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Ghosts of Guilt and Compassion

Ghosts of Guilt and Compassion

Some Introductory Remarks on the Work of Louis Marvick

by Martin Ruf

“‘Ja meinen Sie denn, ich glaube an Gespenster? Was hilft mir aber dieses Nichtglauben?

Sehr einfach. Sie müssen eben keine Angst mehr haben, wenn ein Gespenst wirklich zu Ihnen kommt.’

Ja, aber das ist doch die nebensächliche Angst. Die eigentliche Angst ist die Angst vor der Ursache der Erscheinung. Und diese Angst bleibt. Die habe ich geradezu großartig in mir.’”

Franz Kafka, “Unglücklichsein”, in: Betrachtung (1912).

Louis Marvick, a trained cellist and professor emeritus of French at the University of Nevada, Reno, was born in 1954 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the British and American authors of the fantastic and weird genres who began to publish their stories in the first decade of the twenty-first century, he sits between two extremes. He neither strictly adheres to the rules of those writers we usually consider as classics in the field (Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, M. R. James and, at least in part, Henry James) – even if LeFanu “is the best of all,” as Marvick says in his only interview to date; nor is he a literary revolutionary who, like some colleagues of his generation, dissolves all the basic features of a narrative such as setting, character, or plot. The psychological and historical experiences that are present in his work, however, leave no doubt that he is a contemporary writer with all the connotations that this adjective implies.

A similar observation applies to the somber effects that his stories evoke. They are deeply shocking, but not because the author wallows in them. On the contrary, they are rendered by the same discreet narrative voice that is characteristic of Marvick’s writing. This voice is calm, but it does not shy away from the most terrible consequences of the unfolding plot. The characters have horrendous experiences; there is no need to be verbose. A single sentence or, at the most, a short paragraph suffices. If one wants to look for a comparison of his work with that of a contemporary colleague, the ghost stories of Helen Grant are possibly the most likely candidates.

Marvick writes with great care and always tries to achieve the best version for each of his stories. Writing on such a level of subtlety, complexity and elegance obviously reduces his creative output considerably. Thus, his fantastic oeuvre consists of only two comparatively short novels, the individual publication of two novellas, a collection of ten short stories and novellas, and five individually published short stories. Finally, there is a single interview given to the author of this essay in 2018 (see bibliography). It cannot come as a surprise, then, that his slim and almost hidden corpus of literary texts still has not found the broad readership it deserves, although some critics have already pointed out its merits.

On the following pages I want to give the reader a first impression of this work. To this aim I have selected a short story, two novellas and the author’s second novel. I will focus on the recurrent themes of guilt, empathy, compassion, and the delicate question of atonement.

“Pockets of Emptiness”

Marvick’s first published story appeared in 2009 in Supernatural Tales. It begins in a deceptively traditional way. A group of men, gathered around a fireplace, tell each other ghost stories and discuss the merits of these stories. It does not come as a surprise, then, that the first page which is dedicated to the backstory reads like a pastiche of the first sentences of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

But, on the second page, the reader hears, for the first time, Marvick’s distinctive narrative voice. In these paragraphs the protagonist, who is at the same time the narrator of the story-within-the-story, describes a fundamental crisis in his life in all its painful psychological details. This man, a historian and presumably an Englishman, accepts a short-term fellowship at the University of Leeuwarden, in Friesland. As he has a week in hand before his teaching commitments begin, he decides to ride the last part of his journey by bike. The story is set after a war, probably the Second World War, and the narrator has suffered a severe private loss, whose exact nature is never specified, but which, in all probability, concerns the death of a loved one. Now “the watery Dutch landscape . . . (seems) to reflect the glimmering convalescence” of his spirit.

When a rainstorm forces him to spend the night in the remote village of Tsjerkesleat, he comes into possession of a Frisian jacket that may or may not exert a supernatural influence upon him. It turns out that this jacket, given to him as a souvenir by the landlady in Tsjerkesleat, is “a so-called jas van weduwes, or widows‘ jacket made to commemorate husbands and sons fallen in battle . . . (its) pockets are lined with military ribbons, some of which go back a long way.”

The influence of the jacket remains ambiguous until the end of the story. Three readings are possible: i) the jacket may have strong supernatural powers, ii) its powers may be real on the level of the plot, but utterly limited and hardly perceptible; or, iii) they may be simply non-existent and not even necessary in view of the extraordinary sensitiveness of the protagonist. This ambiguity is reflected in the particular kind of ghost story the protagonist wants to narrate. He describes it as follows:

I was going to ask you if you’d ever heard of a ghost that didn’t intrude suddenly . . . That’s usually a key feature, isn’t it – the suddenness of the intrusion? In all the famous cases, the horror comes together at a definite moment in time. It’s never just a gnawing uneasiness that persists, but refuses to take shape.

Later in the story there is at least a hint that the second of the three readings proposed above might be the most adequate one. The protagonist himself struggles with the answer to the question about the inmost nature of his experience.

Grief and despair are familiar companions

of depression; but dread belongs properly to a threat from outside oneself. Now, if anything were wanting to sustain the ambiguity of my experience, it was that my grief and despair were mingled with dread.

It is obvious that, despite the lasting ambiguity of a “real” supernatural influence, the protagonist’s life changes dramatically after his forced stay in Tsjerkesleat. He begins to have visions of a kind of shrine in the chests of people who have lost a loved one. In this shrine hovers the image of the person the survivor has lost. The image and the cavity itself change their appearances over time, but they never vanish.

The protagonist becomes more and more incapable of teaching history in Leeuwarden, and, in a final, devastating development he has a complete nervous breakdown. After his recovery, his future is open, but decidedly different from the one he would have had without his stay in Tsjerkesleat.

On a certain level, “Pockets of Emptiness” is the story of a mental crisis in the guise of a ghost story – and almost a Bildungsroman in a nutshell insofar as the protagonist and narrator of the story-within-the-story learns an important – or, as one will see from the discussion of Marvick’s other writings, the most important lesson which human beings have to learn: empathy and compassion. (Even if they are only implied in this story; later works are more explicit on this topic.)

This suffering, of which the protagonist becomes aware, is, obviously, very common in a time of war, as the “jas van weduwes”with its unusual pockets makes clear; the fact that the story explicitly mentions two wars, three battles and at least one war crime emphasizes the importance of this aspect. But severe suffering is in no way limited to such periods. Many of the deceased loved ones, whose images the protagonist sees in the shrines, died in accidents or of diseases. Thus, “Pockets of Emptiness” can be read as a war story but only in the sense that war exemplifies human suffering on a much larger scale. And there is a third, particularly depressing aspect. To understand its impact, it is helpful first to discuss the predominant narrative technique of the story.

The action of the story-within-the-story takes place “half a lifetime ago.” This decision to situate the goings-on so far back in time functions as a filter and a means to put some distance between the oppressing experiences of the protagonist and the reader. This distancing effect is enhanced by the existence of a second narrator who describes the circumstances under which the story is told. We read, literally, a “twice-told tale.” This attempt at creating a feeling of security for the reader succeeds in those paragraphs in which the story-within-the-story employs a calm and observant tone.

I remember one moment, before things took the queer turn they did, when I seemed to see the essence of myself in the scene around me . . . In that moment I stepped back from the course of my life and saw the joy and pain of it without reference to incidents or people, just its sadness and beauty and agitation in the play of light and shadow and rainy wind. And my eye was drawn irresistibly to the core of the scene before me, to the darkest, coldest spot at the bend of the canal where the gleams did not reach and the water was still.

But these distancing effects are repeatedly overcome by the immediacy which is achieved by the particular presentation of the past events; above all, the experiences of the characters are made palpable by the use of images, which, apart from the central vision of the shrines, form the heart of the story. In these images Louis Marvick is immediately recognizable; they are an unmistakable feature of his narrative style.

One of them occurs when the protagonist and narrator of the story-within-the-story has left Tsjerkesleat. Unintentionally he is driving his bike through a herd of black slugs that is migrating from one side of the path to the other.

Exclaiming with horror and disgust, not so much at them as at what I was doing to them, I tried to steer a zigzag course – but it was hopeless. My speed was too great to permit of nice manoeuvres, nor could I stop without dismounting and crushing more of them underfoot; so, willy-nilly, with a sickening heart, I drove straight on for perhaps ten seconds more, doing horrible execution on my “grandpa’s bike”, now transformed into a murderous


This scene in the middle of the story shows the third and darkest aspect of suffering. Its two parts are equally important. First, the protagonist is confronted with the suffering of other creatures than human beings; and second, he is the source of their suffering. The narrative itself is a way of gaining insight into the inner workings of this world, and this darkest aspect has, indeed, tragic features. It comes very close to certain reflections of Schopenhauer about the fateful inevitability of becoming guilty and the tragic bond between all living beings, animals and human beings alike. It makes the protagonist realize “his unsuspected kinship with anonymous and inconsiderable things that aspired and were destroyed,” as the narrator of the backstory comments.

It is this bond of suffering between the survivors of a loss that is the predominant theme of “Pockets of Emptiness” – a perspective that finds its necessary additions in the novellas Marvick wrote after his first published short story.

The Madman of Tosterglope

This novella, published in book form five years after “Pockets of Emptiness”, adds two new aspects to the problem of guilt: an individual perpetrator and a narrator who is unreliable because he, at least at first, limits his perspective almost exclusively to the perceptions of the protagonist. Both aspects are interrelated.

The plot of the story is presented to the reader as follows. A Viennese music journalist with the conspicuous name of Kalmán, visits Tosterglope, a small town in Lower Saxony in the north of Germany. Here, in an archive dedicated to the composer and pianist Lothar Spinne, Kalmán intends to find some material for the musician’s biography he is writing. Spinne, who lived at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, at the age of twenty-seven suddenly vanished. The essence of Spinne’s work

was its power to sting. He was perhaps the only true satirist in music and his targets were the very connoisseurs who praised his genius . . . Spinne’s innovation was to compose music for instrumental voices alone – chiefly the piano – that skewered the listener’s pretentions with the sharpness of a personal attack . . . Spinne’s compositions engaged each listener in the trial of his soul.

This judgement is made by the narrator and obviously reflects the attitude of Kalmán. But it seems to be generally shared by all those who study the work of the composer. The directress of the archive gives a very similar description: “‘For me, he was a moralist. His music was just a means to bring the listener to judgement.”’

Lothar Spinne is not the only one who evokes thoughts of a personal attack and bringing someone to judgement in his biographer Kalmán. There is also the eponymous “madman“ who seems, at this point of the plot, easily identifiable. He is a homeless person who mimics passers-by in an grotesque way. He follows them a few steps on their way through the streets of the town, creating an outrageous caricature of them. The actions of this lunatic are not arbitrary. He

seemed to have a gift for detecting the hidden disgrace in someone apparently sound. The picture that lapped at Kalmán’s memory was of a sinner shadowed by his dedicated devil, that goaded him on his way to hell.

Up to this point of the story, the reader probably takes the events presented by the narrator at face value, even if there is the suggestion that things may be slightly different: Nobody reacts to the madman, not even the person who is mimicked. Only Kalmán seems to observe something unusual. And, the alleged effects of Lothar Spinne’s music and those of the so-called madman are suspiciously similar, at least in the mind of Kalmán.

In the further course of the novella, more and more inexplicable details occur. The archive never seems to have been open. A kind of Doppelgänger of Kalmán seems to study the work of Spinne, too. A sinister figure that may or may not be the madman seems to follow him wherever he goes.

The reader’s suspicions are well founded. Later in the novella it becomes clear that ten years ago Kalmán burdened himself with great guilt and his perspective of the events in Tosterglope is distorted. He holds himself responsible for the suicide of Brabec, the former fiancé of his wife: Kalmán intercepted a desperate letter of this man to her. In Tosterglope, he sees Brabec’s face in a dream:

His face showed that he had been staring into the pit that is always open at our feet but that most of us never notice or assume is ringed with sturdy guard-rails and posted with warnings to keep away. But he had seen that there were no guard-rails, there was nothing to keep him from stepping off the edge.

Although “the writer’s pain struck him to the core” and he knows that “suppressio veri was a crime,” Kalmán, with “smooth self-exculpations,” burns “the letter of one who could write no more letters.” A letter in which its writer refers several times “to his fear that she might never receive it, and that he would die in that forsaken place without knowing that she knew he loved her.” Kalmán is fully aware of what he does. The concise formulation of the narrator describes the core of Kalmán’s guilt: “He had erased forever the concentrated expression of Brabec’s soul.”

After Kalmán leaves Tosterglope and returns to his family in Vienna, the plot takes a well-prepared, but nonetheless surprising turn. The perspective of the narrator broadens. He does not limit himself to the perceptions of Kalmán any longer and describes the horrifying way in which the fate of Kalmán and his family is fulfilled. For the first time, other people react to the so-called madman, and there is a hint of a “real” supernatural level, although The Madman of Tosterglope remains, in this respect, as deeply ambiguous as “Pockets of Emptiness.” The ending provokes a new, enriched reading of the seemingly simple first sentence of the novella: “It was only a day after Kalmán arrived in Tosterglope that he noticed the madman, and only a day after that that the madman noticed him.”

Although there are some echoes of Joseph Conrad in the description of Brabec who “had taken himself off to some outpost of progress,” the novella reminds the reader probably more of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.” In some way it is a deeply humane story (as is Coleridge’s ballad and James’s ghost story). Guilt is punished, and punishment is possible because the perpetrator has a conscience. The tragic undertones, however, prevent the novella from turning into a fairy-tale – no matter how tempting such a transformation would be, particularly with respect to guilt. The punishment does not change the fact that the crime itself (not the perpetrator) remains victorious since another innocent character apart from Brabec is going to meet a shocking death at the grim ending of the novella. Even the supernatural intervention – if we decide to interpret the objective existence of the madman at the end of the story as such – cannot undo the crime, although the life of the perpetrator is destroyed. This dilemma is intensified in Marvick’s next novella.

Of Interactive Surveillance and the Circular Firing Squad

The unusual title of Marvick’s longest, darkest and most complex novella has a hidden question-and-answer structure. The first part alludes to the excessive system of informers in the GDR which gradually became visible at the time the events of the novella take place (1991). The second part describes what seems to be a successful way of organizing an execution: by placing the executioners in a circle, the bullets hit the victim at different angles and almost certainly guarantee his death. But on reflection it becomes clear that this kind of organization is absurd because it is highly probable that the executioners kill not only the victim but each other. Like every good title it hints at the things to come without giving too much away.

Although written by an American in English, it reads as if it were a part of the great German tradition of novellas about music and musicians that began with Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder’s “Joseph Berlinger” at the end of the eighteenth century and reached its first masterpieces with the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Even the broader setting of Dresden and Pirna is hoffmannesque. The action of “Der goldene Topf” (“The Golden Pot”), one of Hoffmann’s most famous fairy-tales, takes place there.

Even in “Tosterglope” there were some reflections of this tradition. One of the two main characters of the earlier novella is a composer, and the narrator mentions a composer named Kreisler. As the reader never hears about Kreisler’s first name, he is free to add “Johannes” instead of the probably more common “Fritz,” which in itself would rightly echo this tendency. In “Surveillance” this tradition becomes more obvious because music is not just important, but decisive. While the distorted perspective of Kalmán in the earlier novella makes it almost impossible to judge the quality of Lothar Spinne’s music, the reader of “Surveillance” comes to know a number of classic compositions without such a distortion. In this longer novella music is theme and part of the plot. The power of music and its cathartic or healing effect are at the core of the events.

The novella tells the story of an international group of young students of music who attend the inaugural semester of the newly- created Richard Wagner Summer Academy in Pirna. They do not have to pay any fees, but each student “would have a Charge – a child in whom no special aptitude for music had been detected, and who suffered, moreover, from some serious disability.” In a performance at the end of the semester, which is a highly idiosyncratic realization of Wagner’s conception of a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), both the child and the student are expected to participate. The academy is based at Schloss Sonnenstein, a former psychiatric clinic, where, in the years 1940-41, during the reign of the National-Socialists in Germany, almost 14,000 mentally handicapped persons were murdered as a part of the so-called “Aktion T4”. (The name, Action T4, derives from the Tiergarten in Berlin, where the mass murders were organized.) In the eyes of Dr Dahlberg, the director of the academy, the former Tötungsanstalt (“killing institution”) is the perfect place for the performance of his Prayer of Atonement. It is his conviction that music is “tantamount to reality” and thus capable of creating a kind of metaphysical atonement of the crimes committed in Schloss Sonnenstein. By its very nature this metaphysical atonement cannot be defined in concrete terms, but it is obvious that the director’s intentions far surpass the official aim of granting the students “access to the best musical training” and developing their “capacity for generosity”. This metaphysical vagueness is the reason why, at least at the beginning of the novella, it remains an open question whether there might be some arguments in favor of such a project or whether the director is simply an out-of-control megalomaniac.

However, the performance at the end of the semester is a failure of almost apocalyptic dimensions. The infernal design of the auditorium is itself an omen of the sinister things to come, and come they do, with carefully orchestrated supernatural overtones:

The refitted auditorium was likened to the plan of a cathedral, where divine grace was invited to descend to the centre, and demons were banished to the fringe. But unlike medieval gargoyles, instead of spewing their horror into outer blackness these demons would face the interior – an inversion of the cosmic plan that only made sense if a fundamental shift of perspective were allowed.

In his interview Marvick says that music “lends itself well to spooky intentions because it is immaterial, yet passionate.” In the passages from the novella I have quoted above and in the author’s other writings music accompanies and echoes the horrific turns in the plot and is therefore integral to the story.

Marvick says that the novella “owed a lot to my experience on a cello course at the Salzburg Mozarteum some years ago.” Because of his background as a musician, he can draw on his knowledge and experience with respect to classic composers, the characters of the students, the relationships among them, and their different approaches to individual compositions. (It is, for example, not coincidental that, in an almost hidden aside, the “purity of Brahms’s music” is mentioned, while at the same time, Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem is diametrically opposed to the director’s project.) And there is, of course, the students’ attitude towards the director’s project itself. They have to ask themselves the following questions: Can there be atonement in the first place? And if so, can music or any other art form be a part of it? Or, are all notions about atonement nothing more than the complacent musings of the survivors of historical and – by implication individual – crimes?

David, a champion of some of Nietzsche’s crudest ideas, is particularly opposed to the idea of making the students‘ disabled Charges take part in the performance of the Prayer of Atonement. He writes in a letter to his aunt:

This business of stooping to the level of retards and cripples makes no sense to me at all. How can we hope to lift ourselves out of the slough of Christian charity if we’re required to wallow in it endlessly with the most

wretched specimens of our kind? . . . I, for one, am doing what I can to see that his great “act of redemption“ does not go according to plan.

His attitude is expressed in a letter David tries to hide from the other students. As trust is essential for the smooth running of any community, betrayal in this story has paradoxical consequences. The ironic slant of the scene consists of the letter being read illegitimately by other students. Can either David’s or the students’ breach of confidence be justified?

At the other end of the spectrum is a student called Yrsa. Her attitude towards her Charge, Morta, is not just different from David’s; it may be the secret key of the fundamental moral questions of the novella.

“My name is Yrsa. Will you tell me your name?” The downcast eyes offered nothing. Yrsa despaired at the void they held. How could she connect? She stroked the fine-spun hair, trying to imagine what the child was feeling. “Do you miss your mama?” she asked. The child looked at her. Its eyes filled with tears. All of a sudden it flung its spindly arms around her neck and began to sob in what Yrsa later learned was Lithuanian. She hugged it and murmured to it, feeling a patch of wetness grow on her blouse. Of all the questions she could have asked, that was the right one, turning as it did on a universal word.

The seemingly mundane fact that Yrsa asks the child’s name is a sign of her respect and the first step of an authentic encounter between two individuals. Without the author pointing explicitly to it, the reader will add his own the observation that acts of dehumanization begin as the opposite of this scene, that is, with the denial of a name.

Yrsa’s empathy and her tenderness towards the handicapped child, for whom she is the guardian, can never be an atonement of historical or individual guilt. But it is the only imaginable spark of light in the absolute darkness of a world nobody would want to live in – no matter how modest, small and often insufficient this spark may be. Here, again, Marvick’s description reflects some thoughts of Schopenhauer. Particularly in this scene they both share the same moral attitude and the same conviction about the coming-into-existence of morality. Their only difference is that the author of The World as Will and Representation explicitly articulates what the author of the novella only implies: The silent development of empathy in the heart of an individual and the translation of this feeling into an action are equally important. And it is particularly convincing that Marvick made Yrsa a violinist, because the violin was created as a musical instrument that sounds as close as possible to the human voice.

A fundamental paradox arises with the arrival of another musical instrument: Of all the students it is David, the confused disciple of Nietzsche, who finds a harmonica on the premises. He gives it to Yrsa, and Yrsa in turn gives it to Morta. Demonstrating the functioning of the instrument, Yrsa says: “‘It belonged to someone who was here before us, years ago; perhaps someone your age.’” This “little relic,” as the author calls it, is a reminder of the terrible past of Schloss Sonnenstein and at the same time the means to introduce the girl, in all probability for the first time, to “a bright C-major chord . . . (and) its relative minor,“ and thus to the basic functionings of music. It is the embodiment of horror and a present of love; this paradox remains in a literal as well as in a symbolic reading of this scene. Moreover, it is exactly this paradox that turns the harmonica into an object of mystery and a kind of focal point for all the themes of the novella.

The Friendly Examiner

Louis Marvick’s second novel consists of three separate episodes. It is both a continuation of and a break with his earlier work. The continuation is reflected in Marvick’s style of sliding between actuality and the supernatural. It is a break because the novel is a prose comedy. Its style, as Marvick says in his interview, is “a pastiche of Augustan style, with consciously placed subordinate clauses, unnecessary amplifications and the like. . . . In developing each episode, my aim was to emulate the pace and humor of Smollett while still tending towards the gloomier effects of the end of the century.”

The action takes place in the 1760s; the hero of the novel is Hippolyte-Fortuné Sperling, a collaborator of Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, who is commissioned to investigate three apparently inexplicable occurrences. In the first episode he has to face a gigantic spider with allegedly vampiric powers; in the second episode he has to find an explanation for the seemingly supernatural spread of anti-rational Gothic novels in Paris; and in the third episode he and his pregnant wife Fabienne investigate the stunning success of Franz Anton Mesmer and his so-called “magnetic cures” that seem to defy all medical knowledge.

The comedy is particularly relaxed in the first episode. Its plot has some parallels to “L’araignée crabe” (“The Crab Spider”) by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian, who even appear in Marvick’s footnotes. In the second episode the humor becomes, at times, almost grotesque. The third episode employs a broad range of stylistic techniques including an almost labyrinthian sequence of backstories, gaudy adventures, structural irony and bitter passages.

The limitations of enlightenment and the untamable irrationality of human beings are the fundamental themes of the novel. In all three volumes the characters are confronted with powerful emotions and are forced to experience their helplessness towards them. At a later point they may overcome their helplessness, but at first this helplessness lasts as long as the situation itself. Outwardly, this clash of a character’s rational arguments and his irrational reaction often creates a comic effect; for the character himself, the situation is decidedly uncomfortable.

In the first two episodes the cause of these strong emotions is an outer experience – a gigantic spider and the perils of the investigation of the Gothic novel fad. In the third the threat has an inner quality. Fabienne, the heroine, who becomes more and more influential in the development of the plot, reflects on this aspect. In an early scene she is thinking about the influence of Mesmer’s assistant, a woman who later proves to be a demon. Fabienne shares her husband’s conviction that

to understand is to conquer, and to conquer more lastingly than by cunning, or a decisive act of violence. Yet that principle did not apply here. I understood immediately what had happened to me. I had lost my will to resist this woman. I could refuse her nothing, keep nothing from her. Yet that understanding did not help me to fight back. It advanced the cause of recovering my freedom not a bit.

The adjective that epitomizes such an experience is “uncanny,” which is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “seeming to have a supernatural character or origin: eerie, mysterious”.

In a work of fiction, the literary quality of the confrontation between rationality and strong emotions is dependent on the individual detail by which this abstract conflict is rendered. Consequently, I would like to illustrate how the author treats his themes.

In the first episode, for example, many humorous scenes are based on the fact that the hero, who investigates the case of the giant spider, suffers from arachnophobia. The atmosphere of the book, however, is completely different when the author describes how this arachnophobia came into being. As a child of six, little Hippolyte-Fortuné has to spend a night in the cellar, alone. In this ghastly scene the reader encounters for the first time one of the leitmotifs of the whole novel: characters who deceive themselves about their own motives. In their own eyes, they act rationally, but in fact they are simply cruel. Hippolyte-Fortuné’s father is the first in a long series of examples. The father may, indeed, believe “that the proper object of punishment is to reform the culprit, not to torture him vengefully,” while he actually does the latter.

In the second episode the critique of the protagonists’ naively rationalistic attitude towards the Gothic novel rests for some time on the literary form of the episode. Parts of the book are in themselves Gothic in style. Moreover, the Gothic turn of the plot unobtrusively allows for reflections on the hero’s beliefs, for example in a passage which amounts to an apotheosis of true love. Although Marvick often writes about empathy and pity, this exceptionally beautiful paragraph is unique in his whole body of work. In a scene in the course of his explorations, Hippolyte-Fortuné is convinced that he is going to die, and he feels the grief of his wife “in all its intensity, as if it were his own.”

Thus he refuted the maxims of that moralist who held that love is merely self-love, and pity merely vanity; for the pity that Sperling felt for his wife was as pure as human nature could allow it to be. No speck of self- regard denatured it. It was not a product of vanity but of affinity refined to essence. How else can we feel the pain of others than by imagining that we endure it ourselves? Is it reasonable to condemn us for being confined to separate bodies? The miracle, surely, is that we can sometimes step outside them long enough to become one another in our thoughts.

And not in our thoughts only, but, in a mysterious way, in our whole being, and this is, indeed, nothing less than a “miracle.”

The second question in the above quotation has a strong Nabokovian air to it. That may not come as a surprise considering Marvick’s sensitiveness and the masterly control of his narrative material.

A third example is the appearance of a demon in the third episode in the form of the woman, who is Mesmer’s assistant. The supernatural powers of this woman are, on the level of the plot, real. Tellingly, she tempts one of the villains by offering him a way to transform his words of hatred into a physical power of immediate effect:

“Have you ever regretted that your curses lack the force of blows? Your enemy does not feel them. They die when you speak them, and their uselessness only adds to your pain.”

I was caught up short by her remark. It was, indeed, regrettable that my curses were just words, without the power to harm the wretch at whom they were aimed.

The tendency occurs when a person directs his hatred at an image he has constructed of someone. When he is incapable of putting himself in the other person’s shoes, of accepting that there is a fallible human being before him, then his actions devastate, hurt or kill the real person. Thus, in a psychological reading, the demon would be the human weakness of indulging the evil traits of one’s own character, without considering either the consequences on the other person or on the deformation of one’s own personality. In scenes like these the reader feels the hidden heartbeat of the novel.

Regarding Marvick’s whole body of work, a reader may come to the conclusion that the author may be uncomfortable with very short prose pieces. Other writers with a special talent for the prose poem and the vignette have written more convincingly in these forms. But when Marvick gets the chance to develop his ideas in narratives of seven thousand words or more, there are only a few authors to match him. His ghosts offer neither the dubious consolation of some of the trivial examples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nor are they interchangeable with those entities that create cheap horrors in many uninspired works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Marvick’s creations give us an insight into some fundamental aspects of this world, and in his hands, the ghost story becomes an epistemological art form. Many of his characters are distant cousins of Parsifal. Like him, they grow “durch Mitleid wissend” (“wise through pity”). His stories betray a great sensitiveness towards the sufferings of human and non-human beings and with it, an acute consciousness of the fragility of life. Apart from his sophisticated narrative technique and the sheer beauty of his elegant prose, it may be exactly this humane attitude that is the reason for the outstanding quality of Louis Marvick’s writing.


The Star Ushak. Ex Occidente Press, 2010. Zagava, 2023.

The Madman of Tosterglope. Ex Occidente Press, 2014. Zagava, 2022.

Dissonant Intervals. Side Real Press, 2016. (A collection of ten short stories and novellas, with a list of first publications.)

“Black Wedding: A Footnote” in: Murder Ballads, ed. Mark Beech. Egaeus Press, 2017.

The Friendly Examiner. Episode 1. Zagava, 2018.

The Friendly Examiner. Episode 2. Zagava, 2019.

The Friendly Examiner. Episode 3. Zagava, 2020.

The Friendly Examiner. Episodes 1 – 3. Zagava, 2023.

“The Garden of Dr Montorio” in: Bitter Distillations, ed. Mark Beech. Egaeus Press, 2020.

“Corruption of Heliotrope” (chapbook). Zagava, 2021.

“Another Invisible Collection” in: The Dusk: Tales for Twilight, ed. John Hirschhorn-Smith. Side Real Press, 2022.

The Second Mask. Zagava, 2023.

“Where’s Your Opposing Thumb?” in: The Satirist (online), 28 May 2023.

Die deutschsprachige Version dieses Essays ist in „IF ANNUAL 2020: Weird“ (Nighttrain, 2020) erschienen / SHOP

Martin Ruf ist Übersetzer und Schriftsteller. Mehr über ihn