Following on from Monday’s post, the fifth and final part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-
FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)
Our final title, THE MADNESS OF DR. CALIGARI (F&B hc, 366pp, trade $39.95/limited $125) is due for release on the 31st of October, a date that feels significant to me though I can’t recall why. Harry O. Morris provides the cover, while interior artwork comes courtesy of Nick Gucker and Gahan Wilson. After an introduction by editor Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. this anthology of stories inspired by the 1920 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens with ‘The Words Between’ by Ramsey Campbell. It’s the story of Ross, who is taking a course in film studies and writing an essay on Caligari, but the reality of the film infects his own life, culminating in an act of violence. Reality displacement is used so effectively and insidiously that we can’t really be sure if the film has unhinged Ross or is simply a focus for his own obsession, and so like its subject matter the story blurs the boundaries between reality and our mental states.
Julia starts to sleepwalk in ‘Take a Walk in the Night, My Love’ by Damien Angelica Walters, and this is the start of a readjustment in reality, with her eventual discovery that all the things she believes to be real are an illusion, but with a final caveat that turns the situation around yet again. It’s a clever story, with a subtext that touches on misogyny and the use of women as objects, while at the same time providing a different context, one in which two unhappy people will submit to anything to find a release from their woes. From Rhys Hughes we have ‘Confessions of a Medicated Lurker’, the first person account of a man who claims to be both a doctor and an inmate in an asylum, conjecturing as to the cause of his condition, but while the story is filled with striking imagery and ideas it ultimately doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, just fizzles out. In ‘Conversion’ by Robert Levy a therapist uses a combination of hypnotism, aversion therapy, and positive reinforcement to “cure” a young man of his homosexual tendencies, but in doing so he creates a monster. Painstakingly detailing each step of the process, it’s a powerful story that casts a jaundiced eye over certain psychiatric practices, while reinventing the Caligari material in a thoroughly modern context.
A woman faking catatonia is a patient in an asylum in ‘A Rebellious House’ by Maura McHugh, but the doctors conduct occult experiments on their patients that result in their acquiring new powers and transcending their reality. Compelling and intriguing, this is a story that incorporates Caligari themes into the ancient mystery rites, but in doing so it rises above the source material to become something truly triumphant as the patients gain power over their captors, the ones who would use them. And of course there is an element of ambiguity, the possibility that it is all simply a theatrical drama, as claimed by one of the doctors. If I’m reading it rightly, David Nickle’s ‘The Long Dream’ is told from the viewpoint of psychiatrists who believe that Germany has gone mad with the rise to power of the Nazis. Their patient Conrad is a man who thinks that he lives in another reality and this is the dream, and from the perspective of the narrators civilisation itself is sleepwalking into the abyss. Obliquely told it is a story that requires more than one reading to get the full benefit, with layers upon layers of meaning. ‘Eyes Looking’ by Janice Lee is the tale of a man listing his regrets as the first step in a course of treatment that will see him taken back into society. It’s an exercise in tone of voice and perhaps valid on that level, but personally I didn’t see any real point to it.
There’s an X-Men vibe going on in Richard Gavin’s ‘Breathing Black Angles’ with the world ruled by the Manifest who wish to eliminate all darkness – both the physical absence of light and that darkness which arises in the hearts of (predominantly) women. Caligari runs a state sponsored asylum where certain women are given sanctuary and taught to use their powers. It’s a strange story and perhaps only present in this anthology because of the use of Caligari’s name, but at the same time the prose grips and the hint that something of darkness will always exist, is a necessary precondition of human existence, despite authoritarian attempts to stamp everyone from the same mould, is a powerful message. ‘Somnambule’ is the name of an expensive perfume in S.P. Miskowski’s story (and perhaps in the real world also – these things are outside my experience). A young woman relates to her friend how she acquired a bottle, the account one of abuse and madness, with the suggestion of a hypnotherapist’s intervention. Compulsively readable and with superb characterisation, it’s a tale that underlines the shittiness of so many people’s lives and how we can find pleasure in the smallest of things.
Nathan Carson’s ‘The Projection Booth’ is the story of asylum inmate Cecil, the failed love affair, psychedelic trip and act of murder that led him to be there. It’s an immersive story, one in which we feel sympathy for the character and can empathise with what happens to him, right up to the final, shocking denouement when we are forced to re-evaluate everything we have learned. More science fiction than horror, ‘The Mayor of Ephemera’ by Jeffrey Thomas has the inhabitants of that city abandoning their bodies to become immortal dreamers, with only Dr. Phemorus remaining awake and using his condition to usher in the disaster he foretold. The story cleverly reverses the usual dichotomy of Caligari, with all the characters dreamers and somnambulists, except for the one who is the killer. There’s an equally novel twist in Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Et Spiritus Sancti’ with the story reinvented as political drama, with all the main characters from the film given different roles in a power struggle for the throne. There’s a lot going on here – differences of perception, the idea of love as control mechanism, and, perhaps more controversially, the concept of benevolent despotism as a plot desiderata. We are adrift in morally ambiguous waters.
In ‘Blackstone: A Hollywood Gothic’ by Orrin Grey we find Caligari and his somnambulist assisting on the set of a 1940s horror movie, and preying on members of the production to prolong his unnatural lifespan. An archetypal horror story, it is rich in period detail, with the bonus of being told from the perspective of a black, female, scriptwriter, and builds up tension admirably before delivering a delicious end twist. Reggie Oliver’s story has a promising young composer who is employed by a famous choreographer to write ‘The Ballet of Dr. Caligari’, but Sir Daniel has plans that reach far beyond any dance performance in this gloriously sinister tale. Rich in suggestion and with a wealth of touches of incidental detail, plus intriguing characters and an understated ending, this is typical Oliver and one of the strongest stories in the anthology.
From Cody Goodfellow we have ‘Bellmer’s Bride or, The Game of the Doll’ which pitches the madness of the Third Reich in its final days against an older form of insanity, one where reality itself is up for grabs. As a Nazi officer desperately casts round for a way out he encounters the hypnotist Caligari, whose experiments might be responsible for the Reich itself, and with lessons learned from the artist Hans Bellmer the madman has infected a nation. In your face from the very start, it’s a story that keeps on throwing lurid imagery and acts of outrage at the page in a welter of steadily escalating madness. A doctor uses experimental methods to cure ‘The Insomniac Who Slept Forever’ in Michael Griffin’s story, but it all read a little too obliquely for my liking, with the lines between sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality blurred past recognition and a feeling that the author isn’t quite sure where to go with this story. Written in the form of three separate text strands tumbling down the page, Paul Tremblay gives us ‘Further Questions for the Somnambulist’ encapsulating the concerns of a woman, a man, and a child. What emerges from all of this is that while our questions are differently phrased the underlying concerns are pretty much the same: a need for reassurance that life will go on, that those who claim to love us are telling the truth, that there is some point to it all, and finally with the somnambulist’s answer all of it seems to get swept away.
Michael Cisco’s ‘The Righteousness of Conical Men’ is perhaps the most challenging piece in the anthology. Wilson is assigned to investigate the death of Councillor Hensig, who worked as a hypnotherapist and whose eyes, hands, and larynx have subsequently been taken from the body. So far, so straightforward, but the story is set in a milieu where “everyone was a doctor, everyone was named Wilson, everyone was rushing somewhere on official business, everyone wore a high-crowned conical hat, everyone had on their ‘cool sunglasses,’ everyone was conducting an important investigation, everyone was a patient” as if to underline the fact that this is fiction, artifice, and through the prose contortions capture something of the angularity of the original film sets. The net result is a fascinating and bravura performance, but one where I’m not entirely sure that substance is on a level footing with style. Ah, but what a wonderful style it is.
One of my favourite pieces, ‘That Nature Which Peers Out in Sleep’ by Molly Tanzer is a warm, delightful story that tells of a DVD store clerk whose sexuality has taken the form of a fetish focused on the 1920 film of Caligari and how that plays out in the real world. Unrestrained and non-judgemental, it’s a witty and totally convincing account of an unusual fetish, and the people who make such things work for themselves. Written in an impressionistic style, ‘A Sleeping Life’ by Daniel Mills tells of the life of a somnambulist and how he is taken advantage of by others, along the way presenting a picture of pre-WWI Germany and state corruption. It’s intriguing and vivid, but probably needs more than the one reading to get the full sense out of it.
John Langan’s ‘To See, To Be Seen’ is another highlight of the collection, told from the perspective of a man involved in emptying old houses that have been repossessed by the banks. In one such they discover the coffin of the somnambulist Cesare, a movie prop that because of its chequered history has acquired potent occult power and is subsequently used in a dangerous ritual. The matter of fact style of telling is what counts here, with a wealth of tiny details that help to bring the story to life and confer authenticity on what is happening, so that we believe in and care for the character, and at the end there is a truly unsettling monster let loose, one that will stick in the reader’s memory. ‘Caligarism’ by Gemma Files comes at things from a more oblique angle, with Winn trying to write an essay on the subject of Caligari but her efforts constantly undermined by the interruptions of flatmate Claire and a therapist who is there to treat one of them, but we’re never quite sure which. Constantly wrong footing the reader it’s a story that asks questions about the nature of reality, about the roles of the people in our lives, and finally seems to pose the answer that everything is cinema, is performance. It was an unusual end to an unusual collection, one in which not quite everything worked for me, but the best stories were all rather splendid, even if on occasion they did seem to take liberties with the professed theme of the anthology.