The Dark Chamber: Grandisonant and venust

The Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline

Just recently, I had some words to say concerning British author J. B. Priestley’s chilling second novel, Benighted, which was released in 1927. But, as it turns out, that was not the only atmospheric and genuinely unnerving horror exercise to come out that year. On the other side of the pond, Michigan-born author Leonard Cline, in his third novel, The Dark Chamber, would create a work so very macabre that it would later earn enthusiastic praise in H. P. Lovecraft’s renowned essay entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Cline, who was 34 when this novel was released, would ultimately gain some minor renown as the author of some half a dozen books, in addition to working as both a journalist and poet; by January 1929, he would be dead, a victim of heart failure, at age 35. Today, The Dark Chamber is the work for which he is probably best remembered, aided no doubt by that very laudatory Lovecraft review. But for many years, the book was virtually impossible to find. After its initial release as a $2 Viking Press hardcover in 1927, it would go out of print for a full 42 years, until its reintroduction as a Popular Library paperback in 1969. The copy that I recently read was its third incarnation, as a 1983 Pinnacle paperback, and for readers today, there is a 2005 edition from Cold Spring Press that should fit the bill nicely. And a good thing, too. Though seldom discussed today, Cline reveals himself here to be a writer with a unique style and sensibility, and his third novel is now something of a cult item, well deserving of a reintroduction to a new generation of readers. Something of a sui generis experience, The Dark Chamber will surely not prove acceptable fare for all reading tastes, but for those who are game, it just might prove a memorable ride.

The book is narrated by a youngish, aspiring composer/classical pianist named Oscar Fitzalan. Oscar, when we first meet him, has just settled into the gloomy, Gothic pile known as Mordance Hall; a wonderful name for a creepy abode, with its vague suggestion of death. This crumbling manse is located atop the Palisades, 15 miles north of Edgewater, NJ, and is the residence of Richard Pride and his family. Pride, as it turns out, has hired Fitzalan to assist him in his current scientific endeavors. He has been attempting to bring back to his conscious memory every moment of his long life, and with the aid of three stories’ worth of accumulated papers, plus photos, mementos, recordings, various scents and a pharmacopoeia of illicit drugs (stimulants, sedatives, morphine, cannabis, hashish, opium), is already far along the road of recalling all the incidents of his 70+ years. Oscar, it seems, will perform, on piano, various selected pieces as a further mnemonic aid in Richard Pride’s researches. But that’s not all. Pride has latterly become interested in the subject of ancestral memory, and several dreams that he relates to Fitzalan clearly demonstrate that he has tapped into the memories of his own grandparents, and even, astoundingly, of when Pride’s ancestor was a sea-dwelling prehistoric monstrosity during the Triassic period of some 250 million years ago! And Pride is now seeking to explore even further, and to open the titular dark chamber of his mind to the full. And if this weren’t enough of a freaky setup for a novel, author Cline also gives us a household of characters that almost rivals the oddball Femm clan in Benighted. Pride’s wife, Miriam, is an astrology-loving, self-styled sorceress of sorts, with whom Oscar enters into a clandestine affair. Janet, the Prides’ 20-year-old daughter with whom Oscar desperately falls in love, is something of a wanton free spirit, most assuredly sexually liberated for 1927. Wilfred Hough, Richard’s secretary, is a dour, haggard man who is head over heels in love with Miriam and completely under her thrall. And then there is Tod, the family’s enormous, black police dog, whose presence always seems a threat to Oscar, and whose name, in German, means “death.” Oh, it is quite a bizarre collection of quacks and kooks, to be sure, and as Pride’s experiments begin to spiral out of control, one that begins to crack under the stresses, leading to a general tragedy and dissolution…

In hindsight, it is easy to see just why Cline’s novel held such great appeal for Lovecraft. The book features a scientist who defies the natural order of things and, in his excessive, uh, pride, seeks to pierce the veil of the unknown, as did so many of H. P.’s protagonists. Although lacking any outright suggestion of cosmic horror, The Dark Chamber is nonetheless suffused with an aura of incipient doom, which must also have struck a chord with the “Sage of Providence.” And then there is the writing style of the book itself, a dense, poetical, baroque way of telling a story that demonstrates quite clearly Cline’s love of the English language. Rife with obscure vocabulary (more on this in a moment) and allusions, the novel is a highly literate exercise that will most likely stun the reader, although, again, it is assuredly not for all tastes, and does require a great deal of patience. Still, as I say, it was a favorite of Lovecraft, who deemed it “extremely high in artistic stature,” and who went on to say that “the atmosphere of this novel is malevolently potent.”

As for that writing style of Cline’s, which makes the book the especial feast that it is, a few examples may suffice:The Dark Chamber by Leonard Cline science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

She dropped to the piano bench, sitting sidewise and gazing at me with an expression that burgeoned with an April of scorn…

Miriam was a felled trunk whose core swirled with the coiling glow of phosphorus, but dun outside, giving no sign of that fire. And Janet was a hill by a marsh, frantic with the flitting of will-o’-the-wisps…

Also of Janet, we are told:

…she was song before it is fashioned: the fugitive suggestion of melodies before, selected and defined, they are woven together in the one conclusive pattern. She was a tingle of sweet flesh bewildered by the multiple potentialities of life. She was beautiful, and surely she could be tender. She was yet to be composed…

The entire book is like that, and one can’t help but think that our narrator Fitzalan might well become a writer himself, if his work as a budding composer does not pan out!

The Dark Chamber, it must be stressed, is not an “easy book”; as a matter of fact, it is a very challenging one. At least, it was for me, a copy editor of some 40+ years who considers himself of about average intelligence when it comes to both culture and vocabulary. But this book was indeed one for the books! Its range of reference is immense, for one thing, and it might be a good idea for potential readers to bone up on such writers as Wilhelm Muller, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer and Eliphas Levy before venturing in … as well as the poets Ernest Dowson and Theophile Gautier, psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, Incan religion, Grecian courtesan Lais of Corinth, and classical music in general. (Strangely enough, Wagner’s 1867 opera “Der Meistersinger” is brought up, as it had in another book that I’d recently read, Cromwell Gibbons’ 1938 offering The Bat Woman.) And then there’s the matter of vocabulary; dozens upon dozens of 10-cent words that Cline regales the reader with, to his or her delight or consternation (both, in my case, but then again, I’ve always been a reader who feels compelled to look up every single reference that he doesn’t know). OK, here is just a sampling of some of the words you must be prepared to encounter when attempting this book: meeching, famulus, barghest, girandole, pathognomy, venust, vielle, shilpit, orpiment, filemot, eagre, cockchafer, domdaniel, monstrance, pyx, malapert, erethism, emprise, fetch candle, orgulous, blissom, psychasthenia, divagation, lucubration, plumule, appetent, dereistic, grandisonant, dousterswivel, megrims, portamento, hierophant, anthomaniac, astrolatry, expatiate, pier glass, acrocephalic, corybant, maenad, crapulous, flittermouse, compendiate, baalim, douce, desuetude, inglecheek, ecphorization, paregoric, perpend, queachy, demency, cotquean, orotund, morsure, forspent, hurr, merd, cenobite, dingle, saprophytic, dulcitory and desquamate. What a Scrabble player Cline would have made! Is it any wonder that a reviewer back in 1927 called the book “…an amazingly worded orgy of the more unspeakable human propensities”?

Now, lest you think that I’m trying to scare you off here, rest assured that I am not. The Dark Chamber will surely demand much of the reader (better have that UNabridged dictionary handy!) but it is a book whose rewards will amply repay the efforts expended. It is one that grows wilder and more intense, stranger and ever more tragic, as it proceeds, and fair notice must be given that its body count is a high one. It is surely a novel that will linger long in the memory … and without the assistance of mnemonic devices, aroma cues, and a battery of psychoactive drugs! I’m not sure that I’ll be attempting another Cline book anytime soon, but I’m very happy that I got to experience this one…

Published in 1927. The wife and daughter of Richard Pride become involved in his evil experiments with strange mind-altering drugs.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. To my surprise I actually knew a couple of those words.

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