Surrealist-Expressionist Mash-Up: Alfred Kubin, Decadents, Max Brod, Franz Blei, The First Hour After Death, and Last Drink Bird Head

Jeff VanderMeer • June 16th, 2009 @ 5:46 pm • Book Reviews, Fiction

“The characteristic feature of this strange art is that it attempts to depict the extrasensory, to provide symbols for the mysterious forces to which we are subjected in our daily lives but which we do not know–indeed, that is revealed to us only in wild dreams and fantasies, in states of clairvoyant nervous strain….[Such art] may be born from feelings of anxiety, of isolation, of floundering horror. With a self-tormenting love, it seeks the nocturnal sides of life; it is at home in twilight, in torment, in the wild, in the uncanny, and the ghastly…” – 1903 Berliner Illustrirte (a painter of the invisible).

So…I posted this piece on Alfred Kubin on Omnivoracious. My excuse? China Mieville’s new novel is apparently influenced by Kubin, and he’s guest-blogging on Omnivoracious. Also take a look at these prior posts on Kubin and on Dedalus and the Decadents.

Kubin led to Franz Blei and his description of Kafka: “The Kafka is a magnificent and very rarely seen moon-blue mouse, which eats no flesh, but feeds on bitter herbs. It is a bewitching sight, for it has human eyes.”)

Kafka led to Max Brod, and Brod led to memories of City of Saints & Madmen and “King Squid,” which lovingly ransacked Dedalus Decadent editions for much of its influence (it was a way of remembering the books I’d read), including in the bibliography–in fact, to this day, I keep calling Franz Blei Frank Blei and Max Brod Maxwell Brod because of it…which led to remembering China’s contribution to the bibliography, heh (Vielle, C.M., Naughty Lisp and the Squid: A Poly Diptych). Which led to Max Brod’s “The First Hour of Death” in The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy: 1890-2000.

I encountered the title in the TOC while finishing up the appendix sections of City of Saints, read the first sentence (“The odd incident occurred as the minister was leaving…”), realized I wanted a different story for the title, and promptly sat down and wrote my own “In the Hours After Death,” presented in City of Saints as having appeared in the neo-Decadent Burning Leaves journal. If it reaches past that context of affectionate nod to its predecessors, it’s because I wrote it in a moment of utter and devastating sadness, and I offer it up here as a sacrifice to this week of ongoing decadent-surrealist-literary fantasy that I’ve got going.

(Oh, and go vote for or against Last Drink Bird Head in SF Signal’s cover contest…)

IN THE HOURS AFTER DEATH

I

In the first hour after death, the room is so still that every sound holds a terrible clarity, like the tap of a knife against glass. The soft pad of shoes as someone walks away and closes the door is profoundly solid—each short footstep weighted, distinct. The body lies against the floor, the sightless eyes staring down into the wood as if some answer has been buried in the grain. The back of the head is mottled by the shadows of the trees that sway outside the open window. The trickle of red from the scalp that winds its way down the cheek, to puddle next to the clenched hand, is as harmless now, leached of threat, as if it were colored water. The man’s features have become slack, his mouth parted slightly, his expression surprised. The wrinkles on his forehead form ridges of superfluous worry. His trumpet lies a few feet away . . . From outside the window, the coolness of the day brings the green-gold scent of lilacs and crawling vines. The rustle of leaves. The deepening of light. A hint of blue through the trees. After a time, a mouse, fur ragged and one eye milky white, sidles across the floor, sits on its haunches in front of the body, and sniffs the air. The mouse circles the man. It explores the hidden pockets of the man’s gray suit, trembles atop the shoes, nibbles at the laces, sticks its nose into a pant cuff. A metallic sound, faint and chaotic, rises through the window. The mouse stands unsteadily on its hind legs and sniffs the air again, then scurries back to its hole underneath the table. The sound intensifies, as of many instruments lurching together in drunken surprise. Perhaps the noise startled the mouse, or perhaps the mouse was frightened by some changed aspect of the man himself. The man’s chin has begun to sprout tendrils of dark green fungi that mimic the texture of hair, curling and twisting across the man’s face while the music comes ever closer. The tendrils move in concert. The clash of sounds has more unity than raw cacophony, yet no coherence. It seems as if several people tuning their instruments have begun to play their own separate, unsynchronized melodies. Somewhere in the welter of pompous horns and trumpets, a violin whines dimly. The tendrils of fungi wander in lazy attempts to colonize the blood. The music rollicks along, by turns melancholy and defiant. The man hears nothing, of course; the blood has begun to crust across his forehead. The smell of the room has become fetid, damp. The shadows have grown darker. The table in the corner—upon which lies a half-eaten sandwich—casts an ominous shade of purple. Eventually, the music reaches a crescendo beneath the window. It has a questioning nature, as if the people playing the instruments are looking at one another, asking each other what to do next. The man’s face moves a little from the vibration. His fungi beard is smiling. In a different light, he might almost look alive, intently staring at the floorboards, into the apartments below. Bells toll dimly from the Religious Quarter, announcing dinner prayers. The afternoon is almost gone. The room feels colder as the light begins to leave it. The music becomes less hesitant. Within minutes, the music is clanking up the stairs, toward the apartment. The music sounds as if it is running. It is running. The tendrils, in a race with the music, have spread farther, faster, covering all of the man’s face with a dark green mask. As if misinterpreting their success, they do not spread out over the rest of his body but instead build on the mask, until it juts hideously from the face. The door begins to buckle before a blaring of horns, a torrid stitching of violins. Someone puts a key into the lock and turns the doorknob. The door opens. The music enters in all its chaotic glory. The man lies perfectly still on the floor beside the almost dry puddle of blood. A forest of legs and shoes surround him. The music becomes a dirge, haunted by the ghost of some strange fluted instrument. The musicians circle the body, their distress flowing through their music, their long straight shadows playing across the man’s body. But for a tinge of green, the man’s face has regained its form. The fungus has disappeared. Who could have known this would happen? Only the dead man, who had been looking into the grain as if some mystery lay there. The dead man lurches to his feet and picks up his trumpet. Smiles. Takes his hat from the table and places it on his head, over the blood. Wets his lips. He puts the trumpet to his mouth as all the other instruments become silent. He begins to blow, the tone clear yet discordant, his own music but not in tune. The faces of his friends come into focus, surround him, buzzing with words. His friends laugh. They hug him, tell him how glad they are it was all a joke; they had heard the most terrible things; please, do not scare them that way again. They did not know whether to play for a funeral or a rumorless resurrection. Unable to decide, they had played for both at once. He laughs, pats the nearest on the back. Play, he says. But he is not part of them. Play, he implores. But he is not one of them. And they play—marching out the door with him, they play. He is no longer one of them. When the door closes, the room is as empty as before, although the stairs echo with music. Over time, the sound fades. It fades until it is not even the memory of a sound, and then not even that. Nothing moves in the room. The man has been returned to himself. This is the first hour of death in the city of Ambergris. You may not rest for long. You may, in a sense, become yourself again. Worst of all, you may remember every detail but be unable to do anything about it.

II

In the second hour after death, the man finds himself with his musician friends playing a concert in a public park. A crowd has gathered, some standing, others kneeling or sitting on benches. The trumpet is hot and golden in the man’s hands. With each breath he blows into his trumpet, he feels the surge of an unidentifiable emotion and a detail from his past appears in his mind. The man feels as if he were filling up with Life, each breath enhancing him rather than maintaining him. He remembers his name—the round, generous vowels of it—but resists the urge to shout it out. A name is a good foundation on which to build. The members of the audience are cheerful smudges compared to the clear, sharp lines of his friends as they move in time-honored synchronicity with their instruments. Their names, too, pop into his head—each a tiny explosion of pleasure. Soon, he swims in a sea of names: mother, father, brother, daughter, postman, baker, bartender, butcher, shopkeeper…He smiles the radiant smile of a man who has recalled his life and found it good. This is the pinnacle of the second hour, although not all are so lucky. To some, the knowledge of identity seems to be escaping through their pores, each exhaled thought just another casualty of the emptying. The man, however, is not so truthful with himself. He smells the honeysuckle, tastes the pipe smoke from a passerby, hears the tiny bells of an anklet tinkling through a pause in the music and does not wonder why these sensations are dull, muffled. His friends faces are so near and sharp. Why should he worry about the rest? The blur of the world shouldn’t be his concern. The instruments that seem so cruel, all honed edges, the metal reflecting at odd angles to create horrible disfigurements of his face? Why, it is just a trick of the shadows. The quickness of his breath? Why, it is just the aftermath of musical epiphany. The fluttering of his eyelids. The sudden pallor. The smudge of green that he wipes with irritation from his cheek…When the concert ends and the crowds disperse under threat of night, the man is quick to nod and laugh and join in one last ragged musical salute. An invitation down narrow streets to a café for a drink elicits a desperate gratitude—he slaps the backs of his friends, nods furiously, already beginning to lose the names again: pennies fallen through a hole in a shirt pocket. On the way to the café, he notices how strangely the city now speaks to him, in the voices of innuendo and suggestion, all surfaces unknown, all buildings crooked or deformed or worse. The sidewalk vendors are ciphers. The passersby count for less than shadows; he cannot look at them directly, his gaze a repulsing magnet. He clutches his trumpet, knuckles white. He would like to play it, bring the jovial wide vowels of his name once more into focus, but he cannot. The names of his friends fast receding, his laughter becomes by turns forced, nervous, sad, and then brittle. When they reach the café, the man looks around the beer-strewn table at his friends and wonders how he fell in with such amiable strangers. They call him by a name he barely remembers. The sky fills with a darkness that consists of the weight of all the thoughts that have left him. The man wraps his jacket tight. The street lamps are cold yellow eyes peering in through the window. The conversations at the table tighten around the man in layers, each sentence less and less to do with him. Now he cannot look at them. Now they run away to the edge of his vision like a trickle of blood from a wound. The man’s last image of his dead wife leaves him, his daughter’s memory lost in the same moment. Even the dead do not want to die. Stricken, face animated by fear, he stands and announces that he must leave, he must depart, he must go home, although thoughts of the grainy apartment floor leave a dread like ice in his bowels…This, then, is the last defiant act of the second hour: to state a determination to take action, even though you will never take that action. The world has become a mere construct—a hollow reed created that you might breathe. You may hear echoes of a strange and sibilant music, coursing like an undercurrent through inanimate objects. This music may bring tears to your eyes. It may not. Regardless, you are now entering the third hour of death.

III

In the third hour after death, all other memories having been emptied and extinguished, the repressed memory of lifelessness returns, although the man denies the truth of it. Denies the sting of splinters against his face, the taste of sawdust, the comfort of the cool floorboards. He thinks it is a bad dream and mutters to himself that he will just walk a little longer to clear up the headaches pulsing through his head. The man still holds his trumpet. Every few steps, he stops to look at it. He is trying to remember what he once used it for. The third hour can last for a very long time. After awhile, staring at his trumpet, an unquenchable sadness rises over him until he is engulfed in a sorrow so deep it must be borne because nothing better lies beyond it. It is the sorrow of lost details; the darkness of it hints at the echoes of memories now gone. Indirectly, the man can sense what grieves him, but the very glittering reflection of its passage is enough to blind him. To him, it feels as if the natural world has made him sad, for he has wandered into a park and the sky far above through the branches seethes with the light of a restless moon. If the man could only see his way to the center of a single memory and hold it in his mind, he might understand what has happened to him. Instead, from the edge of his attention, the absence of mother, father, wife, daughter, leaves only outlines. It is too much to bear. It must be borne . . . In some cases, recognition may take the form of violent acts—one last convulsion against the inevitable. But not in the man’s case. In him, the sorrow only deepens, for he has begun to suspect the truth. The man wanders through gardens and courtyards, through tree-lined neighborhoods and along city-tamed streams, all touched equally by the blank expanse of night. He is without thought except to avoid thought, without purpose except to avoid purpose. He does not tire—nothing without will can ever tire—and as he walks, he begins to touch what he passes. He runs his hands through the scruffy tops of bushes. He rubs his face against the trunk of a tree. He follows the line of a sidewalk crack with his finger. As the night progresses, a tightness enters his face, a self-aware phosphorescence. When he leans down to float his hand through a fountain pool, his face wavers in the water like a green-tinged second moon. Passersby run away or cross the street at his approach. He has no opinion on this; it does not upset or amuse him. He is rapidly becoming Other: Otherwhere, Otherflesh. His trumpet? Long ago fallen from a distracted grasp…Eventually, the trailing hand will find something of more than usual interest. For the man, this occurs when he sits down on a wooden bench and the touch of the grain on his palm brings a familiarity welling up through his fingertips. He runs his arms across the wood. He strokes the wood, trying to form a memory from before the sorrow. He lies down on the bench and presses his face against the grain . . . until he sees his apartment room and the blood pooling in the foreground of his vision and knows that he is dead. Then the man sits up, his receding sorrow replaced by nothing. Tendrils of fungi rise from their hiding places inside his body. The man waits as they curl across his face, his torso, his arms, his legs. And he sees the night for possibly the first time ever. And he sees them coming out from the holes in the night. But he does not flinch. He does not run. He no longer even tries to breathe. He no longer tries to be anything other than what he is. For this is the last phase of the third hour of death. After the third hour, you will never be unhappy again. You will never know pain. You will never have to endure the sting of an unkind word. Every muscle, every sinew, every bone, every blood vessel in your body will relax to let in the darkness. When they come for you, as they surely will, you will finally understand, under the cool weavings of the tendrils, what a good thing this can be. You will finally understand that there is no fourth hour after death. And you will marvel that the world could be so still, so silent, so clear.

2 Responses to “Surrealist-Expressionist Mash-Up: Alfred Kubin, Decadents, Max Brod, Franz Blei, The First Hour After Death, and Last Drink Bird Head”

  1. swartzfeger says:

    Kubin, heh… I think it was a few summers back I discovered Kubin, your own CoSaM, Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Nabokov (Pale Fire), Michael Cisco (Divinity Student) and Jonathan Carroll (Land of Laughs) within the span of 6 weeks. I was left bloodied, dazed, like getting hit by a literary Mac truck.

  2. Michael says:

    After reading your amazon blog I’ve got to admit you’ve peaked my interest with Alfred Kubin. Curse you VanderMeer! …..More books to add to my already substantially growing pile!

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