The Charnel Imp by Alan Singer

About Alan Singer: Singer is the author of six novels, The Ox-Breadth (New Earth Books, 1978), The Charnel Imp (Fiction Collective, 1988), Memory Wax (FC2, Black Ice Books, 1996), Dirtmouth (FC2, Black Ice Books, 2004), The Inquisitor’s Tongue (FC2, 2012) and, most recently, Play, A Novel (Grand Iota, 2020). He also writes about aesthetics and the visual arts, including Unmaking American Literature: Mind-Making Fictions of the Literary (Bloomsbury, 2017) and Literature Is History: Aesthetic Time and the Ethics of Literary Will (Cambridge U. Press, 2015). His most recent work is Posing Sex: Toward a Perceptual Ethics for Literary and Visual Art (Bloomsbury, 2018).

I interviewed Alan Singer here.



“THIS IS A WARNING

Report all stray animals. Alive or dead. Refrain from touching enigmatic carcasses. Stock animals are a source of pestilence.”

Still Lazarusly alive, this novel itself is an enigmatic carcass, one you shouldn’t refrain from touching and reading, because its postmortem pulse is more animated than the paper bodies of most books. And if we enter the architecture of this carcass, like Jonah jumping into the halitotic maw of the whale, we see that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, doing more in under 200 pages than many novels double its length. Among the tendons and broken bones, readers will find fine sentences and evocative topsy-turns of phrase that are Faulkner-fried and McCarthy-encrusted, but also with embryonic intimations of Joseph McElroy, a legendary author who has praised Singer’s later work. What makes Singer’s style sing and sting is the stirring mystery that trembles between grimy realism and mesmerizing surrealism, enwrapped by several narrative threads that are entangled if not spliced like a strange strain of bacterial DNA. Here is but a taste of the prose: “Her cheeks met inside her mouth like clapping hands,” “For he has entered the long dark tunnel of pursuit that is as coiled with metamorphosis as the wet labyrinths of digestion,” and “The clacking jaw receded behind the soft swelling voice, like the bone under a bruise becoming less real to the touch.”

True to the Tardis feeling, this slim book took me about a week to read as I sipped its nested stories and savored its deception: “In the coiling eye of the storm, the venom of time’s serpentine movement is neutralized. Where the currents swarm like clouds of flies around a speck of meat, a calm descends: there where the shiny tip of the screw bites most peacefully into the wood, there, nothing will alter.” And this quote also speaks to the protagonist’s wish for stasis because in suspension death ceases too.

The novel opens up with the appearance of a dying “leopard-spotted steer”—easily the spots of a leper—an omen as bulky as it is ubiquitous, for more and more dead steers appear in every area of the town, half-inside a well, head-smashed through a store-front window, even on the stage of an opera house: “…this miracle of bovine obeisance, its head bowed toward the back of the bare stage, between broken knees, its haunch raised like an altar behind, remained an untendered vision throughout the luminous hours of this working day.”

Our portentous protagonist is narrated by a seemingly deific eye that refers to the character as “my Moertle,” a name that tells us Hustus Moertle is his mortal, the sparrow he’s tallying, but the eye is later revealed to be the ostensibly omniscient perspective of Dr. Face, who is unable to heal an inexplicable pestilence. For every dead steer, the doctor “took another call to attend to the bedside of a man with a swollen foot, one with a bursting tongue, once with fever seeping from his enflamed joints.” So like a mantra he keeps having to tell himself that “hoof and mouth is a disease of four-legged creatures, but I have crossed the distance between the hot side of the man and the fallen breast of the animal to find them lying in the same place.” What is a man but another animal, having only recently, in the grand scheme of things, graduated to bipedalism, ready to be laid low and begin lowing on all fours.

The slaughterhouse where Moertle works is the novel’s focal point of death, disease, and palpable guilt. There’s a train cart scene that of course evokes the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, whose army learned to industrially kill human beings based on the ever ongoing genocide of non-human animals in the first place. And the slaughterhouse releasing its spore of disease is also fairly prescient, because, as people are too-slowly beginning to see, factory farms are the incubators of pandemics, and it’s only a matter of time before a virus worse than COVID-19 is released from America’s tried and true practice of over-efficient death camps, billions of animals killed every year for a sandwich, a hamburger, a box of nuggets that will inflame their tissues, obstruct their veins, and root-riddle their hearts. While The Charnel Imp is not a vegan manifesto, the implications are both obvious and unavoidable, even though cognitive dissonance is one of Homo sapiens’ strongest superpowers, working against itself and others and ironically putting the crypt in kryptonite.

There is an ostensible labyrinth, a metaphorical slaughterhouse, a sketch of an old prison on the book’s cover (“The Prisons” series, #7 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi of Italy [1720-1778]), it could also represent a medieval cathedral, for even now the anthropophagic ritual is practiced in which ovine attendees eat the flesh of Christ, drink his blood, deicidal too, yes, the slaughterhouse as the place of prayer and sacrifice, the decapitated chapel where Moertle witnesses the corpses hook-hanging and “…all awaken the image of the tiny suffering god cut out of wood….”

And just as the townsfolk are fevered and haunted by the animals they feast on, as it were, so Moertle is haunted by his own mortal, his ghostly second-shadow of a daughter whose name is Myrtle. Indeed, while the tone of the prose more or less remains the same, we are given the first-person perspectives of Myrtle father-stalking and even sentient glimpses from the perspective of a pet, titled “Monologue of the Spotted Dog” (spotted because of natural hair patterns or because of the contagion?). The other narrative threads include “Dinah the Damsel in Distress” and a fable of wooden puppet children and the woodsman who birthed them via the violence of an ax. These threads are woven in such a way as to alternate and overlap, nearly cancelling each other out, becoming one.

Also like the Easter egg steers, metaphorical images continue to pop up in the text, including genie lamps, the bovine genii themselves, puppeteers, manipulating hands, the fist, the eye, licking light, licking tongues, and metaphors that lick at the biblical, such as references to the needle’s eye, the fruit of heaven, a reigning spell of rain echoing Noah’s global water park, and apocalypse by fire.

Overall, the timeline of things is a horizon blurred by heat and fluidity and delusion. It seems as though the ghost daughter haunting Moertle is not yet born, the wife Lilli is also a phantom then alive when she is giving birth to her sickness, the daughter that Moertle fears “will be born unexpectedly with a hoof or a horn.” But as Moertle later says in one of his philosophic, DeLillo-esque soliloquies, “Memory is a leash tied at both ends.” There is a lot to unravel and de-puzzle in these pages, or you can let the mist of mystery settle on your face like nocturnal perspiration and bask in the book’s nightmare.

A note on the title: Martin Amis has explained that there are two types of titles, those that take a phrase from within the work itself and those that are not explicitly mentioned in the text but pervade it on every page. The Charnel Imp is perhaps somewhere in between. Strangely enough, imp is only used once near the end of the book, as a verb no less. As it turns out, rather than the diabolical creature or child, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the verb form refers to repairing “a damaged feather in (the wing or tail of a trained hawk) by attaching part of a new feather,” which perhaps does little to decipher the following passage: “When we are talking to each other, we are always speaking over water, moving other faces with our breath until the imping recognition comes that they are our own trembling faces below us, and we are chest high in the flow of things.” It’s possible that Singer is making a verb of the mischievous sprite as well, but I don’t pretend to have definitive answers and, in truth, I enjoy the mystery and ambiguity of it all, being in the “flow of things.” As for the first half of the title, I did not see any instance of charnel, which is a word that does not mean lascivious, even though it sounds similar to, and is etymologically connected to, carnal. Rather, it encompasses violent death and is short for the charnel house, which the nifty dictionary describes as “a building or vault in which corpses or bones are piled,” not unlike a slaughterhouse. But the in-sin-uation of sex within death is a notion relevant here, especially its ultimate end result, stillbirth.

It should be said that The Charnel Imp (1988) is the first in a thematic trilogy of violence and memory, including Memory Wax (1996) and Dirtmouth (2004). Singer also has a difficult-to-find first novel, titled The Ox-Breadth (1978), written while he was in grad school, and two other novels, The Inquisitor’s Tongue (2012) and Play (2020). I look forward to reading more of his wonderful work and witnessing how the eldritch style of his sophomore effort evolves.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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