Beware of Objects!
That’s the message of today’s story, or at least the one the narrator would have us believe. But this narrator is not to be trusted and something else is going on here. Grin’s an author who was popular enough to get put on a postage stamp. His wikipedia page would suggest he’s in the same mode as Robert Louis Stevenson, which he is, but he suggests JG Ballard, especially Ballard’s stories set amid the decaying pleasure resorts of Vermilion Sands. The bits of Grinlandia depicted here have the same jaded air, but the decay hasn’t claimed the resorts yet.
“The Grey Motorcar” by Alexander Grin (1925)
Our narrator is a young wealthy man at odds with the modern world. One can imagine him as the sort of privileged guy who comments online about the decline of western civilization, creeping multiculturalism, and the fact that other people aren’t as real as he is. He hates cars and movies and noise and speed and he’s basically a judgmental prick of the young, smug, and rich sort. He’s attracted to a woman named Corrida El-Basso who he also simultaneously despises, because she’s too modern and frivolous.
One night, our guy and a buddy go to the casino to gamble and watch another player who is having an epic winning streak. Our narrator plays this gambler and wins a huge sum of money. The gambler then has a stroke and dies, but not before giving the narrator his car. The narrator hates the car and doesn’t want it. That’s too bad. It’s his now. But he keeps running away before the car can be delivered.
(A side note: this story was made into a movie in Russia during the 1980s called Mister Designer. Here’s a clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly7xdZZMcFQ The music’s great in a Goth nightclub sort of way.)
After his win, Corrida’s more interested in the hero and she agrees to take a ride with him to his “laboratory”. Except he doesn’t take her to his lab but to a cliff where he explains that she’s not real, but a mannequin, and that the two of them should jump, die, and be reborn. Corrida, being a resourceful woman, must have expected such a thing because she draws a gun. When the narrator gets grabby, she shoots him. The bullet grazes his head and Corrida goes back to the house to get help. The narrator doesn’t wait but staggers away. When he sees the gambler’s car coming down the road he tries to hide but fails. The car stops and a group of men come out and take the narrator to the hospital. He urges a doctor to let him leave, but the doctor sees that the narrator is not well. The story ends with the narrator writing an account of events and pleading with the reader to watch out for that evil mannequin, Corrida El-Basso.
Imagine coming upon Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft cold. That’s what reading this felt like. Grin seems like a writer with his own particular set of obsessions, and unless you’re keyed into them it’s a lot of wtfry. The story is overly long and meandering, set in a fictional country, and the whole thing hinges on how long it takes you to realize the narrator’s not well. That the whole thing could be summed up as an incident of Capgras syndrome lessens the impact but makes it more comprehensible.
But… despite all that I liked it and I’m curious to read more Grin. How can you resist a writer at the intersection between RL Stevenson and JG Ballard?
Next time, automatic writing!
(The artwork is called The Disquieting Muses by Giorgio de Chirico)
“The only domestic animal known to return to feral life as swiftly as the cat is the goat.”
There in the barn, biding its time, watching the villagers go about their daily business, the goat waits. Something strange has happened to the goat, and it is no longer right. Yesterday, it was as normal as any other goat in the field. Now an uncanny intelligence burns behind its horizontal pupils.
What happened to the goat? Roll below to find out:
- A skyrock landed in the back fields. The chromaspectral beings within changed the goat before they died.
- A bored fae taught the goat to read and write for a laugh.
- Long ago a mindlord’s ethership crashed near here. Its engines have slowly released mutagens into the soil. Fortunately, the goat ate most of it.
- It’s not always demons, but often it is. This is one of those times.
- The goat stayed out overnight, and the full moon’s light made it weird.
- A passing saint blessed the goat. Now the goat seeks to free other goats from demonic domination.
- The goat was found unconscious beside the alchemist’s garbage heap. No one knows what it ate, not even the alchemist, but the goat hasn’t been right since.
- A terrifying night with nature cultists scared wits into the goat.
- Those little red mushrooms that sprout in the cow pasture after the rain.
- The goat saw a goat on a passing aristocrat’s coat of arms. The goat thinks it’s royalty now.
- Drunk scholars kept the goat as a pet. The goat had the best manners of them all.
- Unknown to all, the goat’s descended from the Thunder God’s pets. A single thunderclap was all it took.
- The goat is the chosen one. It was supposed to be the orphan swineherd, but destiny’s arm slipped. Now only the goat can save the world.
- One too many head-buts with a rival goat.
- A passing fiddler played in the fields and the music was enough to make the goat dance.
- The goat is the last great project of Vinssloss Nerkutt, the legendary animal trainer.
- One of the goat’s parent’s was a dragon in disguise. The goat may occasionally breathe fire.
- A voice on the wind gave the goat a true name before disappearing.
- A recently deceased soul has been reborn inside the goat. The goat must finish a task the soul failed to do.
- It is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all. Heartbreak made the goat strange.
If you would like to see the full playable goat class for your tabletop games, it’s available for free on my patreon: THE UNCANNY GOAT.
Today’s story made me miss the cheap vulgar soap selling style that the American pulps had. There’s a value in being able to write snappy ad-copy and avoid the sweaty intense existential scrutiny Dostoevsky gives us when he introduces the Grand Inquisitor to the Brothers Karamazov. I know some people prefer the latter, but the truth lies in the tension between the two.
Here’s the link to Krzhizhanovsky’s wikipedia page in case you want to do the homework.
Also, here’s a content warning: this story involves an embalmed fetus being “born” and then trying to live out a life while rotting.
“The Phantom” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1926)
A student sleeps on an open book. The book details obstetric procedures. The student wakes and goes to his exam. This exam involves him delivering a baby from one of these delivery-training mannequins. The baby in question is an embalmed stillborn. During the course of the exam a distraction occurs (the revolution?) and our student, Two-Sklifsky, looses focus on the birth yet somehow the embalmed baby, Fifka, manages to be born. Later he goes to find out what happened to the baby, and he and the janitor see little embalming fluid footsteps going out the door.
Years pass. Sklifsky becomes a field surgeon and there’s no end to his work. He becomes an alcoholic. One night as a storm lashes his hovel, Fifka returns. The embalmed baby recounts what its life has been since Sklifsky brought it into the world. Needless to say it’s an abstruse conversation full of philosophical ideas well above this reader’s head. Eventually, Fifka says he’s been signing Sklifsky’s name everywhere he’s been, and that’s a bit too much for Sklifsky to stand so he promptly has a nervous breakdown. Then he dies in a sanatorium. The End.
OK. This story… there’s this riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I love. Medical student creates life then abandons it only to have that life track him down for a final confrontation. And bits of Fifka’s life mirror Shelley’s Monster (although it’s less homicidal in its vengeance). And the fact that Krzhizhanovsky takes that story and uses it to critique the revolution, or at least that’s how it appears to me, is wicked* neat. Imagine it: student asleep on a book of theory gives birth to a materialist revolution that remains stunted and deformed because the student became distracted mid-revolution. Then that materialist revolution in its stunted form tracks down the revolutionaries that birthed it and confronts them with their failings. That’s certainly one reading of this story and one I wish it was. But to do that to my satisfaction would have required more soap-selling than Krzhizhanovsky wished to employ. Or more Grand Inquisitor than this reader could tolerate.
Next time, a grey motor car.
And for those of you brave enough, here’s a modern version of the sort of phantom Fifka is: obstetric phantom with fetal doll.
* If I have to watch hecking and hella enter common parlance then you all can deal with the exponentially superior New England “wicked.”