Friday, November 27, 2009

Spencer Holst: On Demons

In the olden days of the Arabian Nights a fisherman threw his raggle-taggle net into the Mediterranean. He pulled, and pulled, and pulled the net onto the shore, and he discovered nothing in it except an old ivory jar. He lifted a piece of seaweed off the jar, and saw that it was ancient and intricately carved with a procession of people and beasts winding spirally around it, so that whichever way he turned it three lines of people appeared. At the top was a stopper. It was made of lead. On it was impressed the Seal of Solomon.

The fisherman opened the jar and smoke began to come out of it, began to pour out of it, making a rushing sound, and the smoke gathered into a large cloud, and the cloud became the body of a demon, or jinn, or genie, or genius ... or call it whatever you want.

The demon put the fisherman in the palm of his hand, and gave him a choice of a number of hideous deaths.

"But I was the one who freed you!," protested the fisherman.

"Listen," said the demon, "I've been in that jar for 50,000 years. For the first five thousand I joyfully planned how I would reward the man who freed me ... I would turn him into an emperor! Give him palaces, the whole world for his dominion .... But ten thousand years passed, and I began to be a little depressed, and I lost some of my enthusiasm, yet I said to myself: whoever frees me, I'll give him a comfortable princedom, a good castle, servants, so he'll be set for life .... But more years passed, and after 15,000 years I became so disgusted, so disgruntled, that I decided I wouldn't give any reward to the fool who chanced to free me .... But as more time passed I began to hate humanity, they who ignored me ... And I began to devise methods of murder, of torture .... Oh! The things I've thought these 35,000 years .... I have daydreamed of this day, and of the way I should kill you. I have thought up thirteen horrendous ways for you to die. These are the ways: listen carefully, for I shall give you your choice."

"You can obviously do whatever you want with me," said the fisherman. "You can kill me on the spot. But nevertheless, the truth is the truth, and you're a liar."

"What?!" said the demon.

"You couldn't have been in this ivory jar. Look how small this jar is, and look at yourself, you're as big as a mountain. Any child could see that you aren't telling the truth. You're a liar. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe your fairytales, don't make me laugh. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe that you spent centuries in this little jar. Don't be ridiculous. Kill me if you want, but don't expect me to believe such an obvious fable."

"What?!" said the demon. "I'll show you!"

Whereupon his body began to dissolve into a huge cloud of smoke, which began to twirl like a tornado, and the smoke condensed and entered the ivory jar, and the fisherman quickly replaced the stopper, and it has remained there until this very day.

(Drawings by Beate Wheeler. On Demons was published in 1970 by Doctor Generosity Press. Further information on the author can be found at the Spencer Holst Papers page at the University of Texas at El Paso.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The stone

The field had been abandoned two years before. Someone had come and hauled off the cattle for the winter and in the spring they didn't come back. It had never been much of a pasture anyway, soggy in spots and overgrown with brambles and scrub in others. Left to their own devices the handful of cows must have gone half-wild, their hides a tangle of burrs and beggar's ticks by the time they were rounded up. After that nobody had scythed the grass and without the cows' patient grazing the vegetation had grown up, little sumacs and maples had sprouted and taken hold, creating a new green canopy just a couple of feet off the ground.

The boy hiked down from the road above, the cuffs of his jeans swishing through the high grass, until he came to the little stream that lay just behind a perfect colonnade of cattails. No more than two yards across and half that deep, its waters barely seemed to move, though if the boy dropped a leaf on its surface it would drift slowly off until it disappeared from sight. The stream bed was smooth and yellow-brown; if there were stones buried in the ground beneath they had long since been covered by centuries of silt and fallen leaves. There were tussocks at the water's edge that made for unsteady footing, but a few strides further off a great flat slab formed a bridge across the water, whether set there by a glacier or by some farmer's hand the boy didn't know. He could kneel on the stone and peer into the darkness beneath. In one corner, in perpetual shadow, a spider sprawled in readiness at the edge of an unbroken web.

It was only when he clambered to his feet again and stood blinking in the sunlight that he noticed the pickerel. It lay still and solitary in the water a few feet upstream, its narrow crocodilian snout aimed towards him, its lateral fins pulsing steadily, holding it against the current. The boy figured it couldn't have been more than eight or ten inches long. Its sides were covered in reticulations of green and white, and he thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kiuchi in monochrome

A solitary figure stands silhouetted at the bottom of an expanse of gray, its back turned. Directly beyond, seemingly floating in space but presumably drifting through the waters of an aquarium, is an immense, languid whale shark, also solitary, whose shadow glides beneath. The architecture of the enclosing tank -- if a tank there is -- is barely suggested. There are no rocks or reefs looming behind the shark, and no clusters of fish circling past. Here and there patches of white stippling appear, and there is a suggestion of a diagonal band of white, a reflection on the glass, perhaps, or just a stream of light falling through the waters, but that's all. Nothing distracts from the stillness of the scene and from the lone figure's silent contemplation, or perhaps, from the mutual contemplation of man and beast.

The artist and graphic designer Tatsuro Kiuchi has issued a paperback volume, entitled Pen Still Writes, that is entirely composed of monochrome illustrations originally created to accompany serialized works, by several writers, that appeared in various Japanese magazines and newspapers. The book has no text, other than a brief description and biography (in English and Japanese) on the jacket flaps, as well as captions on the facing page (Japanese only) indicating where the illustrations first appeared. According to the flap copy all of the artwork was done in Photoshop.

Kiuchi is a versatile artist who has worked on a wide variety of commercial projects, ranging from children's books to postage stamps to ads for Starbucks, and he is perfectly capable of being warm and accessible when the occasion demands. But these serialized illustrations, especially when removed from their original contexts and viewed as a body, have an appealing mysteriousness. The human figures we see in them tend to be remote, their faces turned away or their features left blank; likewise the stippling effect adds a layer of distance between subject and viewer. Many of the pictures have a distinct retro feel, recalling vintage artwork from, perhaps, the old Highlights magazine of a few decades back, though they are far more subtle and ambiguous. I wonder just who is being caged in -- or out -- in the picture below?

Pen Still Writes is only available direct from the artist, who can be contacted through his website. I have written earlier about Kiuchi's fascinating (color) artwork for Hikaru Okuizumi's The New Journey to the Center of the Earth, which can be seen in a Flicker slideshow. More examples of his monochrome work, including several images not reproduced in the book, can be found at illoz.

Monday, November 09, 2009


The old man was only her uncle, not her father, but he had raised her -- he and his wife, while she lived -- and she was the next of kin. She would have happily taken him in, would have visited more often, but he had stubbornly insisted that he was fine by himself. After the funeral -- a smattering of cousins, some shuffling old women from the neighborhood -- she went to the boarding house to see to his things. The landlady unlocked the door to his room, then withdrew without a word and let her be.

She set down her purse, slipped off her gloves and folded them over it, then began her inventory. It didn't take long. In the closet she found some old suits and trousers that still had some wear in them, and there was a good pair of leather slippers next to the bed; she would tell the landlady to donate those to charity. There were three or four books on a shelf she didn't think anyone would want. She flipped through them to see if anything would fall out, but there was nothing.

In a drawer of the nightstand she found the old enamel candy box and lifted the lid. There was a little folding money on the top -- not much, but she doubted the landlady had helped herself -- a mass card with her grandmother's name on it, his naturalization papers, a few photographs, sepia-toned and curling, a union ring with a chipped red stone, and a thin packet of letters, carefully tied with string.

She undid the knot with her fingernails and lifted the bundle into the dusty sunlight. The paper was brittle, burned by the slow fires of time, but the ink was a vivid dark blue. She unfolded the first one carefully but it was written in the old tongue, the one he wouldn't teach her, that she didn't want to learn, and she could only make out a word or two here and there. The letters were all in the same hand and she didn't recognize the name of the sender.