Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Intimations of Death, by Felix Timmermans

9781948405409
Valancourt Books, 2019
originally published as Schemerigen van den Dood, 1910
translated by Paul Vincent
150 pp

paperback



"Are you frightened of Death and the dead?" 

I don't think I've ever read a book of stories that was so completely morbid as this one.  Not that I didn't have a clue from the title that death was going to be on the agenda here, but jeez Louise.  Normally I think of the word "intimation" in terms of a hint or an indication, but that's definitely not the case here.

The blurb on the back cover of this book reveals that Felix Timmermans (1886-1947) wrote the stories in this collection "after a near-death experience with a serious illness."   It also notes that he
" reveals a more morbid side and delivers a collection of psychological horror tales worthy of Edgar Allan Poe."  
  The comparison to Poe is beyond apt, not just because of the macabre themes and episodes depicted throughout these stories, but also due to Timmermans'  use of landscape and various settings designed to echo the characters' inner torments and mental states.  And tormented these people are, from the first story to the last, with no exceptions.

 "The Mourner" makes for the perfect opener to this collection, beginning in an isolated house with barred windows on a "dark beech avenue" where it seems that death is no stranger.  Not only had the narrator "helped carry three dead souls -- a brother and two sisters" out of  the house to the cemetery, but the house, described as being  "the color of congealed blood," is enclosed by a "deep black moat, covered in green scum" into which a tramp had once fallen and drowned.  The narrator (who is telling this story at a much later time), reveals that the house had been in the family for generations, at least back to the time of his great-grandfather; as he puts it, "it was in our blood to live there."
"But those who had lived there had never been aware of the mysterious air weighing on the soul, which had pressed down in the house and across the plain; but my heart was like a gate open to the unknown, and I always had the clear consciousness of another life around me."
He had felt "the soul of things" and although he lived in solitude with his family there, he had a sense of "not being alone," which made him afraid and made "life sad;" he describes it as the "face of the unknown that was watching our hands."   He also sees signs in everything around him, which makes what happens as he waits with his mother and father, nearly unbearable.  Every noise is detailed, silence is weighed,  his senses are on ultra-high alert as he takes in every sound, every flash of lightning.  And then, when someone rings the bell in the midst of it all ...



reproduction of one the illustrations used in the original

In the final story, "The Unknown," a couple whose families are against their marriage decide to end it all together so that they might at least be happy and together forever in death.  Things go awry when she dies and he is rescued; at first he is happy to be alive, but he feels himself invaded by an "unknown thing" that takes over his life in more ways than one.

In between these two stories, as the back-cover blurb reveals,
"A scholar of the occult finds his marriage threatened by horrifying and otherworldly noises emanating from the cellar -- During a plague outbreak a gravedigger accidentally prepares one too many graves and becomes obsessed with the thought that the final grave will be his own.  -- A haunted man, seeking refuge in a monastery, is convinced that Death itself stalks him in the building's lonely halls..." 
 With the exception of "The White Vase,"  these strange, gothic tales are related via a certain distance; as John Howard puts it in his excellent introduction, "as if they were seen by the reader made to gaze through the wrong end of a telescope."  However, it is also true, as he says, that we are "taken in from the start and carried off by Timmermans' intense, tortured narratives."    Author Paul Di Filippo in his review of this book at Locus says about these stories that
"they all prefigure the deep and subtle psychological horror stories that were to populate the twentieth century and become almost the dominant mode in the twenty-first," 
which in my case, aside from the obscurity of this book and author,  is the attraction.

 Many many thanks to Valancourt for publishing such a fine book and bringing it back into the public eye; kudos to the translator Paul Vincent who didn't seem to miss a single nuance, and also to John Howard for his informative and excellent introduction.   Readers of modern horror may find it a bit tame, but as a lover of the old and especially of the obscure, I loved every dark second of it, and found it to be the perfect  book for late-night, book-light-only reading. All that was missing (and pardon the clich√© but it works) was the raging thunderstorm outside.

Reader beware -- space yourself between stories and do not read them all at once.  Di Filippo refers to Timmermans at the time he wrote these tales as a "kind of Thomas Ligotti," and trust me, there's a reason for the comparison.



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