Surrealpolitik: The Eater of Darkness

Author: Robert M. Coates

New York: Capricorn Books (1959, first published in 1926)

Quick Summary

A modernist terrorism novel at the border of surrealism and science fiction. Full of word play, metafiction, free play of narrative and sentence structure. In Re-Covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form, David M. Earle notes that Ford Madox Ford called the book "not the first but the best Dada novel" (p 113) in his Time magazine review of August 5, 1929. Earle describes the novel as one that "waffles between pulpish mystery and Ulysses-inspired surrealism" (p 112), with a style that "follows a similar pattern of cultural contrast shifting between stylistic innovation (such as listing, conflation of news story and readers thoughts, reader disorientation), and pulp clichés. Initially published in 1926 by McAlmon's Contact Press. According to the Capricorn Books blurb about the novel at the back of the book, this novel has been called "the first surrealist novel in English" but it doesn't say by whom. According to the L.W. Curren page (where the 1929 first hardcover edition of the book sells for $2500), Eater of Darkness is "an ignored minor masterpiece of antirealistic fiction" (Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature I, p. 463); it "quite brilliantly applies a wide arsenal of literary devices, some of them surrealistic, to the exaggeratedly spoof-like tale of a master criminal and his absurd super-weapon, which sees through solids and applies remote-control heat to kill people invisibly; beneath the spoofing and the cosmopolitan style lies a sense of horror." (Clute and Nicholls (eds), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), p. 239). I agree with all of this, and note that it is in line with my efforts to contextualize absurdist humor against the beating of a silent black heart. See more at: Is this a terrorism novel? Close enough! The first murder is random -- an experiment. A few others are vaguely alluded to. Charles Dograr wipes out nine literary critics, so more of a grudge than terrorism. Eighteen are targeted in a bank robbery -- more greed than terror. But in the final accounting, sixty-seven murders over two months are attributed to the x-ray bullets, and the city is described as "terrorized". That is terrorism enough for me. There's even a building that collapses suddenly and completely.


There are 17 quotes currently associated with this book.

[From the introduction by the author in 1959] The young men of my generation looked forward to peace, to peace timeless, unhurried and indestructible; I would suggest that you pause for a moment, as I sometimes do, to think about that, and compare the basic outlook it suggests with the mixture of frustration, anxiety and downright fear that lies in the back of every man's mind nowadays when he picks up his morning paper or turns on the radio.

This fact, too, I think, had a great deal to do with creating the atmosphere of the period -- a mixture of optimism, enthusiasm and feverish activity...It was the Dada period, and for me Dada has always meant gaiety: the one artistic movement I know of whose main purpose was having fun. (page iii-iv)
Tags: [Culture, Dada]
How long he lay there he did not know. The night had been throbbing silently about him. Suddenly it was as if the room had been jerked up and down twice or thrice, but with such infinite rapidity that the motion had been imperceptible, save that a thrilled commotion remained in the air, leaving the room pulsing. He saw that the old gentleman had reached under the table and had pulled a lever. (page 22)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
Visibly, it was as if a snake of fire had wriggled out from the hooded orifice of the machine. Swift beyond sight, it had run down the thin and unswerving cylinder that marked the path of the x-ray bullet. The man's head -- the brain Charles Dograr watched -- jerked backward, as if the snake had trembled a little...then fell slowly sidewise out of the disk of Charles' vision.

The old gentleman, unconcernedly, began to reverse the focus.

"I'm tired of practicing on flies," he remarked.

Charles Dograr's breast deflated on his terror as on a ball of iron. One by one, the objects through which their gaze had passed reappeared for a moment (as the x-ray eye of the machine retrieved its path) then vanished irretrievably in the night. (page 34-35)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
[The old man] looked up smiling at Charles, whose eyes were shrunk fish-skins over his horrified soul. (page 36)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
Out of the darkness, like the face of a drowned man out of the sea, the house across the street was rising pale and expressionless. It was near dawn. The blanket crawled over him like a caterpillar. (page 39)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
So sound moved him more than hearing, vision more than sight, and his instinct sucked Truth, like honey, from the flower of Life, disdaining the syllogistic distillation of the comb. Briefly, he listened to the melody, not the words, of the Eternal Song, and he was just the person -- perhaps the only one alive -- to imagine there was any discoverable meaning in such a passage as this, when he found it in a book. (page 41)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
He recalled he had not slept: the inharmonious night pulling him almost physically backward with a drooping revulsion into (what? when? who?) some unremembered dream? some unvisited locality? Had not some forgotten woman breathed the silver mail of her soul about him? (page 51)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
A slush of silence waded over the Park after the passing of a Fifth Avenue bus. To fling to the moment passing birdie he was fumbling for a dutiful crumb of thought: he had plenty to think about as (glistering like listerine) a page from an old newspaper swished rattling along the path. (page 120-121)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
He had all the pleasure of going to be happy. (page 127)
Tags: [Surrealism, Literary/Poetic]
"I shall not live long," he had said: "in no one of my dreams can I see myself old I shall not live long not more than 250 pages": he had said and (suddenly (dazzledly) as one rising from (is it the Seine this long blue laughing?) from the water's depth into shattering sunlight he (thrusting up through the perfume of some unknown woman's hair her body sweeter far than he) found himself) sitting there and: (page 134-135)
Tags: [Surrealism, Postmodernism, Dada, Literary/Poetic]
"I should like," Huddleberry was saying, "I should like to write a detective story -- a mystery story...But one in which no one should know what crime had been committed -- nor who had committed it..."

"That's true of all crimes, isn't it, rather?" asked Charles and watched himself inject a careless laugh, like a hypodermic, into the man's mind. But:

"No one...There should be a dream quality about it all..." His eye lighted; a rising enthusiasm informed his customarily level tones and he waved his long thin hands in wider gestures -- "A dream quality, yes; a brooding sense of Something -- no one quite knowing what -- but Something dread, and menacing, and terrible. A Something that sets all the boasted power of civilization at naught --," he raised his hand as Charles gave evidence of being about to speak, "--at naught, and mocks the puny strength of men..." (page 142)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Lead Quote Candidate, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
"Men, women, statesmen, courtesans, plotters...and yet, in the mind of each the dread questions are constantly impending -- 'What is it that threatens?' -- 'And for whom?' -- 'If Death, then who shall be the victim?' -- 'Who the murderer?' -- 'Where the scene of the tragedy?' -- 'Shall it be I who will strike the fatal blow?' -- 'Or shall I receive it?' ..."

He paused again, staring dramatically at the corner of the ceiling. "And the end -- dramatic, inevitable, but veiled in mystery....'Was there a murder?' -- 'Who was the victim?' -- they shall ask, my characters. And as each sinks shudderingly to sleep -- 'Was it I who killed, last night as I thought I slept?' -- 'Am I, even now, am I dead?'... Ah! Yes! It shall be my greatest work, that. It would go well in the American Mercury, don't you think?" (page 144-145)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Terror, Lead Quote Candidate, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic, Dreams]
Two months they had been together now and their crimes had been many and foul enough, as they wielded the x-ray bullet.

But it had been (or Charles had thought it so) lighthearted and young. He had quieted his soul -- the old, old story! -- with a list of his misfortunes, with a tale of the world's misdeeds. He pictured himself a latter-day cavalier, a modern Robin Hood, astride the machine as the others bestrode their horses. He had told himself that he had robbed the rich to feed the poor. He had -- ah! now, with a sickened courage he looked back at it all; he knew now the hideous brain that had urged him on; he saw himself for the fool that he had been. (page 154-155)
Tags: [Surrealism, Surrealism & Politics, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
"Wait here till I get the morning editions," said the stranger. They were full of all the details about the Nine Prominent Critics Die By X-Ray Bullet, and it went on to relate how reason shuddered when the city waked up today to find that such men as Harry Hansen, William Soskin, Heywood Broun, Bruce Gould, Waldo Frank, Henry Seidl Canby, Asa Huddleberry and James Thurber and George Jean Nathan were made the victims of a dastardly attack late last night and the police were hopelessly at sea because no motive could be imagined for the murders unless by the Communists from Moscow. The stranger looked worried. Then his brow cleared. (page 165-166)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Terror, Dada, Conspiracy, Media, Literary/Poetic, Ambiguity]
The old gentleman known now to us as Picrolas once remarked: "A rose is loveliest in the parabolic moment when, decapitated by your walking stick, it sails for a yard or two through the sunlight and then falls, ruined, in the dust." (page 182)
Tags: [Literary/Poetic]
And that he suspected these two across the way of responsibility for the Electric Murders that had terrorized the city, there was no doubt. (page 189)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
He pressed the button. With a dull roar the building swaying, swept up in a spraying fan of light and Pragman: the old gentleman and: as the explosion shattered: McDowell tap-tapping smiling and: it settled in a crumpled steaming dusty pile of rock and masonry. (page 223)
Tags: [Surrealism, Terror, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic]