Tag Archives: Weird Fiction

Teffi, Other Worlds

The first line of Teffi’s story “Witch,” the title story from a 1936 collection reprinted in Other Worlds, asks: “Sometimes, when you think back, you can’t help wondering: Were people really like that? Was life really like that?” “Teffi” was the pen name of a Russian writer and journalist who left the country for good after the revolution. Afterwards most of her readers were émigrés and these stories have an undercurrent of nostalgia.

Cover of Other Worlds

Other Worlds is subtitled Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints. Those are all running themes here. Other Worlds samples stories from several collections, in chronological order. Pilgrims and saints appear more in the early stories. Spirits come in later. Another theme carried all the way through the book is memory, particularly childhood memories. A lot of these stories recreate the way the world felt to Teffi as a child, when the line between reality and fantasy was blurrier.

And then they carry that feeling forward, into adulthood. The pilgrim stories involve childhood attempts to understand religion, including the drily funny tale of a child who decides to become a saint. But there are also adult pilgrims who have sudden numinous experiences. One narrator takes an unexpectedly wild and eerie carriage ride through the woods. Even in adulthood the world gets unexpectedly larger.

The tales of spirits, most from Witch, feel like the heart of the collection. (Although this may be my love of weird fiction talking.) The translators included all but one of the stories from this collection. (Robert Chandler, who wrote the explanatory material, doesn’t explain what that last story was or why they left it out.) These stories center around spirits from Russian folklore—witches, shapeshifters, Leshies, Rusalkas. Often the main vectors for these beliefs are peasants—but, no matter what they tell themselves, the upper classes are just as suceptible. In “Witch,” the ostensibly rational narrator and her husband wind up fleeing their apartment in fear that their housekeeper has cursed the place. “You may laugh all you please,” says Teffi, “but the truth is that things didn’t work out sensibly and reasonably, as educated people like ourselves always want them to.”

In the Witch stories Teffi’s prose is conversational. It feels improvisational, extemporaneous. (But it’s precise—Chandler tells us Teffi is difficult to translate.) Her narrator is reminiscing, taking you into your confidence. She’s talking to a “you,” or relaying a story told to her: “Do you remember that tragic death? The death of that artful Edvers?” Memory keeps coming up—sometimes she’ll say “I remember” or “As far as I can remember.” The stories are structured with anecdotes, asides, and associational transitions—for instance, she’ll give a quick biography of a baroness before telling the anecdote she’s involved in that’s the actual point of the story. A lot of these stories start as essays on Russian folklore—domovoys, bathhouse devils—before easing into a narrative.

These stories have a constant edge of astonishment. Can this really be happening? Is life really like this? Narrators and characters keep asking bemused questions: “Was that really Panas?” “What kind of accursed forest was this, full of murderous trees?” A lot of writers take pains to avoid exclamation points. Teffi throws them in fearlessly.

One thing you get in Teffi that more fantasy writers need to learn is a sense of mystery, complexity, and ambiguity. Take “Leshachikha.” The narrator remembers a childhood incident when her family’s neighbor, a count, brings his daughter Jadzia[1] to their house. She behaves wildly and tears her dress. Later the kids are being driven through the woods and hear a wild howling; their coachman says Jadzia, the “Leshachika,” drives the game to her father when he hunts. Then the count brings home Eleonora, another daughter, who is beautiful but slightly hunchbacked. Jadzia is jealous. One day Eleonora wanders into the forest and is crushed by a falling tree. Then the count plans to marry. In the forest his valet just barely saves him from another falling tree. Jadzia is nowhere near either time, but everyone obscurely feels she’s responsible. The count breaks off the engagement and takes Jadzia away, abandoning his home. The narrator stops to look at his pond. “I kept looking for the swan,” she says. Leshachikhas are as normal as birds; a swan is as interesting as a spirit.

This story doesn’t have a single, definite, legible interpretation. A lot of SFF stories take pains to communicate a clear, well-defined meaning. The story has a careful moral or is built around a metaphor with an unmistakable meaning. The results are often stories you’ll only read once; you’ve gotten everything out of them you’re ever going to. This is why I value messiness in fiction. “Leshachikha” is productively obscure. It could mean many things to many people. There’s more scope for rereading, reinterpretation.

One move Other Worlds often makes is to blur the border between people and spirits. Jadzia may be a forest spirit, or may consort with forest spirits, or may just be like a forest spirit. In “Wonder Worker” a peasant seems to reincarnate as a chicken. In “Water Spirit” a transgender housemaid is accused of being “from the river.” In “The Dog” the spirit of the narrator’s childhood friend who called himself her “dog” returns to protect her in the form of that animal. In a late essay Teffi identifies herself with Baba Yaga. Ordinary people are as strange and numinous as spirits.

That means sometimes it’s ambiguous whether anything supernatural is going on. Sometimes nothing supernatural is going on: the comedy in “Bathhouse Devil” comes from the narrator’s pretending to believe in spirits while leaving a more mundane story in plain sight. This might worry some weird fiction fans. Stories that go for metaphysical ambiguity are often afraid of their own weirdness; including a non-supernatural get out clause feels more respectable. But here the ambiguity has the opposite effect. Other Worlds feels weirder than a lot of outright weird fiction. Instead of taming weirdness, Teffi uses ambiguity to make the everyday weird.


  1. Deep Space Nine fans might be interested to know “Jadzia” is Russian, and actually supposed to be pronounced “Yadya.”  ↩

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1968

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

Last time, in 1967, we saw the SFF world give awards to aesthetically and politically conservative stories. But the New Wave hadn’t gone anywhere. In his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” Samuel R. Delany recalls at the following year’s Nebula awards an “eminent member of SFWA” gave a speech fulminating against “pretentious literary nonsense.” (The proximate cause of the speech was apparently Delany’s Nebula-nominated The Einstein Intersection, which the speaker had heard described but had not read; when he did he was taken aback to discover he liked it.) There’s still a tug-of-war between SFF’s pulp roots and its avant garde, and we’re about to see the rope pulled back in the other direction in the awards of:

1968

In 1968, four novels scored nominations for both the Hugos and the Nebulas: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, Piers Anthony’s Chthon, and Robert Silverberg’s Thorns. The Delany won the Nebula and the Zelazny won the Hugo. Those two novels are still remembered and read; the other two not so much.

These are the short stories, novellas, and novelettes nominated for both awards:

  • Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah” (Won the Nebula for Best Short Story): An astronaut between trips doesn’t quite connect with a woman.
  • Harlan Ellison, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”: A gambler encounters a slot machine possessed by a woman who died playing it, who promises him jackpots.
  • Philip José Farmer, “Riders of the Purple Wage” (Tied for the Hugo for Best Novella): An artist prepares for his latest exhibition in an age of universal basic income. Puns ensue.
  • Fritz Leiber, “Gonna Roll the Bones” (Won both the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novelette): A gambler gets into a high stakes craps game, bites off more than he can chew, and barely escapes with his skin.
  • Anne McCaffrey, “Weyr Search” (Tied for the Hugo for Best Novella): On a medieval planet, dragon riders visit a castle looking for more people to ride dragons.
  • Robert Silverberg, “Hawksbill Station”: A few days in the life of political prisoners marooned in the Cambrian era by a time-traveling government.

The big theme for 1968 is Dangerous Visions. This was a massive anthology edited by Harlan Ellison (the author of “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman”). “Aye, and Gomorrah,” “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and “Gonna Roll the Bones” were first published there. All three won at least one award. “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” was published elsewhere but written by Ellison, the anthology’s editor and chief creative influence, so it shares a sensibility. Three more stories from Dangerous Visions received either Hugo or Nebula nominations. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” and Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” turned up on the Hugo ballot, and a Nebula nomination (bizarrely) went to Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”

Before I get into Dangerous Visions, though, let’s deal with the two stories about which I have the least to say: “Weyr Search” and “Hawksbill Station.”

Safe Visions

It says nothing good about the SFF world in the sixties that, three posts in, Anne McCaffrey is only the first woman we’ve covered. One of her stories will fall into our Venn diagram for three years straight; then she drops out of the story. Why everyone was briefly excited over McCaffrey isn’t clear. “Weyr Search” is a pulp adventure story indistinguishable in quality or style from any number of others now forgotten. The prose is bland and sometimes descends into clumsiness. (“This, then, is a tale of legends disbelieved and their restoration. Yet—how goes a legend? When is myth?” When is myth what?) Characters have names like F’Lar, F’Nor, and Fax. I assume “Weyr Search” stood out because in the sixties there weren’t many stories for dragon lovers—as discussed last time, this is another epic fantasy under a science fiction veneer. It’s technically also a story with a female protagonist—again, rare in 1968—but in practice most of the story is told from the POV of F’Lar (or was it F’Nor?).

We’re going to be seeing a lot of Robert Silverberg for a while. At any given time a few writers show up on SFF awards lists over and over for several years, after which they drop off for new favorites.[1] We’re already seeing Harlan Ellison come up a lot; future favorites will include George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Connie Willis, and Mike Resnick. Here I’ll admit my biases: Ellison’s fine, but these are usually writers I’m not into. It feels like they please crowds not because their stories are great, but because there’s nothing in them to put anyone off. They’re not bad, just beige. Their work feels like a rainy Sunday morning when someone is watching a fishing program on TV in the next room. Silverberg is one of those.

“Hawksbill Station” is a perfectly good story. It’s a solid character piece with no real flaws. Silverberg writes good prose. It just feels a bit thin. The first thing we read is “Barrett was the uncrowned King of Hawksbill Station.” When he learns he could return to the future but chooses to stay, nothing about his decision is a surprise. Silverberg later expanded “Hawksbill Station” into a novel and it may have made Barrett’s motives more complex, but in the novella it just feels like he wants to be a big trilobite in a small pond.

Cover of Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions

So, Dangerous Visions. Like I said, this was a big deal. Partly this is because non-reprint anthologies were unusual at the time (although by this point Damon Knight’s series Orbit had started up), and this was a big one full of major writers. But Ellison had bigger ambitions: He kicks off the book by proclaiming “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution.” Ellison was prone to hyperbole the way fish are prone to swimming, but he really was taking this seriously: he sunk $2700 of his own money into the project (according the online inflation calculator at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over $20,000 today) and borrowed another $750 from Larry Niven.

So what was revolutionary about Dangerous Visions? Ellison had a couple of goals. One was to publish strong and even experimental writing styles in a genre that too often defaulted to “transparent prose.” The other was there in the title: Ellison wanted “dangerous,” taboo-breaking stories. In his introduction Ellison argues a SFF writer’s work is “precensored even before he writes it” because most editors started as fans, and deep down in their subconscious what they really wanted was stuff like the stories they grew up with. So they wouldn’t buy literary styles, or stories with sex or (certain kinds of) politics. Ellison wanted radical stories. Stories that tore walls down and busted doors open. Stories no one else would buy because they were too mind-blowing.

How this worked out in practice…

Secretions

One way to asses the strengths and weaknesses of Dangerous Visions might be to look at “Riders of the Purple Wage.” Of all the stories in Dangerous Visions, “Riders” is both the longest and the most… well, the most.

At one point in “Riders” an art critic declares “every artist, great or not, produces art that is, first, secretion, unique to himself, then excretion. Excretion in the original sense of ‘sifting out.’ … The valor comes from the courage of the artist in showing his inner products to the public.” And man is Philip Jose Farmer not afraid to show us his inner products. He’s one of those SFF writers who feel like outsider artists. I’ve read the Riverworld series and the first of his World of Tiers books. In the former he excitedly plays with historical figures like a kid smashing his action figures together; the latter feels like he brain-dumped his weirdest daydreams onto the page. Whatever else I think of Farmer’s writing, I have to admit he writes what he damn well pleases.

“Riders” follows Chib Winnegan as he prepares his latest painting for an exhibition. It’s 2166 and most people live on a universal basic income, the “purple wage.” Meanwhile, Chib’s Heinleinesque great-grandfather watches the world through a periscope and editorializes. As an exercise in style, it’s amazing. It’s a delirious slapstick picaresque, fast-paced and as packed with baroque detail as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It’s in love with wordplay: there’s a pun every few lines. For several pages a psychiatrist analyzes Chib and his artists’ group, the Young Radishes, through etymological free-association. Farmer is no James Joyce but he’s under Joyce’s influence here, as acknowledged in the story’s climactic pun. Focus on the prose, grab hold of form and let content go, and parts of “Riders” are enormous fun.

That content, though. Farmer opens with an off-putting sex dream in which Chib imagines himself as a giant phallus. If you make it through this first chapter you’ll find it sets the tone. Chib’s mother is enormously fat and it’s a cue to read her as a grotesque. One of her friends urinates in her living room because the “sprayers” will clean it up. White dropouts change their names and live in the forests as pretend Native Americans. 22nd century Earth has legalized incest. One allegedly “funny” scene involves a sexual assault and the discharge of an entire can of spermicidal foam in someone’s living room. This was the first time I’d read “Riders”—I read a lot of Dangerous Visions years ago, but not every story—and I cringed on every page. This isn’t just values dissonance between a fifty year old story and my 21st century sensibilities. Farmer is out to shock.

Here’s something else that happened in early 1968, around the time SFF fans and writers were deciding what stories from 1967 were most award-worthy: The first issue of Zap Comix came out.

Zap kicked off the underground comics movement. It wasn’t the first underground comic (that was probably Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus, although some online histories cite Jack Jackson’s God Nose). But Zap was the most famous and most of what was to come was either modeled on or reacting against it. If you’re not familiar with underground comics, first recall that in the sixties comics were aimed at children and their content was governed by the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a Hays Code for comics, private self-censorship guidelines instituted by comics publishers hoping to dodge government censorship after Congress freaked out over E.C.’s gory horror comics. The undergrounds were small-press satirical comics aimed at adults and not bound by the CCA. They tended towards the surreal and often threw rapid-fire random crap together like Farmer in “Riders of the Purple Wage.” In the pages of Zap, cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, and S. Clay Wilson could express themselves freely and explore any themes they chose.

The results… well, Jeff Goldblum has a line in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” If you can focus on style and ignore the content, a lot of Zap is amazing to look at. I love Moscoso’s style and Crumb’s draftsmanship skills are genuinely great. But you can’t ignore the content. The underground cartoonists were so drunk with the opportunity to draw anything they plunged right into drawing the most taboo-breaking things they could come up with. And breaking taboos, it turns out, is not inherently courageous. Mostly the underground cartoonists drew images they should never have let out of their heads: racist caricatures, creepy sex, huge genitals, sadistic violence, and misogyny. So much misogyny. If you have any taste at all, Zap is unreadable.

Dangerous Visions is science fiction’s underground comics. Not that it’s unreadable. Some of these stories are good. Some are real classics, including “Faith of Our Fathers” and “Aye, and Gomorrah.” But where Dangerous Visions fails, it fails like Zap. We’ve already discussed Farmer’s story. Ellison’s own story described killings by Jack the Ripper in too much detail. Robert Silverberg wrote about an astronaut torturing his old girlfriends. Miriam Allen deFord’s “The Malley System” is little more than an excuse to describe brutal murders from the murderers’ perspectives. Henry Slesar’s “Ersatz” is a joke with a transphobic punchline. The prize for most inadvisable story has to go to Theodore Sturgeon, who must have taken Ellison’s invitation as a challenge to come up with the worst thing he could think of. This was the incest-promoting “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister,” a story utterly inexplicable except maybe as the most tasteless possible parody of Robert Heinlein in lecture mode.[2]

Invited to write “dangerously,” writers defaulted to “edgy”—Unpleasant sex! Gore! Cannibalism! Misogyny! Also, maybe religion is bad! Am I blowing your tiny minds? There weren’t many actual taboos in SFF by the late sixties. Most of the ones Dangerous Visions could find were taboos for good reason—say, the taboo against starting a story with a giant slithering penis, which was just saving writers from themselves. The taboos that need busting aren’t the ones that make people say “eww, yuck” when you break them. They’re the thoughts you don’t notice you’re not thinking. For instance, let’s return to the Samuel R. Delany essay I linked at the top of the post and look at something else that happened to Delany in 1968:

"Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.

[…]

It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket. (In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it… .) Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry… . "

Among the things you didn’t see much of in sixties SF—even the progressive kind—were stories that didn’t treat whiteness as the default state of humanity, and stories about worlds without misogyny.[3] But it didn’t occur to anyone that these were taboos, or that they could break them. Dangerous Visions wasn’t dangerous in any way that mattered.

And Yet: Style!

On the other hand, that goal of publishing stories with style? Complete success. The best stories in Dangerous Visions (and they’re generally the least taboo-breaking stories) are just fun to read. Take “Gonna Roll the Bones,” which begins like it’s exploding:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

There’s a rhythm running all the way through the story, spiced with long sentences patched together with commas and conjunctions that seem to tumble to a stop like rolling dice: “Then he threw back his shoulders and grinned his lips sneeringly and pushed through the swinging doors as if giving a foe the straight-armed heel of his palm.” “As Joe lowered his gaze all the way and looked directly down, his eyes barely over the table, he got the crazy notion that it went down all the way through the world, so that the diamonds were the stars on the other side, visible despite the sunlight there, just as Joe was always able to see the stars by day up the shaft of the mine he worked in, and so that if a cleaned-out gambler, dizzy with defeat, toppled forward into it, he’d fall forever, toward the bottommost bottom, be it Hell or some black galaxy.” It’s propulsive, like the story is pushing you forwards, and hard not to keep reading. Fritz Leiber modeled “Gonna Roll the Bones” on tall tales and the narration sounds like a storyteller, a rough one who rambles a bit and can’t get the words out fast enough when he’s excited.

Interestingly, “Gonna Roll the Bones” looks almost exactly like the American south in the early 20th century but casually mentions spaceships as just a normal thing. Like “Weyr Search” or last year’s “The Last Castle,” this is another future that looks like the past—but it feels odder, because it’s not emulating a Tolkien-style fantasy world. It’s like Lieber wasn’t sure a Twilight Zone-style story would fit Dangerous Visions without a science fiction veneer.

You’ll excuse me if I bring “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” in here. Again, this is not a Dangerous Visions story, but it’s an Ellison story and feels of a piece with his editing work. And, like “Gonna Roll the Bones,” this is another story about a gambler in over his head, which after Dangerous Visions itself is the most obvious thematic link between any of these six stories. It’s written in multiple styles, straight third person for present-day scenes, fast-moving, impressionistic italics when it flashes back to Maggie’s biography. As this strand closes in on Maggie’s death it dips into her stream of consciousness, putting us directly in her head. For a page the story turns into concrete poetry: a short funnel of text, then sentence fragments broken by black bars like pinball bumpers, falling into to a cramped text box as the machine traps her soul.

In “Bones” gambling is risk-taking; in “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” it’s addiction, obsession. Our protagonist, Kostner, watches a fellow gambler mechanically feed coin after coin into the slots, “almost automated.” She animates only to glare at a winner; she’s gambling to fill some hole—maybe chasing the freedom money brings—and resents the winner having something she can’t. Mediocre SFF often doesn’t try to set up patterns of imagery. “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” is one model of how to do it. Kostner gets more numb the more he wins. The pit boss’s grin is “conditioned reflexes,” the floor manager’s eyes “held nothing of light,” the casino owner’s smile seems “stamped on him.” Maggie is “An operable woman, a working mechanism,” she’s objectified in that men treat her as their object, in the sense of an objective. A goal, a prize. Las Vegas is part of a system that reduces everyone it touches to things, machines for wanting.

In the section on underground comics I mentioned there’s an undercurrent of misogyny running under some of these stories and it’s detectible in “Gonna Roll the Bones” and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” But in each story it’s of a different kind. In “Gonna Roll the Bones,” the misogyny is Joe’s; the narrative just doesn’t judge it because it’s in his head. This is a point contemporary readers might stumble over. These days SFF fans expect protagonists to be heroes, characters to identify with. Outside of SFF, that’s not always how it works. Joe’s an abusive lout; we don’t identify with him, we’re just interested in him. Specifically, we’re interested in seeing him humbled. Which he is—Joe’s in a good mood as the story ends but he’s not in the mood to go home, which from his wife’s perspective has got to be a win.

The problem is “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” has a touch of misogyny running not through a character but through the story itself. I think it’s unintentional. The story flashes back to Maggie’s life and into her head because it wants us to know she doesn’t act out of malice, just self-defense. Men have not been her allies. But it also relays Maggie’s life with more than a hint of condescension (“operable,” a “mechanism”), and in the end, with Kostner taking Maggie’s place in the machine, this is the story of a hapless schlub stabbed in the back by a seductive femme fatale. This story has empathy for Maggie, but parts of it push back against the work it does to humanize her.

Don’t Mention the War

In June of 1968 a pair of ads appeared on facing pages of Galaxy magazine. One read “We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country,” followed by a list of names that included Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and John W. Campbell. The other read “We oppose the participation of the United States in the War in Vietnam,” followed by a list including Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Kate Wilhelm and Judith Merril organized the anti-war petition; Poul Anderson put the pro-war petition together in response.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First, the anti-war side has an infinitely better pool of writers. It includes not only almost all our award nominees (Anne McCaffrey didn’t sign either statement) but other great writers both famous (Ray Bradbury, Peter Beagle) and underrated (Margaret St. Clair, Sonya Dorman.) The only serious talent on the other side is R. A. Lafferty.[4]

More relevantly, the Vietnam war was by this point arguably the most all-consuming political issue in the United States, and SFF writers were as engaged with it as anyone else. So it’s interesting the double-nominated stories that year… well, aren’t. Maybe the two sides cancelled each other out in voting?

“Hawksbill Station” feels political but the politics are background scenery in a story about something else. Here we have communists imprisoned by a right-wing government, but you could tell the same story with the roles reversed. Being heavily into feudalism is about as far as the politics of “Weyr Search” go. “Aye, and Gomorrah” wants to broaden SFF fans’ outlook on gender and sexuality, and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” touches on capitalism and inequality.

The most topical story is “Riders of the Purple Wage,” though the current event Farmer is riffing off of has been forgotten. In 1964 a group of activists and academics calling themselves “The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution” wrote a memo called “The Triple Revolution,” which they sent to President Lyndon Johnson. The committee was concerned with nuclear proliferation and civil rights, but the main thrust of the memo was about what they called the “Cybernation Revolution.” They believed increased automation would lead to increased unemployment or underemployment, and serious economic inequality (and, honestly, I can’t say they were wrong). The committee had immediate suggestions for dealing with this but their long-term hope was that the U.S. would institute what we now call a universal basic income.

It’s not clear whether Johnson ever got the memo, but it impressed Philip Jose Farmer. In his Dangerous Visions afterward Farmer enthuses, “this document may be a dating point for historians, a convenient pinpointing to indicate when the new era of ‘planned societies’ began. It may take a place alongside such important documents as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Communist Manifesto, etc.” In his guest of honor speech at the 1968 World Science Fiction Convention, Farmer even called on fans to form a nonprofit organization, to be called REAP, to promote the aims of the Triple Revolution committee, pointing out that earlier that year fans had organized to keep Star Trek on the air.[5] He was disappointed when no one took him up on the offer.

But the story’s politics are muddled. Farmer agrees a basic income would be a good idea. At the same time, “Riders of the Purple Wage” argues most people don’t have great unrealized talents: “They believed that all men have equal potentialities in developing artistic tendencies, that all could busy themselves with arts, crafts, and hobbies or education for education’s sake. They wouldn’t face the ‘undemocratic’ reality that only about ten per cent of the population—if that—are inherently capable of producing anything worth while, or even mildly interesting, in the arts.” Most people in Farmer’s story sit around watching TV. Farmer can’t quite imagine a science fiction story without someone to sneer at.

“Aye, and Gomorrah”

The one story we haven’t touched on is “Aye, and Gomorrah.” I first came across it in David G. Hartwell’s World Treasury of Science Fiction.[6] I was 12. I don’t recall my reaction to “Aye, and Gomorrah” but I’m sure I didn’t understand a word of it.

Its first words are “And came down in Paris,” and anytime the first word of a story is “And” you know you’re starting in the middle of something that’s been going on a while. Scenes are punctuated by regular repetitions of “And went up” and “And came down,” and the story ends in an “And went up” to match the initial descent. This is a regular pattern in the narrator’s life, and it feels circular.

We’re dropped in without context. A common worldbuilding technique in SFF is to avoid directly explaining the world, instead writing from an in-world perspective and letting the reader piece it together from the clues. “Aye, and Gomorrah” uses this tactic but doesn’t give us enough information to orient ourselves until mid-story—we’re off balance, out of our element, just as the narrator is out of their element on Earth. They’re a Spacer, an astronaut, and Spacers are something apart: people dismiss them with an oddly ritualistic “Don’t you… people think you should leave,” pausing like they need to search for the word people.

The narrator meets a gay man in France, and he thinks they might once have been a man. They meet a prostitute in Mexico, and she thinks they might once have been a woman. They are apparently neither. They ask both man and woman whether they’re a “frelk.” Spacers have frelks on the brain. Is this person a frelk? How about those guys? Where are the frelks? In Istanbul the narrator meets a frelk and their conversation gives us the context we were missing. In space radiation does a number on your gonads, so Spacers are neutered; this leaves them asexual and they’re considered non-gendered. “Frelk” is slang for people attracted to Spacers. They’re attracted to people who won’t be attracted back in the same way. Most Frelks pick up Spacers surreptitiously and pay for their favors.

Samuel R. Delany is a gay man in the late sixties writing about people whose affections and gender identities aren’t recognized as legitimate. He’s communicating the feel of this by translating it into a situation less threatening to an audience immersed in casual homophobia. Something that’s worth noting here—and I’m not at all the first person to notice this, see for example this post at the British Science Fiction Association’s blog Vector—is how the frelk decorates her apartment: “Marsscapes! Moonscapes! On her easel was a six-foot canvas showing the sunrise flaring on a crater’s rim! There were copies of the original Observer pictures of the moon pinned to the wall, and pictures of every smooth-faced general in the International Spacer Corps.” If science fiction readers responded to “Aye, and Gomorrah,” maybe it’s partly because it treats SF fandom as a sexuality.

More broadly, this is also a story about two people failing to connect. The frelk wants to make a real emotional bond with the Spacer but she’s also exoticizing them (“You spin in the sky, the world spins under you, and you step from land to land”). She can’t make a real connection to a romanticized version of the person she’s trying to connect with. And the Spacer refuses to believe the frelk might not see this relationship as transactional. And it’s all depicted with empathy for both sides.

That’s what makes “Aye, and Gomorrah” a classic. It’s a story of miscommunication and awkwardness, but written with compassion and genuine affection for humanity. Delany actually seems to like people. “Aye, and Gomorrah” is the last story in Dangerous Visions and coming after a volume of cynical, often edgy stories this is especially striking. Heck, it’s striking compared to most SFF. Science fiction and fantasy writers like adventure stories, and adventures need villains; it’s a rare SFF story that doesn’t include a character it wants the reader to look down on. It’s great to end this essay on a story that just feels kind.


  1. This is particularly true for the Hugos, which at any given time have a couple of writers who show up every year regardless of whether they’re doing their best work.  ↩

  2. This story’s Nebula nomination is as inexcusable as “The Eskimo Invasion.” It’s not even a skillfully written offensive story—it’s a long, boring monologue that eventually collapses into a lecture. What was going on at the Science Fiction Writers of America in the sixties?  ↩

  3. What our taboos are today is debatable but I’d suggest that modern readers don’t deal well with ambiguity, and as publishers consolidate into corporate entertainment empires they’re less and less likely to publish work that isn’t cinematic and can’t easily be sold as a Netflix series.  ↩

  4. Lafferty was apparently rather conservative, although this rarely comes out in his stories.  ↩

  5. With some searching I found an old fanzine online with the full text of the speech.  ↩

  6. This was a pretty amazing anthology that shaped my taste in science fiction. It had the usual 1980s problem where the editor failed to seek out stories by women, but on the plus side he did publish stories from outside typical genre SF including many translated stories. This was the book that introduced me to Borges.  ↩

Short Reviews of Weird-Adjacent Fiction

Jean Giono, A King Alone

Jean Giono’s A King Alone is a realist novel, but just for its uncanny tone it would probably appeal to fans of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. It takes place over the course of several winters in a 19th century mountain village hemmed in by snow and fog. It’s a cloudy limbo where a man climbing down from a tree seems to come from thin air. Anything can happen.

What does happen is a murder mystery, followed by a wolf hunt, followed by.. what? The title might be more literally translated as A King Without Diversion. The “king” is Langlois, the hero of the first two plots, decisive in a crisis, quick with a gun, and the idol of the villagers. A King Alone deconstructs the adventure-novel hero. The real measure of a person’s strength isn’t how they cope with a crisis but how they cope with ordinary life.

A King Alone does interesting things with narration. The story is told by a village historian living a couple of generations after the events, reporting tales of Langlois secondhand, and seamlessly transitions into the voices of their original sources. The narrator is as often “we” as “I,” like the spirit of the village is piecing Langlois together from collective memory.

This book’s best asset is its otherworldly feel and uncanny imagery. A tree cradles murder victims in its branches, the pursuit of a killer is a weirdly slow and calm walk through clouds and snowdrifts.

Margaret Irwin, “The Book”

I recently came across Margaret Irwin’s story “The Book” for the second time–the first was in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird. It’s good, but I still haven’t read any of her (apparently few) others. She collected them in a book called Madame Fears the Dark which is not in print and not affordable used.

It’s a deal-with-what-might-be-the-devil story about a grimoire that’s found its way onto the shelves of a mild-mannered middle-class businessman. The plot’s predictable–the book presents Mr. Corbett with newly-written investment advice, asking for increasingly-alarming favors in return–but not every story needs a twist ending.

What’s distinctive is how the grimoire seduces Mr. Corbett. It haunts his library. He doesn’t notice it’s there at first; it’s just one of a batch of books inherited from an uncle. But every night the second shelf on the dining-room bookcase gains a strange gap, like something’s left to wander around. And Mr. Corbett has suddenly gone off books. Dickens isn’t funny anymore: “Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering.” Jane Austen is “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations,” Charlotte Bronte is “a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions.” The classics suck, and Mr. Corbett is the first person to notice! Obviously, this is because his mind is “so acute and original he should have achieved greatness,” but until then, Mr. Corbett reads to explore “the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble.” When he finds the one book on the dining-room shelf not newly revealed as idiotic, he’s ready and willing to fall under its spell.

In other words, the grimoire corrupts Mr. Corbett by turning him into a smug, edgy contrarian. Anyone who’s seen too many Twitter threads of the Hey, what’s the worst book you had to read in high school kind might not find the idea too farfetched.

Elizabeth Hand, Wylding Hall

Any interesting writer (even a writer of the “every book is different” kind) will have subjects or themes they return to, because to be interesting a writer has to have interests. I’m only somewhat familiar with Elizabeth Hand’s work–I’ve read this, her mystery novels, and a few short stories–but her go-to theme seems to be counterculture types of the 1960s and 1970s dealing, gracefully or not, with aging, and leftover damage from decisions made decades ago.

Wylding Hall is one of those stories. It’s written as an oral history of Windhollow Faire, a Fairport Convention-style folk rock group, and their legendary final album, recorded at and named after the titular country house. There’s no “objective” narrator, just interviews with the surviving members responding to questions we never hear. The one missing voice is Julian, their lead singer, who vanished during production.

In form Wylding Hall a blend of folk horror and Arthur Machen. Under the surface this is a story about the proverbial kid who goes a little too far in search of something more and drops out or burns out. As with “The Book,” if you’re genre-savvy you can guess where this story will end up. That doesn’t matter: it’s effective in its details and watching it get there is affecting and chilling. This is one of the best stories of its type I’ve read in ages.

It helps that I’m a sucker for the horror tropes Wylding Hall leans on. The hall is a House of Leaves-style impossible space, accumulating styles like a centuries-long physical history of British architecture, expanding and contracting and revealing different rooms to different people. We also get uncanny media: a song may also be a spell, photos show something (and it’s quite a thing) nobody knew was there. And then there’s the fictional album at the center of the story: even in reality, there’s an uneasy aura around last recordings, final books, any artifact created just adjacent to a sad ending.

The key to pulling off this kind of story is to explain neither too much or too little. The multiple viewpoints help; Julian vanished forty years ago, and a lot of these people spent the summer stoned, and the proceedings have just the right amount of fog. In the end it’s not even clear whether Julian’s end was, from his own perspective, horrible or happy. Like A King Alone, this is a story where we only see the lynchpin character from outside. From outside it’s often hard to tell.

Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”

Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.

Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.

Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”

Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.

Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.

Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.

Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic.[1] Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”

Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.

So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.

Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:

Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.

I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.

This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.

Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.

Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.

Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”

These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”

It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.

I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.

Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling.[2] So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?

Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.

Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.

“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.


  1. This is a common attitude even today; a lot of people think only morbidly grim stories are truly Serious.  ↩

  2. An advocate of empire whose stories are still reprinted mostly because they seem so uneasy about their own imperialism.  ↩

W. F. Harvey, The Double Eye

M. R. James was unusual among ghost-story writers in that every story he wrote was at least mildly interesting; most weird writers of his vintage aren’t as consistent. But many have a handful of good stories and sometimes I even find one that hasn’t been reprinted to death.

W. F. Harvey is one of those writers. The Double Eye collects most if not all of his weird stories and it’s a mixed bag. Some of his stories are brilliant, the rest you’ll forget as soon as you read them. They’re all very short–my two favorites are both under 2000 words. Harvey is jocular without writing outright comedy. He’s sometimes ironic but only mildly so; for instance, a potential murderer might be reported to a psychiatrist by the accomplices he’d tried to recruit. Harvey usually avoids outright ghosts and it’s often unclear whether something supernatural is going on or his characters are having mental breakdowns. (He wrote at least two stories about a man thinking he’d been cursed by a woman who might merely be upset with him.) The worst story in the collection is mildly racist, has a mild racial slur for a title, and would have been better buried and forgotten. At the other end of the quality scale are the two stories most people will have heard of, “August Heat” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.”

“The Beast With Five Fingers” is the ur-story of the disembodied hand subgenre. “August Heat” is weirder. (And takes hardly any time to read, so you might as well do so.)

One hot morning, James Withencroft, an artist, draws a picture of a prisoner on trial. He has no idea why–it just popped into his head. Withencroft has never seen the man before in his life but he’s distinctively large, so when Withencroft goes for a walk and passes that exact man Withencroft spots him at once. Mr. Atkinson and Withencroft are immediate friends. Atkinson is a monument-carver, carving a sample tombstone for an exhibition. Withencroft’s name is on it, and today’s date. Atkinson has no idea why–it just popped into his head. The coincidence creeps Withencroft out, so Atkinson invites Withencroft to stick around until midnight, just to make sure nothing happens to him. As the story closes, Atkinson is sharpening a chisel while Withencroft reflects with an odd detachment that the heat “is enough to send a man mad.”

“And it was only the day before yesterday,” he said, “that I told Maria there were no such things as ghosts!”

Neither of us had seen a ghost, but I knew what he meant.

“August Heat” has been reprinted in a lot of ghost story anthologies–not just weird stories, ghost anthologies specifically. Which is interesting because it doesn’t have a ghost, or anything supernatural beyond two extraordinary coincidences and the implication, putting them side by side, that something is about to follow from them. But why? It’s the obscurity of the story that’s disturbing. There’s no Twilight Zone irony, the characters haven’t brought them on themselves through character flaws. There’s no suggestion that Atkinson is a hidden psychopath, or anything other than the genial man he appears to be. Withencroft and Atkinson have had premonitions of a murder which is about to happen only because they had premonitions of that murder. The event has no beginning; the effect is its own cause. The story feels haunted not by an apparition but by a strangely meaningless future.

My favorite W. F. Harvey story is “The Clock.” It’s one of his less anthologized stories, but googling turned up the text online. It is, again, short but effective.

“The Clock” is an excerpt from a letter to an old school friend. The unnamed writer is asked by a friend of her aunt to go to her shut-up house and retrieve a travelling-clock. She agrees. The story vividly conveys the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person in a dark, silent, deserted house where she’d normally have no legitimate reason to be: “I did in fact feel rather like a burglar, and I thought that if anyone did happen to see the front door open, I might have difficulty in explaining things.”

The writer heads upstairs and finally finds the clock in a back bedroom. It’s still ticking. Which is weird, because no one has been in the house, so who’s been winding it? “Then, without quite knowing why, I shut the door on to the landing, locked myself in, and again looked round the room.” Then she hears something coming up the stairs. Not walking, but “hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.” Then it pauses, and starts scratching at each of the doors in turn. The writer flees out the window, and as she looks back she sees the window has shut behind her.

Another book I read recently was Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. I found Fisher’s ideas an interesting lens through which to look at Harvey’s work. Fisher identifies “Weird” and “Eerie” as modes often used by weird fiction.[1] The Weird is easy to describe: it’s something alien and out of place that intrudes on the mundane world, like the crawling hand in “The Beast With Five Fingers.” The Eerie is trickier. It’s an impression of meaning, intelligence, or agency out of place–either present where it shouldn’t be, or absent where it should. Fisher gives the example of an “eerie cry” for the first type, as in the cry of an animal which seems to carry some unusual intelligence or meaning. An example of the second is a mysterious ruin which once had a context and purpose that’s now entirely forgotten. Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.

W. F. Harvey’s main interest is the eerie. He does tell weird stories–“The Beast With Five Fingers” is a good one. Another is one of his rare outright ghost stories, “Account Rendered.” But Harvey is less fond of ghosts and monsters than most weird writers–he likes coincidences that might not be coincidences, delusions that might not be delusions, and people or animals who might be more than they seem. “August Heat” is both his most famous story and the one that best represents his work; its paradoxical tangle of precognition and predestination is thoroughly eerie.

In that light, “The Clock” is an interesting case. It’s certainly weird. But unlike the Beast With Five Fingers, the whatever-it-was in “The Clock” is never seen and has no hint of backstory, and the purpose of its behavior is obscure. The complete lack of context makes the story feel as eerie as it is weird.

That sense of the eerie doesn’t have anything to do with Harvey’s prose–not all his stories are alike, but like I said earlier, most are breezy and jocular, specializing in a sort of light detective-novel style. He only occasionally dips into stream of conciousness[2] or varies his tone or pacing much. When Harvey’s on form his plots are inherently disquieting even when baldly and simply described, and the lightness of tone contrasts ironically. Contrasting horror and wit is a common strategy in weird stories of Harvey’s era, especially in stories by British authors. It’s often very effective.

Look, for instance, at “Account Rendered.” A Mr. Tolson hires a doctor to put him under anesthesia for half an hour around midnight. While Tolson is under an old man like “a timid but inquisitive tortoise” opens the door, sticks his head in, and observes that Tolson is busy but there’s no hurry and he’ll come back another time. Later the doctor investigates and discovers Tolson hires a different doctor every year on the same night, and no matter where in the world he is, at midnight the old man puts his head into the room. The premise of this story is memorable in itself–I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and among the less inspired ones ideas repeat, but this is new. And there’s something disconcerting in the mundanity of the ghost and its polite relentlessness.

“The Follower” is one of Harvey’s less successful stories. A writer, like Harvey himself, lives near a couple of academics named Canon Rathbone and Dr. Curtius who are researching ancient manuscripts they brought back from overseas. One night while gazing at their house he gets an idea for a story based on them. The next day the academics happen to drop in. The protagonist’s sister suggests he could write about Canon Rathbone’s work and the Canon gets flustered, stammering out that he’s really not into fiction–it’s too sensationalistic. As the academics leave, the writer feels obscurely that he’s been warned off.

The outline of this story has a lot of eerie potential, but in Harvey’s style it doesn’t work. It’s too ambiguous. If “The Follower” had been written by (for example) Robert Aickman it would have been suffused with odd details suggesting something weighty moving under the surface of things. In Harvey’s story Dr. Curtius makes a few odd gestures–nodding at odd moments, stirring his tea in a way the writer thinks is strange–but nothing he or Canon Rathbone do seems all that unusual, and they aren’t in any way menacing. Rathbone seems more embarassed than anything. It feels like the writer is getting worked up over a mundane coincidence.

W. F. Harvey’s weird tales are at their best when the overt events are undeniably strange. When they could be just funny coincidences… well, then, they probably are just funny coincidences. The voice he uses in most of his stories encourages me to assume the least extraordinary explanation for everything. It’s reliable, sincerely friendly; I compared it to a detective-story voice, and it feels like, as in a fair play detective story, it’s not palming any cards. When Harvey’s working, though, he really works. The Double Eye feels padded, but Harvey wrote enough great stories that you could fill at least one volume of more modest size.

(Other stories not mentioned above that I’d include in a notional Best of W. F. Harvey include “Midnight House,” “Across the Moors,” “The Tortoise,” “The Ankardyne Pew,” “The Tool,” “The Dabblers,” and “The Flying Out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis.” “The Star” and “The Man Who Hated Aspidistras” are also good, but are comic stories with no weird content and would be an odd fit.)


  1. Fisher doesn’t claim these are the only two modes or effects weird fiction has; they’re just the ones he’s concerned with.  ↩

  2. There are exceptions; for instance, “The Sleeping Major.”  ↩

J. U. Nicolson, Fingers of Fear

This is an odd book. Not a good enough odd book to recommend to everybody, alas, but it’s stuck in my memory.

Fingers of Fear is an Old Dark House story. Not just a story about an old dark house–a story in the gothic subgenre typified by James Whale’s The Old Dark House (which is great) and its source, J. B. Priestly’s novel Benighted (which I haven’t read). The whole story takes place in an isolated mansion inhabited by an eccentric, fractious family on the edge of disintigration. An intrusion from outside kicks off the inevitable breakdown, and by the end everybody’s either escaped or self-destructed.

It’s the Great Depression, and Selden Seaverns is broke. (Blurbs on some editions call him Selden Seaforth; I have no idea why.) Luckily his old friend Ormond Ormes hires him to catalogue the library at the Ormes mansion, Ormesby, and write a history of New England literature. At Ormesby Seaverns meets Ormond’s sister Gray, the only person who can control the vicious dogs roaming the grounds. In the morning he discovers a red mark on his neck, like a vampire’s been sucking at it.

Seaverns is smitten with Gray until she has a weird psychotic episode and tries to bite him, leaping for his throat like a wolf. (Seaverns is a little confused as to exactly what supernatural creature the Ormeses resemble.) Soon it looks like she’s killed one of the servants and Seaverns sees her standing naked and bloody in the library. Seaverns angsts over this for a while before discovering the murder was in fact committed by Gray’s previously unmentioned twin sister Grayce, who was also the one who went for Seaverns’ neck. So that’s all right then, aside from the part where Grayce escapes and kills again.

Ormond comes home with Seaverns’ ex-wife Muriel, who he hired to help him with a blackmail scheme. This is a total coincidence; Ormond had no idea they knew each other and Muriel didn’t know Seaverns would be there. Ormond starts to act unstable himself. Seaverns learns Ormond’s parents’ bodies are in the old cistern. They got there courtesy of Aunt Barbara, who has a pipe in her closet she dumps bodies into. She also slides down it herself when she doesn’t feel like taking the stairs. Also, there may be ghosts. Or maybe not. I haven’t covered every weird thing in this book, just the main points.

Fingers of Fear is narrated in first person and Seaverns does a lot of ruminating. The book gets into a rhythm where a weird thing happens and then Seaverns spends paragraphs theorizing about what it means, what other people’s motivations are and what they’re up to, and what he ought to do next. He spends more pages reacting to what happens than describing it.

This is the novel’s main weak point, and the reason I’d only recommend it to someone who really likes Old Dark House stories. Seaverns’ rumination sessions tend to drag, and sometimes the story slows to a crawl when it ought to speed up. This wouldn’t be a problem if Seaverns were a deep thinker but Nicolson is not exactly Melville and Seaverns is no more interesting and philosophical than your average suspense novel hero. Fingers of Fear would be paced better if it were 10 or 15 percent shorter.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for novels where the characters spend a lot of time thinking things through. And it creates a feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia. We’re stuck in Seaverns’ point of view, and he’s stuck in his present, his rumination focused almost entirely on the Ormeses. We learn the bare minimum about his past. His life is divided into before and after Ormesby. Ormesby is an inescapable parallel world–Seaverns and Muriel are there for months and after a while they start thinking they need to get away, but they don’t. Ormesby sucks them so far in they seem to lose any other frame of reference. By the end Seaverns decides to protect Gray from scandal with a complicated plan to disguise Grayce’s killings as dog attacks. It’s a drawn out and nightmarish operation and he sort of wonders why he’s doing it, but he does.

“This depression in business is having strange results,” says Muriel, which is an understatement. “We can’t blame it directly, of course, and yet, if it hadn’t brought us here, we wouldn’t have become involved in such things.” Fingers of Fear isn’t a deep book, but it’s not without a theme. As wrapped up as it is in Ormesby it never forgets there’s a Depression going on. “It’s changed something in the lives of everyone in the country, maybe even in the world,” says Seaverns. It’s changed him into someone who covers up murders.

The Ormeses spend the book looking for a hidden stash of bonds. When the hiding place is finally tracked down the contents turn out to be… well, not bonds. The Ormeses are a cursed bloodline. You get the sense their wealth and their curse are linked. Maybe cursedness is the natural state of people of the Ormes’s class. The natural corruption of the rich led to the depression, and the depression corrupted people like Seaverns who hadn’t had all that much money in the first place. When he finally gets away he declares “I would not return to the city and the ways of cities for all those fellows’ collective wealth.”

The rich are different from you and me. They’re vampwolves.

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester

Sometimes a book clearly does not belong to a genre, but works so much like that genre it seems to belong in spirit. Take John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. It has the story-shape and uncanny affect of weird fiction despite not, in the end, containing anything weird. And though it draws from the horror-fiction end of the genre more than the Borgesian, there’s nothing horrific about it; it is, instead, gentle and compassionate. It’s weird-fiction adjacent.

(I almost don’t want to say that much… I don’t usually worry about spoilers here; I’m writing responses to books, not the kind of book reviews you’d read beforehand to gauge your interest. But I so rarely go into a novel not even knowing what kind of story it’s telling, and that feeling of discovery is amazing, so if this novel sounds interesting just go read it. This essay will still be here when you’re done.)

Universal Harvester starts with Jeremy Heidt, a video rental clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the 1990s. Customers are coming in perturbed; they report uncomfortably strange scenes spliced into their copies of Targets and She’s All That. Jeremy, his boss Sarah Jane, and their customer and enthusiastic investigator Stephanie (a teacher who maybe finds small-town Iowa a little boring after the University of Chicago) play back the tapes and see short, inexplicable flashes: the inside of a shed, people wearing canvas sacks over their heads, a woman fleeing a farm. Sarah thinks she recognizes the farmhouse.

Universal Harvester tells its story with the tools of found footage. Appropriately for a book about a video store, it’s a cinematic genre.[1] The point of found footage is that it’s incomplete. Most movies assume the camera is omniscient; it knows the whole story and can show the audience any part. The found footage camera narrates from inside the story. It asks us to reconstruct the story from incomplete data and a limited point of view. It’s often said of horror movies that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does: the images in the viewer’s imagination are wilder (and more specific to that viewer!) than anything the filmmakers could come up with. A good found footage movie extends this principle to the narrative logic. The story in the gaps is more uncanny than what’s on screen.[2]

Universal Harvester’s narrator seems omniscient. It tells us about Jeremy’s job and home life, how he’s considering a new job in Des Moines. About how his mother died, and his father’s tentative new relationship. It tells us what’s going through his head at times. Oddly, it also tells us things that could have happened prefaced by phrases like “in some versions of this story.” Did Jeremy have an argument with his father? Did he get a job at a soil-testing lab, or stay longer at the Video Hut? When a personal pronoun slips out it confirms what we already suspected: the narrator is inside the story. The narrator knows Jeremy pretty well but what we’re reading is, in places, just a version of his story, reconstructed from available information.

Adding to Universal Harvester‘s aura of found footage is a documentary feel helped by its strong sense of place. Nevada, Iowa is a real town, not far from where I grew up. Contrary to popular belief Iowa isn’t all rural; I’ve spent my entire life in university towns, so Jeremy’s culture isn’t mine. But I know enough to tell Universal Harvester has the atmosphere right. I recognize the characters’ affect, their reticence, the way the favorite topic at family gatherings is who’s moved where. The geography’s right, too; Darnielle seems to know the area from more than Google maps.

There’s a second horror influence contributing to Universal Harvester’s aura of the uncanny: folk horror, or whatever the American equivalent of folk horror might be (I’ve seen good arguments that it exists). This is a novel of rural landscapes, odd rituals, and new religions born from old, in this case not a European pagan revival but a Christian cult. The cult figures into the middle of the novel, which jumps back a couple of decades to tell the story of a woman who joins a seedy strip-mall church and disappears with it when it flees town, leaving behind a confused husband and daughter. They hire a detective. The daughter grows up following the cult from town to town, scanning the ever-increasing piles of surveillance tapes for some sign of a mother who, even after the cult leader is arrested and the last few members deprogrammed, never turns up again.

What happened to her? Well, there are different versions of that story.

Nobody knows you the way you know yourself. They see the pieces of your life that happen to occur in front of them. The you they know is a story they reconstruct from the fragments. The story your close friends and family know is probably pretty accurate! But the only person who knows your true, entire story is you.[3]

Universal Harvester’s narrator is reconstructing other people’s lives from the information available to her limited point of view. She’s piecing together fragments of video to find the story of a mother who disappeared. If she’s created strange rituals for herself they’re not so much attempting to reach back as out, to make connections. (Even for the mother, the cult was about connecting with something she was missing.) Universal Harvester is using weird fiction strategies to talk about the unknowability of other people’s lives, and how people reach out anyway in whatever way they know, however odd.

Most work in any genre is a bland mass of repetitious received ideas that blend into each other like gray soup. There are lots of reasons why a story might fail to rise above the general mass of forgettable oatmeal. One of the big ones is when creators never move past their first automatic assumptions about what genres, their tools, or their tropes, are for. Or what kinds of stories they could tell, whether they could be used for something new. Or whether they could bring in different tools altogether to serve the same purpose. Which is as good an argument as any for reading widely, and having a flexible concept of genre.


  1. Though I’ve read horror stories formatted as collections of documents or, especially since found footage movies took off, descriptions of in-story videos.  ↩

  2. There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there; they fail mostly because they failed to understand this. Most of them actually have two layers of thoughtless tropes. You can tell the filmmakers copied the style without thinking about what it’s doing because they’re using it to tell utterly rote, generic horror-movie stories: clearly defined character and thematic arcs, action climaxes, downbeat endings. There’s usually a point in these movies–maybe while the characters are running for their lives; maybe, alternately, while they’re having an argument that includes some important exposition but the characters themselves wouldn’t bother recording for posterity–when the audience asks why are these people filming this? The answer being because the filmmakers couldn’t conceive of a movie without the kind of scenes only an omniscient narrator would film.  ↩

  3. Even a well-documented historical figure is, to some extent, a mystery. Like, there’s enough on Lyndon Johnson for a multi-volume biography totaling thousands of pages. But there were still unwitnessed and unrecorded moments in his life. In most of them he was probably brushing his teeth or making a cheese sandwich or something. But could some moment have revealed him to be a completely different man? Who knows?  ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.

Uh-oh.

A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.


  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”