Context: Yesterday, the 2016 World Fantasy Convention posted a list of programs for the meeting in Columbus, Ohio, this October. (Full list here.) Program #25 on the list is a panel about “The Eternally Obscure Writers”. Three examples were given: David Lindsay, William Hope Hodgson, and Clark Ashton Smith. The panel description closes with this question: “What is the place for difficult prose styles or ideas which can only reach the few and never the many?”
I don’t know the writing of Clark Ashton Smith, but the closing question contains an apt description of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and Hodgson’s The Night Land. Both books are extremely self-indulgent, and don’t make things easy on their readers. They also have rewards and charms for those who want to struggle through.
However, the difficulty of the text is just one factor in what makes a book or writer “obscure”. Moby-Dick and Ulysses are notoriously difficult, after all. And many not-difficult-at-all books with easily grasped rewards and charms have nevertheless struggled to find an audience.
With that in mind, I hope the programmers of the World Fantasy Convention will consider these alternate suggestions for “eternally obscure writers” (or books, as the case may be).
NOTE: Considering that the three suggested eternally obscure writers already proposed are all Anglophone white men (a Scot, an Englishman, and an American), I decided to limit my list to people who are not Anglophone white men. Moreover, since the panel seems focused on older works, I haven’t included any remotely recent writers.
Francis Stevens was the pen-name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote tales of extraordinary weirdness during the first three decades of the twentieth century for early pulps like Argosy, All-Story Weekly, and at least once for Weird Tales. Her short fiction leans heavily on adventure, and is somewhat in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter or Caspak series. (In other words: imagination and excitement are the primary concerns, not tight plotting or deep characterization.) Her short fiction was recently collected by University of Nebraska Press Bison Books in Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy.
Perhaps best known as the writer of childrens’ books, Edith Nesbit also dabbled in adult fiction. She produced most of her output from 1890 – 1910, a time when the ghost story was very much in vogue. Like many writers at the time, Nesbit did not shy away from dragging the ghost story into the modern world. (One of her more memorable tales includes a phantom automobile.) But perhaps the most characteristic thing about Nesbit is her consistent vindictive streak, never shying away from unleashing the most terrible horrors she can think of on her characters. I read Wordsworth Editions’s The Power of Darkness, which collects several of Nesbit’s ghost story collections.
If Nesbit is nasty, then May Sinclair is compassionate in her tales of the supernatural. Best remembered today as the critic who coined the term “stream of consciousness”, Sinclair composed novels out of vignettes of highly detailed vignettes of everyday life. But she also wrote a couple volumes of supernatural tales. In Sinclair’s stories, the weird world is somewhat understated, woven tightly into the fabric of the real world. Neither is she simply out to spook and scare: Sinclair uses the supernatural to explore human relationships and the tricky balances of love. Wordsworth Editions has reprinted her 1923 collection with an additional story in Uncanny Stories.
Isak Dinesen was the pen-name of Danish writer Karen Blixen. Best known today for Out of Africa, her memoir of seventeen years spent in British East Africa (now Kenya), Dinesen first found success by publishing what she called Gothic tales. Her stories are intentionally old-fashioned, written in the meandering and dream-like style of fairy tales, with many digressions and very little regard for modern structure. Her characters sometimes seem to follow their own internal logic and her stories are often set in indeterminate (or liminal) places and time periods. All of this infuses even her straightforward tales with an air of weirdness, but the supernatural does appear from time to time. However, the main attraction in Dinesen is her unique (and not always inviting) writing style and sharp insights into human behavior. Vintage International’s reprint of Winter’s Tales (originally published in 1942) is a great place to start.
It’s impossible to argue that Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein is anything resembling obscure, but some of her other works certainly seem to fall precisely into the sweet spot of this panel description. Take The Last Man, for instance, which is a book that equals Lindsay and Hodgson in its self-indulgence. First published in 1826, after the deaths of both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, it tells the story of a plague that whittles humanity down to a handful of survivors, as well as the ultimate end of those last remnants. Critics have long cited parallels in the book to Shelley’s own life, many of which certainly seem intentional. In addition, the book indulges in repeated untranslated quotations from a variety of languages, and buries its science-fiction adventure story under a standard romance story for about half the length of the book. However, that only makes it all the bolder when the book delivers on its premise. It is perhaps not as compellingly weird today as The Night Land… but on the other hand, it was written a hundred years earlier.
I admit I have not been stressing very much over whether any of the writers listed here truly fit the definition of “obscure”. After all, obscure to whom? Edogawa Rampo (pen-name of Tarō Hirai), for instance, is certainly far better known in Japan than he is in the United States. One of the earliest writers of western-style mystery stories in Japan, Rampo started out by sending his stories (successfully) to Japanese pulps that had originally published reprints of western stories. Along the way, he helped create the modern mystery genre in Japan. Though his tales of sensational crimes are not usually strictly impossible, they are certainly far beyond the normal range of human experience and would fit most definitions of “weird”. There are a few translations of his work at various publishers. I enjoyed Japenese Tales of Mystery and Imagination from Tuttle Press, which collects several of his stories from the 1920s.
I would not ordinarily classify Colette as a writer of weird fiction. Like May Sinclair, her stories are usually firmly rooted in everyday life and reality. But I also firmly believe that the genres of “speculative fiction” or “weird fiction” should not limit themselves to stories that fit neatly in the realm of fantasy or science-fiction. I believe there is a lot of pleasure to be gotten from exploiting the shady borderland between reality and unreality, and Colette does it masterfully in her longish short story “The Rainy Moon”. First published in 1940, the story develops slowly as it first details the working relationship between a writer and her typist. There are odd coincidences (too laborious to enumerate here) in the set-up of the story that help lend an immediate air of the surreal. Over time, one of the characters is revealed as a witch, leaving Colette’s narrator with the problem of accepting or rejecting this revelation (and the power it may have over her). On the rare occasions when weirdness intrudes into my own life, this is very much how it happens: slowly, subtly, and with no obvious fanfare. The story is available in various collections; I read it in Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux’s huge omnibus Collected Stories of Colette. (NOTE: Very little else in the volume can be called “weird fiction”, but it is all very good.)
Charles W. Chesnutt
Born a few years before the start of the Civil War, Charles Chesnutt was an African-American who could have legally passed as “white” throughout most of his life. (The first of the so-called “one drop laws” was not passed until 1924.) However, Chesnutt always chose to identify as black, and became one of the best-known African-American writers of his day, being published repeatedly by Atlantic Monthly. Among his earliest stories were his “conjure stories”, which drew on African-American folklore for their inspiration. The formula of the stories is standard: a white northerner who has settled in the south talks over a problem with a former slave, who tells an allegorical story (almost always involving magical tricks of some sort) which points out the solution. But Chesnutt’s stories are more complex than they first appear. These stories are not just a method of solving the white man’s problem. Equally, they are a method for the black former slave to steer the decision-making on the plantation in a way that is advantageous to him and his family: a method of indirectly communicating needs and ideals that overcomes the obvious power imbalance between the two. Collected in 1899, you can read The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (plus a few additional stories) for free at Project Gutenberg.
Warning: I have roughly arranged these listings from “most traditionally weird” to “least traditionally weird”, and we have now entered the portion of the list where I may be accused of stretching the definition too far. Boileau-Narcejac is the pen-name of two French writers, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who collaborated together (after great individual success) on a string of novels in the 1950s. The second (English title: The Living and the Dead) was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into Vertigo. The story in the novel is the same as the movie: a tale of love lost and found, haunted by the specter of apparent reincarnation. However, the novel takes place in France during the early days of World War II, and the news of the ever-closer creeping German army increases the air of menace around the story. For much of the book, the possibility of reincarnation is dangled as a very real one, and it seems for a long time that the book will never resolve its supernatural coincidences. In the end, it is not exactly fantasy. But the feeling of weirdness is real. Pushkin Vertigo has recently put out a new English edition, retitled Vertigo.
Along the same lines is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which is nothing short of a modern retelling of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There may be no potions (just a highly improbable meeting on a train), but Highsmith does not mince words when it comes to equating the two characters in the center of the story: after all, each one ends up fulfilling the other’s darkest desires. The trouble arises when they realize that they cannot do so without irrevocably tainting the pleasure they take in the “good” halves of their lives. In addition to removing the need for outright fantasy, Highsmith also restructures the story so that it is no longer a mystery… but rather a fascinating horror/suspense story that does not look away for an instant from the morally queasy decisions the characters make. First published in 1950, I read the novel in an omnibus that includes Highsmith’s brilliant second novel the Price of Salt along with several short stories. Available here.