7 Master Short Stories by Stefan Grabiński
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by Stefan Grabiński, Stefan Grabiński. Photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, stefan_grabinski_nac.jpg
Here’s our selection of the best short stories from the Polish master of horror and weird, Stefan Grabiński. Buckle up and prepare for sexual obsessions, fiery passions, plain madness and careening trains...
Dubbed the ‘Polish Poe’ or ‘Polish Lovecraft’, Stefan Grabiński (1887-1936) is a classic author who, we feel, demands more attention. Largely forgotten during his lifetime, his work was later praised by authors such as Stanisław Lem, but has only recently gained more interest from academics. Here’s a look at some of the greatest of his stories and the obsessions that shaped his work.
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1. On a Tangent
Published originally in 1918, On a Tangent comes from Grabiński’s second book of short stories On the Hill of Roses, but it already contains most of the staple characteristics of his writing. For one, a hyper-sensitive neurotic protagonist with a history of recent mental illness who’s trying to make sense of the world around him. In the story, we follow Wrzecki as he loiters on the streets of his hometown in the futile hope of suppressing ‘the tormenting nightmare of thought’ – a recently-developed compulsion that makes him build long chains of compulsive ratiocinations which he then feels compelled to check against reality.
This merciless but deranged logic makes him misinterpret the reality around him and consider each occurrence as a potential ‘sign’ leading him along an imagined trajectory towards an inevitable end. As a result, we follow Wrzecki as he bounces ‘on a tangent’ from one situation to another – be it an overheard dialogue, the title of a book being read by a colleague, or the words of an opera aria on a street poster. For him, all of these become meaningful omens and symbols, pointing to the, allegedly, only logical conclusion of that fateful day. Perhaps, as he reasons, one just has to connect the dots.
On a Tangent may be a psychological case-study of a paranoid mind, but it’s also an important piece of disguised philosophy, dealing with questions such as whether we’re guided by destiny or chance. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the story, however, is its steady march towards a conclusion, which feels at the same time inevitable and... fully unexpected.
2. The Sloven
Ever had the feeling that the train you’re riding is bound for a catastrophe? And if the smell of fennel is in the air, you might be better off leaving the train at the next station. It’s a sure sign that the Sloven is on the train.
The Sloven is a demon, which normally ‘resides in the organism of a train’, but takes on material form whenever a catastrophe is near. How do you recognise him? His naked body is grimey with soot and sweat, as he trudges along the corridor towards the engine – there’s really very little chance of mistaking him for someone else. His appearance is a sure sign of an imminent collision and he’s never wrong.
This is all too obvious for the old conductor Błażek Boroń who had seen the Sloven before and witnessed his terrifying prophesying powers. But what if there was something wrong this time and the train was somehow going to avoid the predicted crash? Wouldn’t it be nice to help the Sloven, if only to prove his infallibility...
The Sloven was published in 1919 as part of the book The Motion Demon, a collection of a dozen or so horror-slash-ghost stories, united by the shared theme of railway travel. On its pages, ghost trains dash past unsuspecting railwaymen, careening locomotives head for unexplained catastrophes, while dead-end tracks lead to astral dimensions. Read one hundred years on, the book still feels like the most solid argument for its author’s claim to long-lasting literary fame. The Motion Demon, and The Sloven in particular, remains a truly fascinating, and, at times, quite scary read: a mix of, say, Stephen King horror with the atmosphere from David Cronenberg’s Crash (with its sexual fascination with catastrophes).
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3. Saturninus Sector
Did you ever have the feeling you were being observed from afar, watched, maybe even stalked from a distance? That the article you read in the newspaper (or online, for that matter) was directed precisely against you, that its line of argument was a direct assault on your deepest, most intimate opinions (in fact, the ones you have not even divulged to anyone)? Your opinions, precisely, about the very essence of time.
No? Well, that is indeed the case for the protagonist of this Grabiński story, who has to deal with his strange nemesis, Saturninus Sector. The name of course is meaningful, and as the narrator explains, it stands for someone who has ‘deformed the wondrous permanence of things in favour of mathematical abstraction, and dissected the fluid indivisible wave of life into a multitude of small dead sections’. Should we add that Saturninus Sector also happens to be a watchmaker? If not a personification of Time itself?
This means trouble for our narrator, who doesn’t think highly of time (he basically considers its flow largely fictitious) and has had some serious issues with time in the past. But what can you do? Why not kill Time? What would happen then?
As you can imagine, Saturninus Sector may be quite a nut for any interpreters to crack – and it will certainly give philosophers plenty to think about. But perhaps its main strength lies in its incredible ability to mix two seemingly irreconcilable spheres: the allegorical and realist, while at the same time preserving a sense of scary mysteriousness.
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4. The Domain
It has been eight years since the brilliant fantastical poet Wrześmian has retreated from public life. He lives in a little cabin on the outskirts of town, surrounded by books, evading friends and acquaintances. While some say that he burned out as a poet, others claim that he is actually in search of some stronger means of expression: ‘He was on the look-out for something more immediate, a more plastic material to materialise his concepts.’ These eventually do start to materialise, populating an abandoned villa just opposite Wrześmian’s house. Thus begins a gory spectacle.
The figure of Wrześmian, the protagonist of the story, is traditionally said to have been inspired by the real poet Bolesław Leśmian, but it can be seen as a reflection on the role of artists as creators of whole worlds. More than anything, however, it’s the story of Grabiński himself, whose art was constantly at play with the dangerous realms of fantasy, gauging the boundaries of reality and sanity.
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5. The Gebroi
What better setting for a horror story than a mental asylum? And what better departure point than an alternative method for healing illness that lets it play out to the fullest? Plus characters from an ancient esoteric cult (the Gebroi are its members) driven by a shared fascination with fire. Add a box of matches... and you can probably guess the outcome.
The Gebroi relies heavily on Grabiński’s all time literary idol Edgar Allan Poe and his story The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, but is probably less ironic, and thus certainly scarier. The story was included in The Book of Fire, Grabiński’s fifth volume of short stories, another attempt at creating a cohesive book of stories united by a shared theme, that of fire.
Similarly, as with The Motion Demon, the reader of The Book of Fire is presented with all kinds of fire stories: from legends told by firemen about strange fire creatures, to spooky tales about a nasty demon living in the chimneys (it’s all white and fluffy!), and case-studies about pyromaniacs and pyrophiles. Last but not least, chilling occult tales about damned souls suffering from the fires of Purgatory.
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6. The Glance
Following the death of his lover, the protagonist Odonicz develops a strange obsession with doors. The door left ajar was the last thing he remembers before Jadwiga left for good, but now this ‘problem of the door’ becomes in his mind a problem of truly metaphysical importance. Is there something there on the other side?
As the door becomes a metaphor of the great mystery of life (and the possibility of the life thereafter), the nature and object of Odonicz’s obsession changes and transforms. But the compulsive need to turn around and throw a glance behind the door, curtain or around the corner of the street remains an unstoppable urge that becomes more and more unnerving.
In The Glance, Grabiński traces the metaphorical (and in fact, linguistic) nature of the work of man’s subconscious – and he’s doing it in a way that would make papa Freud proud. This is Grabiński at his best: concerned with the quirks of a deranged mind and whiffing the airs of the metaphysical mystery of life.
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At the beginning of Czad (Fumes), it’s getting dark as Ożarski makes his way through an unknown snowy landscape. Freezing and exhausted, he knocks on the door of what looks like a small inn. He is let inside – actually lifted into the house, by a man who may look old but whose amazing strength defies his looks. In hindsight, he would have done better had he never entered that building
Something is literally in the air in this erotically loaded story from Grabiński. In fact, a vibe of sexual innuendo and unequivocal gender identity informs the whole story – lending the reader a truly eerie feeling. This is Grabiński at his most personal, dealing with his most intimate demons – perhaps giving us an insight into why much of his oeuvre is so misogynist.
The majority of the stories above are available in English translation, but not all of Grabiński’s collections have been translated. Here’s hoping his translators, such as Mirosław Lipiński and Wiesiek Powaga, continue to bring this European master of the dark to wider audiences.
The illustrations by Marcin Kamuda used throughout the piece come from Grabiński's collection of short stories, Muzeum Dusz Czyśćcowych, published by Vesper, 2019.
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, December 2019
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