One of the great discoveries Ann and I made while editing The Weird compendium was the work of US author Eric Basso. His neo-Gothic, beautifully strange fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction are without a doubt essential reading for anyone who loves weird literature. He has had a cult following among avant-garde gothic writers since “The Beak Doctor” was first published by the Chicago Review in 1977. Since then he has published a novel, several plays, many poetry collections, and a book of nonfiction. In part, “The Beak Doctor” reads like a modern, more Joycean version of the first selection in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side,” in that the nameless city is plagued by a strange sleeping sickness.
So we’re very happy to be hosting a week of appreciating the works of Eric Basso over at Weirdfictionreview.com. If you’ve never read Basso before, or read critical essays on his work, you’re in for a treat.
We’re running more material tomorrow and Friday, but for now here are the relevant links, with teasers…
Our managing editor, Adam Mills, provides his thoughts on Basso, and welcomes readers: His writing is marked by a quality I would label as simultaneity. Oftentimes within even the same paragraph, there are details and cues suggesting actions taking places at different levels of action, possibly even in different locations. It is left up to the reader to try and maintain the order of events while they read his writing. More often than not, typical conceptions of time and causality cannot be taken as givens.
Mills also interviews Basso: “I was a great admirer of the principles of Surrealism, the daring mind-experiments they performed on themselves, which really carries back to Rimbaud. So I began, at nineteen, to experiment on my own consciousness, particularly the process through which we pass from the conscious to the unconscious every time we fall asleep. What most would regard as an eccentricity became a discipline with me. I was able to remember and recount the bizarre and illogical journey that takes place, on a daily basis, in our heads. I learned to lie still, immediately after waking from a dream, so I could seize the memory of it before it slipped away.”
An exclusive excerpt from Basso’s most famous work, “The Beak Doctor”: Before the mask. I must at least go through the motions for as long as the antitoxin can keep me awake. An increase from 0.5ml. of a 2,000 million per ml. vaccine, given as the first dose. My eyelids are get¬ting heavy. A little while, and yet a while longer, to follow the tick of the clock (corner-of-the-eye hallucinations: livid specks that seem to jump out of the walls before a glance decomposes them), and I will have begun to dream. A window impossible to distance. Somewhere beyond the grimy panes there was, there is, another room, high above Promontory Wall, where he used to spend his time.
Larry Nolen’s 101 Weird Writers appreciation of Basso and “The Beak Doctor”: As the story unfolds and the narrator wanders through a city afflicted with a strange sleeping sickness, he encounters strange sights, such as a “headless shirt with no visible legs. One bare arm reaches slowly for the glass stem. Suddenly the hand draws back, as though a spark had passed from the smoky helix through the tip of one of its fingers.” There are even deeper, weirder mysteries to be encountered as he moves on through the city.
Weird fiction icon D.F. Lewis chronicles his real-time encounter with Basso’s Beak Doctor: Imagine the almost endless ‘sweep-shot’ of the Dunkirk madness in the film ‘Atonement’?–?here densely textured, bememorised, TS Eliot blended with Dickens, a cruelly fog-masked synaesthetica of a journey over variegated surfaces and amid befogged characters towards an inconclusive ‘Roundhouse’, a bookful journey by the I-Narrator doctor (interspersed, say, with a cat’s journey (Maybury’s cat?)), a stumbling rite-of-passage through a modern (post-holocaust?) world become Dickensian again as transcended by a discrete imagination that is granted you by the author as your imagination…
Part 1 of Basso’s own brilliant essay “Annihilation”: The human head may be taken as an ideal model for the contradictions inherent in animastic annihilation. Consider the case of a corpse newly dead and in full habit; that is, of one who has died without suffering the ravages of starvation or disease. The flesh lends itself readily to a close, pore by pore examination; its finest details gain an incredible sharpness by virtue of their immobility. Nostril hairs, commissures of tooth and gum, shallows between half-open lips where the tongue curls in the dry cavern of the mouth, these are subtleties that go far beyond even the most skillfully crafted waxworks effigy, though the skin, through the slow gravitation of blood to a lower depth, assumes the pallor of dulled candlewax. Often, as in litera¬ture, a physiognomy much troubled in life can ransom a few lost years from the brief repose preceding rigor mortis; fretlines may yield to a smooth, unaccustomed complexion as the eyes flatten under their lids, settling fast in the skull’s sockets.
Matthew Pridham’s excellent dissection of Basso’s work, from the Beak Doctor on to several other texts: Basso’s oeuvre is a challenging one, filled with odd states of consciousness and mutable, disorienting realities, as well as a referential, grimly poetic style. These pieces reward careful attention and a willingness to temporarily surrender some of one’s expectations. I hope that new trends in critical theory and genre tastes will bring his work the broader readership it deserves. Those who delve into it will come away with an enhanced sense of what is possible in fiction as well as the sensation of having briefly visited a strange new, yet oddly familiar, world.
what I could feel on my eyes
blank spatulate tips of stone
cold against the heaviness of the lids
hands caked with coal slivers and dust
and no ointment to salve the horror
of the haunting ground below
And, finally, Larry Nolen’s “Caught in a Moment,” providing some insightful thoughts into Basso’s poetry: Throughout “Villa of the Mysteries,” references to “dreams” and “blindness” abound. There are references to dreams that foretell horror and doom, dreams of separation. Blindness lurks in the dark caverns, in the personified monster, in fates that are unseen by others. Both are bound together in the person of Tiresias, whose own fate figures in several Greek poems and myths. “Villa of the Mysteries” grabs attention quickly because it cuts straight to the heart of the matter: we often enter labyrinths that confuse us, upset us, and make us turn our heads away in shame and eagerness to forget what we have just encountered.
Tomorrow we’re running part 2 of Basso’s essay “Annihilation” and a great appreciation by John H. Stevens…