Wednesday, June 15, 2016

As literature, it is beneath contempt. - Kipling's puzzles

It covers a period of two days; runs to twenty-seven pages of large type exclusive of appendices; and carries as many exclamation points as the average Dumas novel.  (43)

This document, beneath contempt, which kicks off “The Bonds of Discipline,” is a puzzle for the Kiplingish narrator, full of indecipherable nonsense about the operations of the British navy.  “Kipling’s” solution to the puzzle is to track down and interview some of the involved parties, who tell a story that is preposterous but solves the puzzle.

The story in Traffics and Discoveries that has suffered a similar fate but without the possibility of interviewing the characters, since they’re fictional, is “Mrs. Bathurst.”  A railway engineer, a pair of sailors (one of whom if in a half-dozen Kipling stories), and “Kipling” share a Bass on a South African beach and work over the strange story of Click, who may or may not have been bigamously married to Mrs. Bathurst, a New Zealand barmaid world-famous (among English sailors) for her sex appeal.  He is freaked out, as we now say, when he sees Mrs. Bathurst in a film, obviously shot in London – why is she there?

“She come forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to.  She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B!’”  (398)

I love that interruption, a literally nonsensical description that somehow perfectly describes one of the strange visual artifacts of early film.  Motion pictures are all of nine years old at this point.

The story-tellers do their best to pool information – they do pretty well – yet there remain massive gaps in the story.  Is the story about the gaps?  There are some clues to that effect.  But plenty of people have made claims for solutions based on other internal clues.  I have no idea.

“’They’” and “’Wireless’” – I hate Kipling’s habit of putting quotation marks in titles – anyway these two stories could easily be treated as puzzles, too.  In each case “Kipling” encounters a supernatural phenomenon and comes to a conclusion about what it is, with the how left as ineffable.  Perhaps the first-pass interpretations are so satisfying that there is less temptation to probe, while “Mrs. Bathurst” is more frustrating.  Subtle gaps versus huge ones.

“’Wireless’” is a parable of creativity, an investigation of how all the material and psychological and let’s say mystical influences come together in the right way and the result is, in the story, a Keats poem, or a number of lines from a great one, and yet the cause of the poem is still completely unknown.  The tension in this story, even re-reading it, is hard to believe.  The excitement lies in seeing what the next line of a poem will be, even though I already know the next line.  This should be dull.

“’They’” is a gentler thing, a parable of grief, one of the few non-comic ghost stories.  Oddly, also about motoring.  All of the more trivial stories in Traffics and Discoveries end up reinforcing or commenting on the more significant ones.  The motor car is the vehicle to fairyland, and it can help get a doctor to a child quickly.

“Useful things cars,” said Madden, all man and no butler.  “If I’d had one when mine took sick she wouldn’t have died.”  (358)

But now I am moving into the clues (or just ironies), and for what reason, as I have no solution here, either.


  1. I don't know about Wireless or that magnificent horror story, Mrs. Bathurst (the inspiration for Sinister, says I), but "They" gets better with every re-read. "They" is the one of those Kipling stories that mixes craft and tenderness.

  2. Ligotti's masterful Nethescurial mixes the 'abyss looks back at you' theme of Bathurst with 'the medium is the message [of evil]' theme of Sinister (in Nethescurial's case, the page and ink in which it's written) and Borges' death inside a dream theme from The South.

    "The people seated on these benches were all watching a tall, illuminated booth. It was the kind of booth used for puppet shows, with wild designs painted across the lower part and a curtained opening at the top. The curtains were now drawn back and two clownish creatures were twisting about in a glary light which emanated from inside the booth. They leaned and squawked and awkwardly batted each other with soft paddles... Suddenly they froze at the height of their battle; slowly they turned about and faced the audience. It seemed the puppets were looking directly at the place I was standing behind the last raw of benches. Their misshapen heads tilted, and their glassy eyes stared inside into mine."

    "Of course, we do need to keep a certain distance from such specters as Nethescurial, but this is usually provided by the medium of words as such, which ensnare all kinds of fantastic creatures before they can tear us body and soul... But we do want to get close enough to feel the foul breath of these beasts, or to see them as prehistoric leviathans circling about the tiny island on which we have taken refuge"

  3. I'll have to try Ligotti. I had not heard of him until recently.