After enjoying two titles by CB Editions – Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl and Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch – I went on a spending splurge and bought three more of their buff-backed books. They are to me a wholly admirable small press, publishing such interesting stuff as words-and-pictures meditations on the recession, to this volume of stories by ‘the Polish Poe’. Publisher Charles Boyle also maintains a worthwhile blog.
Grabiński (1887-1936) suffered from tuberculosis all his relatively short life, and a heightened awareness of the corporeal and sensory is everywhere present in the stories selected here. In the opening story ‘White Virak,’ children squeeze up sooty, claustrophobic chimneys, and people break out “in a peculiar rash, which covered our bodies with large white spots like pearly eruptions.” Such is the heightened awareness of the characters that the sensory becomes neatly muddled with the extra-sensory, which is where the Poe comparisons come in. When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ experiences disturbing visions, he suggests that they are simply dreams carried through into waking hours, normally blocked by “the misleading senses” and the “intellect in its arrogance. … For the stars exist in daytime too, though outshone by the mighty rays of the sun.” (I was reminded a little here of Maupassant’s superlative The Horla.)
Whatever the source, there are some strange things going on here. In the title story, the longest in the book at 36 pages, the sensory element is lethal. The narrator, a doctor, suffers torments as he sees an old friend fall victim to sexual obsession with Sarah, a sort of succubus who appears to be – literally – draining the life out of him.
Impassively he let me examine him. I put him into my Roentgen apparatus. The rays penetrated him fast, encountering abnormally low resistance. The result went beyond any documented experiment. His body had undergone some terrifying process of reduction: the bone structure showed signs of atrophy; whole layers of tissue had disappeared; entire clusters of cells withered. His weight was that of a child; the iron hands of the scale showed a ridiculously small number. The man was vanishing before my very eyes!
Grabiński has a nose for appropriate settings for his spooky stories: as well as factory chimneys and abandoned villages, two of the stories are set on disused railway lines. In ‘The Dead Run’, retired conductor Wawera cannot stand to see an old stretch of railway line fall into disrepair, so is permitted to take over its care. All goes well until he hires an assistant, who tells him: “It seems to me you are only kidding yourself. There’s nothing to watch over. It’s only a pastime, isn’t it?” This cold blast of someone else’s reality causes Wawera to withdraw into a strange and sad reality of his own.
In the other railway story, ‘Szatera’s Engrams’, heightened awareness returns, this time for a man who “could never come to terms with the eternal passage of men, objects and events.” A series of visions leads him to believe that “no event, even the most trivial, passes and dissolves into nothing. On the contrary: everything is preserved and recorded.” As with ‘The Dead Run’, this can’t end well.
The more straightforward stories here share with M.R. James the sort of dramatic irony which requires a balancing relationship between character and reader: the reader must be as expectant of supernatural activity as the character is ignorant, for the story to work. When the narrator of ‘The Grey Room’ opens by wishing that in his new lodgings “I should be safe from that strange malaise which had forced me to abandon the other place,” the reader rolls his eyes: but simultaneously rolls up his sleeves and prepares to be teased and ultimately satisfied. It’s the desire to find out the precise nature of the menace, and to see our expectations fulfilled, which keeps us reading. And thank heavens for CB Editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded.