Monday, April 11, 2011

ODDITIES: Chalk Face - Waldo Frank

Here's another one of those books that crops up on want lists of collectors of arcane and supernatural fiction. Waldo's Frank's esoteric novel of 1924, Chalk Face, is a puzzle to me. I was simultaneously hypnotized by his prose and the sinister tone of the book, yet completely left in a fog as to what it all meant. Unlike a similar story overloaded with inexplicable menace which was much easier to follow (Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind reviewed on this blog here) I was a bit lost in this ambiguous convoluted tale of a man haunted by a mysterious figure who seems to be killing all of his enemies.

Is it a metaphysical mystery? Is it genuinely supernatural? Is it a story of a man losing his mind? It is indeed a tale of murder and there is some genuine detection along the lines of an R. Austin Freeman or J.J. Connington scientific detective novel (the narrator is a physician). But the apparition of the “man with the white head” who is on the scene of each violent death leads the reader to believe some supernatural agent is acting on the narrator’s evil thoughts. A weird dream sequence which takes up the entire second section of the book makes one think that the narrator is in fact going mad and that he himself has committed all the murders. Frank's fascination with Feud and his theories may explain this entire sequence.  It's like a prose version of the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound. Then again, it’s possible that there is a genuine doppelganger device playing out here along the lines of Poe's "William Wilson".

Waldo Frank, circa 1923
(photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
The book is written in an arty, pseudo-sophisticated style that literary critics like Kathleen Pfeiffer call "modernist" and "experimental." I won't argue with her. I wonder what readers in the 1920s thought of it when it was originally published? Was it only popular with the intelligentsia and the bohemian crowd?  There is no denying that Frank has mastered an eerie and claustrophobic mood throughout the book. Just what he intends this to mean eludes me.

1 comment:

  1. I've never heard of this, but it sounds right up my alley. While looking for information of Fully Dressed and in his Right Mind just the other day I came across this site, and have enjoyed your reviews here. My own interest is chiefly vintage supernatural horror fiction, but I love discovering those unclassifiable works that came before genres were nailed down, like Fessier's, or Bailey's Eva. Now to add Chalk Face to the interlibrary loan list!