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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

What Language Insists on Hiding

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The one is a review of Christopher Slatsky's book The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature. It was first published May 8 2020.

Nature created glorious structures with no intent or foresight, the Giant’s Causeway being one such example. Competence without comprehension. The illusion of purpose by the purposeless. Humans are “promiscuous” teleologists, interpreting natural phenomena as being there for us. Nature saw to it that there are far more bacteria on Earth than stars in the universe. She dearly loves her fungi, viruses, prions, and the glorious symphony of decomposition.

Two concerns tie together the stories in this, the second offering from author Christopher Slatsky. The first is an interest in mediums to convey what can be encapsulated as horror. Not just the content of horror as a genre, nor only in how the content is conveyed, but in how horror struggles against the limits of mediums — against writing and language in particular. There is a fascination, then, in what different artistic forms can do to overcome such limits, and this is sometimes explored directly: ‘Film is philosophy cloaked in the mantle of literature, shorn of the shackles of live theater.’ The second concern starts with anthropology per se — a field of study that has appeared in earlier stories by Slatsky — and goes on to a broader philosophical anthropology. The question that drives this interest in social and cultural practices is over what is conveyed about being human in different manifestations of cultural horror: ‘A people were best described by their monsters, in the complexities of their hauntings and strangeness.’ This is about more than just humanity, but how we as human beings relate to the non-human world, the world beyond our symbolic conceptions.

German artist Käthe Kollwitz’s (1867–1946) drawings, which depicted the debasement of working people from her time, illustrate many of Slatsky’s stories in The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature. Visual art is significant to his work; an essay on the numinous in this collection, for instance, references Casper David Frederich, Hiroshige, and Yoruba religious art. This interest in visual mediums is complemented by a sensuous prose; these nightmares have a taste, a texture, you can feel them under your fingers, they cloy. The combination of stories, ranging in point of view and including experiments such as an epistolary tale set in the mid nineteenth century, as well as (in a twisted form) ‘A Play in One Act’ and various essays, combine to show an author in command of varied approaches to narrative. The nonfiction segments are not explorations of the book’s material, but also expansions of the story’s subjects, such that the exact boundary in tone between essay and the thoughts and writings of some characters is blurred. In one already referenced nonfiction piece, for instance, Slatsky meditates on film, drawing a comparison that is paramount to the broader concerns of the collection, ‘Film and religion celebrate as well as condemn the basest of human desires.’ In short, Slatsky is exploiting any tool to capture a hidden reality.

In her introduction, another writer of fiction that explores similar horizons, Kristine Ong Muslim celebrates this side of Slatsky’s work. She mentions the imaginative impasse of those weird and folk-monster stories for which it is possible to ‘notice the snagged part of an otherwise neat line of running stitches that secure the hem’, so that, ‘each time we try to read them through our lens of moral principle as well as the social conditions which create them.’ Slatsky, however, has written a book for which there is no snag — it belies moral reduction. Its ‘elusive quality makes slippery — and dreamy — the stories’ grasp of the robust, nihilistic dark.’ This version of the supernatural has no trace of humane sentimentality, but is rather evoked in, to use Slatsky’s words, the ‘vastness of the natural world’ and a universal, reverent fear of the numinous that resides in ‘deist, polytheist, monotheist, ashiest’ alike. For that reason the more reassuring spooks, phantoms, ghosts and spirits are encountered here only and explicitly as ‘history projected against nostalgia.’ The attempt to make sense of, render palpable and resist horizons, is itself resisted; the disturbing is not domesticated.

The sense of the world as inhumanly driven erupts in innocuous asides during the course of stories, at apparently trivial junctures to emphasise Nature’s vastness. Someone could suddenly gain the sense that the ‘ground was unreliable, thin sheets all the way down, the center a tumultuous ocean of chaos.’ Another, a man at a cafe with his soon ex-wife, might lackadaisically spy ‘the curve of the planet in the distance’ and a woman encounter flora around a woodland pit described in meticulous but alien and alienating detail; ‘a bluish-green lichen sprouting thin sporophytes, tops dabbed with globes of tacky dew, like tiny crystal balls.’ Someone else could experience time askew, and while burying a beloved dog simultaneously witness ‘the dying Earth’s oceans turned into mist and planetary crust fragmented into desolate plates.’ As Pascal urges we find the extraordinary in the ordinary, Slatsky demands that we perceive the unfamiliar in the familiar, the planet as it exists in the earth on which we project, which is in part a creature of our projections.

Guilt, dementia, grief, regret, depression, cancer, age, dispossession; the conditions and states on which Slatsky dwells are haunted by loss and therefore time. The ethos that pulls together characters with contrary sociocultural assumptions is of an almost anti-cosmic gnosticism cum inhuman pantheism, in which what time and entropy strip away reveals a deeper, if painful reality, ‘The material universe was a pathology, a decomposing skin festering around the ethereal nature of Seraphim.’ The play of microcosm and macrocosm is a wryly recurring motif: ‘As the acorn is to stately trees, dollhouses are to sprawling mansions.’ The linkages between humanity, the world, death and alien infection are tightly interwoven, so that Slatsky invites us to entertain one of horror fiction’s great what ifs: what if there is no seperation. What if, that is, demarcating ourselves from the primordial is an arbitrary conceit, ignorant of a greater monism that encompasses our selves and resists even the most pessimist’s takes? The world, here, is one where: ‘Language is a veil. Only by lifting it can we see what it insists on hiding.’ The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature is not so much reminding us of the universe’s indifference, but is curiouser about a universe that has a place for us, but not one are capable of grasping.

In my earlier essay on Slatsky’s Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales’ for The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction, (2018) I focussed especially on his placement in traditions of writing. Reviewing this, his latest book, it is clear that he has continued to develop those traditions of weird, cosmic and horror fictions in ever more fruitful directions. There are so many moments in these stories, especially ‘The Carcass of the Lion’, ‘From the People of a Strange Language’ and the titular novella, that will continue linger and disturb after reading.


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