Demons by rail-light: Stefan Grabinski’s weird fiction

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Thanks to the demons of distraction it’s taken me a long time to find my way to these books by Polish author Stefan Grabinski (1887–1936) but I’m very pleased to have done so at last. Grabinski was one of several writers first drawn to my attention by Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book: The Ghostly, the Gothic, the Magical, the Unreal (1978), a lavishly illustrated popular study that charted the history of fantasy and horror fiction. The book is inevitably dominated by Anglophone authors but Rottensteiner was looking at the genres from a global perspective, to an extent that some of the writers in the sections devoted to Continental Europe were either difficult to find or, as with Grabinski, hadn’t yet been translated into English. Robert Hadji’s Grabinski entry in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986) further stoked my curiosity. Neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji mention how they came to read these obscure tales but I’d guess it was in the two collections published in Germany under the Bibliothek des Hauses Usher imprint, Das Abstellgleis (1971) and Dunst und andere unheimliche Geschichten (1974); several covers from the imprint appear in Rottensteiner’s book. Wherever it was that they read the stories, both writers praised Grabinski as an overlooked master of weird fiction. Rottensteiner notes that he was a contemporary of HP Lovecraft, and with a similar biography—briefly married and suffering artistic neglect during his lifetime—but neither Rottensteiner nor Hadji use the common shorthand descriptions of Grabinski as “the Polish Poe” or “the Polish Lovecraft”. These labels are intriguing but misapplied.

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Bearing in mind that these stories are translated works, one of the surprises of finally reading them is how fresh they seem compared to so many British ghost stories from the same period. Grabinski was writing during the birth of Modernism but the stories of his Anglophone contemporaries can often read like the products of an earlier epoch. His economical prose lacks the ornamentation of Poe and Lovecraft, just as it lacks Poe’s morbid Romanticism and has nothing of Lovecraft’s cosmic scale. But there are recurrent themes, particularly that of possession, whether by the spirits of the dead, by inhuman elementals, or by idée fixe. The latter provides the subject of The Glance, a story that also demonstrates Grabinski’s knack of finding horror in the most mundane situations: a man whose wife died prematurely is troubled by the sight of an open door, the same door through which she walked out of his life, and subsequently, out of her own. The man’s obsession with the door grows into a fear of closed doors and the implicit tragedies they may conceal, an obsession that soon extends itself to anything that hides too much of the world: curtains, rugs, the sharp corners of city streets… Edgar Allan Poe was fond of cataloguing madness in this manner but Grabinski’s stories go beyond glib formulations of insanity. “Metaphysical” is a word often used in discussion of the Grabinski oeuvre; the fixations of his protagonists reveal truths about the world to which others are blind.

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Bibliothek des Hauses Usher

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As promised a couple of weeks ago, this book-cover post is one of several that originates with Franz Rottensteiner’s horizon-expanding The Fantasy Book: The Ghostly, the Gothic, the Magical, the Unreal (1978). Rottensteiner’s study was important for me not only for its introduction to many hitherto unknown writers but also for its wide-ranging collection of illustrations and cover designs. Most of the artwork has since become very familiar but a few examples were by artists or designers I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. Hans Ulrich Osterwalder was one of these, his art for a series of German horror titles appearing inside the book and, in the case of the US edition of The Fantasy Book, on the cover. Searching for Osterwalder’s work a few weeks ago I was delighted to discover that the German covers were part of a series of horror/dark fantasy reprints for the Bibliothek des Hauses Usher imprint from Insel Verlag, for which Osterwalder created many more striking and unusual covers.

Bibliothek des Hauses Usher published 26 novels or story collections from 1969 to 1975. I thought at first that this was a paperback series but all the books were hardbacks with uniform black covers and white spines. The imprint logo is a rather ordinary looking House of Usher cracking down the middle (a nod to Arkham House, perhaps) with a slogan on the back cover borrowed from Ambrose Bierce: “Can such things be?” Each volume was printed on light green paper, at least until the paper stock ran out. The last three volumes were printed on white paper then on green again when further stocks were found.

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Osterwalder’s work on this series stands out for being innovative, surreal and free of the cliches that persist on horror titles. Most of the artwork is illustrative of the contents but it manages this without being too overt or obvious which isn’t an easy thing to do. The list of authors is an interesting mix as well (if you overlook the typically lamentable absence of women writers): many of the names are those you’d expect in a series such as this but there are also some such as Jean Ray and Stefan Grabinski who you wouldn’t find in an Anglophone series. Grabinski was a Polish writer of weird fiction who receives a mention in Rottensteiner’s book (and is a favourite of China Miéville) but whose work is still largely unknown to Anglophone readers. Just as obscure to English readers is Thomas Owen who was a Belgian writer (real name Gérald Bertot) and a friend of Jean Ray’s. Tartarus Press published a collection of Owen’s stories in 2012 but I’ve not read it so can’t vouch for their quality.

All 26 covers are shown below in their order of publication. Hans Ulrich Osterwalder still works as an artist and designer, and has a website here. Franz Rottensteiner was interviewed at 50 Watts a few years ago.

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Weekend links 341

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Fountain (1917) by R. Mutt (Marcel Duchamp), and God (1917) by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

• “What is there left to know about David Bowie? What is there left to unearth?” asks Ian Penman whose lengthy review of recent Bowie books is better by far than a shelf full of cash-in doorstops.

Strázci z hlubin casu is a collection of stories by HP Lovecraft and August Derleth from Czech publisher Volvox Globator. The book reprints artwork of mine on the cover and inside.

• Mixes of the week: Through December by David Colohan, At Alien Altars: A Conjurer’s Hexmas by Seraphic Manta, and Secret Thirteen Mix 204 by James Welburn.

• “Something vindictive resides in soot.” Timothy Jarvis on the weird fiction of Stefan Grabinski. From 2003: China Miéville on Grabinski.

• Paintings by Jakub Rozalski of eastern European peasants with mechas and werewolves.

Colm Tóibín on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 100 years on.

Jesse Singal on why straight rural men (in the USA) have “bud-sex” with each other.

Mark Valentine recommends books on tasseography, or divination by tea leaves.

• “Northampton Calling: A Conversation with Alan Moore,” by Rob Vollmar.

Bill Schutt at Scientific American asks what human flesh tastes like.

Gwendolyn Nix on the Tritone, aka The Devil’s Musical Interval.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: _Black_Acrylic presents…Penda’s Fen Day.

• The latest Buddha Machine from FM3 is Philip Glass-themed.

Listen to The Wire’s top 50 releases of 2016

Tritone (Musica Diablo) (1980) by Tuxedomoon | Diabolus In Musica (1987) by The Foetus All Nude Review | Tritone (Musica Diablo) (2016) by Aksak Maboul