This is a bizarre and unnerving novella that combines fantasy, magical realism, and horror. It is written in first-person by an unnamed narrator who, along with his brother, Otho, live a peaceful and serene existence studying the flora that grows in the region. I couldn’t tell if Otho is actually his brother by blood, or if he is a “brother” in a sort of religious sense. Either way, the two of them live essentially as monks.
But, soon enough, their lives are disrupted by the activities of the Chief Ranger, a sinister and charismatic figure who hails from the dark forests, and who marshals evil and violent gangs as part of some grand scheme of conquest.
The book slides swiftly from pastoral dream to unholy nightmare. There are many passages in this book, especially later on, that are easily as disturbing as anything Lovecraft or Poe ever wrote. Such as this, describing the Chief Ranger’s HQ, a place called Koppels-Bleek:
Then we heard the wind rocking itself as if in accompaniment among the pines so that the pale skulls on the trees rattled in chorus. Into its lament was mixed the swaying of hooks and the twitching of the withered hands on the barn wall. The noise was that of wood and bone, like a puppet show in the kingdom of the dead.
Of course, this is only a translation from the original, but I can’t imagine anything, in any language, sending a harsher chill down the spine.
It is a strange, disturbing, and deeply unsettling tale, though at the same time it is not without its moments of beauty, particularly in the loving descriptions of things like flowers and cool morning mists.
At times, it was hard for me to follow the story, to the extent that there even was one. But it hardly mattered, because I was so thoroughly swept up in the sublime eeriness of the whole thing. Maybe this is the best you can hope for with translated books. It’s certainly the same vibe I got from, say, The Master and Margarita.
Jünger also made many keen observations about human nature. For example, this description of a character who appears late in the book to challenge the Chief Ranger:
His was a cold, rootless intelligence, and with it went a leaning to Utopias… he conceived of life as the mechanism of a clock, and therefore in force and terror he saw the gears which drive the timepiece of life… Creation had died in his heart, and he had reconstructed it like a mechanical toy.
The climax of the book is dark and bloody, and involves a huge battle between packs of demonic canines. Even if I wanted to completely spoil the book for you, I couldn’t, because the ending was so vague and strange I couldn’t say what exactly happened. Nor does it particularly matter. This is a book about creating impressions and feelings, not telling a coherent story. It’s almost poetry.
You’re probably wondering how I came across such a strange and relatively obscure book. Well, I have been reading a lot of war memoirs, one of which was Jünger’s The Storm of Steel, about his experiences fighting in the German army in World War I, and I discovered he had also written fiction.
His experience in the war is probably why the battle scenes in On The Marble Cliffs feel so shockingly real: the horrors Jünger encountered as a soldier clearly stuck with him. Other details from his life may have found their way in as well, such as the narrator of On The Marble Cliffs referring to his old teacher “van Kerkhoven,” which I think might be a reference to a corporal mentioned in Storm of Steel, a man named Kerkhoff.
On The Marble Cliffs was published in 1939. Some critics have suggested that maybe, just maybe, something was going on in Germany in the 1930s that might possibly have influenced Jünger in writing the book. But I’ll leave it to the reader to draw their own comparisons between the world of the book and actual historical events.
Finally, since I’m sure you’re all wondering about it: no, Jünger was not a Nazi, though he did serve the German regime early in World War II. He was dismissed from the army after being tangentially connected with the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He is, in short, a very ambiguous and complicated individual.
All of this makes the book an extremely weird and generally gut-wrenching experience to read. At the same time, it’s a vivid picture of the darkest depths of human nature and the apocalyptic ruination of a society that must have seemed all too immediate at the time of its writing.
A final technical note: I could only find a copy of the book at the Internet Archive. I recommend reading the scans. I downloaded the file in Kindle format, but it was in rough shape. Weird paragraph breaks, page numbers showing up at random in the middle of the text, and occasional duplicate pages. It was a pain to read.