Monday, October 10, 2016

an earlier read, but Halloweenworthy for sure: The Dark Domain, by Stefan Grabinski

Stefan Grabinski

Since Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936)  isn't exactly a household name, I think a brief bit of  background is relevant here.   While you can get some info about him from Wikipedia and from The Stefan Grabinski Website, thanks to a post at Writers No One ReadsI discovered a bit more from Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, who wrote a piece about Grabinski and The Dark Domain in the Asylum Annual of 1995 (Asylum Arts Publishing):
"While a child, he contracted tuberculosis. His health remained fragile throughout his life, and this condition no doubt played a part in the formation of his personality, which was gloomy and introspective.  By the time he had finished his education and embarked on a career as a teacher, observers describe him as already pale and gaunt, always dressed in black, a man apart in his own inner realm, and regarding his surroundings obliquely. 
His literary aspirations announced themselves early, and from the first his work was marked by metaphysical speculation and a concern with the mystery of existence. By 1909, Grabinski had self-published a slim volume of stories, all trace of which has disappeared, but with which his course was set; these first macabre compositions already demonstrating his preoccupation with issues of philosophical conjecture." (143)
Grabinski went on to write On the Hill of Roses (1918) - which I own but haven't read yet; later The Motion Demon came out in 1919 followed by 1920's  The Deranged Pilgrim, The Book of Fire and An Uncanny Tale in 1922. By 1926, his writing turned more toward novels and plays rather than just short stories.  He apparently "idolized" Poe, was a recluse, and was, as is very articulately revealed in his stories,
"thoroughly absorbed with what he perceived as the dark, hidden forces which permeate and propel human life and seem to deny the implied orderliness of our hyper-rationalistic, overly-explained, neatly categorized and patly-understood world."  (142)
 Grabinski was "opposed to any notion of mechanism or pre-determined order at work in the universe," and, according to Alter-Gilbert, his "fiction is a swirling cauldron of fetishes and obsessions, a heady brew of mania, hysteria, and dementia."  In short, he writes exactly the sort of stuff I've become addicted to reading, and I've become a total fangirl now.

So now without any more information that probably no one but me cares about, we come to

The Dark Domain

Dedalus, 2013
originally published 1918
translated and edited by Miroslaw Lipinski
153 pp


"And if, indeed, there is nothing beyond the corner? Who can affirm if beyond so-called 'reality' anything exists at all?"

There are eleven stories in this book, along with an introduction by the editor & translator Miroslaw Lipinski as well as an afterword by Madeleine Johnson. In a word, it is excellent; there is not one bad story in this entire book.  In Grabinski, I've found another writer whose work is just plain genius.  

Perhaps the best way to describe what's in this book is by quoting Brian Stableford, who in his News of the Black Feast and Other Reviews notes that Grabinski's
"... characters are prone to haunting themselves, unwittingly dislodging fragments of themselves that become independently incarnate." (79-80)
While that's not exactly the case in every story here, it's still an observation that absolutely hits the nail on the head.  

It would a shame to spoil anyone's first-time enjoyment of these stories, so as usual, I'm not going to reveal much about any of them, so here's the usual stripped-down version. The truth is though that I could spend hours and hours talking about this book. 

"Fumes" begins this collection,  with a young engineer who is lost in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, having been separated from his colleagues. He comes to an old inn, where he shares a space with the innkeeper, his daughter, and an old woman who, strangely enough,  tend to make separate appearances but aren't seen together at the same time  ... Yow. This one is amazing. Someone could write a thesis on this story alone.    "The Motion Demon" appears in both The Dark Domain and Grabinski's book of the same title. Here a man makes several train trips,  "unusual journeys under the influence of cosmic and elemental forces," meeting up with a strange train conductor.  "The Area" is one of my favorite stories in the book, about a writer who has lost his ability to write over the last twelve years, and so "removes himself from the public eye." As he has found, he needs "greater artistic material" with which to express himself since "Already the written word was not enough for him."  Isolated in a "solitary residence," he starts paying attention to the abandoned villa across the street for hours at a time, when one day someone starts paying attention to him. Oh my god. What a great story. And I do mean great. 

Coming up to "A Tale of the Gravedigger," we move more firmly into the horror zone. The story begins with the discovery that there may be something very wrong with the grave monuments created by Giovanni Tossati of Foscara, who also doubles as gravedigger and wears a gypsum mask which "adhered so hermetically to his face, that it wasn't noticed it all"-- until it was. "Szamota's Mistress," about which I'm not saying a thing, since the ending is a bit of a shocker when you actually stop and consider what's going on here. It's also one of the most eerie stories in the book, even creepier after a second read.  Next up is "The Wandering Train."  Railwaymen have a "strange and puzzling" problem involving a train, "an intruder without patent or sanction," that turns up everywhere out of nowhere.  It's been a secret kept from the public until one day ...  

 "Strabismus" captures the plight of a man who is locked in a strange battle with his "living antithesis," while "Vengeance of the Elementals" finds a fire chief whose "long-term study of fires and their circumstances" gives way to a "more personal" battle with a "spiteful destructive essence that had to be reckoned with."  Up next is another excellent story, "In the Compartment," where a "timid dreamer" changes into someone "unrecognizable" the minute he steps into a train, as his newlywed traveling companions will soon discover. 

"Saturnin Sektor" finds the author of a manuscript that he's never shown another living soul being dogged by someone who "knows it by heart, inside and out," while the last story, "The Glance,"finds  a doctor who comes to the conclusion that  "everything he looked at and perceived was a creation of his mind."  But is it a case of "hallucination caused by overwork," or does everything he thinks about actually become a physical reality?  

While I latched on to Grabinski purely by accident, from now on any new translations of his work are going to find a permanent home on my shelves.  He's that good.  Anyone who is serious about dark fiction, literary horror and keen insight into human nature and the darkness of the human mind should not miss this book.  Again, I wonder how many other books by authors like this are out there, just waiting for me to find them.  

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