel are to be explained in relation to that, when the reveal actually comes Jean Ray does something incredible and wholly unexpected: he provides one of the most emotionally affecting endings of any novel I have read.

THE SHIP BY HANS HENNY JAHNN

It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’

It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.

I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.

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The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’

These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.

In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?

The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.

When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.

HILL BY JEAN GIONO

It wasn’t often that I went to school, but, during my irregular appearances, I somehow managed – perhaps by virtue of having a big mouth and an even bigger chip on my shoulder – to develop a friendship with the tough kid. He was stocky and ginger, like a red brick wall, and lived out of town, on a run down farm. His attendance record was almost as sketchy as mine, only he went hunting when he skipped school and I went to the local library. Yet sometimes we would both be in lessons on the same day and we would sit together and talk about whatever young men talk about when they have nothing in common except their poverty and their anger.

Looking back, it seems strange that his interest in hunting didn’t immediately lead to hostility between us. It was almost as though I didn’t really know what hunting was. I lived on a council estate; nature was unreal to me; it floated nebulously on the periphery of my consciousness, far from my conception of the world. Then one day he brought something into school for me, a present. It was a squirrel’s tail. Only it was not a squirrel’s tail, no more than a severed hand belongs to the man from whom it was removed. It was dead matter; and it nauseated and disorientated me. For years I had witnessed human beings fighting each other, beating and abusing each other, but it hadn’t before occurred to me that this was how we treated the earth too.

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals? Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder? It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill. And when he scythes, he slays. So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

Hill was Jean Giono’s first novel, of something like fifty, and was published in 1929. It begins with an almost edenic description of the Bastides Blanches, where ‘bees dance around birches sticky with sap’ and ‘a fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter into the wind.’ It is, he writes, ‘the land of the untamed’, of wild and flourishing nature. And it is the land of people also. There are white houses ‘perched like doves on the hill’s shoulder.’ In them live an isolated agricultural community, so isolated, and distant from others, that even the postman rarely visits and a doctor makes excuses not to return as the journey takes too long.

The men and women of the Bastides Blanches are often described in natural terms, giving the impression that, at least for the author, the two – humanity and the natural world – are not, or should not be, separate entities. One man has the ‘movement of a growing branch,’ another dances ‘the way marmots do’, still another is said to pant rapidly like a bird. Indeed, one of the principle characters, Gagou, is essentially an animal. He is mentally impaired, his sole form of communication being the grunting of his name. His needs are animalistic too, in that he appears only to require shelter, water and sex. Moreover, the way that he dies is, one might say, by sacrificing himself to nature, or in an attempt to become one with it, by walking into a fire.

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Yet while this united kingdom, this trinity, of people, animals, and earth is for Giono clearly the ideal, he was too smart to suggest that it is a reality. Indeed, in a significant, if perhaps somewhat heavy-handed, move the idyllic opening I touched upon earlier is violently disturbed by the introduction of a human presence, when Jaume fires a round of buckshot at a boar bathing in a spring. The truth of the matter is that the community at the Bastides Blanches are reliant upon the natural world, take from it, use it, but do not give anything back; they are, in the phoney war between the three forms of life, the aggressors, the tyrants, the exploiters.

It is Janet, the bed-bound quasi-mystic, who gives voice to this truth and others like it. He is, you might say, the community’s bad conscience. ‘The world isn’t made for you alone’, he admonishes Jaume when he seeks the old man’s advice. As the conversation unfolds, which is in fact more of a cosmic monologue, he talks about the suffering of animals, of trees, of ‘hundreds of holes in the flesh of living creatures and in living wood’ out of which ‘the blood and the sap flow over the world like a gigantic river.’ Janet is a truly memorable creation, so captivating and believable that, even in his most theatrical moments, his sermons unnerve the reader as much as the characters.

Much is made in reviews of the environmental aspect of the narrative, and yet, while the above shows that it is quite clearly there in the text, I believe that it is overplayed, or overemphasised, to the exclusion of its other noteworthy themes or qualities. I used the word ‘war’ before to describe the relationship between humanity and other forms of life, and I think there is something fascinating, and grimly amusing, about the way that we – for I don’t exclude myself from this – view inanimate objects or unconscious creatures as our enemies, as being in opposition to us. Consider for a moment the scene with the boar: Jaume, after firing at it, calls it a ‘son of a whore’ as though it had personally wronged him, as though it could understand this taunt, this insult, when of course it had not and it could not.

As the novel progresses, the characters, rattled by Janet’s ramblings and a run of bad luck, come to believe that the earth is out to get them, is bent on revenge; not figuratively, literally. If this sounds like the clever set-up of a comedy, that is because it is. There is no doubt in my mind that Giono plays for laughs, that he deliberately ramps up the absurdity. At one point, the men gather together in order to discuss their options, to make a plan, and what they decide is to go down to the woods…with their guns. Seriously. Their plan is to shoot nature, to pistol-whip the wind. They also bolt their doors; and one of them moves his bed into his mother’s room. What we see here is an exaggerated, satirical, form of the mindset outlined in the previous paragraph, which is that of imbuing the natural world with human, or even supernatural, qualities, and then pitching ourselves against it.

I would also argue, and I have already hinted at this, that Hill is a horror story. It is often said, when discussing the horror film genre, that the scariest examples are those where the ‘evil’, where the malevolent entity, remains off screen or hidden, where it is implied rather than proven by sight; and that is exactly how Giono’s novel plays out. Bad things start to happen – people fall ill, the water supply dries up, and so on – and no one can explain how or why; these events are, for the men, inexplicable, their causes unseeable, and therefore frightening. Out of this fear, a paranoia develops, and they begin to place significance in ordinary events, such as the appearance of a harmless black cat and the ‘foreign’ silence. It is telling, in this regard, that when a forest fire breaks out Jaume is relieved, because, he himself admits, he now knows what he is dealing with; this terrible something is better than a terrible nothing. Indeed, the men aren’t oppressed by a spook, they spook themselves, and Giono’s novel is, in this way, something like a Gallic, superior version of The Blair Witch Project.

THE GOLEM BY GUSTAV MEYRINK

I was, I must confess, disgracefully hungover and sleep deprived; and I had, yes, already had something of a meltdown in the Kafka museum; but these things can, I feel, only provide a partial explanation for what happened on the Karluv Most bridge. It was early in the afternoon, around 12:30, as we left the museum and started the crossing. Straightaway, I noted a woman having her portrait drawn, a smile stretched grotesquely across her face as though it was intent on swallowing it. Further on, a spidery old man was playing an over-large accordion, and what appeared to be circus performers were blithely strolling in the midday sun. Yet, while these things all contributed to the surreal atmosphere, it was the dogs, the dogs wearing scarves, that truly did for me.

The walk along the bridge seemed to be unending. My feet moved, but I appeared to make no progress. The dogs, so many dogs, all the same breed, and all wearing scarves, passed by me at regular intervals. It was as though I was standing still, and they – the dogs – were going round in circles, were circling me, coming back around, time and time again. Where were they coming from? How could it be that ten or fifteen of the same breed had found themselves on the bridge that day? And why were they dressed so suavely? I have lost my mind, I suddenly thought to myself; then, gripping my friend’s arm, I asked him, straight-faced, with great seriousness: ‘You can see those dogs, can’t you?’

Thankfully, he could; but the point of this story is not the existence, or non-existence, of dogs, but rather to demonstrate something of the special atmosphere of Prague. It is a city, a beautiful city, that invites madness; it is a city of weirdness and wonder, where, one feels, or certainly I feel, anything is possible. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that much of the literature it has generated – The Maimed by Hermann Unger, for example – has that particular quality to it, as though the strange air of Prague has seeped into the pages. In this way, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem held few surprises for me; which is to say that I expected odd, and odd is what I got.

“A brief rustling that broke off short, as if startled at itself, then deadly silence, that agonising, watchful hush, fraught with its own betrayal, that stretched each minute to an excruciating eternity.”

First published serially in 1913-14, The Golem is, on the surface at least, a gothic thriller. With little subtlety, but great relish, Meyrink turns Prague’s Jewish ghetto into a nightmare, with its ‘dark corners,’ ‘tomblike silence’ and generally gloomy, and threatening, atmosphere. It is a place where a ‘human spider’ with a hare lip [Aaron Wassertrum] lurks; and where a malevolent being, said to be the Golem, stalks the streets and the inhabitants, including the narrator, Athanasius Pernath. As one works one’s way through the book there are murders, robberies, secret rooms, inexplicable events, and suicide plots; there are references to cabbala and tarot; and all of this is great, dumb fun.

Yet there is, I believe, an underlying gravitas to the descriptions of life in the Jewish quarter. At the time that the novel was written it was, in fact, in the process of being demolished or cleaned up. For many years it had the reputation of being excessively dirty, over populated, and run down; and it was thought to be a hotbed of violence and criminal activity. With this in mind, Meyrink’s gothic thriller has perhaps more in common with Emile Zola’s theatrical naturalism than it does Lovecraft, Poe or Dracula. Moreover, this historical knowledge has the effect of altering the tone of much of what you read, so that when Pernath describes the houses as turning their backs on each other one sees in it, not something sinister, but something rather moving. Likewise, when he says of the inhabitants that they are ‘strange people’ who ‘seem to have been put together haphazardly, out of odds and ends.’

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This is not to say that Meyrink, or at least his narrator, is entirely in sympathy with the people of the ghetto. Certainly, in the early stages I detected elements of anti-semitism, for there is obvious disgust in the way that Wassertrum and Rosina, for example, are depicted. Indeed, Aaron is said to have a ‘horrible face’ and ’round fish’s eyes’; he is a crook, who once sold a woman into prostitution. Rosina, on the other hand, is ‘repulsive’ and lascivious. Moreover, the evils of Wassertrum and his son are both linked to money, bringing to mind the Jewish stereotype of avariciousness. In contrast, the Czech characters, who are also living in poverty of course, are lovable rascals with hearts of gold. Yet, as the narrative progresses, Meyrink introduces Hillel and Miriam, who are positive Jewish characters; and this did go some way to soothing my concerns, especially as they are both self-denying and generous with money.

It is usually the case with these reviews that I spend a considerable proportion of them discussing the principle character[s], their motivations, psychology and personality. This is made more difficult in this instance, because Pernath is, for much of the novel, a man is search of himself, literally and spiritually. Indeed, at the beginning, he is handed a book with a prominent letter ‘I’ etched on it, which is not, of course, insignificant; and later it is hinted that the narrator may not be Pernath at all, having assumed this identity from a name in a hat he mistakenly picked up. In any case, he does not, we are told, remember anything about his childhood; there is the suggestion that he had some kind of mental breakdown, underwent hypnosis, and therefore repressed, or in some way lost, those memories, and with them his sense of self.

“The soul is not a single unity; that is what it is destined to become, and that is what we call ‘immortality’. Your soul is still composed of many ‘selves’, just as a colony of ants is composed of many single ants.”

It is interesting, in this regard, that when we meet him he is alive, certainly, but could not be said to be living, as though one’s past enables one to have a present and a future. In fact, it is only when he starts to recover his memories that he takes an active part in life. He romances two women, for example, and forms deeper, more valuable friendships. However, I ought to point out that this is, I’m sure, not how Meyrink intended his novel to be understood. It is full of obscure mysticism, or ‘waffle’ if you were being uncharitable, which, based on what I know about the author and his interests, would likely mean that he had something more philosophically complex in mind. Moreover, if you have read the book you will know that I have completely disregarded the ‘twist’, and the questions it raises about the nature of reality, dreams, and so on. But well, fuck it, I most enjoyed The Golem as a story, not about a man’s spiritual awakening, but rather as about a man beginning to feel some joy in living.