horror

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.

THE SUFFERINGS OF PRINCE STERNENHOCH BY LADISLAV KLIMA

Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.

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One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!

THE TENANT BY ROLAND TOPOR

Some years ago I moved to the midlands in order to start a new job. I knew no one in the area so arranged to live in a shared house, with three other guys, hoping this would mean I didn’t become too isolated. In the early stages all was fine, presumably because the other tenants were on their best behaviour, but soon strange things began to happen. Empty crisp packets, for example, started to appear in the fridge. I don’t know if you have ever found an empty crisp packet in the fridge, but it is, let’s say, a bit of a puzzler. There are, of course, a number of questions that may occur to you when confronted with such a thing, but I think the most important is ‘what kind of monster or madman eats crisps, then decides that the best place for the empty packet is…the fridge?’

I managed to endure this situation  – which was not limited to empty crisp packets, but included large puddles of water on the kitchen floor, loud noises in the middle of the night and disappearing sandwiches – for only a few months before I came to the realisation that living in close proximity, and sharing a living space, with one’s fellow man is not advisable, that there is something oppressive, even eerie, about having to rub along with others in a confined space. And this is something that Trelkovsky, the central character in Roland Topor’s 1964 French novel The Tenant, also learns, although his circumstances are slightly different.

“He caught a glimpse of his own reflection in a shop window. He was no different. Identical, exactly the same likeness as that of the monsters. He belonged to their species, but for some unknown reason he had been banished from their company. They had no confidence in him. All they wanted from him was obedience to their incongruous rules and their ridiculous laws.”

According to a number of reviews I have encountered Trelkovsky is essentially a void, a man lacking in personality. I understand where those sorts of claims are coming from, but they aren’t entirely accurate. He is, we are told, honest and polite and quiet, and as such one might legitimately say that he isn’t particularly interesting. But that isn’t the same as saying that he has no personality at all, of course. Moreover, there are a number of instances where he displays courage, or certainly spunk. For example, when he attempts to rent a flat from Monsieur Zy he haggles tenaciously over the price. He also beds, and abandons, Stella without the slightest compunction. Yet the most telling incident is when he refuses to sign a petition to have another tenant removed from the building, because, he says, he doesn’t know her, and does not have a problem with her himself. In this way, Trelkovsky is something of an enigma, unassuming and quiet, yet fiercely principled and confident, honest and good but a bit of a dick, etc.

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[Still from the film of the same name, directed by, and starring, Roman Polanski]

I wrote in my introduction that Trelkovsky’s oppression comes in circumstances slightly different to mine, and that is because he lives not with a number of people in one house, but, rather, shares an apartment block with them. One would think, or hope, that having an apartment to oneself would guarantee some level of safety, a degree of isolation from others. Isn’t this why we value our homes so much? However, what he finds is that, yes, he can lock his door, but he cannot, in a sense, keep other people away, he cannot be free of them entirely. There are a number of amusing scenes, and episodes, that highlight this, but my favourite involves the tenant going to absurd lengths, including wearing slippers at all times, to avoid making noise, because even the slightest rouses his neighbours and sets them knocking on the ceiling.

Yet what this example also highlights is that The Tenant is about paranoia, about the oppression from within, as much as oppression from outside. After a number of complaints, and warnings from the landlord, Trelkovsky becomes so afraid of disturbing or angering anyone that he begins to obsess over his own actions, and about the way that people see him. Another example of this is when a female tenant vomits outside the doors of the residents she is in dispute with, and Trelkovsky panics over the absence of vomit in front of his own, believing that this would be considered highly suspicious in the eyes of the other tenants. Indeed, his worry swells to such an extent that he attempts to vomit himself, and when he cannot do so he actually picks up some from outside another door and places it in front of his own.

“Look at me, I’m not worthy of your anger, I’m nothing but a dumb animal who can’t prevent the noisy symptoms of his decay, so don’t waste your time with me, don’t dirty your hands by hitting me, just try to put up with the fact that I exist. I’m not asking you to like me, I know that’s impossible, because I’m not likeable, but at least do me the kindness of despising me enough to ignore me”

It has been said of The Tenant that it is a horror story. For the majority of the novel I found this description perplexing. It was strange, and even mildly disconcerting at times, but horrific? No, no. And then, close to the end, the disconcertion increased, intensified, until I become genuinely unnerved. There is one scene that has stayed with me in this regard, which involved a number of female tenants standing on boxes, outside Trelkovsky’s window, dancing in a grotesque fashion. In writing that sentence I was tempted to laugh, but I wasn’t, believe me, laughing at the time. In any case, the impact upon the novel of this shift towards horror is interesting in a number of ways, but the most significant is that it validates Trelkovsky, so that the ultimate message appears to be, to quote a popular phrase, that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.

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The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’

The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.

However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.

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As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false,  or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreoverhe says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’

“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”

As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.

It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.

“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].

Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].

I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]

Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.

DEATH SENTENCE BY MAURICE BLANCHOT

I’ve written numerous times about my fear of death, of the nothing that awaits me. In fact, fear doesn’t adequately encapsulate my feelings, which involve an intense, often incapacitating, hysteria and panic. On this basis, you might think that I would have approached Death Sentence with trepidation, but Maurice Blanchot’s short novel isn’t really about death, it is about dying, which is something else entirely. Unlike death, dying is something that happens to you, and, although it might be terrible or painful, the fact that there is an ‘I’ around to experience it makes it, as a thought and as a prospect, far less terrifying for me, on a purely personal level. When the thought does cross my mind it is other people dying that most frightens and saddens me, it is this process as applied to someone else that upsets me.

Death Sentence has a reputation for being confusing and unwelcoming or inaccessible, yet the first part, which takes up roughly half the book, is fairly straightforward. It recounts the relationship between a woman, J., and an unnamed man, who is the narrator, focussing specifically on the woman’s seemingly terminal illness. I was hopeful, when I approached the book, of something similar to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, which, with great insight, deals with the way that people behave when confronted with someone else’s weakness, with the inevitable, but unpleasant, breaking down, or failure, of someone else’s body.

Yet Blanchot’s novel isn’t like that at all. I did not at any point feel attached to the characters because I didn’t see humanity in them, and the author did not have anything truly interesting or enlightening to say about coping with illness, either one’s own or someone else’s; indeed, most of that is dealt with matter-of-factly, and much of what we are told is banal or unsurprising. J.’s bravery, for example, is stressed, with the narrator informing us that she cried ‘often and for long stretches’, but that these were never the tears of a coward. Her illness, he continues, had made a child of her, and this too makes sense, in that we think of people who are weakened in some way as reverting to a child-like state, whereby they need to be looked after and indulged [although, to be fair, I am not sure this is actually what Blanchot meant in this instance]. Even the fact that the narrator goes away during a particularly bad period of J.’s illness is not difficult to understand, nor is his claim that he does not know why he left and why he stayed away.

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[By The Death Bed, 1896 by Edvard Munch]

What does make Death Sentence worthwhile, what is engaging about it, particularly in relation to the first part, is how odd and unnerving it is. This may seem like a contradiction. How can it be banal and unnerving? There is a really curious mix of the expected and the unexpected, with a narrator describing both in the same flat, almost emotionless tone. I am not confident that I will be able to successfully explain why it is the case, but very few novels have made me as uneasy as this one. Indeed, far from reminding me of Tolstoy, or even something like Katharine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, it actually has more in common with the work of Poe or other masters of generating an atmosphere of creeping, intensifying horror. From the beginning the narrator is dropping hints suggestive of terrible secrets. He will, we’re told, tell the whole truth, as though the truth is going to alarm us. We are also informed that he has been trying to put this story down on paper for years, and that he was once successful, but then burnt the manuscript.

However, despite this claim of truthfulness, this apparent desire to be open, the narrator is, in reality, relentlessly vague and guarded. The most obvious example of this is the withholding of names. Only one person is named in the first part of the novel; everyone else is referred to by an initial, or is identified by their profession or status, such as mother, doctor, nurse, etc. The effect this has is of dehumanising the characters, particularly J., with whom the reader is most eager to sympathise. We don’t, moreover, ever find out what exactly her illness is, only that it is a serious one that may kill her. After spending some time with the narrator, the impression that one is left with is one of dishonesty, of someone who raises your suspicions. You may even ask yourself if the whole thing is invention, for it is liars who, generally speaking, insist on their honesty while not providing specifics.

The first real indication that something strange is going on is when the narrator reveals that J.’s illness made her look ever more youthful. This is, of course, contrary to our expectations, which is that hardship, extreme pain, etc. makes one more haggard. As the story progresses, J. is subjected to some kind of dangerous, experimental treatment. It is never fully explored, but one gets the impression that the doctor administering this treatment is dubious, either in terms of his credentials or in terms of his personal ethics. Certainly, it is said that he wants the narrator dead, that he pronounced his imminent death, in the hope that he would die, rather than it being an accurate diagnosis.

There are two incidents that stand out as giving the best indication as to why I would use the term ‘horror’ to describe Death Sentence. The first involves a close to death J. laying in bed and, according to the narrator, following something with her eyes, something that she sees in the room but which he does not. The second, and more persuasive, involves J. apparently dying and then coming back to life. Upon recovery she grabs the narrator’s hand with a ‘savage quickness in which there was nothing human.’ He also says something about how J. is no longer afraid because she herself had ‘become frightening.’

In the second half of the novel, there are more women, more deaths, and more references to fear and terror; there are, moreover, repeated instances of people walking in on others uninvited, of entering a property or room that is not their own, which is something that also happened in part one. The second part of Death Sentence is far more fractured than what preceded it, and, as such, is not nearly as spooky. It is, in any case, harder to follow and probably warrants the frustration readers tend to voice in relation to the entire novel. I would love to be able to venture a theory, some explanation as to how the two parts fit together, some discussion as to the significance of the recurring scenes and motifs, but I am unable. In order to defend myself I would like to point out that I read the book on the train, in an especially noisy carriage, in which a Spanish family were loudly singing a song. Indeed, the refrain ‘meh-eeeee-coooo’ is still going round my head days later.

“But this is the rule, and there is no way to free oneself of it: as soon as the thought has arisen, it must be followed to the very end.”

I do, however, want to offer an interpretation of part one, or at least say something about what it meant to me, regardless of the author’s intention. Blanchot gives the impression that there is something almost supernatural about J’s illness, what with seeing things that aren’t there and the repeated use of the word terror and so on. Well, this has been my experience of terminal illness, which is that it is horrifying, not solely because it is upsetting, but also because it is dehumanising, it is absurd, it is, for want of a better word, weird. I don’t want to give too much information about this, but it is not unusual, when pumped full of drugs, when in horrendous amounts of pain, to see things, to make strange statements, to talk to oneself, to behave in ways that do resemble behaviour that you will have seen in horror films. I have witnessed these things. I have, moreover, seen someone so disfigured, so deformed by illness that they started to look like a large insect; and, yes, they stopped being afraid, because they had become frightening. And yet in the midst of all this, there are the doctor’s appointments, the treatments, etc., which after a time [and one must remember that it is said that J. had been seriously ill at least ten years] become routine; and the suffering does too, in a way, at least for the people on the outside, i.e. those who are not in pain themselves only observing it, because it is ever present.