Stefan Grabiński was a writer, and his work was one of the precursors of fantasy fiction in Poland. He was born on 26th February, 1887, in Kamianka Strumilova (present-day Kamianka Buzka) by the Bug River, and died on 12th November, 1936 in Lviv.
Writer, one of the precursors of fantasy fiction in Poland.
He graduated from Polish studies at Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv, where he also studied Classical Philology. After that, he worked as teacher of Polish (in Lviv and Przemyśl), until he began suffering from severe tuberculosis, which forced him to retire.
Grabiński wrote novels, plays, and short stories. He wasn't very successful with the first two formats. His short stories made him popular for a brief period of time, especially the collection The Motion Demon (Demon ruchu), which was re-released while the author was still alive. He also published in the press – interestingly, both in professional literary and popular magazines. He also wrote theoretical texts about literature – most note-worthy are From My Studio: The Story of Grot the Engine Driver (Z mojej pracowni. Opowieść o maszyniście Grocie), The History of the Novella (Dzieje noweli), but most of all the essay The Prince of Fantasists (Książę fantastów, 1931), dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe.
He debuted in 1909 under the pen name Stefan Żalny with a collection of short stories Exceptions: In the Dark of Faith (Z wyjątków. W pomroce wiary). However, the book never gained popularity or critical recognition, mainly due to its exaggerated literary style:
The spring dawns of my youth have long extinguished; today, my rime-covered, wild wind-tumbled head is shielded by a grey sunset, bereft of the blood-red rays of the sun, which, frightened by the senile cold, hid its flames somewhere behind the heaps of drab clouds. (Tawny Owl/Puszczyk).
Grabiński's language – as the above sample illustrates – is akin to the literature of Young Poland. The author is keen on using atmospheric descriptions which surely already sounded somewhat anachronistic at the time when they were written. Similar was the case with the themes permeating his oeuvre. Demonic seductresses, witches, spirits, mysterious messages from the nether world, doppelgängers, magic, eroticism combined with religious motifs (e.g. in the short story Projections/Projekcje), various forms of parapsychological effects, and, finally, a fascination with Oriental mysticism – all of these were already popular in 19th century literature.
The novel Shadow of Baphomet (Cień Bafometa, 1926), which is a certain tribute to Young Polish literature, contains an immense amount of such phenomena. Moreover, it includes an episode in which a character called Wrześmian (based on Bolesław Leśmian) acts as the main protagonists's spiritual teacher, and whose peculiar visions materialize in an abandoned household. The same character is present in the short story The Domain (Dziedzina), from the collection Mad Pilgrim (Szalony pątnik), while the aforementioned fragment constitutes its alternative version.
On the railway and in the fire department
Considering the above, the author's scientific inclinations may be quite surprising – his protagonists often engage in science- or technology-related professions, working as engineers, architects, or doctors. They are also capable of expressing themselves with mathematical precision:
He created a graphic representation of the course of life in the form of elongated ellipses, followed by an individual as if he was a mathematical point. (On a Tangent/Po stycznej)
In this way, they come across as much more reliable witnesses of supernatural events, especially in comparison to the cranky lunatics from the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft. The scenery and the characters are equally modern. The plot of Grabiński's stories started taking place in thoroughly modern settings, such as fire brigade depots or the rational realm of steam railways, rather than deserted monasteries (Projections/Projekcje). It is, however, worth mentioning that the author of The Motion Demon also perceived the world of rail in symbolic categories:
I like trains a lot and use them with pleasure; for a while I even wanted to take up a job in that industry. Rail also appeared to me as a symbol of life and its flaming pulse – a symbol of the demonism of motion, the almighty force out of nowhere that thrusts the worlds across interplanetary expanses. (in Skamander no. 20, 1920, p.1920)
At the same time, a lot of his short stories are set in contemporary times. Grabiński describes them in a realistic manner, and keenly applies expert vocabulary. It is especially visible in the collections The Motion Demon and Book of Fire (Księga ognia). Both have a clearly defined theme – the former takes place on trains and in train stations, while the latter is concerned with fires, arson, and supernatural phenomena faced by firemen.
Between esoterism and science
The way in which the author of Book of Fire confuses his reader as to which of his protagonists' stories are real and which imagined also feels modern. He does not rely on vague insanity, but instead references scientifically described pathological states. Grabiński masterfully introduces that method in the short story Szamota's Mistress (Kochanka Szamoty). During one of his rendezvous with a mysterious and silent beauty, the protagonist notes:
Her body is covered in marks that are very similar to those I bear. In fact, our moles look completely identical.
Several similar details – especially Szamota's attempt to sting his lover with a needle, as a result of which he ends up hurting himself – allow one to suppose that the protagonist is suffering from a psychosis that makes him regard another, female, body as his own. Such is Stanisław Lem's interpretation, which he expresses in the afterword to the 1974 edition of the collection Incredible Story (Niesamowita opowieść).
The case of Szamota's Mistress implies that Grabiński considered the transition from psychology to parapsychology, from science to esoterism, as a fluent one. The author of The Problem of Czelawa (Problemat Czelawy) was as interested in magic and spiritism as in psychology and psychiatry, while his texts didn't show signs of distinction between those disciplines. Sometimes, this would bring about rather grotesque effects, just like in the novel Salamander (Salamandra), largely filled with lectures on magic, its history and ritualistic proceedings. A much more interesting example of this method is the multi-layered Shadow of Baphomet, with a detective story-like construction, whose solution is hidden in the sphere of mysterious, hypnotic, or spiritual effects on human psyche.
Lovecraft or Poe's disciple?
Grabiński tends to be described as the “Polish Lovecraft” or “Polish Poe,” but what mainly connects him with both authors is the genre – fantasy horror – and the most mastered literary form: short stories. What differs him from Lovecraft is the protagonist's psychological profile. Characters created by the American fantasist are usually passive, and when confronted with supernatural phenomena, they usually go mad. Grabiński, on the contrary, introduces active protagonists – also, or maybe even especially, when they are associated with a mental illness (Grot the Engine Driver).
E. A. Poe's detectives or experimenting hypnotists are much closer to the Polish author. The latter was however much less attracted to death and decay than the American master. Instead, he repeatedly introduced the theme of a consciousness transferred from the nether world – a realm which the author of The Pit and the Pendulum hardly ever referred to. Grabiński differs from both Americans in his frequent references to the sphere of sexuality. As Michał Budak notes, “the sexual intercourses of Grabiński's protagonists do lead them to loss of autonomy, parts of their identity, or even to death” – especially if that is a way in which a person contacts beings stronger than himself, such as an androgynous demon from the short story Fumes (Czad) or the titular protagonist of Salamander.
Grabiński's works have been published outside of Poland a number of times. In 1950s his short stories were translated into German by Charlotte Eckert and Kurt Kelm. Several collections of his short stories also appeared on American market, in Mirosław Lipiński's translation: The Dark Domain (1993), The Motion Demon (2005), and The Passion (2014). New translations (e.g. by Wiesiek Powaga) continue to be brought out on English websites for the horror fans, which testifies to the unfaltering popularity of the writer.
the motion demon
the dark domain
20th century literature
Grabiński's works have been used as a basis for film scripts on multiple occasions. The first adaptation appeared in 1927 – the film version of Szamota's Mistress featured the star Igo Sym. The same novel was adapted into film few more times – the most recent attempt being the failed trilogy Evil Streets (1998), set in New York. Two of his pieces have been adapted for television in Poland: The Siding (Ślepy tor, 1967) and Conflagration Site (Pożarowisko, 1960) – both directed by Ryszard Ber. A 64-minute-long horror (Sara's House/Dom Sary) was also directed by Zygmunt Lech.
In the pre-war period Grabiński's output was admired by the literary critic Karol Irzykowski, and practically no one else. After the Second World War, Prof. Artur Hutnikiewicz took care of investigating his oeuvre, and wrote the monograph Stefan Grabiński's Literary Oeuvre (Twórczość literacka Stefana Grabińskiego), as well as edited his Collected Works. The first post-war edition of The Motion Demon collection appeared in 1999 thanks to Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz, who also illustrated the book.
Author: Paweł Kozioł, January 2015. Translated by Ania Micińska, March 2015