Scott Nicolay

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Stories from the Borderland #15: “The Inhabitant of the Pond” by Linda Thornton

Michael Bukowski and I began this Third Series of Stories from the Borderland with “The Cactus” by Mildred Johnson, a mysterious author with only two publication credits to her name: the first a great Weird Tale, the second a more conventional ghost story. Now we are ending with “The Inhabitant of the Pond” by Linda Thornton…another mysterious author with only two publication credits to her name: the first a great Weird Tale, the second a more conventional ghost story. Obviously Michael and I were conscious of the parallels when we chose these stories, and should the readiness with which we found two such similar examples lead you to consider what this says about the circumscribed trajectories of female authors in Weird Fiction, the flat circular nature of time, or our esthetics and intentions behind this project, then we encourage you to think with those things. Ces sont bonnes à penser.

We do not know a whole hell of a lot about Linda Thornton, but even that is more than we know about Mildred Johnson, which is essentially nothing, given the likelihood that her name itself was a pseudonym, perhaps for another, better-established writer who wrote primarily under some other name, and perhaps also in other modes and genres. We may claim with some certainty that Johnson was a woman, as I suggested in my essay on “The Cactus,” but that only narrows her identity to half the world’s literate Anglophone population c. 1950. And only maybe. The loss of original payment records from Weird Tales essentially erased any trail that might have led back to Johnson, and the death of associate editor Lamont Buchanan in 2015 has deprived us of the last living link to the magazine’s original run. In comparison, we know far more about such enigmatic Weird Tales authors as Allison V. Harding, Henry Ferris Arnold Jr., and Nictzin Dyalhis (Harding in particular has turned out to be a bottomless research K-hole, the Oak Island of Weird Fiction scholarship. See Stories from the Borderland #12).

In the case of Linda Thornton however, a direct link does survive: editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who published both of Thornton’s known stories. Despite some speculation that Salmonson wrote the two tales herself, she confirmed through sources close to her that Thornton is indeed a discrete person, who used what appears to be her maiden name as a nom de plume. Armed with that information and one other additional clue that Salmonson provided, I was able to track her down on social media, and…this is one sleeping dog I’m going to let lie. I will say only that Ms. “Thornton” does not appear to have any ongoing interest in Horror or Weird Fiction. It is clear there is only one book in her life now, and I will leave her to it.

Yet things must have been a little different back in 1983, and Linda Thornton’s debut that year in Salmonson’s anthology Tales by Moonlight came with a bit of fanfare. Salmonson chose “The Inhabitant of the Pond” as the volume’s closer, and in her brief intro—in which she identifies the author only as a Texan relocated to Jamaica (the Texas part at least is true, I now know)–she exercises a rarely invoked droit de l’éditeur: “It may not be kosher for an editor to admit to having a favorite yarn in a given anthology” she says…and then she admits it anyway. I cannot recall another instance where an editor named a favorite story in a volume s/he edited. Salmonson’s editorial credibility is pretty fucking legit however, so take this as evidence of the story’s exceptionality.

As unprecedented as this praise may be, it is merely the close-bracket on an even more remarkable compliment bestowed on the story by one S. King in his introduction to Tales by Moonlight: “it’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a story as nakedly frightening as The Inhabitant of the Pond, by Linda Thornton” [italics Uncle Stevie’s or maybe the typesetter’s]. Of course, when the King’s right hand giveth two scoops, the left may taketh one away: “Ms. Thornton is not yet completely in control of her prose, and at times the note warbles. There are lapses into awkwardness…” If Paul Tremblay and Jeff VanderMeer ever read this essay–let alone King’s original intro in its entirety, in which he goes into full left-handed compliment mode and describes several of the stories in the anthology as “most exquisitely awful”–they may afterward feel even more fortunate that the kind words with which King recently anointed their work filtered only from his right hand.

It seems clear that King tempered his praise for “The Inhabitant of the Pond” out of the knowledge that Thornton was a first-time author. That story—once so fresh and exciting and filled with promise—is as old now as Dante when he wrote the Inferno, but when it was new the most successful author of our time recognized in it “a voice which is still growing in power, a strong and confident talent in the refining.” The story impressed him so much that he took it as evidence “that the genre is alive and well.”

Though Stephen King has made more than a few especially good calls in his long career, Thornton did not turn out to be another Clive Barker, alas, and despite the optimism Salmonson expressed regarding her discovery in the intro to “Mother’s Boy,” Thornton’s only other published story, the genre was left to flourish or flounder without her ongoing contributions. Perhaps those two stories were all she ever had in her. Perhaps that’s just as well. And so we are left to consider her original contribution to the field on its own—that first dark story, imperfect yet powerful, disturbing and perhaps already more than a little deranged.

In many ways “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is a perfect choice for Stories from the Borderland: an all but forgotten story by an all but forgotten author, prominently praised when first published but never reprinted outside a paperback version of the original limited edition hardcover collection…coupled with a cool monster for Michael to draw, the kind whose description leaves plenty of room for him to exercise his own talents. And the whole damn thing is weird as fuck. Weird as fuck and gothic as hell. Most likely Thornton was aiming for the gothic and The Weird just came along for the ride. Most likely The Weird came from somewhere deep inside.

As a gothic tale from the early Eighties, “The Inhabitant in the Pond” possesses a peculiar timeless quality that was probably there from the start, and the thirty plus years since its publication have accentuated that aspect. Though Thornton’s prose is only mildly archaic for its time, the basic elements of the story hark back to nineteenth century models such as Poe and Richard Marsh. The cruel and almost transgressive brutality of the story’s climax seems at first to offer a more contemporary note—and that scene retains its freshness yet—but even this twist would not have been out of place in some of the darker gothic masterworks like Les Chants de Maldoror or The Monk. As for the story’s title, which in its possible allusion to a familiar story by Ramsey Campbell offers the only suggestion that Thornton’s reading extends into the twentieth century, I suspect editor Salmonson may have tied that final bow on the tale herself, as I know her devotion to the British author all too well.

The setting of “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is virtually a gothic cliché: a gloomy and decaying house of indeterminate size whose three surviving inhabitants appear to live in complete isolation. Their home could easily be a scaled-down version of the House of Usher, with the latter’s “black and lurid tarn” reduced to a “dismal spot [that] had once been a picturesque little marble-bottomed pond, with an abundance of lily pads and fish…” The isolated setting is as stark as a modernist stage set, and one wonders if Linda Thornton is not actually channeling Thornton Wilder here a bit. All interior action is restricted to the protagonist’s second floor bedroom and a few spaces mentioned in passing—kitchen, study, staircase. The single outdoor setting, which is the focus of the story, is that same “dismal spot” where the statue of a “cherub had reigned as a benevolent shade.”

By the time of the events that comprise the bulk of the narrative, fifteen years of neglect have seen the transformation of this pond into “a choked, moss-covered sanctuary for fat, torpid insects, while the guardian statue had assumed the aspect of an eroded tombstone.” On the next page the protagonist-narrator reveals that these fifteen years have also witnessed the death of both her mother and her older brother Thomas, along with the departure of any remaining servants, leaving her alone in the house with her father and her younger brother Edward. And so the stage is set.

Beyond the descriptions of lush vegetation, vaguely suggestive of the Deep South, the lack of any identifiable geographical location or historical context for the story leaves the reader with an impression of events that are happening both out of place out of time. The feeling is similar, and perhaps echoes, the effect that Poe cultivated so well in stories like “Usher,” in which it is never clear when or even in which hemisphere the tale takes place.

My surmise is this combination of effects that succeeds in “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is also a blend of the deliberate and the accidental, a somewhat wobbly shot that managed nonetheless to nail the very edge of the bullseye, part genuine talent and part beginner’s luck. The overall Poe-filtered gothic vibe probably reflects the author’s own aesthetic, whereas the minimalist theatrical construction of the tale seems more likely an artifact of the presentation of this aesthetic via her limited artistic palette. All these elements combine to create an almost numinous but slightly off-kilter version of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, positioning the reader in uncomfortable proximity to the characters. Meanwhile the spare and simple brushstrokes and dark pigments with which Thornton limns her scene, marked with spatters of sickly green for plant life and daubs of purple prose in moments of description (brother, beetle, pond), the single stained white streak of the statue to one side, all combine in a portrait that, despite the amateurish moments to which Uncle Stevie points, can yet convey a raw and genuine power. Given that Thornton’s second outing was little more than a ghost of her first (shoot me), and that she seems to have stopped dead in her writing career thereafter, we will never know whether “The Inhabitant of the Pond” was her best shot or the lost harbinger of things that might have been.

One last peculiar aspect of this story deserves mention here: the climactic scene when the giant invisible arthropod can be heard offstage smashing its way up the stairs seems much too close to the ending of another story Michael and I have already covered in this series to be coincidental, though it almost certainly is. Compare these lines from Thornton’s tale: “…at that moment there came a dreadful roaring and crashing sound from below…The thumping drew closer. It might have been a person walking, but there was never a human gait that sounded like that. Too heavy, too awkward, too fast. Too many legs…”

…to this passage from the climax of Jean Ray’s << La scolopendre >> [“The Centipede”], with which we closed the original series of Stories from the Borderland:

<<…une autre [porte] s’ouvrit aussitôt poussée formidable…Un bruit innouï, comme celui d’une foule, montait à la present, énorme, invraisemblable. L’escalier gémit. >>

“Instantly another door opened beneath some enormous force…A noise came now like none they’d ever heard before, like the impossible sound of an incredible crowd. The stairs groaned.” [translation mine]

Time and again the research that Michael and I have done for Stories from the Borderland has led us to unexpected connections between works in all literary strata and all media…but this one, which is impossible to ignore for anyone who has read both stories, seems inexplicable. << La scolopendre >> has never been published in English translation. Though Jean Ray, whose work so often inhabits the intersection of the gothic, The Weird, and the conte cruel (and which I have often described as a mix of Jim Thompson and Poe), actually seems an excellent match for Thornton’s aesthetic. Is it possible she could have read it in the original French?

Ray’s tale first appeared in the journal La Parole universitaire in 1932. It was reprinted in the 1942 collection Le Grand Nocturne, and again in 1961, in Les 25 meilleures histoires noires et fantastiques. If Thornton knows French, she most likely read it in the latter. Neither her two published stories nor her Facebook page offer any indication that she is literate in a language other than English. One might legitimately expect the sort of untranslated epigraphs and allusions of which Poe was so fond, and an appropriate quote from some continental author would have worked wonderfully well in either tale. In the end there are some rocks even I won’t overturn, and some mysteries that must remain unexplained. Isn’t this how we honor The Weird?

<< L’incertitude seule nous rend irresponsables. Il faut donc savoir la garder, —sinon, qui donc oserait accomplir quelque chose! >>

Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, L’Éve future

Here is the link to Michael Bukowski’s interpretation of the “Inhabitant” itself. I am excited to share this with you all at last, as the art has been done for some time, and as you can see, Michael put a lot of love into it. And with that, Michael and I conclude the third series of Stories from the Borderland. Thus far we have offered sixteen episodes, sixteen portraits of stories lurking just outside the unwholesome firelight of whatever passes for a canon of Weird Fiction: portraits of stories, and of the monsters that inhabit them. We both hope you have enjoyed this project as much as we have.

Though we pause here, Stories from the Borderland is not done. Michael and I have already begun to line up the stories for a fourth series, and I know his art fingers are itching for a crack at some of these creatures we are considering. In the meantime, we are collecting all sixteen episodes (#16 is the epic study of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet” that appeared only in Issue 84 of Stu Horvath’s Unwinnable Monthly (the MONSTER ISSUE). We are also planning a special panel at NecronomiCon Providence this August, at which we will reveal a new episode, with new art, LIVE, after the manner of the legendary “cartoon concerts” pioneered by Vaughn Bode and his son Mark Bode. As part of this panel, Anya Martin will also reveal some of the discoveries she made on the trail of Allison V. Harding. Finally, artist Jeanne D’Angelo and I are planning a second parallel series, tentatively titled Tales from the Crossroads, that will examine stories by canonical authors that dip the barest toe into The Weird, often with results that fully justify architect Mies Van der Rohe’s adage that “Less is more.” Our plan is also for this series to explore the increasing intersection between Weird Fiction and Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology, and the Nonhuman Turn. So if you like to look at monsters, or to stare too long into the Abyss, stick with us. We’re not done with you yet.

Stories from the Borderland #14: “Les Xipéhuz” by J.-H. Rosny aîné

First edition of "Les Xipéhuz" published by Albert Savine (1888).

First edition of “Les Xipéhuz” published by Albert Savine (1888).

A horde of conical, unstoppable, and seemingly indestructible antagonists, exterminating all organic life with mysterious heat rays, resisting every attempt at communication and impervious to all conventional weapons everywhere but a single vulnerable point…this is a familiar scenario to most of my readers, n’est-ce pas? Only I am not describing the Daleks. My subject is les Xipéhuz. The Daleks have been around for a long time—they were born the same year as me—but the Xipéhuz have been among us a good deal longer.

J.-H. Rosny’s novella “Les Xipéhuz” first appeared in 1887, as part of the collection L’Immolation, followed less than a year later by a standalone edition of Les Xipéhuz that corrected various errors in the original. Both editions came from the French publishing house of Albert Savine, soon to achieve first notoriety then bankruptcy in rapid order after publishing both the original French translation of [then scandalous] Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and a whole series of anti-Semitic titles, the latter so rabid—even during the days of the Dreyfus Affair—as to incur the crippling fines behind the demise of the press. Sadly, J.-H. Rosny aîné seems to have shared at least some degree of his original publisher’s toxic prejudice, though unlike his British counterpart, H.G. Wells, he rarely gave voice to it, either in his work or his public persona.1 Just as Rosny moved on to a new publishing house, Mercure de France, let us make note for now and move on to the story itself.

Lex Xipehuz by Michael Bukowski. Copyright 2016

Lex Xipehuz by Michael Bukowski. Copyright 2016

First however, we must address the somewhat complex and confusing identity of this story’s author. I shall do my best, but if you find the thread difficult to follow, fret not: I have been reading “Rosny” for thirty years and still can’t keep this part straight.

So…the author of “Les Xipéhuz” was either J.-H. Rosny or J.-H. Rosny aîné. Both are noms de plume. J.-H. Rosny aîné was Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856-1940), while J.-H. Rosny was Joseph Henri Honoré Boex and his brother Séraphin Justin François Boex (1859-1948), writing together. Séraphin Justin François Boex also wrote separately as J.-H. Rosny jeune. Joseph was the older brother, hence the aîné and the jeune. Like Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (best known to us under his primary nom de plume, Jean Ray) after them, both brothers Boex were Belgian, born in Brussels (Jean Ray was born in Ghent/Gand, coincidentally in 1887, the year “Les Xipéhuz” first appeared in print). Est-ce que c’est clair, à présent? Bien.

quest-for-fire-movie-poster-reviewDespite the Convention Littéraire de 1935, which definitively attributes the various parts of the collective Rosny oeuvre to one brother or the other, or both, some confusion persists as to which tales are the work of J.-H. Rosny and which belong to J.-H. Rosny aîné alone. According to the Convention, the elder Boex wrote both “Les Xipéhuz” and Rosny’s best remembered work, La Guerre de Feu, the prehistoric adventure novel brought to the big screen in 1981 as Quest for Fire (arguably the best caveman movie of all time and notable as the first film to give major exposure to both Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong).

J.-H. Rosny occupies a position of historical importance in the genesis of francophone science fiction second only to that of Jules Verne, and corresponding in English to that of the aforementioned H.G. Wells. Though the appellation “science fiction” had yet to gain currency in either tradition when Rosny and Wells began publishing, both lived long enough to see their work absorbed into it. Dans le monde francophone, science fiction cohabits a genre ecosystem with both fantasy and a third stream, the fantastique, which remains absent from the Anglosphere as a discrete category, et c’est dans la littérature fantastique that we find much of what we recognize today as The Weird, including Jean Ray, who definitely read his fellow Belgian and found some inspiration chez Rosny.2 Though today both the French and English traditions catalogue “Les Xipéhuz” as science fiction and even recognize it as one of the genre’s foundational texts, we shall consider it equally as an exemplar of the Weird Tale.

George Slusser's secodnd translation, with Danièle Chatelain, appeared in this book published by Wesleyan Press in 2012.

George Slusser’s second translation, with Danièle Chatelain, appeared in this book published by Wesleyan Press in 2012.

I am not going to define the Weird Tale, Weird Fiction, or The Weird. Let us all agree that we know The Weird when we see it—comme la pornographie, n’est-ce pas? And I know I see it in Les Xipéhuz,” more than ever after my recent experience (re)translating it into English.

If others have not viewed the story through the lens of The Weird before, it’s no real surprise. Although “Les Xipéhuz” has seen approximately half a dozen renderings into English over the past fifty years (I say approximately because George Slusser published two versions, the second translation done with Danièle Chatelain),3 previous translators seem primarily to have interested themselves in the story’s position as an important precursor of modern science fiction. It features one of the first depictions of a truly “alien” race, and in the character “Bakhoûn,” an early model for the sort of “rational” protagonist that became a hallmark of Anglophone science fiction in its later Campbellian form. Unfortunately, none of the prior English translations capture either the genuine weirdness and cosmic horror that pervade much of the story, or the almost sublime lyrical quality that Rosny’s prose achieves at its best, especially in the story’s opening sections and all its weirdest and darkest parts. Consider the tale’s opening passage, right before humanity’s first encounter with the Xipéhuz:

“Yet a full thousand years remained before that great gathering of humanity which gave rise to the civilizations of Nineveh, Babylon, and Ecbatan.

The nomadic Pjehou tribe was crossing the hostile Kzour Forest with its donkeys, horses, and cattle, heading edge on into the slanting rays of the setting sun. The song of the sunset swelled and hovered, its harmonies swirling in eddies.

Everyone was exhausted and all were silent as the tribe sought a peaceful clearing where they could light the sacred fire, prepare their evening meals, and take shelter from the elements behind a double rampart of scarlet hearths.

Opalescent clouds fled like phantom landscapes toward the four corners of the horizon, the spirits of the night played their lullaby, and still the tribe trudged on. An advance scout returned at a gallop with news of a clearing watered by a pristine spring.”4

Romanian translation featuring Bakhoûn on the cover, 1965.

Romanian translation featuring Bakhoûn on the cover, 1965.

This passage strikes me as a beautiful example of the qualities Italo Calvino defined exactly one century later as Lightness (Leggerezza) and Quickness (Rapidità). Contrast that sample now with this from the end of what more or less constitutes the story’s second act, right before the first appearance of Bakhoûn:

“From that day forward a sinister and mysterious story spread from tribe to tribe, passing in whispers from ear to ear beneath the great starry nights of Mesopotamia and gnawing at every heart: Humanity was doomed. The other, endlessly multiplying, in the forest, across the plains, indestructible, would devour the doomed race day after day. And this dark and fearful secret haunted their wretched brains and robbed them all of the will to fight, of the glowing optimism of a youthful race. The nomad who dreamt of these things no longer dared feel affection for the fertile pastures of his birth, gazing up instead at the fixed constellations with stricken pupils. The millennium of this infant people had arrived, the death knell of the world’s end, or perhaps, the resignation of the red man of the Indian prairies.

From this anguish the mystics created a bleak cult, a cult of death preached by pale prophets, the cult of Shadows stronger than the Stars, Shadows that came to engulf and devour the Holy Light, the resplendent fire.

Everywhere on the edges of the wilderness, one encountered the emaciated silhouettes of initiates, silent men who periodically wandered amongst the tribes, relating their awful dreams, the Twilight of the imminent great Night and the Death of the Sun.”5

Those two passages [the translation is mine in both] illustrate well the evocative quality of Rosny’s prose, emphasized by the contrast he presents between the first scene, depicting the nearly idyllic life of nomadic herders around the time of Göbekli Tepe, with the existential despair of the second scene following humanity’s violent encounter with an incomprehensible and implacable rival. And in the second passage we can see how fully this story is one of cosmic horror, of The Weird.

The Arno Press edition (1978) in which "Les Xipéhuz" is paired with "La Morte de la Terre: and where I first encountered this story in the 1980s.

The Arno press edition in which “Les Xipéhuz” is paired with “La Morte de la Terre: and where I first encountered this story in the 1980s.

No one can say for sure where The Weird begins in literature, in any tongue, but for all its obvious elements of what would later become science fiction, “Les Xipéhuz” is definitely a powerful and important early example of cosmic horror and The Weird. Before Kubin. Before Machen. Before Dunsany, Blackwood, Chambers, James, or Shiel. Well before Lovecraft and Hodgson. Nor is this the only tale in Rosny’s oeuvre to include a healthy dose of cosmic horror. Equally notable is his 1910 novella “La Mort de la Terre” (“The Death of the Earth”), with which “Les Xipéhuz” is often paired in translation. Both stories depict humanity struggling against an inorganic race for dominion of the Earth.

Rosny aîné knew he was onto something unique with the Xipéhuz, and he wasn’t shy about proclaiming it: Je suis le seul en France qui ait donné, avec Les Xipéhuz, un fantastique nouveau, c’est-à-dire en dehors de l’humanité” (“I am the only one in France who has created something fantastic and new, which is to say, something from beyond humanity”). Prior to “Les Xipéhuz,” alien races were always depicted as variations on the familiar anthropomorphic form, a laxity of imagination that still dominates major “science fiction” franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars. We should note however that at no point does Rosny aîné even suggest an extraterrestrial origin for the Xipéhuz. They are, like so many of The Weird’s greatest creations, akin to the Cotton-eyed Joe. Where do they come from? Where do they go? We shall never know.

Brian Stableford's translation appears in The Navigators of Space, the first of a six-book series in which he attempted to translate all of the key speculative fiction works of J.-H. Rosny aîné.

Brian Stableford’s translation appears in The Navigators of Space, the first of a six-book series in which he attempted to translate all of the key speculative fiction works of J.-H. Rosny aîné.

Rosny aîné’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed in his own time. Among those contemporaries who praised “Les Xipéhuz” was the popular novelist Alphonse Daudet (another anti-Semite, alas, and one of the most vocal), who compared it favorably to both de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” and Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. The controversial decadent author Rachilde (Marguerite Vallette-Eymery) was also a great admirer, declaring the tale downright Ibsenian. Physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin and mathematician Émile Borel also praised Rosny’s work–and “Les Xipéhuz” in particular—for its scientific legitimacy. Not only does that story contain the first literary depiction of non-carbon-based life, it also includes what is almost certainly the first portrayal of what we now call lasers, though that acronym would not be coined for seventy years yet. The Xipéhuz even use their “lasers” to communicate with glyph-like characters through a form of what we now call optical scanning. This is an exceptionally visionary detail on the author’s part, though I have never seen it acknowledged.

H.G. Wells published his first short stories the same year “Les Xipéhuz” appeared, his debut novel, The Time Machine, several years later. Comparisons between the two authors came frequently enough that Rosny aîné felt compelled to disavow any possibility of his work having influenced his more illustrious contemporary (whom he clearly admired): “Wells prefers beings that are essentially similar to those we know, while I readily imagine creatures or minerals, as in the Xipéhuz, or which are made of matter unlike our own, or which exist in a world governed by energies other than ours: the Ferromagnetics, which appear throughout Rosny’s “La Mort de la Terre” (“The Death of the Earth”) (1910) belong to one of these three categories.”6

The Lowell Bair-translated collection of Jean Ray's stories including "The Shadowy Street" (Berkeley, 1965).

The Lowell Bair-translated collection of Jean Ray’s stories including “The Shadowy Street” (Berkeley, 1965).

Rosny’s influence, and that of “Les Xipéhuz” in particular, seems more obvious in the work of his fellow Belgian fantasist, Jean Ray. One important Ray story that has never been published in English is especially noteworthy in this regard: “Les étranges études du Dr. Paukenschläger”(“The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger”). This early tale contains Ray’s first use of the term “monde intercalaire” (intercalary world), a central concept of much of his best—and weirdest—fiction. It also provides several intriguing hints as to the mysteries behind “La Ruelle Ténébreuse,” his far more famous novella about the Great Fire of Hamburg of 1842 (“The Gloomy Alley” or “The Shadowy Street” in Lowell Bair’s translation, which the VanderMeers republished in The Weird). A passage near the end of Paukenschläger seems almost a conscious echo of the scene in which Rosny first describes the Xipéhuz:

“We remainon the small sandy mound, but a weird diaphanous world, only barely visible, is juxtaposed with ours. I see the pines through an almost perfectly transparent cone filled with some sort of violently roiling smoke. A dozen large spheres, bizarre bubbles, leap about on the marsh, and the same swirling smoke fills them.”7, 8

No story stands alone, and all texts exist as part of larger assemblages that include not only other texts and their authors, but readers and editors, publishers, artists, critics, agents, and other agents. Anyone who has read previous installments of Stories from the Borderland should be well aware of the surprisingly complex chains of inspiration that connect even the most seemingly obscure weird tale backwards, forwards, all around. As unique and unprecedented as Rosny aîné’s depiction of an intelligent yet completely “alien” life form was in its time, other elements of his narrative had very definite precedents. One deserves particular attention. Though barely remembered today, its influence spread far beyond “Les Xipéhuz.”

The recent definitive edition of "Vril, The Coming Race" by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from Wesleyan University Press (2012).

The recent definitive edition of “Vril, The Coming Race” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from Wesleyan University Press (2012).

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is best remembered today as the author of The Last Days of Pompeii and the guy who first wrote both “the pen is mightier than the sword” and the infamously heavy-handed opener “It was a dark and stormy night” (some of you may incorrectly attribute the latter to Snoopy from Peanuts). Bulwer-Lytton was a prolific and popular author in his day, and the penultimate novel he published during his life, [Vril, the Power of] The Coming Race (1871), cast a broad shadow for a long time. Many accepted it as literal or at least “occult” truth, including Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and a whole host of Nazis. The latter, of course, have always been enamored of occult lost world nonsense (that part of Indiana Jones is legit–also, all good archaeologists really do hate Nazis).

The Coming Race describes an encounter with a physically, psychically, and technologically “superior” underground race, the Vril, whose destiny is one day to replace humanity as the dominant race on the Earth’s surface. This Darwinian notion of our potential obsolescence and eventual successor is an obvious influence on both Rosny aîné and Wells, first in “Les Xipéhuz” (1887), then in The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1897), and “La Mort de la Terre” (1910), and some version of the mysterious “Vril force” is almost certainly operating in both the Xipéhuz “lasers” and the heat rays of Wells’ Martians.

"La Force Mysterieuse," Marabout (1972).

“La Force Mysterieuse,” Marabout (1972).

Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril are still just “evolved” human beings, whereas the Xipéhuz are anything but. As inscrutable as the Solaris ocean or the creatures of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X, they remain a mystery even in death, their crystalline cadavers still defying modern chemical analysis millennia later. Humanity cannot communicate with them, and Rosny aîné’s mise en scène demands the extinction of one race or the other.

Yet for all their impenetrable terror, the Xipéhuz are more awesome than frightening when we, as the Pjehou tribe, first encounter them:

“The clearing came into view, an enchanting spring winding its way between mosses and shrubs. There the nomads encountered a fantastic sight.

First came a great ring of translucent bluish cones with their pointed ends upright, each perhaps half the size of a man. Bright stripes and dark spirals streaked their surfaces. Each bore a star at its base, dazzling as the noonday sun.

Stranger still were the flat slabs that rose behind them, streaked with multicolored ellipses in patterns like birch bark. Here and there among these were other nearly cylindrical Shapes, one thin and tall, another low and squat, all brazen-hued and speckled with green, and all having the same characteristic point of light as the striped Shapes.”9

Les Xipéhuz par François Bourgeon, bandes dessinées, 1979.

Les Xipéhuz par François Bourgeon, bandes dessinées, 1979.

The excessive emphasis on Lovecraft in so much Weird Fiction scholarship has led us to associate The Weird with ugliness and grotesquerie, but its manifestation is as often a thing of terrible beauty, as in my favorite line from the Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority, when Control first sees the entrance to Area X: “He had not expected any of it to be beautiful, but it was beautiful.” Here, as well as in many of the passages where we view the Xipéhuz through Bakhoûn’s eyes, Rosny aîné shows himself adept at invoking “sensawunda,” science fiction’s contribution to the catalog of esthetic sensations that includes yugen and mono no aware. Awe, beauty, terror, wonder…all wrapped in one delicious flatbread with some roast lamb and maybe a little tzatziki sauce and rosemary…can we not recognize The Weird in this?

So humanity, meet the Xipéhuz. Their origin will ever remain a mystery, their end a tragedy, the narrative of our brief encounter with them a tale of terror, beauty, and death, the blutgeld of their genocide the inescapable heritage of our infant race, Bakhoûn’s eternal lament beneath the stars.

Poster for "Dr. Who & the Daleks" feature film from Amicus Productions (1965).

Poster for “Dr. Who & the Daleks” feature film from Amicus Productions (1965).

As for the obvious similarities between the Xipéhuz and the Daleks—which have not escaped French critics—these appear to be entirely coincidental. The creation of the Daleks, whether by Davros or by Terry Nation and Ray Cusick, is well established: they are the offspring of the unwholesome marriage of a pepperpot and some sort of malformed British roof architecture, their genocidal imperative derived from the Nazis themselves. I can find no evidence that Nation read French, and the first documented English translation of “Les Xipéhuz” was not published until 1968—five years after the debut of the Daleks. Perhaps he encountered the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain,10 which included an extract from “Les Xipéhuz” accompanied by a very Richard Powers-esque illustration of a man, presumably Bakhoûn himself, among the Xipéhuz. Maybe that illustration caught his eye—and if he could not read the story, might he not have asked someone who could to describe it to him?

“Les Xipéhuz” was the cover illustration for the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain.

“Les Xipéhuz” was the cover illustration for the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain.

The closest thing I can find to an actual smoking heat ray however, is not a full translation of “Les Xipéhuz” but an English language summary of the story published in The Theosophical Review in 1903, and credited only to “A Russian.”11 This summary actually distorts the original tale in many ways, apparently in order to bring it more in line with Theosophical dogma. At least two of these changes makes the Xipéhuz even more like the Daleks: the Russian’s version describes them as “bluish conical forms…each of a grown man’s size” (italics mine), e.g. the height of a Dalek, whereas in Rosny’s original, the Xipéhuz “never attained a height much greater than a cubit and a half” (approx. 70 cm). Even more interesting is the description of the creatures’ motion as “gliding.” These details create seven points of correspondence between the Daleks and the Xipéhuz: conical form, near-indestructability, single point of vulnerability, heat ray, height, gliding locomotion, and of course, the relentless exterminating.

In the end, we can only speculate, and whether or not the Xipéhuz provided any inspiration for the Daleks is something else we shall never know: if such a connection existed, Terry Nation took that secret to the grave. Only the Daleks themselves remain, only the Xipéhuz, only our sense of wonder…

Now follow this link to artist Michael Bukowski’s blog and see his interpretation of les Xipéhuz.


Georges Dodds translation (1988) with dedication toLeon Hennique, author and co-executor of Goncourt estate.

Georges T. Dodds translation (1986) with dedication toLeon Hennique, author and co-executor of Goncourt estate.

1 Brian Stableford goes on at great length in his introduction to The Navigators of Space (which includes his translation of “Les Xipéhuz”) regarding the literary conflict between the Goncourt Academy and Émile Zola—a conflict in which Rosny aîné took a very active part, but he says nothing of Rosny’s involvement in French nationalism or his stance during the Dreyfus Affair. Although the former is documented, we can only speculate as to the latter. An 1890 article from La Revue Indépendante gives a pretty good idea, however. The text of that article may be found here, but be warned: the racial “theories” Rosny aîné expresses therein approach a Lovecraftian level of offensiveness. This early statement is the only smoking gun I can find in this case, in either French or English sources, but it is more than nasty enough to make the point.

2The two authors eventually became friends, and Ray appears to have been visited the elder Rosny at home more than once. See here.

3It was in Slusser’s 1978 translation for Arno Press that I first encountered “Les Xipéhuz,” though I did not at the time realize I already knew J.-H. Rosny somewhat from Quest for Fire. See his appreciation of Rosny here.

French edition of Rosny's "Vamireh," Tallandier (1991).

French edition of Rosny’s “Vamireh,” Tallandier (1991).

4<< C’était mille ans avant le massement civilisateur d’où surgirent plus tard Ninive, Babylone, Ecbatane.

La tribu nomade de Pjehou, avec ses ânes, ses chevaux, son bétail, traversait la forêt farouche de Kzour, vers le crépuscule, dans la nappe des rayons obliques. Le chant du déclin s’enflait, planait, descendait des nichées harmonieuses.

Tout le monde étant très las, on se taisait, en quête d’une belle clairière où la tribu pût allumer le feu sacré, faire le repas du soir, dormir à l’abri des brutes, derrière la double rampe de brasiers rouges.

Les nues s’opalisèrent, les contrées illusoires vaguèrent aux quatre horizons, les dieux nocturnes soufflèrent le chant berceur, et la tribu marchait encore. Un éclaireur reparut au galop, annonçant la clairière et l’eau, une source pure. >>

5<< De ce jour une histoire sinistre, dissolvante, mystérieuse, alla de tribu en tribu, murmurée à l’oreille, le soir, aux larges nuits astrales de la Mésopotamie. L’homme allait périr. L’autre, toujours élargi, dans la forêt, sur les plaines, indestructible, jour par jour dévorerait la race déchue. Et la confidence, craintive et noire, hantait les pauvres cerveaux, à tous ôtait la force de lutte, le brillant optimisme des jeunes races. L’homme errant, rêvant à ces choses, n’osait plus aimer les somptueux pâturages natals, cherchait en haut, de sa prunelle accablée, l’arrêt des constellations. Ce fut l’an mil des peuples enfants, le glas de la fin du monde, ou, peut-être, la résignation de l’homme rouge des savanes indiennes.

Et, dans cette angoisse, les méditateurs venaient à un culte amer, un culte de mort que prêchaient de pâles prophètes, le culte des Ténèbres plus puissantes que les Astres, des Ténèbres qui devaient engloutir, dévorer la sainte Lumière, le feu resplendissant.

Partout, aux abords des solitudes, on rencontrait immobiles, amaigries des silhouettes d’inspirés, des hommes de silence, qui, par périodes, se répandant parmi les tribus, contaient leurs épouvantables rêves, le Crépuscule de la grande Nuit approchante, du Soleil agonisant.

Mass market paperback collection including "Les Xipéhuz" from Robert Laffont (1985).

Mass market paperback collection including “Les Xipéhuz” from Robert Laffont (1985).

6<< Wells préfère des vivants qui offrent encore une grande analogie avec ceux que nous connaissons, tandis que j’imagine volontiers des créatures ou minérales, comme dans les Xipéhuz, ou faites d’une autre matière que notre matière, ou encore existant dans un monde régi par d’autres énergies que les nôtres : les Ferromagnétaux, qui apparaissent épisodiquement dans la Mort de la Terre, appartiennent à l’une de ces trois catégories. >>

7<< Nous sommes…toujours sur le petit tertre sablonneux, mais un singulier monde diaphane, à peine visible, s’y juxtapose. Je vois le bois de sapins à travers un cône d’une transparence presque parfaite et rempli d’une sorte de fumée, violemment tourmentée. Une dizaine de grosses sphères, bulles bizarres, bondissent sur le marais, et les mêmes fumées tourbillonnantes les remplissent. >>

8Compare that passage in turn to this ominous passage from near the end of ““La Ruelle Ténébreuse”: “My grandfather and other people described how huge green flames leapt out of the wreckage all the way to the sky. They imagined they saw the faces of women of an indescribable ferocity.”

9<< La clairière apparut. La source charmante y trouait sa route entre des mousses et des arbustes. Une fantasmagorie se montra aux nomades.

C’était d’abord un grand cercle de cônes bleuâtres, translucides, la pointe en haut, chacun du volume à peu près de la moitié d’un homme. Quelques raies claires, quelques circonvolutions sombres, parsemaient leur surface; tous avaient vers la base une étoile éblouissante.

Plus loin, aussi étranges, des strates se posaient verticalement, assez semblables à de l’écorce de bouleau et madrées d’ellipses versicolores. Il y avait encore, de-ci de-là, des Formes presque cylindriques, variées d’ailleurs, les unes minces et hautes, les autres basses et trapues, toutes de couleur bronzée, pointillées de vert, toutes possédant, comme les strates, le caractéristique point de lumière. >>

10 See here.

11 See here.

Stories from the Borderland #9: “Feesters in the Lake” by Bob Leman

feesters-midnighthouseSeveral years ago John Pelan and I were shooting pool at Sammy C’s in Gallup, New Mexico. As usual, he was running the table, and also as usual we were shooting the shit about Weird Fiction. I put forth the proposition that H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre really only offered at most half a dozen or so genuinely great stories, and after that the drop-off comes on steep as the continental shelf—for the record, my picks are “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Outsider,” and maybe “The Music of Erich Zann.” I’m open to a discussion of “Pickman’s Model,” “The Festival,” and maybe a few others, but that’s pretty much it.

I went on to suggest that Clark Ashton Smith had the best batting average in Weird Fiction, at which point John immediately countered with Bob Leman, who was then only recently deceased. Leman, he said, not only never wrote a bad story, he never even wrote one that was less than a home run. I knew Leman’s work at the time, but not well. I confess I had only read “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” in the May 1984 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The titular allusion to one of my favorite science fiction writers alone ensured I could never forget that one.

FCTNBFXDZF1982I take John’s recommendations seriously—it was he who first tipped me off to Aickman, Birkin, and Jean Ray two decades ago—so I began delving further into Bob Leman’s works and life and unusual authorial trajectory. He began writing rather late in life, at 44, about the same age I first made a serious commitment to fiction. Multiple sources confirm that Leman took this step primarily to prove to himself he could do it—and do it better than most of the writers he was reading at the time. He also sought to stake out an aesthetic position in contrast to Science Fiction’s New Wave, which he held in low esteem. In retrospect his attitude seems somewhat ironic, given that his last published story was originally earmarked for Harlan Ellison’s doomed Last Dangerous Visions anthology, intended as the final installment in a series that showcased the New Wave. Leman, alas, was among the many authors who died without seeing “the book on the edge of forever” come to fruition (according to current tallies, at least one third of the authors whose work Ellison accepted for LDV are now deceased).

Bob Leman is like the Babe Ruth of Weird Fiction, pointing into the bleachers behind right field every time he steps up to the plate. Which is to say he often as not hits the ball over the left field fence instead. You may think you know what he’s swinging for, but even after he’s connected with the ball he stills seems able to make it zig and zag over the fielders’ heads in the air. A Bob Leman story never traverses familiar routes, even when it begins on familiar ground.

bob-leman-sliderI love the way Laird Barron sometimes reboots old stories, melting down their raw materials and rearranging them in fresh new forms while still leaving recognizable hints of the prototypes exposed, like faces of old coins and pagan deities still faintly visible on the surface of shining new ingots. “The Dunwich Horror” yields to “Hallucigenia.” “The Shadow Out of Time” gives us “The Forest.” And “The Whisperer in Darkness” finds new life in “The Broadsword.” In each case Barron either equals or improves on the quality of the original, and the final product always emerges as something uniquely his own, no matter how many Easter eggs of its predecessor it engulfs in the process.

Obviously Laird is not the first to engage in this kind of dialogue with Lovecraft and/or earlier Weird Fiction authors. We all transmute the blessings of our predecessors in our work. However, the largely one-to-one relationship between and recasting of stories that Laird has executed so well is far less frequent, and when it comes to the endlessly imitated Lovecraft, I would say Laird’s several forays in this direction are the best but for one: Bob Leman’s novelette “Feesters in the Lake.”

“Feesters,” of course, is Leman’s take on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Many of the elements of the earlier tale recur: the narrator whose connection to events seems oblique at first only to deepen over the course of the story, the origin of the pisciform humanoids on a tropical island, a family curse, and a sinister sea captain. Obed Marsh becomes Elihu Feester, and Uncle Caleb plays an expository role at first analogous to Zadok Allen, though Caleb is better educated and far more articulate.

Leman establishes all these elements right at the outset, and once they are in place he zooms in on a single character, a narrative focus that parallels the journey of Captain Feester departing his New England port town for inland Goster County, the setting of nearly half of Leman’s tales. It’s easy to picture the grizzled captain toting an oar over his shoulder and selecting his new home only after someone mistakes it for a winnowing fan.

FSF_0353Leman first published “Feesters in the Lake” in the October 1980 issue of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which publication first printed thirteen of his fifteen stories. The tale saw several reprints over the next two years, then languished for two decades until Jim Rockhill and John Pelan republished it along with the rest of Leman’s short fiction in a limited edition collection from Midnight House, now quite rare. A version of Rockhill’s insightful intro to that volume is free to read online however, here.  Meanwhile Rockhill continues to serve as Leman’s tireless champion, and he recently informed me that he and Pelan are working on a new Leman collection from Centipede Press. This new edition will be both revised and expanded, including one additional previously unpublished story as well as Leman’s hitherto unpublished (and sadly unfinished) novel.

Though “Feesters” incorporates many elements of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” it is no pastiche. Whereas Lovecraft belabored his effort with broad exposition, Leman constrains his narrative to the biography of Uncle Caleb…and that of the Feesters in the lake. The two tales become very different. While Lovecraft diminishes the significance of humanity, Leman thrusts it into the spotlight for an agonizing deconstruction. Perhaps the latter approach takes us deeper and darker places.

When you come up for air, visit artist Michael Bukowski’s blog page for his interpretation of one of the far-gone Feesters.  This image might make you uncomfortable, but I consider that a sign that Michael has done his job well—and he always does. Keep in mind this one depicts something once human.

Nest week Michael and I are finally going to cover “Who Goes There.” Except we’re not. Originality is overrated, and all things absorb other things. Our next featured story is the dog with which “Who Goes There” spent a little too much time alone. Guess the title in advance and you might win a prize.

Will Ludwigsen: Decruiting the Normal | The Outer Dark: Episode 32 — FEBRUARY 25, 2016

ludwigsen-insearchof-coverWill Ludwigsen discusses his acclaimed collection In Search Of and Others (Lethe Press), which was a Shirley Jackson Awards finalist and named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best books released in 2013. The conversation delves deep into the stories and his writing process including utilizing Charles Fort as a character, childhood misconceptions about the Boy Scouts, why he likes his characters (yes, even Charles Fort!) to be “unprepared for the strange,” Han Solo in a supermarket, the ironic back-to-back juxtaposition of  In Search Of and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, growing up before the Internet and the things that made him a “weirdo,” the closest he has personally come to a Fortean experience at age 14, spiritualism and theosophy, nosiness and breaking into abandoned buildings, the assets of novellas, the challenge of “teaching faith in form” to creative writing college students, writing as fishing, attending Clarion in the same cohort as Livia Llewellyn, Robert Levy and Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, how there is “a little bit of a hoaxer in every good horror writer,” and his bright future, with Scott, as a “decruiter.” Plus his finished young adult novel which he describes as “The West Wing Meets Back to the Future,” future novels and stories that defy expectations, his gratitude for the Weird and why it’s not accidental that he’s writing Weird fiction, a favorite Shirley Jackson story, and a reading of the title story “In Search Of.” His recommended authors include Peter Dubé, Jennifer McMahon, nonfiction memoir My Father the Pornographer by Chris Offutt and rediscovering John D. McDonald who may have been a bigger influence on Stephen King than any horror author.

royle-regicideNews From the Weird: Justin Steele reviews Regicide by British Weird author Nicholas Royle (Solaris Books, 2011). Plus The Outer Dark’s win as Best Podcast in the 2015 This is Horror Awards, the complete roster of winners, more cover reveals and collection announcements from Word Horde and Undertow Publications, and Strange Aeons magazine news.

This archival episode will be available again at This Is Horror soon. In the meantime, subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

Next week’s guests: Double the Weird with Mike Allen, author of Unseaming and the forthcoming collection The Spider Tapestries, AND Nicole Kornher-Stace, author of The Archivist Wasp.

Please vote for The Outer Dark in the People’s Choice Project iRadio Podcast Awards. Deadline: Feb. 26!

Order The Outer Dark T-shirts at SkurvyInk:

More Links:

Weird Fiction Review Interview with Will:

fortCharles Fort biography:

The Whisperer in the Darkness (film):

Venture Brothers Bigfoot episode clip:

Shirley Jackson:

News From the Weird:

Show credits:

Host/Executive Producer: Scott Nicolay

Co-Host, News From the Weird/Producer: Justin Steele

Associate Producer/Show Notes/Publicist: Anya Martin

Logo Design: Nick “The Hat” Gucker

Music: Michael Griffin

Stories from the Borderland #5: “La scolopendre” by Jean Ray

Ray-LGN2A double veil extends between the monoglot Anglophone reader and Jean Ray’s oeuvre. As with Joseph Payne Brennan, with whom Michael and I began this series several weeks ago, death and subsequent estate issues choked off the publication of much of his work for decades, but of course it is the immense and elemental barrier of Babel that yet separates most of his work from readers in the Anglosphere. The Belgian School of the Weird produced many great authors, but even from amongst the ranks of Anne Richter, Thomas Owen, Franz Hellens, and Jean Muno, only Raymundus Joannes de Kremer, AKA Jean Ray, rose to the status of “the Belgian Poe.”

Jean Ray’s short fiction was first done over into English during the Pulp Era, with seven of his early tales appearing in Weird Tales and other magazines during a brief span in 1934 and 1935, all under the name John Flanders. The decades since the author’s death in 1964 have seen three standalone collections of his short fiction in translation:

Ghouls in My Grave, 1965, trans. Lowell Bair
My Own Private Spectres, 1999, trans. Hubert Van Calenbergh
The Horrifying Presence, 2009, trans. António Monteiro

ray-lgn3Each of these collections has gone out of print and will set the reader back a three figure sum if one can even locate a copy for sale. They are all problematic as well, given that they cherrypick across the author’s oeuvre. Ray organized many of his original collections around some central theme or motif such as whiskey, golf, or the Canterbury Tales, but the selections of all three translators obliterate this aspect. Of the three attempts, Bair’s is easily the most successful in capturing the blend of fresh fast-moving pulpiness and genuine literary flair that typifies Jean Ray’s best work.

Ray-L25-1The good news for the Anglophone reader is that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer reprinted Bair’s translations of what are likely Jean Ray’s two greatest tales in The Weird: <<La Ruelle ténébreuse>> and <<Le Psautier de Mayence>>—and Atlas Press has kept in print Iain White’s excellent translation of what is likely Ray’s masterpiece, Malpertuis. Thus, although the bulk of Jean Ray’s work remains obscured to the reader of English only, the very best of the Belgian Poe’s oeuvre is presently accessible.

Ray-lesm25-3Some of Ray’s best known stories have been translated at least three separate times, but <<La scolopendre>> has never been published in English, which is a shame, since it is wonderfully vicious little tale. The story first appeared in La Parole universitaire in 1932 and was reprinted a decade letter in the collection Le Grand Nocturne. Additional reprints came in the posthumous 25 Meilleures Histoires Noires et Fantastiques and the second volume of the author’s Oeuvres Complétes. <<La scolopendre>> is a short short, barely more than 1500 words in length, scarcely above what we might count as flash fiction today. Ray nonetheless finds the time to hone this tiny blade into a razor sharpness. I have said elsewhere that Ray wrote as if he might slit your throat for pocket change, and this story is proof, as reminiscent in its style of Hans Heinz Ewers as it is of Jim Thompson. Witchcraft, a monstrous familiar, drunkenness, suicide, murder…if you are literate in French and this formula appeals to you, I encourage you to seek out the original, which appears in the abovementioned volumes. If you have no French, please trust me and be patient. If all goes well, that situation might improve in a year or two.

Ray-LeGrandNocturneGiven the 1932 publication date of <<La scolopendre>>, Jean Ray either penned this tale during his 1926-1929 prison stay or shortly after his release. His selection of a trio of college students as protagonists represents a departure from the sailors, prospectors, scam artists, and thieves of his earlier work. One might see this choice as anticipating Malpertuis, the author’s 1943 masterpiece, however.

<<La scolopendre>> means “The Centipede,” and it is an outsized specimen of precisely such a creature that the three college students have gathered to observe. The giant centipede is the purported familiar of a legendary and freshly deceased sorceress who happens to be the aunt to one of the trio, so their vigil comprises a peculiar, even perverse, parody of the Hebrew rite of shiva, reconstituted as an ill-conceived and essentially voyeuristic paranormal investigation. As young Nathanson explains the scenario:

ray-lgn4“My grandmother used to say that thrice seven hours after death, the spirit of the deceased sorceress appears in the form of one of those hideous creatures and revisits its home, at which time it becomes extremely dangerous. It is now exactly 21 hours since the spinster Sturmfeder died.”

I shall note here that <<La scolopendre>> offers an intriguing comparison to “252 Rue M. Le Prince,” the second best story in Ralph Adams Cram’s slim 1895 collection Black Spirits and White. Cram’s story is also about college students keeping watch in the quarters of a departed witch, quarters still supposedly haunted by a many-limbed horror. It is fascinating to compare the different directions in which the two authors take their respective tales, especially given that neither narrative disappoints in the end. No “weird menace” or rational explanations here.

Photo credit: Christophe Thill.

Photo credit: Christophe Thill.

As is often the case chez Ray however, this story witnesses the consumption of copious quantities of alcohol, and his specificity in identifying particular libations rivals the lyrics of Steely Dan. In <<La scolopendre>>, the three students enjoy a generous supply of black Finnish Kümmel, descending deep into intoxication as they peer down the rain swept alley outside by means of a tiny mirror embedded in the window frame. Meanwhile the apartment of the sorceress Sturmfeder lies across an alley “so narrow they could have used a cane to break the windows…” Theirs is a cramped and claustrophobic situation. Fortunately the students have brought along a revolver, a boon given that guns and alcohol form such a fortuitous combination.

ray-les25-2Sometimes a story can end with both a bang and a whimper…and the tread of an impossible number of legs…

Although this essay concludes my contribution to Stories From the Borderland, readers still need to follow the link below to artist Michael Bukowski’s blog, where they can view his illustration for <<La scolopendre>>, a spectacular and appropriate conclusion to our endeavor:

Michael and I had a fantastic time working together on this project, and we are seriously considering a second series of Stories From the Borderland. We even have our list of five more stories lined up. If you would like us to continue with Stories, please let us know.

Robert Levy: A Secret Psychological Diary in Blue | The Outer Dark: Episode 22 — DECEMBER 3, 2015

glitteringworldRobert Levy unveils and explores the secret origins of his novel The Glittering World from his own personal experiences in Cape Breton, Canada, or, in other words, “taking a great memory and completely destroying it,” similarities between the old lore behind fairies and alien abduction mythology, his ambivalence about but recognition of genre marketing in the publishing business, how a genre-defying and Weird first novel got placed with a major publisher, other authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Paul Tremblay who are breaking the Weird into big publishing, structural similarities in The Glittering World to two Alfred Hitchcock classics, the Weird’s transition from shorter modes into the novel, the short story and novels as different forms, how the book sheds its skin as the main characters unfold the narrative akin to a four-course meal, when the glitter fades–his exploration of transitioning from the club scene fantasy lifestyle to adulthood, the title’s unexpected relationship to the tradition of Navajo emergent/creation robertlevystories, altered states as a form of escape, insects, parallels to the iconic relationship in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, his fascination with people who are “right on the edge of oblivion or failure,” a stolen paperweight and life as a bizarre sequence of coincidences, storytelling as one way we try to give our life meaning, choice as the “anxiety of freedom,” taking his time to write a novel, fiction as a diary, future works which might have something to do with cults and found manuscripts, and his reading recommendations of other contemporary writers to watch including Livia Llewellyn, Desirina Boskovich, Dale Bailey, and Molly Tanzer.    

News of the Weird Special Guest: Writer/editor Mike Allen reveals the table of contents for Clockwork Phoenix 5 in another exclusive The Outer Dark announcement.

And Justin Steele joins Scott to review The Glittering World.

This archival episode will be available again at This Is Horror soon. In the meantime, subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

Next week’s guest: John C. Foster, author of the Libros de Inferno trilogy (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing) which starts with Dead Men.

More Links:

Book trailer:

Footage of the Fairy Hole cave:

Rear Window timelapse:

Mike Davis: The Season of the Weird | The Outer Dark: Episode 20 — NOVEMBER 17, 2015

issue-35-coverMike Davis, editor/publisher of Lovecraft eZine, reveals how he built one of Weird fiction’s finest and most widely read online publications with 205,000 followers, a key early moment of encouragement from William Meikle, the collaborative side of his success, the significance of the journal’s name as H.P. Lovecraft enters the literary canon, the broader aesthetic of Lovecraftian literature/cosmic horror/Weird within Lovecraft eZine’s contents, inspiration from Ellen Datlow, expanding into a small press publisher and his editorial vision as exemplified by The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas, an aside on Roger Zelazny and Trent Zelazny, his personal attraction to Fall and the Halloween season and how it came together in the upcoming anthology Autumn Cthulhu, a table of contents which is a who’s who of some of the top Weird fiction writers today, his pleasure in discovering new authors, the upcoming Kickstarter campaign and an anticipated delivery of early 2016, what’s next for Lovecraft eZine print publications including an Outer Dark exclusive reveal, why it’s a great time to be Weird, the first of several major announcements this week from host Scott Nicolay about John D. Keefauver, a classic Weird author with a Lovecraft eZine connection, Mike’s own fiction, and his commitment to support writers and artists.

the-sea-of-ash-front-cover (1)Special Guest: Michael Wehunt visits The Outer Dark with an exclusive announcement sure to get surreal to both author and listeners/readers.

And Justin Steele joins Scott for this week’s installment of News from the Weird with another exciting exclusive 2016 publishing announcement from Dim Shores, as well as a review of upcoming collections from Undertow Publications and a journal wrap-up including several exciting new markets open to Weird fiction submissions.

This archival episode will be available again at This Is Horror soon. In the meantime, subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

More Links:


Next week’s guest: Clint Smith, author of Ghouljaw and Other Stories.

Old Weird, New Weird or Just Plain Weird? Panel at World Fantasy Convention 2015 | The Outer Dark: Special Presentation — NOVEMBER 13, 2015

November 7, 2015, World Fantasy Convention, Saratoga Springs, NY

Moderator: Thomas F. Monteleone. Panelists: Ellen Datlow, Michael Kelly, Anya Martin, Maura McHugh, Scott Nicolay

Description: When and where do they converge and converse?

weirdpanel-wfc2015Writers and editors discuss the roots and history of Weird fiction back to Weird Tales, 19th century authors and even The Iliad, editors’ perspectives on the Weird in their own work experiences, the Weird tale as independent of tropes, early definitions of the Weird by Le Fanu as a gothic supernatural tale and Lovecraft as dread-ridden cosmic horror, its evolution to an increasingly fluid and open vision and variety in the explosion of Weird fiction today, tapping into the strangeness of reality and the element of the unexplained but why not all odd stories are weird stories, where Weird tapers and becomes surreal, whether Weird fiction needs darkness as an ingredient and when fantasy and science fiction becomes Weird, writer Gemma Files’ suggestion from the audience that the nuance may lie in how the characters react to the Weird in the story, scares versus unease, David Lynch as Weird filmmaker, why keeping a wide open definition is better for nurturing the Weird, a peek inside the editorial process behind The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and the value of changing editors every year, the growing interest in the weird outside the spec-lit community and the upcoming Wave from Hollywood and mainstream publishing, a possible danger in letting the outside world define the weird, keeping the door open as long as we can, the role of the small presses in driving the Weird explosion, Weird as a pre-existing condition, Weird fiction in the novel form, the future of Weird fiction, the recurring theme in weird fiction of the environment rising up including when the environment is a house, when ghost stories can be weird stories, the etymology of the word “Weird” in the Anglo-Saxon “Wyrd” and its many connotations including fate/destiny/transformation, why the word “Weird” is Weird itself, following the River to an inevitable destiny versus appeal of unpredictability to the reader, Jack Spicer’s Martian, and many, many recommended authors from the 19th century to now.

Thanks to Stephen Barringer for the panel photo.

This archival episode will be available again at This Is Horror soon. In the meantime, subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

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Orrin Grey: Who’s Afraid of the Painted Monster? | The Outer Dark: Episode 19 — NOVEMBER 11, 2015

pm-cov72dpiOrrin Grey, author of Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, shares the secret origins of his latest collection including how artist Nick Gucker deftly worked details from all the stories into a monstrously macabre cover, the dialogue with horror cinema from Universal to Hammer to giallo that runs through his wonderfully plotted works, what he describes as a “Clive Barker influence,” exploring “philosophy” through narrative, using tropes as shorthand but in surprising, unconventional ways, ghost stories not about ghosts as we expect them to be, similarities to Robert Aickman, acknowledging and celebrating dramatic influences from William Shakespeare to William Castle, the extraordinary significance of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets starring Boris Karloff and how that film juxtaposed an older Gothic, creepy school of horror with the modern paranoia-laced violent horror of the Sixties, scholarly approaches versus jazz riffing on many different traditions of horror film and literature especially in the title story, his love of wax museums, the dialogue between the stories in both of his anthologies, John Langan who wrote the introduction, his obsession with obsession, The Prestige, twin novella finales about selling your soul to the Devil, what he learned about pacing from Mike Mignola and giving the Golem the Universal treatment via Hellboy pulp expressionist styling, affinities with Belgian Weird author Jean Ray and buried Malpertuis in “Painted Monsters,” Old Dark House movies, death as a recurring theme in every single story, what’s next for Orrin Grey including stories, novellas, and a nonfiction book about horror films, talking movies with Gemma Files, musing about seeing his own work someday on film, and his recent reading recommendations including previous The Outer Dark guest Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Amanda Downum.

Justin Steele reviews Orrin Grey’s Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, and joins Scott for this week’s installment of News from the Weird including coverage of World Fantasy Convention 2015 and the World Fantasy Awards, as well as exciting upcoming collections, novels and other works by some of the biggest names in Weird.

This archival episode will be available again at This Is Horror soon. In the meantime, subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

More Links:

Next week’s guest: Mike Davis, editor/publisher of Lovecraft eZine. and the upcoming anthology, Autumn Cthulhu.

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