This week’s weird fiction is a bit of stylish fin-de-siècle decadence.
Review: “The Crimson Weaver”, R. Murray Gilchrist, 1895.
Gilchrist’s tale is one of those bits of weird fiction that is an airy filigree of a plot bejeweled with dark stones of language that flash darkly and intermittently and are cut in odd shapes.
Short, essentially a femme fatale tale of a creature beyond our world, Gilchrist puts us in his odd world with the first line:
“My Master and I had wandered from our track and lost ourselves on the side of a great ‘edge’.”
Is the narrator an apprentice? A servant? An acolyte?
Whatever the relation of the two, they enter a sort of dark wood of error after wandering about the countryside, eating at nearly empty inns, and sleeping rough.
About to cross a stream and into the “Domain of the Crimson Weaver”, they meet an ugly woman who tells them not to go there, that she was beautiful once before the man she loved entered the Domain.
While the talk had been of philosophy before the bridge, once it’s crossed, the narrator asks the Master about love. The latter declaims it is “sacrilege to speak of the birth of passion” and then briefly tells of how an old lover of his died.
They enter a land leaden with moisture, a land full of “half-ruined fountains, satyrs vomiting senilely”, of “grotesque adminglings” of nymph, satyr and gryphons. A land of confused boundaries and natures.
Coming to an “oval mere” and a lichen-covered road leading to it, the Master senses evil and says they must leave. The narrator’s nature is too frail for this place.
Then then come upon a palace, its bell tower sounding from the clash of bird wings against the bells.
The Master says, “There is some evil in the air of this place.”
The narrator says its “an enchanted country” and, in that tower, is a “sleeping maiden who awaits the kiss.” The Master is strong, “no evil can touch us” says the narrator.
But the Master, seeming evoking the Virgin Mary, says “In the name of our Mother … let us return. I dare not trust your life here.”
But there is no sleeping maiden here. She’s awake.
But a great door in front of the palace swung open, and a woman with a swaying walk came out to the terrace. She wore a robe of crimson worn in tatters at skirt-hem and shoulders. She had been forewarned of our presence, for her face turned instantly in our direction. She smiled subtly, and her smile died away into a most tempting sadness.
She caught up such remnants of her skirt as trailed behind, and the glossy fabric I saw eyes inwrought in deeper hue.
She may be walking, but air of death of is about her:
Stooping, with sidelong motions of the head, she approached; bringing with her the smell of such an incense as when amidst Eastern herbs burns the corpse. . . . She was perfect of feature as the Diana, but her skin was deathly white and her lips fretted with pain.
The Master flushes with youth at her greeting, her statement that she perishes for lack of lover, that her robes are in tatters because of that.
But the narrator stops the narrator from succumbing to her blandishments.
The woman sneers at his interference. “Once that a man enter my domain he is mine.”
The woman seems to accept this, that the memory of the Master’s old love, has thwarted her. She goes back to her palace.
The Master and the narrator retrace their steps but don’t make it out of this “enchanted domain”, and they lay down to sleep.
After odd dreams, alluding to works by William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator awakes. The Master is gone, and he has left behind a knot of hair, a token of his dead love.
The narrator goes back to the tower where he has the strange sight of “dogs and pigs with human limbs” rending some body apart.
He asks the woman where the Master is. She enigmatically tells him “His soul talks with the culvers in the cote. He has forgotten you. In the night, we supped, and I gave him of nepenthe.”
The narrator begs her, offers her anything. She retorts she can have any riches she wants. But, if he comes with her to her loom. She is the Crimson Weaver, and the only price she will accept from the narrator is a kiss.
A kiss from her, and he will see his Master.
And, so, he submits.
For one moment heaven and earth ceased to be; but there was one paradise, where we were sole governours. . . .
Then she moved back, drew aside the web and showed me the head of my Master, and the bleeding heart whence a crimson cord unravelled into many threads.
“I wear men’s lives,’ the woman said. ‘Life is necessary to me, or even I—who have existed from the beginning—must die. But yesterday I feared the end, and he came. His soul is no dead—’tis truth that it plays with my culvers.’
And the Crimson Weaver dismisses her from his sight. But he’ll never be free of her. But, in parting, she lifts her skirt to reveal the legs of a vulture.
And the tale ends with the narrator back at an inn:
“So, half-dead, I lie here at the Manor of the Willow Brakes, watching hour by hour the bloody clew even unwinding from my heart and passing over the western hills to the Palace of the Siren.”
So, we have sort of a vampire tale though more psychic vampirism than physical though the Master’s body is certainly destroyed by the Crimson Weaver.
Gilchrist gives us a sinister Ariadne.
Plot often takes a back place to language in the weird tale, and this is definitely the case here. A plot description doesn’t capture the magic of Gilchrist’s prose which is what you would expect in a tale originally published in The Yellow Book.
Is there any deeper symbolism here? Nothing that I can see. Gilchrist is just using the language of myth and fairy tale. His story charms with the surface details.
There is the suggestion, with that woman at the beginning of the story, the abandonment of the narrator by his Master, and that knot of hair left behind, that love is something of a zero sum game. Even the memory of an old lover must be sacrificed for the new. Of course, as a song once said, “There’s a lot of different things called love.” The Crimson Weaver seems an embodiment of Eros and Death which, of course, is very Decadent.