‘Fumes’, the first tale in this short story collection, opens with a description of a blizzard. A young man, called Ozarski, who we are told is an engineer, has been separated from his colleagues by a snowstorm. As evening sets in, he quickens his pace in the hope of finding shelter for the night. Trundling on, he becomes tired, dispirited and acutely isolated. Following the road he has taken into a small valley he is relieved to discover a rudimentary inn, erected in complete seclusion.
The door bursts open as soon as Ozarski knocks. In front of him is a tall sturdy white-haired old man. He asks for lodging and is welcomed effusively. The welcome Ozarski receives begins to unnerve him. The old man puts his arm round Ozarski’s waist to guide him to his dinner table, insists on touching his knee when he sits, and stares at him ‘with black demonic eyes, that burn with wild lecherous fire’. Despite his age, the impression he gives is of great strength and energy. After serving his guest with bread and drink, he eventually disappears into an adjacent room, leaving Ozarski to pass judgement on what a dive he has discovered.
After a little while the door to the adjacent room squeaks open. Expecting to see the strongly built white-haired gentleman, Ozarski instead sees an attractive young woman. She goes over to a cooking pot that has been simmering away on a stove and pours out the contents into a large clay pot. She brings the Borscht over to Ozarski and as she does so, she brushes his cheek with her breasts that are partially exposed from her unbuttoned blouse. She sits down close to Ozarski and he leans over touching her breasts. Seemingly oblivious to the sexual aspect of the situation she simply stares at him while answering his questions. He at first assumes she must be the old man’s daughter, then thinks she is his mistress, but she consistently dodges his questions until she too disappears into the adjacent room.
Baffled by her conduct, Ozarski drinks yet another vodka and is on the verge of falling asleep when the old man re-appears. He has brought wine and yet again touches Ozarski in a manner that unnerves him, this time pinching his thigh. His evident anger at being touched causes the old man to retreat from him, but he still leers at him from the other side of the room. By now very angry and very drunk, Ozarski demands that the old man sends the pretty voluptuous woman back into the room and clears off to leave them in peace. He runs after the old man as he is heading next door but before he can follow him inside the young woman remerges, wearing fewer clothes and carrying baskets of bread to be put into the oven.
Ozarski becomes ever more drunk and ever more aggressive in his badgering of the young woman. After she puts the bread into the oven she promises that she will return at midnight to lie with her guest. Once more he frustratedly watches her disappear into the enjoining room. He begins to undress and with an undiminished capacity for vodka lies down on his surprisingly comfortable bed. Expecting the young woman to come back earlier than stated for the bread and wanting to be ready for her, he puts out the lamp leaving the room lit only by bright embers from the oven. His eyes trained on the red light of the oven Ozarski begins to doze.
He falls asleep and dreams of the old man and the young woman, who combine in his mind into an unsettling chimera. Upon awaking he is disturbed by a sound coming from the oven, and soot falling down the chimney. It is at first too dark for him to see much, but the clouds part sufficiently for a strip of moonlight to illuminate a little of the room. He sees naked muscular calves hanging over the stove, then watches in shock as the rest of a body emerges amidst much falling soot from the smoke-hole. Before him in the dim moonlight is a horrible old white-haired hag. But despite her evident signs of extreme age she has the supple thighs, hips and big breasts of a young woman in her prime. But it is her face that most perplexes the befuddled Ozarski, because it is so familiar.
She steps forward and her face comes more clearly into the moonlight. It dawns on Ozarski that the face is a hideous combination of both the young woman and the lecherous old innkeeper. This terrifying monstrosity walks right up to his bed, placing one leg along the edge of the bed and with the other places a toe directly over his lips, she pulls back the bedcover and begins to undress him. Undoubtedly frightened and wishing to defend himself, he finds, ‘his will fettered by the fire of her lustful eyes, he surrendered with some kind of terrible joy.’ Noticing his response to her, the creature removes her toe and lies down next to him where she begins fondling his body. They roll around on the bed, both abandoned to passion, until her embrace of his chest with her arms and his loins with her legs is so painful that he cries out for her to stop. Unable to prise himself free he reaches for a knife on the bedside table and plunges it into the flesh below the left armpit. The creature screams, part animalistic male roar and part wailing female shriek.
Relieved by the release of the crushing hold, he stumbles from the bed looking for matches to make light, the moon having passed behind clouds. Making himself a light he sees the soot and blood covering the bedsheets. Still dizzy from drink and the hag’s vice-like hold, he staggers to the window letting cold air in. He briefly loses consciousness, only to wake with a renewed memory of that awful cry. Urgently grabbing the taper he rushes to that inner room from whence each time either the old man or the young woman emerged. Standing on the threshold of the room he looks in: there on a dirty plank bed are the bodies of both the large white-haired old man and the young woman, they each have an identical stab wound beneath the left armpit.
‘Fumes’ is a great sinister short story, and a striking start to one of the few selections of Grabinski’s work available in English. Grabinski has on occasions been called the Polish Poe, or the Polish Lovecraft. Sometimes this is to give a quick sense of his English language genre relatives, but I think much of the time it is to stress the exulted company of weird fiction writers he deserves to be ranked amongst. I would demur from the comparison on one note, I could never rate Poe anywhere close to Grabinski, well, maybe in one or two pieces he almost justifies being complimented as the American Grabinski.