Dangerous Dimensions: Mind-bending tales of the Mathematical Weird, ed. Henry Bartholomew. (London: The British Library, 2021. 336 pages) ISBN 978-0712353687

In the introduction to his edited collection in the Tales of the Weird series, Henry Bartholomew outlines the connections between the ‘fictions of the morbid and macabre’ (p.9) and science, pointing out that everything from Shelley’s Frankenstein to Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau has been clearly inspired by the scientific discoveries and theories of their own time. Yet, Bartholomew argues, mathematics has also played an inspirational part for writers, particularly writers of the Weird, as maths developed as a field alongside science and has influenced the popular imagination, particularly within the nineteenth century. Thus, Bartholomew has collated a collection of Weird tales – from familiar names as well as the more obscure – with a focus on Maths, non-Euclidean geometry and extra-dimensional space.

              Bartholomew is expertly placed at the helm of this compilation, with his own research interests spanning the metaphysical with Speculative Realism and object-oriented ontology (rather appropriately abbreviated as ‘OOO’) alongside pioneers of the Weird such as Algernon Blackwood (who will, fittingly, feature twice within the collection). He admits within his introduction that he is not a mathematician, but it is clear from his meticulously researched and well-informed overview that he is expertly placed to collate such ‘mind bending’ stories for our convenience. Bartholomew even offers us very brief and layman-friendly explanations of some of the most important mathematical ‘revolutions’ of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, including the Möbius Strip and the Klein bottle, as well as linking themes and tropes prevalent throughout both the Gothic and the Weird such as Theosophy and Western Esotericism and the burgeoning Spiritualist movements of the late 1800s. Bartholomew also draws our attention to some of the key themes found within the stories he has collated, including mirrors as doorways into extra-dimensional space and ‘the mathematician’ as a central figure, similar in many ways to ‘the scientist’ of much nineteenth-century Gothic work.

              The suggestion of overarching themes within the stories helps the reader to forge links between the works included within this collection. Mirrors feature explicitly in two of the tales- ‘The Pikestaff Case’ by Algernon Blackwood (1924) and Henry S. Whitehead and H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Trap’ (1932)- but the concept of ‘mirroring’ or a reversal of time and space as we know it is also at the core of the earliest work selected by Bartholomew, ‘The Plattner Story’, written in 1896 by H.G. Wells. A recurring theme within these stories is a seemingly permanent reversal of a person’s physiology when – and if – they are able to return into the three-dimensional world as we know it. The crossing of dimensions is also a key component to many of the other stories in the collection. As explained by Bartholomew, the possibility of a fourth-dimension and, indeed, extra dimensions ad infinitum was at the forefront of fin-de-siecle and early twentieth-century scientific and metaphysical thought. Thus, ‘The Hall Bedroom’ by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1903) explores a secret room behind an eerie painting that contains a fifth-dimensional space, and John Buchan’s ‘Space’ (1911) with the mathematician Hollond driven to implicit suicide by his increasing awareness of the ‘true’ nature of space, ‘The Desolation’ and so-called ‘Presences’ that lurk within it. These two tales have an eeriness and creeping form of dread throughout their narrative that makes them particularly reminiscent of other short Gothic fiction and the ghost story in particular.

              This is the one shortcoming of Bartholomew’s otherwise carefully and cleverly selected collection of so-called ‘weird mathematical’ tales (as suggested by the title): whilst they all share an unmistakeable interest in strange science and the potential unlocked within extra-spatial dimensions and non-Euclidean geometry, the stories vary in atmosphere and, subsequently, effect. Some of the tales seemed denser than others and, as a result, slightly harder to digest. Whilst this may be a consequence of Bartholomew having a limited number of tales from which to collate work – and also hindered by my self-admittedly limited knowledge of maths and metaphysics – it did affect my enjoyment of certain stories, such as Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941) and, to a lesser degree, Nat Schachner’s ‘The Living Equation’ (1934). Whilst Bartholomew’s brief but enlightening explanation of Borges’ life and work did help me to understand why such a story was included, the confusing and incredibly theoretical nature of the story and plot was less appealing than the stories either side. As for Schachner’s bizarre work itself, the central ‘equation machine’ was a challenging concept that seemed oddly jarring compared to the almost slapstick comedy of the bumbling burglar Sikes. One feels as if this is perhaps the danger when writing or promoting stories that deal with such theoretically complex and ‘meta’ concepts as those found within these stories of ‘the mathematical weird’.

              It is certainly the stories that have more of a horror or traditional Weird edge to them- or even those that move close to the realm of Science Fiction- and embrace the tropes one would expect to find within such tales that are, in my opinion, the most effective of the collection. Nevertheless, there are some real gems to be found amongst the stories collated here, including the two earlier tales that I have already mentioned. Frank Belknap Long’s 1929 work, ‘The Hounds of Tindalos’, is notable as being one of the first non-Lovecraftian ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ tales, and blends elements taken from Lovecraft’s creation with ideas from Western Esotericism and Theosophy, Taoism and even Einstein. Blackwood’s other story included by Bartholomew, ‘A Victim of Higher Space’ from 1914, also takes ideas from Theosophical and Occult thought, and is itself significant as the last ‘John Silence’ work. Our final tale, ‘Slips Take Over’ from Miriam Allen deFord (1964) is an interesting inclusion by Bartholomew, seeing us jump over twenty years forward from the two 1941 works. The setting of the story in the Sixties takes us away from the ‘World War’ plots of the previous tales and propels us into the world of the Cold War and the atomic era; however, for obvious reasons, deFord’s work is more concerned with eerie dimensional displacement than (retro)futurism Sci-Fi technology. In a sense, this lends it a very contemporary feel- the confusion over historic details from each separate dimension feeling reminiscent of the ‘Mandela-effect’ theory of collective false memories- and making the story feel both separate to the rest of the works, and an appropriate way to end the collection.

              On the whole, Bartholomew’s collection is adroitly compiled, and gives the reader an interesting introduction to a very specific type of Weird fiction. The continued renaissance of the Weird in modern popular culture – from Netflix’s Stranger Things to independent games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent paying homage to the ‘big names’ of Weirdmakes a collection like this well timed and immediately relevant. The inclusion of familiar names – Lovecraft, Blackwood and Wells are all represented, together with Robert Heinlein andJohn Buchan – alongside authors who might be less known to the lay reader shows how carefully Bartholomew selected and collated these tales. Bartholomew’s inclusion of female authors – a particularly unrepresented and unpromoted demographic – is also a notably welcome one. Dark Dimensions is another excellent title in The British Library’s consistently well curated and engaging Tales of the Weird series.

Review by Hannah O’Flanagan

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