Tag Archives: the weird

The Weird ~ The Crowd ~ Ray Bradbury

I have decided to pick up a project I put down some time ago because, well, life, stuff, the usual reasons, mostly life and stuff. So it’s back to reading The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Crowd’ is the last of a group of stories in The Weird (the others were Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ and Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Smoke Ghost’) which seemed to focus very specifically on the intrusion of weirdness into the mundane. In many respects, Bradbury’s story is the most mundane of the three. While Leiber transforms the oppressive smoky atmosphere of the city into something tangible, and Wollheim speculates about the nature of the people who hide in, and on, its anonymous buildings, Bradbury turns instead to a common-or-garden phenomenon: the crowd that gathers when an accident occurs.

We’re probably all seen it. Something happens. A crowd very quickly forms. In this instance, Mr Spallner has crashed his car, and for a moment there is silence. And then ‘The crowd came running’ (284). As Bradbury says, ‘They had all come from – where? Houses, cars, alleys, from the immediate and the accident-shocked world. Out of alleys and out of hotels and out of streetcars and seemingly out of nothing they came’ (284).

On the one hand, we might see this as simple curiosity. People want to know what’s happening. And yet Bradbury has already imbued the scene with a subtle menace: ‘they came running’ somehow sounds more threatening than it ought to, given Mr Spallner has had an accident, and that menace is enhanced by the reference to ‘the sound of their numerous feet’. It makes them sound more like charging animals than human beings, and perhaps this hints at the nature of Mr Spallner’s anxiety. The crowd isn’t people so much as a thing in itself: urban living has been characterised for a couple of centuries at least by that fear of the crowd, the mob, the capacity for violence. One can get lost in a crowd, true, but simultaneously, the crowd can turn on someone. There is a moment when you might think of the crowd as being like one of those big flocks of birds on their way to winter roosting, twisting and turning in the sky, an entity made of individuals. It’s a very curious thing indeed.

Mr Spallner is alarmed by the crowd. They pronounce upon his survival as he is lifted into the ambulance, like a gathering of street sibyls, but while he is reassured by this, knows that they are right, something isn’t right.

The crowd looked at him and he looked back at them and did not like them at all. There was a vast wrongness to them. He couldn’t put his finger on it. (284)

Perhaps it is that Mr Spallner doesn’t like to be the centre of attention:

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in. That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity. (249)

This seems to me to be about more than a man surrounded by people after an accident. Instead, it touches perhaps on a deeper dislike of living too close to other people, of having too much of your business known.

Except that, unlike the crowd, Bradbury has the delicacy to turn away from the story at this point. Instead, there is something else bothering Mr Spallner: the spinning wheels on the car. There’s a nicely filmic quality to this detail. You can imagine a hallucinatory montage – the wheels spinning, the ring of faces, the wheels spinning, the ring of faces …

And finally, Spallner works it out. Or at any rate, it’s played so long on his mind, he thinks he’s worked it all out. The wheels on the car are still spinning. How did the crowd get there so quickly? Spallner’s doctor suggests that his sense of time has been affected: what seemed like a short time was probably much longer. And that may be true, though the only time I was ever in a road accident, my experience was that while it might have seemed to go on for a while, I know the whole incident was over in seconds because the same news item was being broadcast on the radio. So time dilates rather than contracts. (For that matter, people arrived on the scene very quickly indeed, which suggests again that Spallner’s concerns might have a psychological origin.)

Much of the middle portion of the story is predicated on the idea that once you notice something, you can’t stop noticing. And thus Spallner, having become obsessed with the speed at which the crowd arrives, can’t stop looking at the crowd when it does arrive, and making patterns. If it weren’t for the confirmation offered by a taxi driver about how odd it is, perhaps he would let the matter drop. But he doesn’t, and there is the moment when he witnesses the aftermath of another accident, notes the speed at which people come running, and hears someone in the crowd saying that the victim shouldn’t have been moved. And the moment when he feels the faces, or many of them, are familiar.

Spallner starts looking at old photos of crowds at road accidents for some sort of confirmation of his new idea that it is the same people reappearing. ‘Old photos of crowds at road accidents’– it’s all too easy to forget how this sort of thing was once news to the extent that you might record the presence of the living as well as the vehicles themselves. (And this is not a thing that Bradbury has made up specifically for this story – there are historical photos all over the internet.)

So, we have moved from Spallner’s sense of wrongness, which we might interpret as a personal dislike of proximity, to an external confirmation of the presence of the same people at accidents, over and over, though Spallner has not, so far, connected the two. But I find myself wondering, given the fuzziness of newspaper photographs, how he can be so sure. Or does he want to be sure. Has he constructed an explanation that makes even less sense?

Quite late in the story it’s hinted that Spallner himself has started finding his way to accidents, looking for these people, these members of the crowd, but somehow is always thwarted in his attempts to actually speak to them. And we might begin to wonder then what Spallner himself has turned into. Do these people even exist? How is it that they always ‘slip into the crowd and vanish’ (287).

And you’ve probably already guessed how this is going to turn out, more because it is inevitable than because it is heavily signalled, although it’s fairly clear what is to happen once Spallner realises that the same people keep appearing.

But what we never know is why they are doing it. Or what it is they are doing. According to Spallner, they arrive ‘to make certain the right ones live and the right ones die’ (288), which makes them sound like some sort of urban Fates, though he quickly enough turns this into murder, so it’s not a passive exercise. And yet, it is as though Spallner himself doesn’t know what they are. They are ‘the faces, the construction, the cast’ (289), somehow always there. Or at any rate, since the city grew up. What was it before car accidents, I wonder? Riding accidents? Carts overturning? Or did they emerge into being specifically because of the car smashes?

We never know. In fact, we never can know. That’s the beauty of the story. And yet, ever afterwards, you can never look at a street accident in quite the same way.

Things I read on the internet 10/2/2014


Publishers Taylor and Francis have made a bundle of articles entitled Gothic Origins free to view online until the end of March. Also, and almost more interesting, they are downloadable too.

People Writing About Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Weird

Paul Kincaid writes about Boon, a little-read but much-cited novel by H.G. Wells.

Tom Pollock talks about Keeping It Real in a passionately argued piece.

Steve Rasnic Tem on Southern Gothic and the Appalachian Weird

World SF

Islam and Science Fiction is currently running a series on Pakistani SF

Urban Studies

Geographically correct subway maps

Clips and Stills

The Importance of Winston T Zeddemore in Ghostbusters.

First aerial photograph of Lower Manhattan

Salvador Dali’s last Film: Impressions of Mongolia (the search for a giant hallucinogenic mushroom

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with narration by Orson Welles

Visual Static

R. Crumb illustrates Philip K. Dick’s religious experiences

Saint-Exupery’s original watercolours for The Little Prince

Paper Studies

I’d feel a lot better about my book-buying habit if I could use the packaging in my garden.

Dept of Wait! What?

Scientists strap fake tails to chickens to figure out how T Rex walked. I think the moral of this is, don’t keep chickens, ever.

Fifty Shades of Wrongness

Five Things To Consider About Science Fiction by Steve Davidson. I don’t even know where to start with this piece, which seems to boil down to ‘guys, you just don’t understand’. On the basis of some of this, no, I don’t think I do, and I’m not sure I want to.

Nine Amazing Books That Feature Magic Realism – only part of that heading is accurate.

Archaelogical Digs

Virginia Woolf visits Stonehenge

Last Thoughts

The Periodic Table of Storytelling – not because I necessarily agree with it but because I like periodic tables.

I would dispute whether The Dreadnought Hoax is the greatest hoax in history, but it’s an interesting one.

Ghosts of a Parisian apartment frozen in time

The Secret Lives of Action Figures in Imaginary Everyday Scenarios

The Weird – The Hell Screen – Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Today I’m returning to the short stories of The Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, and this time I’m discussing Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s ‘The Hell Screen’.

By yet another of those peculiar coincidences that The Weird seems to bring with it, it turns out that I am familiar with ‘The Hell Screen’, as it has been read on BBC Radio 4 Extra a number of times in the last few years. However, I have the impression that the dramatised reading was somewhat sanitised as this story seems much darker than I recall (but given Radio 4 Extra’s habit of endlessly recycling the same bits of material, the story must be due for another outing any time now).

Akutagawa (1892-1927) is often called the ‘father of the Japanese short story’. His first story, ‘Rashomon’, lives on in Kurosawa’s film of the same name, although Kurosawa used the setting of ‘Rashomon’ and took the film’s plot and characters from another of Akutagawa’s stories, ‘In a Grove’. Akutagawa committed suicide at the age of thirty-five, and his last words in his will are variously translated as saying that he felt ‘a vague uneasiness’ or ‘a vague insecurity’, and that is perhaps a useful starting point in thinking about this story.

It is narrated by a court attendant of the High Lord of Horikawa, and tells of what can only be described as an epic battle of wills between Horikawa himself and Yoshihide, a painter, whom even the narrator admits was considered ‘the first among painters, an unrivalled artist’.

The story begins with a series of observations about Horikawa, intended to demonstrate his perfection. At least, one might suppose that, for the attendant’s narrative seems to be sycophantic, almost hagiographic, in its account of his wondrousness, but at the same time, amid the gossipy tone, the fluttering evasions, denials and digressions, the artless mislaying of the story – one should, I think, imagine the storyteller constantly glancing over his shoulder as he hurriedly recounts this story, just in case someone else is listening – the narrator also points up the staggering cruelty of the High Lord. On the one hand, he comments that ‘I cannot recall an act that did not deserve our wonderment’ (110), and yet a few paragraphs later, he tells how ‘when construction work on the Nagara Bridge was damaged, he offered his favourite boy attendants as human pillars to propitiate the gods’ (111), which is indeed cause for wonderment, though not necessarily in the way that is superficially represented. It is certainly at variance with the claim that he ‘had a kind and generous heart that would partake in the happiness and distress of all, even the humblest among his subjects’ (110).

Yoshihide the artist is represented as the antithesis of Horikawa, with his ‘vulgar appearance and his lips, too red for his age,’ possessing ‘an unsettling bestial quality’ (111). It perhaps comes as no surprise that he is nicknamed ‘Monkey-hide’. We are to understand that Yoshihide is less than human even while Horikawa is more than human, but at the same time, the narrator betrays a certain awe of Yoshihide’s skills as an artist, as well as admiration for the beauty of Yoshihide’s daughter, Yuzuki, who is a lady in waiting in the palace. She is believed to be an object of interest to Horikawa, though the attendant denies this as unfounded rumour, just a little too often. She is also the subject of intense obsession on the part of Yoshihide himself; he has made several requests for her to be released from the lord’s employ, all of which have been refused. Again, the attendant’s narrative is all a-flutter, ever-so-vaguely hinting at something unnatural, as though he can’t see that the entire set-up of the court is one long series of unnatural happenings. And indeed, one strongly suspects that he knows all of this while making heavy weather of his protestations of innocence in order to firmly underline his hints. This is not a foolish narrator, however much he would like one to believe he is.

And yet, in various ways he betrays his culture – he constantly stresses Yoshihide’s arrogance, manifested in his recognition of his own abilities as an artist, and also in what the narrator sees as sacrilegious behaviour, not taking the spirits seriously, or using the faces of ordinary people when painting gods and goddesses. This is not unfamiliar artistic behaviour; one thinks immediately of the scandalous accounts of the behaviour of artists of the Italian renaissance, and more recently, the Pre-Raphaelite painters painted and married an assortment of young shop girls and prostitutes. Having said that, one has the sense that in Akutagawa’s story, there is a struggle going on between the notion of art as the preserve of the refined, a thing of delicacy, and Yoshihide’s terrifying form of art which bursts through propriety. ‘All the paintings by Yoshihide seemed to elicit disturbing feelings’ (113), says the narrator, and one can feel his shiver of exquisite horror when he quotes Yoshihide as saying ‘It is an unaccomplished artist who cannot perceive beauty in ugliness’ (113). And this, perhaps, is the true heart of this story: a struggle between a beauty which is underneath deeply corrupt and an ugliness which is pure in its expression. And perhaps we should reconsider, briefly, Yoshihide’s obession with his daughter: she is motherless, though we don’t know how Yoshihide’s wife died. If he is obsessed with Yuzuki, perhaps it is because he fears losing her too, or perhaps there is some underlying guilt, the cause of which we do not understand.

Much of the narrator’s story is devoted to examples of Yoshihide’s obsession with his art, and the lengths to which he will go in order to satisfy his artistic impulse. We are told that Yoshihide can only draw what he has seen with his own eyes, and given the nature of his art, we might note another delicate tremor of horror from the narrator. We are invited to see Yoshihide’s engagement with his own art as being excessive, and perhaps it is, but while the narrator is quick to criticise, there are also darker hints as to the manner in which Yoshihide is driven to such excess in pursuing his art.

It would be easy to overlook the strange story told by one of Yoshihide’s apprentices, of having to sit with his master while he sleeps, and the strange dream-argument he overhears. The dialogue is difficult to make sense of, though the references to Hell are suggestive, for Yoshihide is by this time painting the so-called Hell Screen for the High Lord. But what are we to make of ‘Come. Come to Hell. There your daughter is waiting for you’ (116)? At this point Yuzuki is still alive, so what does this refer to? And what is the nature of the dark figure looming from above that the terrified apprentice sees? It is not made clear, and our narrator does not, perhaps dare not, speculate.

One circles round the supposed cluelessness of the narrator, never more apparently evident than at the moment when he is fetched by Yuzuki’s pet monkey because, as we suppose, she is being raped by a man, perhaps the High Lord himself, and the narrator can nonetheless comment that she appears ‘alluring, quite unlike her customary childish innocence’ (119). We might take the monkey’s distress as a sign that something is wrong, but we should also bear in mind that the monkey has been christened Yoshihide by the young Prince. When he protects his mistress, is it because he is the avatar of his namesake, determined to keep Yuzuki from forming a relationship or is it genuinely because she has been assaulted. We infer the latter but it is never quite clear.

It is shortly after this event that Yoshihide asks Horikawa to burn a nobleman’s carriage and perhaps … as he has envisaged there being a woman inside … The story reaches its perhaps inevitable climax when Horikawa grants Yoshihide’s request but burns Yuzuki alive in the carriage, where she is joined by the monkey. Yoshihide the artist’s horror is transformed into ecstasy at what he is witnessing.

The Lord claims to have committed the deed to chastise Yoshihide for asking that a carriage be burned with a human inside it, which might be true, though it may be as much a convenient way of getting rid of Yuzuki. For the narrator, Yoshihide exhibits a heart of stone in witnessing his daughter’s death and then incorporating it into his art, yet the reader sees a man agonisingly torn between the horror of the moment and the beauty he perceives in its ugliness, father and artist somehow detached from one another.

And that, perhaps, is where the weirdness lies in this story, not so much in the outright horror of physical events, but in the glimpses we have into the creative tumult that Yoshihide carries with him yet which he cannot articulate simply as an act of imagination. For him it has to be real, no matter what the cost.