Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 29: An Exquisitely Beautiful Skeleton

by Philip Tatler IV
Thinking it would boost her profile, Karen Blixen wrote under the male pseudonym “Isak Dinesen” for most of her career. Blixen/Dinesen is, of course, known best for her novel Out of Africa and her short story “Babette’s Feast,” both of which were adapted into acclaimed films (she also wrote “The Immortal Story,” which was adapted by Blixen uber-fan Orson Welles and unfortunately remains unavailable on DVD).

From the little bit of digging I did for this piece, Blixen sounds like a fascinating woman. She led a hardscrabble, lion-killing life in Kenya before returning to her native Denmark, where she started her official writing career at the age of 39, when she published Seven Gothic Tales.

What drew me to Dinesen’s Tales was its recent publication over at The Folio Society. (I imagine Bill has a healthy amount of bibliophiles that visit this blog so let me heartily recommend you folks head over to the Folio Society’s site and empty what’s left of your coffers; it’ll be worth the bankruptcy proceedings that follow, I promise!) I was also intrigued when, upon researching her, I discovered that both she and her father had contracted syphilis. He was diagnosed with it when Dinesen was 10 and promptly killed himself. She was 25 and living in Africa and suspected her husband’s infidelity as the root cause. I bring this up not for shock value, but because I think it has some bearing on the Dinesen story I chose for today's piece. Back to that in a second.

First, there's the term "Gothic" -- defining which is a bit of a sticky wicket; the term has become warped beyond recognition. For most people, "Gothic" has become truncated to "goth" and is used solely to describe those unfortunate teenagers with black lipstick and no curfews that haunt the malls looking for fellow Type O Negative fans. I'll revert to the loose description employed by H.P. Lovecraft in his Supernatural Horror in Literature:

...the infinite array of stage properties which include strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All of this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel...

That's not really even a proper definition of "Gothic" so much as a cataloging of the elements which inform the style. However, Lovecraft's elements stack up nicely enough to convey what I think most readers of this blog think of when they hear the word. In essence, Gothic stories are fairy tales for adults, the logic of the fairy tales warping with age and taking on the more sinister stains of the mature world.

The story I chose was "The Monkey" and it certainly has some of the “stage properties” Lovecraft mentions. “Monkey” is, for me, another evocative word. Like extraterrestrials, I find primates upsetting on a soul-deep level. It’s their “same-but-other”-ness that gives me a chronic case of the willies. Humanoid in shape, beastly in manner, too smart for their own good. I figured a Gothic tale called “The Monkey” would do the trick on a cold autumn night.

In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe,” the story begins, “there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.

The setting is remote, off-kilter: a nunnery for women who aren’t religious and who are, in fact, desperate to be married off to whomever will take them. The convent is presided over by an imposing Prioress who keeps a pet monkey from Zanzibar, gifted to her by a suitor. The women joke that the creature is the Prioress’s Geheimrat or “secret counselor.”

…it would be found … in the library, pulling out brittle folios a hundred years old, and scattering over the black-and-white marble floor browned leaves dealing with strategy, princely marriage contracts, and witches’ trials.

The monkey has interesting, and significant, choices in reading material. It also has, Dinesen reminds us several times, glittering eyes, which made me wonder if she hadn’t read Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” at some point before writing this.
The story begins with a visit to the convent from the Prioress’s nephew, Boris Boris has recently become embroiled in a career-damaging controversy “(connected) somehow with those sacred shores of ancient Greece they had till now held in high esteem”, which is Dinesen’s polite way of telling us that Boris is either a homosexual or a pedophile. Either way, he’s not exactly pursuing interests that are encouraged in nineteenth century Europe, especially within the military. This kerfuffle has driven him to the arms of his aunt.

Initially, Boris is the soft center of the tale and presumably our surrogate. Boris is a young man “under some great agitation of mind” and therefore immediately sympathetic. The convent gives him “an unsure welcome, as if he might have been … a young priest of black magic, still within hope of conversion.” His last hope to save face is to marry a woman and, since his aunt’s convent is chockablock with eligible virgins of various ages, he’s come to the right place.

However, his aunt’s solution to the quandary is to do a bit of outsourcing; she suggests he marry Athena, his childhood playmate and the daughter of a local Count. The Count’s star has fallen a bit; his fortune has been sliding, “House of Usher”-style, into decadence for years, as it’s been tied up in a legal battle the Count expects to die fighting. “Athena,” the Prioress points out, “has never had an offer of marriage in her life.” We learn later that Athena has been virtually the Count’s only companion and he has, in turn, raised her as something like a son. Her manliness is emphasized in Dinesen’s description (“a pair of shoulders which could lift and carry a sack of wheat”) so, if Boris’s predilections lie that way, it’s more than implied that Athena’s a viable close second.

“If Athena will not have you, my little Boris,” his aunt says, “I will.” The statement is equally playful and presciently menacing. Boris is too desperate (and weak of character) to protest and he’s immediately off to the Count’s to plead his case.

Throughout “The Monkey”, Dinesen effortlessly weaves layers of biblical and Classical allusion, while also drawing heavily on folk myths of the region, to create an atmosphere thick with transcendent tradition. Two asides – before we even dig into the paranormal meat of the plot – keep the Gothic torch burning. As Boris rides to the Count’s castle, he is suddenly struck by the enchanting landscape:

…[It] seemed cool, all blue and pale gold. Boris was able now to believe what the old gardener at the convent had told him when he was a child: that he had once seen, about this time of the year and the day, a herd of unicorns come out of the woods to graze upon the sunny slopes… The air smelled of fir leaves and toadstools, and was so fresh that it made him yawn.

During the journey, Boris has another recollection of a time when he and a friend were travelling this same countryside on a three week holiday:

One night they had come, very tired, to a farmhouse in a grass field, and had been given a large bed in a room that had in it a grandfather’s clock and a dim looking-glass. Just as the clock was striking twelve, three quite young girls appeared on the threshold in their shifts, each with a lighted candle in her hand, but the night was so clear that the little flames looked only like little drops of the moon. They clearly did not know that two wayfaring young men had been taken in… and the guests watched them in deep silence from behind the hangings of the big bed… one by one they dropped their slight garments on the floor and quite naked that walked up to the mirror and looked into it… absorbed in the picture. Then they blew out their candles, and in the same solemn silence they walked backward to the door… and disappeared… The two boys remembered that this was Walpurgis Night, and decided that what they had witnessed was some witchcraft by which these girls had hoped to catch a glimpse of their future husbands.

Not for nothing does Boris recall this instant. To him marriage – and women – are an eerie, mystifying, erotic mess that he’d probably rather view from “behind the hangings of the big bed.”

This is the whimsical stuff of fairy tales – certainly an important element in horror, Gothic and otherwise. The sinister side of the fairy tale coin – the witches who eat children, the trolls under bridges, wolves who stalk grandmothers – enters the story soon enough. Pulling up to Hopballehus – the Count’s estate – Boris is greeted by his potential father-in-law:

...the old Count appeared at the top step, standing like Samson when in wrath he broke down the temple of the Philistines… his mighty head surrounded by a mane of wild gray hair, like a poet’s or a lion’s… scrutinizing his visitor, like an old man gorilla outside his lair, ready for the attack… imposing upon (Boris) a presence such as the Lord himself might have shown had he descended, for once, the ladder of Jacob.
Obviously, the Count isn’t a man to be trifled with. Dinesen has constructed the story in such a way as to make us immediately defensive of young, sensitive Boris in the face of this imposing man. However, the tone shifts and the Count is immediately warm toward Boris. He enthuses over his recent legal victories, which have effectively restored the Count’s fortune and good name. He doesn’t hesitate to offer up the hand of his virtuous, strong-willed daughter (pending, of course, Athena’s acceptance of the arrangement). Everything becomes very “Happily Ever After” very quickly.

Except, there’s about two thirds of the story to go and Dinesen has very carefully left crooked signposts along the way that suggest we’re not in a safe world. There’s the unicorn, the witches, the bizarre aunt-nephew relationship, the oddly close (again, echoes of Usher) father-daughter relationship, and that damn monkey, who disappears after he’s introduced, only to be spotted by Boris on his way back from receiving the Count’s good news. This brief sighting signifies a change in the story:

And suddenly it came upon (Boris) that somewhere something was not right, was quite wrong and out of order. Strange powers were out tonight. The feeling was so strong and distinct that it was as if an ice-cold hand passed for a moment over his scalp. His hair rose a little upon his head. For a few minutes he was really and genuinely afraid, struck by an extraordinary terror. In this strange turbulence of the night, and the wild life of dead things all around him, he felt himself… terribly and absurdly small, exposed and unsafe.

All of that business above about defining “Gothic” wasn't to pad out my word count or make this sound like a grade school book report. This book comes wrapped in a label that suggests horror, hence my choosing it. However, for a while “The Monkey” seemed like it was just headed toward territory that was sort of Bronte-lite – yearning young lovers in a haunted landscape. Nothing wrong with that but not particularly horrifying either. About twenty pages in to the story, I started wondering if I should put it down and make another choice. But there was still that titular beast to contend with.

“The Monkey” certainly takes a turn for the Gothic – and extremely unnerving – in its last few pages. I won’t spoil it except to say that rape, attempted murder, and shape-shifting pay rather unexpected visits to the convent. And Boris becomes less and less sympathetic. Okay, I’ll spoil it a little, because this passage is just too wonderfully bizarre not to share:

“Boris, in the meantime, had been looking at Athena, and had let a fantasy take hold of his mind. He thought that she must have a lovely, an exquisitely beautiful, skeleton. She would lie in the ground … a work of art in ivory, and in a hundred years might be dug up and turn the heads of old archeologists… Less frivolous than the traditional old libertine who in his thoughts undresses the women with whom he sups Boris liberated the maiden of her strong and fresh flesh together with her clothes, and imagined that he might be very happy with her, that he might even fall in love with her, could he have her in her beautiful bones alone… Many human relations, he thought, would be infinitely easier if they could be carried out in bones only.”

Suffice to say, in “The Monkey” Dinesen works out what I imagine must have been some serious trust issues regarding men and sex. Having a syphilitic father and subsequently being infected with the disease via an unfaithful spouse has to take its toll. Which is not to reduce this beautifully written (and deeply disturbing) story to mere Freudian analysis; there was enough capital-W Weird going on here to sustain the mood well after I’d finished reading it (in fact, in light of the startling revelation at the climax, “The Monkey” certainly warrants a reread). I look forward to reading the other six of Dinesen’s Tales.
Philip Tatler IV writes occasionally for GreenCine and his blog, Diary of a Country Pickpocket. His as-yet unproduced screenplay, Eyepole, won Best Screenplay in the 2010 Knoxville Horror Film Festival and he plans on resting on this laurel for the rest of his days.

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