Tag: supernatural

Henry James, “The Real Right Thing” (1899)

henry james the real right thing herkenrath

Peter Herkenrath, “Untitled 02.”

The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?

Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:

There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?

Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.

Collier’s Weekly, December 16, 1899


Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” (2015)

orange world karen russell

There’s a delicious élan vital in Karen Russell’s style that rarely lets you down, along with an awareness that whatever you’re about to read will be original and limpid: “At the sound of my real name, I felt electrified–hadn’t I introduced myself by a pseudonym? Clara and I had a telephone book of false names. It was how we dressed for parties. We chose alter egos for each other, like jewelry.” This from the character called Aubergine, a name given her by her father who thought he was calling her something a lot more elevated. Aubergine and Clara’s ages are never given, but they’re young women in Depression Florida who leave the state after Clara keeps showing up blue from bruises. We never find out what those bruises were about (a weakness in the story, I think, a loose thread: was it that in consequential aside from being a device to propel the characters to Oregon?), only that Aubergine makes a deal with Clara: she;d never ask, but Clara would have to agree to leave the state with her and be the happily promiscuous Thelma and Louise types they like to be: “On our prospecting expeditions, whatever doors we closed stayed shut.” Invited by a suave-seeming, French-seeming aristocrat, they end up taking a ski lift to a mountain top resort, what they believed to be a mountaintop resort atop Mount Joy in Oregon, built by WPA workers. They end up at the wrong resort, one demolished in a construction accident that killed 26 workers. But the workers are there, alive and not alive, when the girls show up. That sixth sense set-up is the story, taking after the Isaac Singer notion that the dead are never really dead. If Hitler can appear at a Broadway cafeteria with his homies, why shouldn’t the dead of Company 609 of the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps haunt the construction site that’s their tomb? It allows for imaginative explorations of the tongue, metaphorical and not so much: “Lee may not have known that he was dead, but my body did; it seemed to be having some kind of stupefied reaction to the kiss. I felt myself sinking fast, sinking far below thought. The two boys swept us toward the stairs with a courtly synchronicity, their uniformed bodies tugging us into the shadows, where our hair and our skin and our purple and emerald party dresses turned suddenly blue, like two candles blown out.” The illusion becomes a sinister vise when the dead start taking pictures. The girls decide that if they were caught by the lens, they’d be dead too. The try to escape. The structure begins to crumble. There’s a bit of Lucas-Spielbergian theatricality a-la-Indiana Jones here as they rush out to the ski lift, but they make it out. In the end I’m not so sure the story leaves us with more than a very delightful pot-au-Poe trip to a mountaintop snowy with crystalline prose. But not every story needs to be The Metamorphosis.

The New Yorker, June 1, 2015, “Orange World,” 2019

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Cafeteria”

isaac singer the cafeteria

Automat, 163-5 East 86 St., Sept. 15, 1936. (NYPL Digital Collection)

An echo of “The Psychic Journey” in structure and themes, though Journey came a decade later. Aaron, an exiled Polish writer in his late 60s regularly dines at a cafeteria on Broadway where Holocaust survivors gather, among them Esther, who loves the writer’s work. “Sometimes I imagine that the funeral parlor is also a kind of cafeteria where one gets a quick eulogy or kaddish on the way to eternity.” She’d been imprisoned in Russia. She works odd jobs. She disappears and reappears over time. On one of these reunions Esther tells Aaron she saw Hitler with his posse at the cafeteria late one night. This is the 1960s of course. The vision coincides with a fire that destroys the cafeteria. Maybe she set it. Just like Margaret Fugazy in “Psychic,” Aaron becomes afraid that Esther will continue to contact him. But she doesn’t. He then has an apparition of his own, seeing Esther looking younger and happier than she’d ever been, on the arm of a man walking on a street in Toronto. He does not speak to her of course. Aaron later learns that Esther had killed herself a long time before that apparition.

The parallels are as much with “Psychic Journey” as with, say, Russell’s “Prospectors,” the differences being that Singer amplifies the gravity of his story by injecting Hitler in his apparition, while Russell uses unknown WPA construction workers and fills her story with more mirthful mist than Singer’s brooding reflections on death and the afterlife. Switch the characters–what if Esther happened on a performance of “Guys and Dolls” at the cafeteria in the middle of the night?–and the scale doesn’t tip as heavily toward the profound.

The New Yorker, December 28, 1968

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Psychic Journey” (1976)

isaac singer psychic journey

Tel Aviv, 1967. (Getty)

Another tiresome, wandering story glued to the psychic imaginings of a Margaret Fugazy, who meets the unnamed writer on the Upper West Side and has supposedly been visiting him “in astral form.” She knows the interiors of his apartment. He has a girlfriend of his own, Dora, but she’s run off to a kibbutz in Israel, where her daughter Sandra was having her first baby. He and Margaret develop some sort of relationship. It’s never clear to what intimate extent. She convinces him to be a tour guide with her on a trip to Israel, where they’re both stranded by the breakout of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The relationship’s breakdown is inevitable but never clearly defined. Too much of the story is an excuse for whatever happens next, little of it meshing or making sense outside that glue that excuses everything. You’d expect the wart to provide a more interesting twist. It doesn’t. It provides this page:

There’s a bit of Orientalist stereotype in that smell of “tar, sulphur, and Biblical battles that time had never ended,” and lazy lyricism in “the acrid scent of eternity.” You wonder if the journey to Israel isn’t itself astral. The writer reunites with Dora in the end, and once crosses path with Fugazy, eliciting a confession.

The New Yorker, October 18, 1976

Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” (1924)

Toulouse-Lautrec, "L'inspection medicale" (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris.

Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’inspection medicale” (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris. See this interesting paper.

The whorehouse the maid describes in her Creolish patois to her aristocratically white and prissy employer Madame Blanchard–note the frosting on the name–is no Maison Tellier. As if to entertain a Blanchard who could be no less of a madame than the brutish one the maid is describing, she tells the story of Ninette, a prostitute whose wages are garnished and accused of stealing, and who is routinely beaten. Ninette saves up enough to flee. Her madam doesn’t object until her customers, all white and rich enough to be, in a different generation, sending money to adopt poor children as far away from their clipped lawns as possible, demand that she return. It takes magic to pull that off. The madam’s cook, clearly feeling no solidarity toward the whore–cooks considered themselves superior in the hierarchy–provides the recipe. “And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click.”

Seven nights later Ninete returns. There may be a touch of Isaac Singer’s supernatural here but not really, not if the madam had “began to ask the police to bring her again,” not if Jim Crow worked as intended on the oppressed, whatever their pigment or uses. Whores have always been aristocracy’s fetish.

Transition, Summer 1928

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Stories from Behind the Stove” (1969)

Isaac singer stories behind stove

Sterling Ruby – Black Stoves 1, 2, 3, 4 painted stainless steel – installation view at La Museé de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris.

There are times when Isaac Singer the fiction writer is really Isaac Singer the editorialist who doesn’t have a solid piece but has been filling his grab-bag with little tidbits that can be thrown together in an item, what The Times called “Topics,” what every provincial paper calls any of a number of stupid terms to justify the laziness or the pointlessness, from “darts and laurels” to “hearts and arrows.” “Stories from Behind the Stove” is one of those grabby stories, a rehash of the usual themes, the demons around us, spread over three tales, one about a disappearing shed, one about a disappearing rabbi, the third one I’m not so sure. I lost interest. The morale is convenient: “With the exception of God and stone, everything is mad.”

Di goldene keyt 66, 1969, A Friend of Kafka

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Key” (1969)

Bessie Popkin isn’t the only one confused in the story. Isaac Singer is a bit confused to. He sets up his widow heroine in the opening paragraphs as a woman paranoid of dybbuks and evils all around her in descriptions that make her seem more like a woman in the creeping stages of dementia. She lives on Broadway, she despises New York, especially its colorful people. She seldom ventures past her blocks. One day returning from the market she breaks her key. She never gave a spare to the superintendent, thinking he steals. She wanders the streets, giving us a few of the city as it was around 1967, when Singer wrote the story (the picture above was by David Attie of Getty Images, taken in 1968):

She notices an accident, firefighters cleaning the street of the victim. The reader thinks she’s seeing herself, dead. As she wanders about, she thinks, passing by a church and huddling in its doorway, where she sleeps, unmolested, of making reckoning. She has an epiphany. The animals she had always despised, she now loves, embodied in a cat that purred by her. It’s night, but “the fear of death was gone, along with her fear of being homeless.” She returns home. The superintendent helps her get back in her house. She is amazed by his kindness. A neighbor had placed the milk and butter she’d left at the door in her own fridge. Again, Bessie is amazed by th kindness. She goes into her room, lies down, feels something strange rise from her feet to her breast and as if dreams of her husband telling her, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter—and mazel too.” Is she dead?

Th confusion I referred to has to do with that first page: the details Singer sets out don’t relate to anything else in the story, at least not those that imply she is forgetful or delusional.

Here’s how The New Yorker summarizes the story, which ran in the Dec. 6, 1969 issue: “Bessie Popkin, a widow for over 20 years, lives alone in her apartment near Broadway. She has become slatternly and suspicious, feeling tormented by Evil Powers. Returning from a shopping trip, she tries to open her door, but the key breaks in the lock. Leaving her groceries in the hall, she goes in search of a locksmith. Exhausted from wandering in the darkness, Bessie dozes off on a church step. Awaking late at night, she sees the moon for the first time in years and thinks of her husband Sam. In a renascence, she decides to start a new life. Reaching home in the morning, she finds that a neighbor has taken care of her groceries and that the superintendent does have a key to the apartment. She lies down on her bed, feeling a heaviness and vibrations in her body, and dreams that Sam comes. Together they walk through a corridor which leads to two mountains meeting, with sunrise or sunset between them. In the voice of the hotel owner who had led them to their bridal suite, she hears the words, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter–and mazel tov.””

The New Yorker, December 6, 1969