My knowledge of European weird and fantastic fiction is scanty, to say the least, and I haven’t, so far as I know, previously encountered Alfred Kubin. Based on this extract, I am already eager to read the rest of The Other Side, and I am curious as to how this extract fits into the broader picture.
Here we have the city of Pearl. We’re told that Pearl is ‘strange and oppressive’ in the introduction, but given no clue as to what form that strangeness and oppression might involve. However, we quickly learn that there is some sort of political struggle under way, and that Pearl’s inhabitants are also succumbing to ‘an irresistible sleeping sickness’, something that is implicitly linked to the political situation. An inexplicable desire to sleep often suggests either an unwillingness to act, or else an extreme retreat from a situation as it is; either way, one speculates that the sleeping disease is a communal response to the situation. It is notable, for example, that animals have not been affected; also, at least some animals seem to work alongside the humans.
But the sleeping disease is only a precursor to what comes next, though perhaps the catalyst, given that sleep is the relaxation of the grip of the conscious mind on the world. The sleeping mind can run riot in dreams, and at the same time, while the people sleep, the rest of the inhabitants of the Dream Realm (surely no coincidence there) also run riot, with animals of all kinds, the unseen denizens, suddenly becoming vividly visible, with plagues of insects sweeping through, large carnivores invading the houses. The presence of animals, literal as it seems to be, is inevitably also a symbolic embodiment of the fear of the townsfolk. Kubin’s narrator is very matter of fact about these invasions, and in that matter of factness perhaps lies the deepest horror. The factual recounting of this invasion, this sudden and ongoing super-abundance of animals renders the abnormal normal momentarily, before the reader mentally overbalances, trying to deal with the thought of suddenly finding fourteen rabbits in one’s bed, or snakes everywhere.
The encroachment of nature is, in science fiction, usually a more gradual process, but nonetheless is usually a signal that humanity is no longer in the ascendant. People vanish from the picture, buildings gently begin to decay; there is something picturesque, almost nostalgic in the return to pre-civilised conditions, with maybe a few people hanging on, living once more in sympathy with nature. In ‘The Other Side’, however, the speed of the changes, their simultaneity, is part of what makes this so terrifying, accentuated by the way that the human inhabitants of Pearl accept the situation, perhaps because they can do nothing else.
After the invasion of animals comes the ‘sickness of inanimate matter’, the decay of building materials, textiles, ceramics, those things that we invest so much in, without which life seems impossible. And the next threat is to life itself, as the narrator realises when he stops to consider the fate of his own body.
Is he assailed by madness as he runs through the palace, seeking Patera, to plead for his life? Or does madness lie in believing in the existence of Patera in the first place? Can one place all one’s hope in such power? The narrator’s realisation is that, effectively, it doesn’t matter what he does: ‘I took strength in the consciousness of my own impotence’, and this is the point at which he shuts out ‘doubts and anxieties’. This is where the extract finished, and I find myself wondering what will happen to the narrator; what will he choose to see or to ignore in the future, having calmly recounted everything so far. Indeed, what are the other inhabitants of the Dream Realm seeing?
This is an interesting story to start this collection, particularly the matter-of-fact tone of the recounting of extraordinary events, and the moment when the narrator realises he can no longer simply observe and narrate, but is a part of the story too, the abstract becoming personal. What does it all mean? It is unclear, except insofar as the whole extract is obviously a metaphor of sorts for the collapse of a regime, society, civilisation, a strange mixture of hope and despair.