…and so on to the next story that describes the context of these words: “…widows, as exemplifying the survival of the matrimonially fittest,…”
THE SPHINX WITHOUT A SECRET by Oscar Wilde
This famous brief prose fiction about a literal conservative man bewitched by the amorphously, arguably un-literal secrecy in the mystery of a woman whom he fatefully glimpses. Yet, I see her haunting mystery, “looking like a moonbeam in grey lace”, as a straightforwardly LITERAL means to trap a man into the web of her desires. Until she, in this story told by the man, reliable or not, succumbs to a sudden congestion of the lungs, implying that the power of our human bodies to rule over or submit to matters of life is far more unilaterally mysterious than anything hard-and-fast or reconditely malleable that one does or believe or even simply is. There lies fate.
I was long ago inspired by the next author’s The Smoking Leg and The Feasting Dead, regarding both of which works I now feel the need to revisit, but I can’t remember reading his Nightmare Jack before, although I probably did and have forgotten or made myself forget…
NIGHTMARE JACK by John Metcalfe
“Only in his little wicked eyes did the old, evil light yet creep and flicker, and the succulent sin seem still to well and ooze.”
“You of all men, you Nurse, you mother’s plague, you man-stealer!”
“It was something like vaccination, and ‘took’ better with some than others.”
This otherwise old-fashioned seeming Limehouse tale can only be read properly today in the light of recent events — a tale of evil and retribution and greed creeping and flickering back along with Chambers’ Yellow Sign of a seeping God (now stigmata on crooked cheeks and crazed by recurrent finger pointing) with East London smells and stretching stuckness of the headily atmospheric river, sheathed claws, crooks and neerdowells, their cursed rubies stolen from Burmah. And its importance as a prophetic work is now assured. Welcome or unwelcome as a catharsis, you must decide for yourself. The eponymous dying frizzled man behind the “locked door” and we grizzlers who crowd and listen to his eluded or elided words. The dreams that outlast covividly their own dreams’ dreams; Pongo the cat to symbolise ironically a yearned for loss of smell, the most evil of the evil men also ironically christened — by the eponymous natterjack or Nark — with the name Nurse. For God’s sake, don’t look behind you! This story points at you!, as you recall “windows drummed like blood against the brain.” That dry, brown face haunted and haunting, ‘giggling like a girl.’ This work surely outdoes even the insidious book of King in Yellow with, now, an otherwise inscrutable “mythos of the Web and Loaf, and the faded terror of the Triple Scum.” The rubies’ juice, those blood clots, making you describe your nightmares parrot fashion or like a schoolboy in rote.
“Save me; save me from their bloody Nark . . . The man ’oo speaks like a girl an’ smells like a goat . . . the cat ‘as . . .”
“‘My own idea,’ said he, ‘is that if a ghost ever does come in one’s way, one ought to speak to it.’”
Instead he tries to disassemble it! A rather convoluted introduction about British colonial men abroad, and who is telling which story to whom! But when we finally get to the core story, it is genuinely horrific, its horror seemingly for horror’s sake, without rhyme, reason or moral. Fair enough. I always enjoy it on that level. The man telling this story to a relative stranger on a sea voyage, however, seems to suspect a horrific hoax within his own story, but perhaps in truth his story itself — like Jorkens’ earlier tall story in this book (he mentions ‘Jorrocks’ here in the ironic Aickman-like context of meeting a lady who has discussed “modern fiction” with him and the need, she felt, for “melancholy” in all good literature!) — was the real hoax, in order to rationalise or excuse or hide the concupiscent impulse of his otherwise strange request to the listener to share the listener’s cabin even though the storyteller had a cabin of his own on the ship!
“…and we talked of partridges past, partridges present, and pheasants to come.”
“Little Lene, we’re stretching the ink nicely”, as the German mother says to her daughter during the English father’s now famous car breakdown at the start of this most frightening classic strange story in the 1920s, prefiguring the war with Germany that Lene later lives through. Or we stretch beautifully in the ink, depending on the vagaries of translation? As Lene does ironically at the end when her truly classic premonition of the nature of a covivid dream — that many of us now experience, if without her thunderstorm — pans out amid the equivalent vagaries of the quagmire or marsh around the equally famous ‘dollshouse’, a house then becoming real with Lene herself having by then grown up into older age. The original dollshouse as ‘toy’ was bought for her after the car breakdown when accompanied by both her parents and her young brother and the latter’s ‘pudgy’ book as big as his head, none of which or whom I need describe here. Why were they helped by the man in the other car — because of the beauty of small Lene’s flaxen hair or because of her mother’s more sophisticated honey hair? (I feel sorry, incidentally, that her brother does not get his ‘toy’, the one of ornamental telegraph-wires.) The ink stretching may obliquely be the reason Aickman decided to include this story in an anthology that he himself was editing — possibly because Lene is a reliable narrator divorced from him as the story’s creator, instead of her being its unreliable narrator that we have long assumed her to be, especially in view of some of her cannibalistic hints surrounding the dollshouse’s inner room and trophy room. As Margaret was told to eat her mört in another story (Into the Wood), Lene’s brother is here told to eat his herring. Not only that, but Lene, when still a child, was made to read Moby Dick.
“…but now I began to perceive how relative and instrumental truth could be. I need not say: not in those terms. Such clear concepts, with all they offer of gain and loss, come later, if they come at all. In fact, I need not say that the whole of what goes before is so heavily filtered through later experience as to be of little evidential value. But I am scarcely putting forward evidence. There is so little.”