Seeing Things! Strindberg and Kittelsen

Left: August Strindberg; Right: Theodor Kittelsen selfportrait

Alchemy, schizophrenia, sinister wizardry, religious fanaticism, and even a knowing wink of humor, The Inferno, by writer August Strindberg (1849-1912), is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. 

There is some disagreement as to how much of The Inferno is based on an actual nervous breakdown suffered by the author and how much Strindberg embellished and exaggerated his madness to make a better story (much like I did in my novel, Tamper). Having just finished reading Inferno, I have to believe that if Strindberg really went temporarily insane in the mid-1890s, he certainly recovered enough to write a delightfully macabre book about the experience.

 The main character of Inferno, presumably Strindberg himself, wanders from place to place in search of peace of mind, experiencing bouts of paranoia, hallucinations, apophenia (imagining profound connections in random coincidences), and pareidolia (seeing faces and other shapes in ordinary objects, like when someone claims to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast).

A couple of brief passages from from Chapter 5, Purgatory:

The house is old, the rooms are low, the passages dark, and the wooden staircases wind and twist hither and thither as if in a labyrinth. There is an air of mysteriousness about the whole building, which for a long time has attracted me. My room looks out on a cul-de-sac, so that standing in the middle of it, one sees nothing but a moss-grown wall with two small round windows in it.

and later in the same chapter:

In my fireplace I burn coals which, because of their round and regular shape, are called “monks’ heads.” One day when the fire is nearly extinguished I take out a mass of coal of fantastic shape. It resembles a cock’s head with a splendid comb joined to what looks like a human trunk with twisted limbs. It might have been a demon from some mediaeval witches’ sabbath.

The second day I take out again a fine group of two gnomes or drunken dwarfs, who embrace each other while their clothes flutter in the wind. It is a masterpiece of primitive culture.

The third day it is a Madonna and Child in the Byzantine style, of incomparable beauty of outline. After I have drawn copies of all three in black chalk, I place them on my table. A friendly painter visits me; he regards the three statuettes with growing curiosity, and asks who
has ” made ” them. In order to try him, I mention the name of a Norwegian sculptor. ” No,” he savs, ” I should rather be inclined to ascribe them to Kittelsen, the famous illustrator of the Swedish legends.”

Upon reading this, of course, I had to look up Kittelsen. He was quite an artist. I’d seen his work before, a long time ago, and some of his illustrations could almost be used in the part of Tamper that purports to be the excerpts from Olsen Archer’s book on Richard Shaver:

In Labyrinths of the Damned, I have attempted to build on Mr. Shaver’s work and to integrate his theories on underground, cavern-dwelling humanoids with other related phenomena.

The Himalayan Yeti, known to Tibetans as the Demon of Kangchenjunga, seeking refuge deep in glacial ice caves.

First hand accounts of alien abductions and nefarious animal mutilations, in and around the underground Military Base in Dulce, New Mexico.

Evil Scandinavian trolls, hunched and deformed, creeping into rural towns at night to desecrate churches and steal babies. Under dark, moonless skies, they scuttled from one peat-roofed house to another, looking for an open window to a child’s bedroom.

The North American Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, sighted mostly in the Northern U.S. and Canada.

Scottish gnomes, those rumored descendants of the Picts, who, during the Dark Ages, took refuge in caverns to escape marauders, and left behind cave paintings and small quartz pebbles painted with symbols and wavy lines.

The so-called “mole people,” encountered deep in now-abandoned coal mines of West Virginia and in the extensive network of caverns the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia . . .

Just for fun, here’s a mock-up cover for Tamper using an illustration by Kittelsen called The Plague on the Stairs (this is not the actual cover of Tamper): 

Here is the complete text of Strindberg’s The Inferno,

and here is more on Kittelsen.

2 responses to “Seeing Things! Strindberg and Kittelsen”

  1. Thanks, Tamara! Good to hear from you.

  2. Bill, a belated thanks for this smart and informative post… my reading list just increased by two titles: Temper and Inferno!

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