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Ex Libris Penglass

Ex Libris Penglass

Seal of the Library of Murray J. Penglass

from the desk of Murray J. Penglass...

In gothic novels and fairy tales and old Hammer Studio movies, villains disappear to secret rooms and hidden floors to conceive or consummate their plots. The pattern’s also there in so-called true crime: Netflix miniseries on notorious beasts of the news are replete with hidden floors where nasty transgressions occurred. 

 

The hidden floors of those Netflix criminals (I’m thinking Bernie Madoff, John Wayne Gacy, Ariel Castro) physically manifest the psychological reality of compartmentalization. The mind that does the deed must crystallize in its specially set-aside space – like how Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde in his private laboratory. 

From the Library of MJP

Conversely, all compartmentalized experiences might be called hidden floors of the mind. A hidden floor is the space that has been forgotten or denied. 

 

It might be an unguessed-at fantasy world whose events are constantly unfolding inside some stranger’s head. Or a hard drive containing dark secrets. 

 

More literally, it could be a space to hold a destructive force at bay. In horror films, a locked and forgotten floor is just the spot to contain something dangerously potent with darkness: a mummy’s tomb - or a talisman - or a sinister ritual. 

 

Barricading off the thing that’s not to be discovered is also the floor’s function in great children’s literature. In C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, a boy is sent to live with a wicked uncle, learned in the dark arts, who hides interdimensionally transportative stone rings in a secret study. In John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a boy is sent to live with a kindly uncle, a practitioner of good magic, who cannot find the source of the tick-tocking that haunts his hillside home. 

 

In “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Fitcher’s Bird”—the two Brothers Grimm stories that we remember, together, as “Bluebeard”—a girl is married off to a grizzled old devil who keeps the evidence hidden behind that one door she is forbidden to unlock. 

Stories Descending Into the Unseen

The setting worked its way from the fairy tale to the gothic novel (or did it go in the other direction?), and then, later, to the comic book and the genre movie. Think of any hidden floor—the Batcave or Dracula’s crypt, a mad scientist’s laboratory or Norma Desmond’s memory—and a low-lit, cobwebbed space appears in your mind’s eye. 

 

I’ve been speaking of the hidden floor as the place where the monster keeps his secrets out of sight, unsuspected by arbiters of decency and normalcy. But the monster only hides where normalcy reigns; where monsters reign, the normal ones hide. The greatest hidden floor in literature is the Secret Annex where Anne Frank lived with her family and the van Daans and Dr. Dussel; and Anne is the hidden floor’s greatest literary chronicler, both for her sweet spirit and precise descriptive talent, and for her undisrupted intimacy with a space that others would only have experienced intermittently. Who else could have learned so well that the place that’s forgotten and denied is still an entire world, fathomless and subtle and perpetually changing, wholly worthy of a writer’s careful rendering?

 

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading about Curt Bloch, a Jewish lawyer who, like Anne, hid from the Nazis in an annex in a house in the Netherlands through WWII, and who, like Anne, used his time in hiding to make a literary legacy. But where Anne captured the drama and change that went on between the walls of her family’s hidden floors, Bloch, in the magazines he constantly produced, wrote about the world outside, mocking the monsters of the Reich. Unlike Anne, who wrote letters to her imaginary friend Kitty,  Bloch sent each issue of his Underwater Cabaret out, by special courier,  to be delivered to and read and returned by other hidden people.  And where Anne received news of the war’s developments over the radio,  and passed word on to Kitty,  Bloch received print media from his outside-dwelling friends, and created collages from and commentaries on newspapers and magazines. 

Crypt-keeper of the Shelf

But these are historical hidden floors. In fiction and in dreams, the hidden floor is the place that is partitioned off, and silent, and both familiar and unfamiliar; it is the place of mystery, the place that gives us that shock of déja vû, like a forgotten homeland. 

 

A hidden floor is permeated with the air of some other world. It’s as if the film between consciousness and unconsciousness, or this world and the next one, is thinner.

 

Recently, I had a dream. I was in the house where I grew up, in Milwaukee, and it was just the same as ever. But the instant I thought it was just the same as ever, I saw it was somehow changed — though how I couldn’t say. Was it the color of the carpets (now a darker burgundy), the depth of the room, the span of the far connecting corridor – or was it that I was in a room I’d never been in before, and I didn’t know how I’d gotten there, I just knew it was a part of the house?

 

I was walking toward the desk, with the grandfather clock behind it. The depressed middle part of the room; the ottoman with its zebra upholstery in that pink light; the drawn shades; the plants in pots in curving wire caddies; the still, settled quiet and turning dust motes. 

 

Where was I? Why was this place so familiar to me? Had I been here once before? 

Trapdoor Right
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From the Library of MJP
Stories Descending
Crypt-keeper of the Shelves
Trapdoors
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