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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dark Domain

Stefan Grabinski

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To purchase The Dark Domain

Title: The Dark Domain
Author: Stefan Grabinski
Genre: Stories
Written: (1918-22) (Eng. 1993)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: The Dark Domain - US
The Dark Domain - UK
The Dark Domain - Canada
directly from: Dedalus
  • These stories were originally published in Polish in collections published between 1918 and 1922
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Miroslaw Lipinski
  • With an Afterword by Madaleine Johnson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lush and genuinely creepy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/2/2003 China Miéville

  From the Reviews:
  • "Where Poe's horror is agonised, a kind of extended shriek, Grabinski's is cerebral, investigative. His protagonists are tortured and aghast, but not because they suffer at the caprice of Lovecraftian blind idiot gods: Grabinski's universe is strange and its principles are perhaps not those we expect, but they are principles -- rules - and it is in their exploration that the mystery lies. This is horror as rigour." - China Miéville, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Dark Domain collects eleven stories Stefan Grabiński first published between 1918 and 1922. He was best-known for his dark, fantastical stories, and these are prime examples of his horror-craft. Typical for them is the moment (here in 'The Wandering Train') where:

     Something incalculable like a chimera, capricious like madness had arrived, and it shattered with one blow the traditional arrangement of things.
       Typical, too, is an overlap between the real and the seemingly unreal, with characters finding themselves in this strange border-zone between them: "Was this not a hallucination ?" one asks -- a question many of them have, yet rarely are able (or really want ?) to answer with any certainty. The pull of the un-real easily overwhelms -- often helped here by the fact that the lure is sexual. The rather simple opening story, 'Fumes' finds its protagonist Ozarski separated from his colleagues in a snowstorm and left to arduously make his way on his own, finally finding refuge in a dilapidated and nearly deserted roadside inn. It really is completely run-down -- "A dive", he mutters to himself -- but the welcoming if creepy innkeeper provides food and (alcoholic) drink, and Ozarski settles in well enough -- especially when he is served not by the innkeeper but a young woman, Makryna, with: "generously-developed breasts, which she didn't attempt to cover at all with the border of her blouse".
       If readers quickly sense the reality (as it were) of the situation, with innkeeper and Makryna never in the same room together, and both responding to Ozarski's comments about the other with some bafflement, Ozarski himself is too easily blinded by drink -- wine on top of five glasses of vodka -- and the appeal of the buxom girl (and her promise to come to his room later) to put two and two (well, one and one ...) together. An engineer by profession, his scientific mind doesn't even begin to process what's going on here: he gets what he wants -- the satisfaction of his most basic lusts, almost despite himself -- but also a whole lot more than he bargained for; Grabiński resolves the story simply enough, but with a nice shiver-inducing closing image, and even for all the predictability of what unfolds, the writing is, as throughout, effectively evocative, and he layers on intriguing elements (not least the male-female duality here).
       'Szamota's Mistress' is a similar tale of being blinded by passion. It is presented as the entries from a diary, in which Szamoto chronicles his passion for and affair with the lovely Jadwiga Kalergis. After an absence of already a year -- she apparently went abroad -- he received a note summoning him to her house. There he finds the woman of his dreams, waiting just for him it seems; she even kisses him -- driving him into a frenzy of passion, and leading to a dream come true
I possessed her in boundless suffering and longing, my senses intoxicated and my heart enraptured, my soul frenzied and my blood burning.
       So begins a passionate affair -- though limited by Jadigwa to once a week, on Saturdays. Aspects of their relationship do confuse Szamota -- the fact, that even after several months, Jadigwa has never actually uttered a word, and that both before and after their frenzied love-making she doesn't seem to be physically present anywhere near ..... When he makes: "an interesting discovery" -- the supposedly "chance resemblance" of some of her physical details with his own -- ... well, maybe a light should go on. But Grabiński nicely teases out the slow dawning on Szamota of the reality of where his obsession has led him, complete with his complaint about how: "Jadwiga's eccentricities exceed all limits". But, of course, pricking at the fantasy he has built up around himself is the last thing he should do -- and of course exactly what he does, Grabiński having him literally stick an (opal cravat) pin in it. The fantasy isn't immediately pierced -- Szamota understandably doesn't want to see the truth that's right in front of him --, but, yes, cold, hard reality does eventually reveal itself even to him, a crushing blow.
       Many of these stories are variations on fantasy made (seemingly) real; indeed, this power and potential in writing is something Grabiński constantly returns to in his stories. His writer Wrzemian, in 'The Area', is the very incarnation of this idea -- even as he's been silent for twelve years, already, when his story begins, having stopped writing after publishing four: "original, insanely strange works". The author truly believed in his work:
     For Wrzemian had believed in what he had been writing; for he had acquired as time went on the firm conviction that any thought, even the most audacious, that any fiction, even the most insane, can one day materialize and see its fulfilment in space and time.
       In 'The Area', Grabiński has Wrzemian learn the hard lesson of the full consequences: "What did I do to you ?" the author plaintively asks -- when it's already far, far too late .....
       Trains also figure prominently in several of the stories (including characters winding up being run over by them in two of them), their speed, their ability to transport -- Grabiński's characters often hope for a new and different locale --, their anonymity. Several stories are paeans to that peculiar freedom of train travel, of being whisked off to ... somewhere. 'The Motion Demon' features Szygon, a man who goes through: "his famous 'flight' phases", regularly finding himself: "quite unexpectedly, several hundred miles from his native Warsaw and somewhere at the end of Europe -- in Paris, in London, or in some third-rate little town in Italy". 'In the Compartment' features Godziemba, described as: "a train fanatic" -- whose personality is literally transformed on board:
This notorious day-dreamer and sluggard was suddenly transformed into a dynamic, strong-willed with a feeling of self-worth.
       Almost the entire story takes place aboard a train, as Godziemba has quite the adventure in his compartment. But the last four paragraphs have him disembark -- and suddenly, of course, on terra firma, he's back to his old self ...; it's a beautifully turned conclusion.
       'Saturnin Sektor' is a variation on Grabiński's alternatives to reality, here time itself called into question. Other stories are of the more traditional creepy-horror sort, though obsessions generally feature very large; variations on the unreal becoming, in one way or another, real also continue to play a role -- notably in 'Vengeance of the Elementals' (whose title sort of gives away where this one is going ...), about a remarkable fire chief who obsesses not only about fires but also the data behind them, resulting also in an Album of the Fire Elementals. 'A Tale of the Gravedigger' has Giovanni Tossati -- a talented stonemason and sculptor -- completely transform a small-town cemetery:
The previously modest cemetery became, in a dozen years or so, a sepulchral masterpiece and the pride of Foscara, which in turn became the envy of other cities.
       Of course, as it turns out, there was more to Tossati's artworks than was originally recognized: "The monuments, the marble sarcophagi and family tombs were one uninterrupted chain of blasphemies and satanic concepts". Whoops.
       'A Tale of the Gravedigger' opens noting that it's been a while since: "the mysterious disappearance of Giovanni Tossati", and then loops around to explaining that disappearance -- showing Grabiński in strong command of traditional horror-setting, too.
       Several of the stories are remarkably -- if still reasonably decorously -- explicit, as Grabiński emphasizes the blindingly elemental. So, for example:
An unleashed heat -- animalistic, insatiable, primitive -- rocked their bodies and entangled them in a titanic embrace. The lustful female threw herself under his body, and humbly, like a young maiden, drew him into her with a craving movement of her thighs.
       Yet of course Grabiński writes knowingly: sex here is, almost always, ultimately fantasy. While the protagonist engaged in it -- and it's always a male protagonist -- is overwhelmed, he always comes to see -- sometimes even before he gets caught up in its throes -- that this sexual act (and, specifically, the entity he is engaging in it with) isn't entirely what he really had in mind.
       In the closing story, 'The Glance', the protagonist asks himself a question that hovers over many of these stories:
     'Does the world which encompasses me exist at all ? And if it indeed exists, is it not created by thoughts ? Maybe everything is a fiction of some deeply meditating ego ? Somewhere out there in the beyond, someone is constantly, from time immemorial, thinking -- and the entire world, and with it the poor little human race, is a product of this perpetual reverie.'
       The idea is, of course, a familiar one, and many writers have spun out variations on this concept; it speaks for Grabiński that even as almost all these stories engage, on some level, with variations of this idea and its consequences, they also work in their other, different ways -- not least as little tales of creepy horror.
       Wrzemian is probably in so small part Grabiński's alter ego, with the description of the fictional author's work certainly also applicable to Grabiński's own:
The works of this strange man, saturated with rampant fantasy and imbued with strong individualism, gave a most unfavourable impression by inverting accepted aesthetic-literary theories and by mocking established pseudo-truths.
       Grabiński's stories work so well on their horror-level alone that he does not come across as quite so challenging to the status quo -- or give such an 'unfavourable impression'. The lush writing also works well with the horror aspect -- and many of these stories are properly disturbing -- and also makes for quite good reading. Overall, The Dark Domain is good and agreeably unsettling fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 January 2021

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The Dark Domain: Reviews: Stefan Grabiński: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Stefan Grabiński lived 1887 to 1936.

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© 2021 the complete review

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