From time to time you find yourself reading a book discovered by chance. The book is in your hands and you start reading without having expectations of any sort as you know nothing about the story or the author. Some of these chance encounters vanish from your memory whereas others turn out to be pleasant surprises and you want to tell everybody about your discovery. Such was my reaction to Stefan Grabinski’s collection of short stories entitled The Dark Domain and here are a few reasons why you should read it.
Stefan Grabinski was born in 1887 in Kamionka Bużańska. He studied Polish literature at Lviv University. He is mostly known for his numerous short stories although he also wrote a few novels. As Miroslaw Lipinski, the translator of the stories, states in the introduction, Grabinski was never widely recognised in Poland as horror fiction wasn’t very popular in my country at the time. I hadn’t come across his works before. It is Grabinski’s gift for story telling and for his ability to juxtapose the mundane with the supernatural in a gentle way which makes reading him so rewarding. Although his stories bear many characteristics of both speculative and Gothic fiction, Grabinski does not frighten but instead unsettles the reader.
The collection The Dark Domain starts with a short story entitled ‘Fumes’ and from the beginning we are surrounded by powerful images of weather which set the mood of suffocation and danger as gusts of wind plough through everything in their path. In the midst of this turbulence there is a wanderer who is looking for a shelter and he finds it at a house of a peculiar host. What ensues is a story of ambiguous identities, sexuality and death. Indeed, these are the themes which permeate all Grabinski’s pieces in the collection. No wonder, as the author struggled with tuberculosis from the youngest age and witnessed the First World War. The vision of death was, therefore, present in his life and permeated his fiction to a great extent.
‘Fumes’ is the first short story of the collection which introduces us to Grabinski’s imagination and the next pieces are just as ambiguous, placing the author in the genre of Gothic as well as fantasy by which he was influenced. Like Faulkner in his ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Poe in his ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the author sets his stories in realistic places and introduces supernatural phenomena within that mundane environment. Each of his stories is but a few pages long and in each of them Grabinski succeeds at depicting figures which are dead yet still alive (‘Szamota’s Mistress’), who have unusual abilities to play with elements (‘Vengeance of the Elementals’) or whose identity is questionable (‘Fumes’). There is typical for Gothic fiction atmosphere of gloom and suffocation and a few abandoned houses as well as the theme of ambiguous identity (‘Strabismus’). At the centre of each of the stories is the main – always male – protagonist, a vagabond, gravedigger or a gentleman who finds out that the boundary between reality and dream, life and death or pleasure and pain is elusive.
The multiplicity of characters and themes and the talent for telling stories are the two characteristics of Grabinski’s fiction which made me eager to read more. The collection The Dark Domain will appeal to everybody interested in the supernatural as well as Polish literature enthusiasts and for those who enjoy a gripping story which is difficult to forget after you’ve finished.
Few if any readers of The Dark Domain will disagree with Miroslaw Lipinski that Grabinski is ‘one of the great voices of the supernatural’.