11.4.14

Stefan Grabiński - The Dark Domain

Rating 7.5

I'd like to be indulgent with Stefan Grabiński . For he deserves that. For writing the sort of fiction he delivered in his time and place wasn't easy at all, as you will read soon.

The eleven short stories you can find in The Dark Domain are only a tiny fraction of what Grabiński published in his native Poland including five novels and five works for theatre.

And yet, it's with short stories that pan Grabiński briefly touched fame during his short and unfortunate lifetime. And what short stories, I say!

Don't believe Wikipedia and the blurbs: Grabiński is neither the Polish Edgar Allan Poe nor the Polish H.P. Lovecraft. 
What we have here is odd but fascinating material which might sometimes bear a resemblance or two to other authors but, in fact, doesn't look like anything else that I've read before. 

As simple as it sounds, Stefan Grabiński was and still is just the Polish Grabiński. And if that doesn't seem like much to you, please give The Dark Domain a go and I bet you'll understand what I mean.

The quality of Mr Grabiński was that the short stories he wrote between the 1910s and the 1920s were something completely different from what the Polish audience was looking and asking for. Whereas his compatriots revered the historical novels by Sinkiewicz and the neoromantic books by Zeromski, Grabiński didn't publish anything of that sort. At the contrary, he created his own literary (and, alas, unfashionable) genre by putting sinister and introspective short stories in a modern framework. 

Only a few of the eleven short stories included in The Dark Domain have a gothic flavour (A Tale of the Gravedigger, Fumes) imbibed in traditional folklore revisited, but most of them will surprise you with either a philosophical or a sensual twist. Grabiński and his characters are clearly fascinated by the wonders of progress - and particularly by trains - but modernity in itself is not a bulletproof shelter against the wicked acts of evil. Well, in fact, quite the opposite. 

What astonished me reading this collection is how explicit and sexually detailed Grabiński could be in a time in which Poland was a puritan and a conservative country. To be honest with you a short story like In the Compartment reads more like a chapter of a steamy softcore novel (enters saxophone) than something written by an author devoted to creepy tales. Striking a similar note, Szamota's Mistress is stalking ante-litteram with plenty of frustrated libido to make the reader uneasy. There's sex, then. And there's even some powerful and rather scary transgender stuff in Fumes. But to me the mastery of Grabiński lies elsewhere.  

Even though daring experimental short stories such as Strabismus, Saturnin Sektor and The Motion Demon are very good and will implore for a second reading, it's Vengeance of the Elementals that struck me dead. Did you ever watch Howl's Moving Castle by Miyazaki? Well, if you did think about the demon of fire depicted by the Japanese master, imagine it evil and call it an elemental. This story of a hero of a fireman turned an arsonist due to the fire elementals ensnaring him is as scary as engrossing. 

There's this famous Italian comic series called Dylan Dog and dealing with horror stories that I read when I was a teenager. 
If I had to tell what reading Grabiński reminded me of, I would say that it's the scripts of some of the best episodes of Dylan Dog. Just don't call poor pan Stefan the Polish 'Nightmares Investigator' as that womaziner of a Dylan Dog introduced himself.

It's time to give Grabiński some justice, in Poland and abroad.
Speaking of which, please translate into English more of his short  stories!

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