Too many unique, marginalized writers committed suicide, died penniless, died alone, died obsessed, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The great Polish writer Bruno Schulz was shot on the street during World War II, leaving us with two remarkable but slim volumes of rich dream-stories mythologizing his childhood. One, The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, is about an afterlife that tries to reclaim the past. So it joins the mulch, the thick substrate, that at some point manifests in one’s own stories, biography rising in altered form indistinguishable from fiction … and yet the lineage is there, the ghosts true hauntings.
Happier tales do exist, though. How can I, for example, re-encounter Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s phantasmagorical 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard in the context of emails with his son, Yinka Tutuola, without seeing the work a little differently? The son relates anecdotes of such satisfaction in storytelling that the father’s work becomes transformed into something almost merry … even as four hundred dead babies encountered on the road wind up in the belly of a beast or a skeleton becomes a “complete gentleman” by assembling a body.
The macabre often hinges on the darkly humorous, a fact that becomes clearer after spending time with so many uncanny tales. You become acclimated to the darkness there, finding in it a kind of kinship, even, for a time, a level of comfort. Once you reach that point, there is more joy and awe to be found even in creepy explorations of the unknown. The legions of carnivorous lagomorphs in Leonora Carrington’s surreal 1942 short story, “White Rabbits,” are deeply unsettling but also deeply absurd. The jeweler’s precision Julio Cortazar brings to “Axolotl,” the 1956 tale of a man fixated on a salamander living in a Paris aquarium, is a delight for anyone who cares about the ways in which fiction can reveal the spiritual through specific detail—even as an ending that inverts the roles of the observer/observed remains profound and disturbing. Robert Aickman’s classic 1975 story “The Hospice” is horrific in its over-arching intent, but also cheeky in its descriptions of an absurd dinner during which guests are chained to their tables, and later portrays an awkwardness familiar to us all in misunderstandings about sleeping arrangements.
Sometimes, too, it feels as if someone or something is staring out from the text at the reader. In Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1918 masterpiece, “The Hell Screen,” even the simple spilling of liquid to form the shape of a snake across the floor must be interrogated for uncanny significance. More than once I was reminded of 19th-century naturalist Richard Jeffries’ statement: “To me, everything is supernatural.” Similarly, Thomas Ligotti’s 2003 story “The Town Manager,” with its cryptic messages from the never-seen manager, evokes not just a wry recognition of the absurdities of bureaucracy but also a wider modern horror of being spied on that’s made more potent because it exists within such a banal context.