Paul Di Filippo Reviews Intimations of Death by Felix Timmermans

Intimations of Death, Felix Timmermans (Valancourt Books 978-1948405409, $15.99, 152pp, trade paperback) July 2019

The past is a seemingly inexhaustible trove of forgotten wonders. At least so the current literary rediscovery and reprint bonanza would tell us. (With concurrence from the music world, where lost tapes of fabulous concerts resurface regularly.) Formerly rare and unobtainable and legendary volumes such as The Ship That Sailed to Mars and The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Works & Worlds of Herbert Crowley are yours for the asking. What a great era for readers!

Valancourt Books is one of the premier practitioners of the literary archaeologist’s art, producing impeccable volumes of out-of-print genius. (They also turn out the occasional original book, such as Figures Unseen by Steve Rasnic Tem.) With this new offering they have brought to light a Flemish author, Felix Timmermans (1886-1947), who was better known for his naturalistic fictions, but who also frantically spewed out in the bountiful year of 1909 this early volume of superb Gothic and macabre tales. If you are wondering what kind of work Timmermans produced here, I’ll offer the observation that he would have been a perfect choice for inclusion in the VanderMeers’s anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.

The first thing to note is that these stories reach us English speakers through the artful and inspired translations of Paul Vincent. I cannot of course gauge what the original Dutch texts were like, but I can say that Vincent does not seem to set one foot astray. Everything reads organically and fluidly, of its era yet not archaic or fusty, with a real sense of a true voice and beauty of line.

Next up for praise is the introducer, John Howard, who insightfully teases out all the tics and tropes and themes of Timmermans to the extent that my job is almost done for me. But I’ll forge ahead regardless!

The first story, “The Mourner”, is relatively short, but packs a wallop. It’s done in the style which comic-book creators call “decompressed.” In other words, a relatively short interval of action is elaborated on with minute scrutiny and almost insane levels of detail. It’s as if what would normally be one sentence—”He left the house and drove to the market”—now filled ten or twenty pages.

In this case, after some rudimentary backstory, we find ourselves hearing from a young man or boy recounting the death of his mother in the Shirley-Jacksonish home he shares with his parents. The mother lies abed, her mortal state graphically detailed. A doctor comes, makes vacillating diagnoses, stays in the kitchen to commiserate. And all this time the son’s perceptions are vibrating to every creak of timber and gust of wind, until finally an arriving specter pushes him over a certain precipice.

It had become unbearable for me. I wanted to be sure, or it would choke me. I was at one of the extremes of human life, where it is no longer possible to remain the same and you must be recreated if you do not want to be struck down by a stroke or by Death.

Here we have a kind of Kafkaesque existential horror melded with M.R. James’s atmospheric unease where the landscape itself is haunted.

“The Cellar” is a novella-length piece that riffs on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Our protagonist is a moony, mystic fellow who conceives of the notion that one woman in the world literally represents a missing component of his soul, and vice versa. But when he seemingly finds the singular gal and marries her, they make the mistake of buying a domicile with a haunted basement.

I lit a match and by the scanty light we saw still black water, which filled the whole place . . . It was over two metres deep. This was definitely the cellar. A cellar full of water! Suddenly a shudder went through Mina and she cried in a trembling voice: ‘Herman! Oh Herman, I am so frightened of that cellar, close it up, close it up!’

The man, myopically focused on his own ego-driven pursuits, forbids her access to the cellar, warns her not to dwell on the topic. (A minor Bluebeard motif.) But of course, this edict has the opposite effect. And over the course of many months of excruciatingly detailed deterioration, madness sets in, culminating in a gruesome cellar-centric disaster.

The details with which Timmermans cloaks the simple narrative are almost transcendental. Such things as the presence of a nearby monastery seem to be symbols, but they do not easily resolve to univalent meanings. In the manner Timmermans prefigures the work of Robert Aickman.

All but the final story are narrated in the first-person, allowing Timmermans to limn the unsettled mental states of his characters with grim particularity. While the men in the first two accounts are inbred sophisticates, the narrator of “The Seventh Grave” is a common, salt-of-the-earth (no pun intended) gravedigger, and this outing, though jarring and sad, has a kind of Isaac Bashevis Singer folklore vibe to it.

But first, however, the frametale speaker reveals himself to be one of the brain-fevered cosmopolitan types.

I take a strange pleasure in wandering over the sods where the dead lie buried with a little plot of solemn flowers on their body and a crooked cross above their heads. It is as though I can feel the life of those dead people trembling and swelling beneath my feet, and can feel it creeping through my legs, feel it rising through my veins, scintillating through my whole body and warming my heart like new blood . . . The pleasure of feeling the dead! . . . Living in death while still alive! . . . To feel one with them! . . . To swim in the eternal mystery! . . .

He turns the narrative over to the gravedigger who recounts how, in the plague years, he dug on a whim an extra, uncalled-for grave which then supernaturally demanded to be filled by a choice sacrifice. Despite the horror, the tale ends with a kind of Singeresque shrug of “Life goes on, despite the excruciations…”

The opening line to “The White Vase” is hard to beat: “The world lay on my heart like a heavy weight, and I was forced to abandon human company in order to give expression to the workings of my soul in some silent place.” Our hero opts for a meditative retreat in a monastery. But conditions there prove grueling, with occult midnight callers, and he might not get to leave.
Finally, in “The Unknown”, viewed from the outside of their lives we chart the fates of two star-crossed lovers, Hendrik and Begga. They plot a mutual suicide by drowning. But Hendrik survives the pact, only to find his vows to Begga still operative.

And again, that seductive sweetness came up and something inside pulled him towards the water. He saw the danger of it. And with a powerful gesture he threw his arms round the willow trunk and began crying and shouting. It sounded dreadful in the hollow black night and joined in with the sad rustling of the rain. Hendrik wept, stamped to keep the invisible thing away from him and cried for help, appealed to God, his mother and all the saints, but the power inside him expanded mercilessly and planted its strength in all the tissues of his body.

He pressed his arms firmer round the slippery rough trunk, and sobbed, wept and howled. But the unknown thing crept into his arms and went slowly but surely to his hands, always pulling towards the water’s edge. Hendrik pressed his nails in the flesh of his hands, so that he bled, but the invisible force calmly lifted the fingers apart, prised the hands apart and dragged him with a strong jolt backwards into the water.

On one level these tales colorfully evoke the gory, glory days of EC comics. One can easily imagine them illustrated by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels. On another level, they prefigure all the deep and subtle psychological horror stories that were to populate the twentieth century and become almost the dominant mode in the twenty-first. In these early tales, the twenty-three-year-old Timmermans appears as a kind of Thomas Ligotti. That he was to mature into producing what were apparently life-affirming heart-warming Norman Rockwell fictions represents some kind of unknown transfiguration which perhaps only he himself could have depicted, had he so chosen.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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