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Dark Domain

In my literary depth dive into the realms of fin de siecle Decadent literature, one particular bugbear has proved somewhat of a recurrent burr in the saddle, a misattributive itch that continues to make its unwelcome presence known with surprising frequency, both in the recursive and retroactive misattribution of literary scholarship and in the eyes of contemporary leaders of the movement.

In the eyes of Charles Baudelaire, oft ascribed with a sort of spiritual leadership and spearheading of the movement, Edgar Allan Poe, drunken and feverish impoverished author of  pulp fiction of the only recently post-colonial America, was not only part and parcel of the movement, but its sine qua non, part progenitor and part apotheosis of the stylistic ambitions of Decadence.

Poe

Now, I have several problems with this analysis.  Primarily, Baudelaire’s assertion does not come without a certain measure of self -aggrandizement and self-serving, as he was the man who first translated Poe’s works into French, and presumably gained some measure of commission on domestic sales of same.  At the very least, it was a way of getting his own name out there, in the sense of “look!  Isn’t this great!  I did this, I brought him to you, I was his transliterator and prophet!  Allow me to bask in his reflected glories!”, which somewhat tongue in cheek assertion could hardly be put beyond the self styled “poet of Decadence”.

But the other parts of the argument, to this author’s eyes, prove far more fitting and persuasive, for they lie in the nature of the author and the work itself, and not in the circumstantial evidence (however damning) clinging thereto, like turds floating back to shore in the wake of a slow moving boat (a metaphor of which I’m sure Charles himself would have been duly proud).

Let us address the man first.  Poe, while something of a grim poet and author of pulp fiction, as well as pulling in a bit of coin as a literary critic, can hardly be considered an aesthete. 

While a lower middle class background and lifelong lack of funds can hardly be held as any sort of disqualification for the appreciation of the finer things in life (just look at the backgrounds of many of literature, music and the arts’ leading lights, Decadence inclusive), the fact is that Poe was left orphaned at a very young age, taken in (but never actually adopted) by strangers, only took in one semester of college (his career in academia cut short, once again, for lack of funds), and failed at his attempt at enlisting into military life.  He eloped with his teenaged cousin (who died young), and lived in a state of poverty and public drunkenness throughout the course of his relatively short life, cut short (according to one theory) by a run in with thugs in connection with electoral fraud – hardly the most elegant or refined of lifestyles or circumstances.

But most damning is his own literary output.  While filled with neurasthenic wastrels of varying economic status (albeit all, in one form or another, having fallen into appropriate ruination), Poe is first and foremost a writer of horror and the macabre.  A frequenter of the pulps, and oft considered the father of the modern mystery novel, his tastes and subject matter leaned exclusively towards same, and was in fact marketed toward the common man, designed to give frissons of terror and shudders of menace to dockworkers, shop clerks, and the like.

While his characters are indubitably trapped by their own minds and spirits, moralistically weighed down by the sins they have committed and brought to ruination by their own consciences, this is hardly the stuff of which the Decadent movement was made, and in fact shares much closer affinity with several authors, most of whom have never been associated with Decadence in any way whatsoever: Hawthorne. De Maupassant. Lovecraft. And by extension, Howard.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne, much like Poe, but even moreso, was a moralist. A product of his times and upbringing, even his most Decadent (or at least neurasthenic) of offerings – “the birthmark”, “Rappacini’s daughter”, the extremely Poe-like “house of the seven gables” – are marked by a strain of Puritanism, of a sense that wrongdoing will be punished, and however grey-toned this moral sense and compassion for the victims thereof (as in “the scarlet letter”, for example), his remains the essentially black and white world of the American morality tale.  Even his nods to the occult are tinged with the weight of the church and Biblical injunction – “young Goodman Brown” springs to immediate view in this respect. 

Therefore, if Poe is to be accepted as a Decadent (much less one of any primacy, as Baudelaire and the toadyish social climber Jean Lorrain assert – or repeat slavishly, in the latter case), we must also make room for Hawthorne, whose works similarly revolve around the inner world of his protagonists, who while bearing less of the marks of sickness and existential torment of Poe’s, are clearly and directly hailing from and playing in the same ballpark.

Lovecraft

Next we move to Lovecraft, whose name is oft recited in direct conjunction with Poe’s, as a master of American horror fiction.  Similarly working in the pulps, Lovecraft was saved from similar impoverished circumstances by his nigh-lifelong cohabitation with his aunts (despite a brief sojurn in New York during a failed marriage, presumably the only time he really had to concern himself with keeping a roof over his head), and while considering himself “privileged” in the haughtiness of an unfortunate tendency towards racism, like both Poe and the unmistakably religious at core Hawthorne, he never seemed to concern himself with the aesthetic in any real respect. 

While no moralist, Lovecraft’s protagonists were perhaps the most neurasthenic of the authors described thus far, his tales are rooted in a sort of agoraphobia and terror of cultural atavism: a loss of culture and refinement among those around us, which if left unchecked, could and will result in a reversion to savage times and primitive ways. 

In far too many ways prophetic of the decline and fall of Western Civilization we are seeing in post millenial culture (particularly in the US, with the curses of Demolition Man style “mini songs” as “top 40 hits”, the degeneracy and childish acting out of reality TV and what is jokingly referred to as the daytime “talk show” as arbiter of public morality and comportment, and a general Idiocracy-esque decline in intelligence, culture, and collective behavior that provides the true and insidious occult meaning of Crowley’s prophesied Aeon of Horus “the crowned and conquering child”), Lovecraft bolstered his concerns of degeneracy and cultural atavism with a pantheon of imaginary, if oddly and disturbingly on target in occult terms, “elder gods”.  He further refined these repulsive yet intimidatingly powerful forces as hailing from not only other planes beyond rational human ken, but from beyond the stars, thus firmly linking his flights of occult fantasy in the more “acceptable” pseudoscientific realm of science fiction.

Irrespective of these additional trappings (which have put his works into the hands and familiarity of hardcore SF fans, sword and sorcery fantasists, horror aficionados and serious occultists alike – the latter of whom have even been known to utilize his wholly self-imagined pantheon in a Santeria-style substitution of ‘acceptable’ Catholic ‘saints’ for far older pagan deities), Lovecraft’s oeuvre is primarily concentrated, as with Poe and Hawthorne, on the feverish and fragile nature of his protagonists and their ever so slight grip on rationality, with each and every encounter with these unknown and outside forces resulting in a break with sanity for the unlucky literary personages involved.

No less of a literary fixture as Joyce Carol Oates has lumped Lovecraft and Poe together as holding “incalculable influence over succeeding generations of…horror fiction”, and this much is indisputable.  But who among us would attribute the nature of Decadence to the man and his work?

robert e howard

Closely related to Lovecraft and adding to his mythos, is the unlikely figure of Robert E. Howard.  Noted among the average person primarily as the creator and scribe of a certain Cimmerian named Conan, Howard’s impoverished upbringing in the rough and ready oil fields of rural Texas led to a “manly” focus on grit, vigor and football hooliganesque stick-to-it-iveness that manifests itself quite vibrantly in his strong protagonists, which include the likes of Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, among others – feared warriors with widespread reputation, and often crowned kings at some point down the road.

While his fiction extolled the virtues of physical strength and the get up and go of the Puritan work ethic, both Howard himself and his fiction paint a more measured picture.  With a literary and poetic soul, he was marked by an excessive devotion towards his single mother, known to have only had one nonexclusive and noncommittal girlfriend in his lifespan, and was generally reputed to be something of “a freak” and “crazy” in local circles.  When his mother eventually passed on, left to his own devices and without any real social relationships to bolster him onward, Howard took his own life, shooting himself fatally at the age of 30.

A frequent correspondent of Lovecraft, the two would insert analogues of each other into their stories, and there was a cross pollination of ideas, with such instances as Howard’s Von Junzt and his tome Unaussprechlichen Kulten making appearances in at least two Lovecraft tales, and Howard’s contributions to the mythos being significant enough to inspire several printings of collected works thereof over the intervening years.

He similarly ascribed to Lovecraftian ideas of cultural degeneration, albeit more directly focused among certain “low races” than in the more prevalent sense of his Bostonian compatriot. In further contrast, Howard’s heroes were far swarthier types, who may pale into insignificance against the outside and ancient forces they encounter, but they are quintissentially American and maverick in focus, with a propensity towards going down fighting (if, indeed, they went down at all).

Thus, the association between the two men, as Lovecraft’s to Poe, is a fairly close one, and reasonably unassailable despite some fairly serious differences in tone and focus.  By chain of inference and association, therefore, this both strenghtens the link between Lovecraft and Poe (and by further inference, that between Hawthorne and Poe) in terms of their neurotic, psychologically based and neurasthenic characterizations and literary style, and subsequently links Howard, a seeming dark horse, to the chain of inference.

Guy de Maupassant

Finally, we come to one of the closest parallels to Poe in literary style, characterization, and focus, Guy de Maupassant. 

While oft noted as one of the originators of the contemporary short story, and having a likemindedness to such annoyingly obvious purveyors of the literary artform as O. Henry (whose sole contribution to English literature was best summed up and parodized in SCTV’s cleverly apt “The Private Booth”, part of the ongoing Hugh Betcha’s Short Story Theater segment, which concludes with John Candy, as O. Henry, desperately trying to make his case that the ridiculous tale fulfilled his standard ambition by ending on “a surprise!  You were surpised, weren’t you?”), de Maupassant had a persistent leaning towards portraying the ostensibly supernatural as in fact an inner world of neurosis and psychosis, made manifest to the reader only by dint of having been privy to the scrawlings of the insane protagonist, the workings of their disordered inner mind.  How like Poe!  How Lovecraftian!  For that matter, how much akin to Hawthorne!

And with this, we come to the conclusion of this dissertation: namely, that in sum, if we are to include Poe with the ranks of Decadent – alongside the likes of Huysmans, Mirbeau, Rachilde, Leppin, Lorrain, d’Annunzio, Boito and all the rest, then we must by dint of this expand our definition to include the unlikely likes of not only de Maupassant and Lovecraft, but two candidates who on a surface level would appear to be far fetched: Hawthorne and even Howard.  The sane among us, comparing those authors to the ones named earlier in this paragraph, is forced to therefore refute the group entire – or, to be blunt, acknowledge the fact that Edgar Allan Poe is a poor choice for inclusion among the Decadent movement.

So with all this having been said and done, we come to the ostensible focus of this missive: Stefan Grabinski and the excellent Dedalus collection of his short fiction, The Dark Domain.

The_Dark_Domain

The reason for all this preface will become apparent as we delve into these tales, presented under the heading of Decadence by Dedalus on its own website, yet bearing only the most tenuous of connections thereto, despite their excellence as tales of neurasthenic and in fact sexualized tales of horror.

The stories in this collection can be apportioned off into general thematic concerns and areas of stylistic focus:

“Fumes”, “in the compartment” and “Szamota’s mistress” are subsumed with sex – not quite on the level of Paul Leppin, but certainly on the level of Mirbeau circa Torture Garden, and more than hinted at by Huysmans (La Bas) and D’Annunzio. 

Expertly if likely unconsciously melding the eeriness of the central European folk tale (as Le Fanu notes in Carmilla, the Germans and such always have the most terrifying of such) with some very raw sexuality for the period.  With a palbable sensation and build of desperate intensity, one can almost feel the raw need of the protagonists in Grabinski’s vivid scribings thereto. 

And yet, things always seem to turn sour: “fumes” revolves around what may or may not be an encounter with a transgender shapechanger reminiscent of the Russian Baba Yaga…though given the poisonous fumes he awakes to at the denouement, it may just be a delirious reinterpretation of a homosexual encounter – Grabinski deliberately leaves his tales open ended and free to interpretation.

“Szamota’s mistress” turns out to be deceased long before his ongoing secret rendezvous begins, she may be a reincarnated Medusa, she may be a corpse, she may be a figment of a diseased imagination.  Who knows?

“In the compartment” deals with a man who is joined in his journey by rail by a young couple.  Despite the new wife’s being quite opposite to his usual type, our protagonist conspires with her to have a brief fling while her husband sleeps.  When he awakens and catches them in flagrante delicto, our protagonist struggles with the man, resulting in his eventual fall from the train and inadvertant murder.  While the surviving pair coldly plan to run off together to a new future, his guilt leads him to abandon her at the busy station and run off, in flight from his own conscience…

Then we come to the more directly Poe (or Lovecraft, or  Hawthorne) influenced batch of tales that center around men who get lost in the dark labyrinth of their own minds. 

“The area” relates to a writer who suddenly stops creating, to live in isolation.  An abandoned house across the lane obsesses him, until malicious faces begin to appear in its windows, staring directly back at him.  Eventually they beckon him to enter, where he discovers they are the vengeful spirits of his unexpressed ideas, and creative endeavors he never gave voice to…

“Strabismus” is a very “William Wilson”esque tale of an aesthete who is tormented by the cloying presence of an obnoxious hanger on, who shares none of his interests, cares only for sports, and in fact sarcastically puts down everything the protagonist expresses appreciation of:

“…whenever I displayed admiration and rapture for some new work of art or scientific invention, Brzechwa, with cynical calm, would attempt to prove the groundlessness of my adoration, or else he would silently sit opposite me and transfix me with his frightful strabismus, a smile of malicious sarcasm never leaving his open lips. 

He didn’t feel any aesthetic thrills at all: beauty didn’t act upon him in any sense of the word. Instead, he was a sports enthusiast…education and scholars he ignored, holding to the maxim nihil novi sub sole (“there’s nothing new under the sun”)…” 

Eventually, this unpleasant sort winds up in a duel, and dies. Engraged at our hero for his refusal to take part as his second (and in fact seconding his opponent out of spite), he glares at our man in passing, which results in a long period wherein our protagonist’s persona takes on and is subsumed by that of his hated former acquaintance. It all comes to a rather strange conclusion…

“The Glance” similarly revolves around a fellow who gets lost in his own reverie, believing that whatever he studies or takes interest in takes on physical form…

Then we come to the less meaningful and rich tales, which fall more under a generic horror heading.  While atmospheric and more than a little creepy, “a tale of the gravedigger”, which concerns a funeral sculptor and gravedigger who may or may not have filled his graveyard artworks with satanic symbolism, and who may or may not be a living corpse himself, “saturnin sektor”, which relates to a proto- theoretical physicist working on a thesis of quantum mechanics who winds up enraged at a pointed public refutation of his views by a man who may be the embodiment of time itself, and “vengeance of the  elementals”, which refers to a heroic fire chief with immunity to flames who runs afoul of fire elementals that drive him mad, have little or no significance on any deeper level, and while entertaining enough on a pulp fiction level, offer little to invite thorough analysis.

Grabinski

Finally, we have the matter (oddly stressed by the translator) of Grabinski’s obsession with the relatively recent flourishing of trains and the railways as a transportation medium.  Beyond the aforementioned “in the compartment”, we also have the lesser tales “the motion demon”, relating to a demonic train conductor, and “the wandering train”, which speaks of a spectral train which leaves its victims (in a train it passes through) in a bizarre and somewhat ghastly trancelike state…

However, the works on display hardly evince the importance the translator would seem to ascribe to them, and the theme of train travel ultimately proves no more symbolically rich or integral to Grabinski’s literary output as does fire (apparently he released a collection of tales relating thereto, from which “vengeance of the elementals” hails).

Perhaps the most interesting bit of business Grabinski has to offer here comes from the strangely prescient “the glance”, wherein the narrator oddly predicts and parallels the yuppie mania and pseudo-aesthetic for spartan bare walls, overly bright lights and pastel colors, wide aisles and open spaces, while noting accurately how all of this “family restaurant” style lighting and absence of any sense of aesthetics in decor is in fact symptomatic of a sickness whose basis lies in a neurotic terror of the real world and what may or may not lie in its shadows, just outside one’s door:

“…in keeping with his new-found principles of simplicity and openness, he got rid of anything that could be considered a cover or screen.  

Therefore, old Persian rugs disappeared, along with (carpeting) that muffled the echo of footsteps.  From walls came down flowing curtains and drapes.  He stripped the windows bare of discreet little curtains, he threw out silk screens.  Even a screen of green tassels that had been a favorite of Jadwiga’s was no longer allowed to shade with its three-fold wings the interior of the bedroom.  Even wardrobes became suspicious pieces of furniture, belonging to the category of hiding-places.  Therefore, he had them taken to the attic, making do with ordinary hatstands and coat-racks.

And so the transformed house acquired a peculiar simplicity.  As can be imagined, his few acquaintances commented on the exaggerated primitiveness of his ohome, mentioning this and that about a hospital-barrakcs style, but Odonicz, smiling tolerantly, did not take their remarks to heart.  On the contrary, with every day he grew more partial to his home, which he left with less and less frequency, avoiding in this manner any surprises waiting for him outside.  He liked his quiet, simple rooms where he didn’t have to fear any ambush, and where everything was bright and open…

Nothing was hiding behind curtains, nor lurking in the shadows of unnecessary furniture.  No romantic dimness or low-lighting existed, nor any shadowy hints or secrets.  Everything was evident, like a piece of bread on a plate or a cookbook open on a table.”

Later he points out the absurdity of what essentially amounts to Buddhist thought, as given rise and popularity to by means of a misappropriation of the still barely comprehended principles of quantum mechanics, as being a form of deluded narcissism and overriding egotism:

“Does the world which encompasses me exist at all?  And if it indeed exists, is it not created by thoughts?  Maybe everything is only a fiction of some deeply meditating ego? 

Somewhere out there in the beyond, someone is constantly, from time immemorial, thinking – and the entire world, and with it the poor little human race, is a product of this perpetual reverie.’…

At other times Odonicz fell into an egocentric frenzy and had doubts about the existence of anything but himself.  It was only he who continually thought, only he…and everything he looked at and percieved as a creation of his mind…the world as a product of an individual’s thoughts, a mental creation of an insane ego!

The first time he arrived at this conclusion, it weighed heavily on him.  Suddenly, in a chill of eerie dread, Odonicz had felt terribly alone.

‘And if, indeed, there is nothing beyond the corner?  Who can affirm if beyond so-called “reality” anything exists at all?…what would happen if I wanted…to lean out of my safe environment and glance beyond its borders?”

Questions as to what exactly Grabinski’s work is intended as and what level of reading is required, as we’ve seen, is something of a mixed bag.  Some level of debate can easily be engendered even by the analysis delivered herein.  But further to the point, and in line with the discussion of whether or not we can, as Baudelaire and his disciples, actually classify Poe as a Decadent (and if so, whether we need to broaden the definition to a sufficient width and breadth as to include several other closely thematically and stylistically related authors as well), comes the presentation of Grabinski by Dedalus as a Decadent – in terms of how their site markets the present collection if nothing else. 

And while Grabinski does bring a very Paul Leppinesque sensuality to the table in addition to more Hawthornian and Poeesque moralism; and while he does place his focus firmly on the trap of self absorption and unrelieved, solitary metacognition of Poe, de Maupassant, Lovecraft and Hawthorne, the end result remains fairly clear.

Despite some definite linkages with some of the thematic concerns and stylistic flourishes of the Decadent movement of the fin de siecle, with Grabinski as with Poe, we come to the same ultimate conclusion: these are horror writers. 

Very good horror writers, perhaps.  Metacognitively obsessive, psychologically based, metaphysically concerned and in Grabinski’s case, sexually self aware writers, which raises them somewhat above the standard level of pulp fiction and into the realm of literary appreciation, certainly. 

But not, in any real sense, Decadent.

Your journey by rail or by fire to the inmost depths of your own feverish brain begins here.

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