Man and the unknown
Arun Gaur

Rupa’s Supernatural Omnibus edited by Ruskin Bond. Rupa & Co. Pages 303. Rs 95.

Ruskin Bond has, in this anthology, categorised 25 stories under five thematic sections: sorcery, apparitions, transmigration, haunted houses, and vampires. They come from many countries: Greece, England, Ireland, Japan, China, Germany, India, Hawaii, and Spain.

The stories move from the slow deliberations of a sceptic about the occult phenomenon to the full-fledged action-packed scenes of a werewolf on the prowl. At places are figments of theory that seek to explain the occult in terms of energy that is either absorbed harmlessly or becomes malignant and fatal. The sense of time and space becomes distorted and the laws of existence abdicate themselves.

Knowledge is not derived through mere labelling. A certain loneliness must precede it. In the stories, there seems to be no place for the doubter: "I read the other day in a book by a fashionable essayists that ghosts went out when electric light came in. What nonsense!" (All Souls’—Edith Wharton). This is a vehement protest of the believer against the non-believer.

In the majority of the stories, it is taken for granted that the phenomenon exists and exists everywhere in multifarious forms. Even a dawn becomes impregnated with that special sense. Objects stealthily regroup themselves after a night. Night and the disturbing silence attached to it prevail over even the day-lit houses. Silence gets a new meaning: "How many people that she knew had any idea what silence was—and how loud it sounded when you really listened to it?" With the silence, fear is also redefined: "She understood now that she had never before known what fear was, and that most of the people she had met had probably never known it either. For this sensation was something quite different"(All Souls’).

Imagery is strong and mysterious and fearful and amusing sometimes. Invisible wizards fight the man-eaters (The Isle of Voices—R. L. Stevenson), a large and well-appointed hearse is driven by "two white horses, with plumes complete, and attended by mutes, whose black staffs were tipped with silver that glittered pallid in the dawn" (The House of Strange Stories—Andrew Lang), a bard sits "alone in the rain before the memorial tomb of Antoky Tenno... loudly chanting the chant of the battle of Dan-no-ura.

Behind him and about him, and everywhere above the tombs, the fires of the dead were burning, like candles" (Hoichi the Earless—Lafcadio Hearn), there is death-in-life and life-in-death: "I passed my hand across my brow. I turned to the passenger on the seat beside my own, and saw—oh Heaven! how shall I describe what I saw? I saw that he was no living man—that none of them... A pale phosphorescent light—the light of putrefaction... dank with the dew of the grave... Only their eyes, their terrible eyes, were living...." (The Phantom Coach—Amelia B. Edwards), and there is a delusive ambiguity in the utterance of a vampire: "‘Ah, this delicious night air,’ she said, luxuriously sniffing in the coolness. ‘Night air and the gardening are the great tonics. There is nothing so stimulating as bare contact with rich mother earth. You are never so fresh as when you have been grubbing in the soil—black hands, black nails, and boots covered with mud.’ She gave her great jovial laugh" (Mrs Amworth—E.F. Benson). Despite the heavy prospects loaded against the lost mortal man in this savage storm-torn world, we find that generally he is happily rescued from the invisible forces.

For Rs 95 the fare is luxurious, albeit, it could have considerably improved itself by furnishing little biographical sketches of the writers and perhaps, there could have also been better contributions from the Indian side.