Holy Horror

Giorgio De Maria's ‘The Twenty Days of Turin’
photo by Andrea Madaro / flickr

At the end of 1977, something extraordinary happened in Italy: the musician and writer Giorgio De Maria (1924–2009) published a horror novel called The Twenty Days of Turin, a Poe-esque fever dream that anticipated and described, with chilling precision, the birth of the internet and the many ways it would warp us. De Maria was a classically trained pianist and avant-garde musician, an anticlerical leftist before a bout of spiritual trauma in the 1980s turned him into a traditional Catholic. He never earned the renown of his exalted contemporaries—Eco, Calvino, Levi—but he and The Twenty Days of Turin, his fourth and final work, achieved a potent underground status. It is only now, after four decades, making its English-language debut, expertly translated and introduced by Ramon Glazov.

The novel’s plot is straightforward enough: an unnamed Turinese man begins investigating an affliction of mass insomnia that struck the city a decade earlier, an affliction that lasted twenty days and during which several people were slaughtered in public places, in full view of the insomniacs who had gathered there, and yet no one could name the killer or explain how the murders happened. His investigation uncovers ominous truths about his city and fellow Turinese before it leads to his own awful end.

At the hub of this mystery lies a church-sponsored outfit called “the Library,” a massive depository that housed the anonymous, depraved confessions and pleas of Turin’s citizens, located in a wing of the city’s insane asylum, tellingly called the Little House of Divine Providence. Anyone could enter the Library to donate or read the journals, diaries, and fragmented memoirs that revealed a bottomless grotesquerie and desperation to express, to connect, to be heard. If a reader wished to learn the identity of a certain confessor, he could submit a fee and the Library would put him in touch. The Library is central to understanding the mass insomnia and subsequent murders, though the narrator can’t work out exactly how, and he gets little help from his fellow Turinese. He need only mention the Twenty Days and they are frightened into a numbed hush.

Like the internet, the Library was “presented as a good cause, created in the hope of encouraging people to be more open with one another.” What kind of person would deposit his unchecked expressions for anybody to read? “The typical patron of the Library was a shy individual, ready to explore the limits of his own loneliness and weigh others down with it. This only helped to seal him further in a vicious cycle of fear and suspicion.” Some confessions read like personal ads that would fit cozily among the adulterous zest of Ashley Madison: one confessor “asked to be called ‘Evelina’ and insisted that she was still an attractive woman, even in her forties.... She was seeking an understanding individual who could assist her, since her husband didn’t want any part in satisfying her.” Other confessions matched the self-obsession and ardently pointless minutia of so many blogs and social-media posts: “Page after page told of her torments and her need for liberation. One whole chapter was devoted to her bathroom reading.”

The Library’s mysterious founders sound precisely like the enthusiastic, pre-libidinous Zuckerbergs of Silicon Valley: “little more than boys,” they were “perky, smiling youngsters…without a trace of facial hair” who “looked designed to win people’s trust” and “came calling at your door, inviting you to chat.” Here’s their eager pitch to citizens:

We’re not interested in printed paper or books. There’s too much artifice in literature, even when it’s said to be spontaneous. We’re looking for true, authentic documents reflecting the real spirit of the people, the kinds of things we could rightly call popular subjects…. Is it possible that you’ve never written a diary, a memoir, a confession of some problem that worries you?...  There’s definitely someone who’ll read it and take an interest in your problems. We’ll make sure to put them in touch with you and you’ll become friends; you’ll both feel liberated. It’s an important thing we do, considering how hard it’s gotten for people to communicate these days.

You’ll become friends: how vacuous that sounds now that so much friendship, like so much of everything else, has been downgraded into a glowing phantasm, a swiping, clicking chimera. Once these Turinese began expressing and confessing and confiding, the narrator says, “it was hard to stop! The prospect of ‘being read’ quivered in the distance like an enchanting mirage…. I will give myself to you, you will give yourself to me: on these very human foundations, the future exchange would happen.” Sound familiar?

If it often seems that the internet was invented for sex, the Library was no different: one seventy-year-old lecher wrote of his lust for an eighteen-year-old virgin: “My dear, my delectable little girl, I’m still keen and equipped.... Come hither, little girl.” Another confessor had an “inexplicable need to fill thousands of sheets of foolscap paper with seemingly meaningless words.” It’s not for nothing that the Library was housed in a hospital for aberrations, “rumored to harbor the pitiably deformed,” those manifold rejects “with no desire at all” for “regular human communication.” If that doesn’t perfectly describe the legions of sallow outcasts who pass their lives online, I’m not sure what does. De Maria also anticipated the dreaded troll, those sadists with keyboards and nothing else to do: their contributions to the Library “were conceived in the spirit of pure malice: pages and pages to indicate, to a poor elderly woman without children or a husband, that her skin was the color of a lemon and her spine was warping.” The Library, like the internet, didn’t create sadism, only revealed it, only permitted the ideal platform for it to thrive.

The Library was supposed to “break that cycle of loneliness in which our citizens were confined,” but of course the balm was an illusion, “the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent on keeping people in their state of continuous isolation.” Google, Amazon, Facebook: they want to keep you shackled right where you are, up all night in your illuminated cell, clicking yourself catatonic. The mayor of Turin offers the narrator a hint to how the Library might have been linked to the insomnia: “If I’d left any of my confessions in that place, I’d probably have lost sleep too.” Think of all the recent articles that make clear how our gadgets of distraction are rattling our rest, or how many times you’ve been pestered by sleeplessness because of impulsive typing. De Maria’s foreseeing of our online dystopia, our all-around plugged-in anomie and the misfits who make it happen, is so accurate it seems outright wizardly. The mayor tells the narrator: “Do you think human beings are really like bottomless wells? That we can drain ourselves endlessly without sooner or later finding our souls depleted?” Those questions contain their own answers. Such depletion, the mayor says, occasioned “the most extreme consequences.” 

He means the demons that wafted into the city, nebulous, murderous entities that defied eyewitness and emitted “a terrible war cry, with something dismal and metallic at the heart of it.” Enormous ghouls, they clutched their sleepwalking victims by the ankles, held them like cudgels, and battered them against trees, against monuments. The zombified insomniacs seemed to welcome them, as if they understood that they deserved such battering. To some, the murders during the Twenty Days were “a phenomenon of collective psychosis,” to others they were “part of a providential design, a dire warning signal from on high addressed to humanity.” One of the narrator’s interviewees, a lawyer named Segre, says that the entities “were expressing a hatred alien to our feelings, but somehow, within the being of that hatred, we could recognize ourselves.”


DE MARIA'S REALITY in The Twenty Days of Turin is necessarily askance; even when he’s giving you what appears a natural bit of realism, something is skewed, something sinister, something other. An acrid vinegar scent fouls the air. Statues have switched places. Strangers stand strangely on street corners. At one point, the narrator admits: “I felt a touch out of place…. I didn’t know enough to say what my rightful condition could be.” He has misplaced his aims, forgotten his own terms of selfhood, and as the novel proceeds it becomes more and more forgetful, more fabulist. De Maria is suggesting a connection between insomnia and amnesia. If you’ve ever gone several days without sleep, you know that your memory is the first casualty. Insomnia and amnesia, both intensely personal, individual, have become communal, collective, as if to punish a people, to exact a revenge for crimes they can’t recall. Theirs is a diseased society that whips up and releases irrational forces determined to destroy at random.

Segre employs the terms “evil” and “absolute evil” to describe whatever killed his fellow Turinese a decade ago: “the evil is too deep-rooted,” and “absolute evil couldn’t have taken a more unassailable form.” Hannah Arendt remarked in 1945 that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe”—it is the fundamental problem of this novel, too. De Maria makes the important distinction between evil and sin: they are not different degrees of wrong but different categories of wrong. As in the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah, sin often prepares the conditions for evil. De Maria would no doubt assent to the prophet Amos, who asked: “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” The sister of the first victim of the Twenty Days says to the narrator: “How could we—poor mortals—fathom the Lord’s inscrutable designs!” Whatever sins the Turinese committed to bring on those deadly designs, they were Old Testament sins, not just Original Sin but those Levitical transgressions against code: disobedience, deformity, deviation. They are the sins of corrupted souls, indifference and malaise en masse.

The Italian critic Pier Massimo Prosio likened The Twenty Days of Turin to the breed of horror practiced by Edgar Allan Poe, and not only because Poe remains the go-to mind for anyone wanting to place a writer in a certain horror camp. In Poe the horror is normally ejections from a cramped mind, a turbulent self making nightmares at noontime, and that certainly applies to Twenty Days. But Glazov quotes De Maria as saying that “it was reading Kafka, reading The Trial, that forever converted me to literature: an epiphany, pure and simple”—and there the suggestion becomes more tantalizing. The Twenty Days of Turin is the novel you get when you cross the demonical complexities of Poe with the malignant banalities of Kafka, and yet De Maria has added his own ingredient, the national-historical ingredient that aids in making this novel so unforgettably menacing.

Except in the most oblique ways, Poe’s tales are never about America, and Kafka’s might as well be taking place not in Prague but in some claustrophobic purgatorio, but Twenty Days is a thoroughly Italian story: Italy is infused in the novel’s genome, in its primal understanding of itself. The entities, overheard on radio waves, speak not some garbled ghost tongue, but Italian, and as an occultist tells the narrator, “that ought to be a sign that we were the ones who spawned these things; that it was our social—and I’ll risk saying it, urban—environment that gave rise to them.” Glazov quotes Prosio as saying that De Maria’s work is in keeping with “a rather peculiar and exotic tradition of Italian fiction, a writing that lies at the juncture of real and surreal.”

Pondering the out-of-reach status of whoever committed the murders, Segre says: “Those who are beyond suspicion…and yet soaked in blood…have always found ideal living conditions and absolute safety in our country.” Italian police thought that the Twenty Days might be ideological, “politically charged,” which is De Maria’s unambiguous reference to the Years of Lead, a time, writes Glazov, “when Italy was tormented almost daily by terror attacks and police-state crackdowns,” when it had “roughly a dozen militant political organizations, from Marxist ‘armed cells’ to clandestine neofascist networks.” The Years of Lead killed hundreds, wounded thousands. The most destructive attack happened at the Bologna rail station in 1980, a bombing that killed eighty-five people. Gore Vidal, writing just a year after the publication of Twenty Days, asserted that “since World War II, Italy has managed, with characteristic artistry, to create a society that combines a number of the least appealing aspects of socialism with practically all the vices of capitalism.” Italy, he wrote, is “a land where ideology has always tended to take the place of ideas,” and “for most Italians, a political party is never a specific program, it is a flag, a liturgy, the sound of a trombone practicing in the night.” De Maria comprehends ideology, whether political or religious, as having its own special stamp of evil.

De Sade, writing in 1800 about the debauched Gothic novel The Monk, called it “the necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe.” Every terrorist is a revolutionary in that he wants to topple the existing order and supplant it with his own ideology, and so De Sade conceived of horror in fiction as the artistic result of terror in life, which is partly what De Maria is up to in Twenty Days. As terrorists do, the murdering sprites hurl their fury in those public places “deeply rooted in Turinese tradition,” exactly where the sleepwalkers assemble, and there De Maria jabs at knee-jerk adherence to tradition, groupthink, an uncritical fealty to the past. Glazov believes that the neofascist terror cells are the most obvious Italian model for De Maria’s murderous demons: “forever untouchable, hiding in plain sight while authorities round up desperate, ill-fitting scapegoats.” But Glazov also makes the point that in De Maria’s vision, “the Cosmos itself has become terroristic.”

Aside from its being De Maria’s home, and its recent history of political bloodshed, why should Turin be the location for this unleashing of supernatural horror? Turin is a city that melds dichotomies: not just the real and surreal but the secular and sacral, the past and present, the occult and quotidian. It’s also a city of sanguine appearances: its forced smile, its compulsory good cheer, masks a base underbelly. As Clive James once put it: “Turin is a tight-lipped town”—and the tight-lipped have something to hide. In a personal correspondence with me, Glazov relates Turin to Japan or Thailand, “where it’s a big faux pas to look unhappy or aggrieved, even in front of your worst enemy. The Turinese place huge importance on being diplomatic, treating everything with a smile, and acting amiable and warm.” Such aggressive sunniness casts weighted shadows, and in those shadows dwell the Satanic, the esoteric, the damned. “In De Maria’s universe,” Glazov told me, “evil is always friendly and approachable. Charm always goes with brutality. It’s the Turinese style of evil.” The attorney Segre tells the narrator: “In this city, demons lurk under the ashes.”

In La Stampa in 1978, De Maria had this to say: “Turin is not a neutral city. Even if you don’t outwardly know anyone and no one knows you, you always get the impression you’re being watched.” As Glazov reminds us in his introduction, Turin is nicknamed “the City of Black Magic” and “has a long reputation for everything disquieting and spooky.” The city also has a bloodily martial past: Hannibal destroyed it in 218 BC on his way to bludgeon Rome; the Gauls, the Goths, the Lombards, Charlemagne, the Savoys, Napoleon—all had a piece of it at one time or another. It’s startling to recall those luminous minds that suffered melancholy or madness in Turin, as if the city itself was the final siphoning factor on their vitality: from Tasso to Rousseau to Nietzsche to Levi. Let’s remember, too, that Turin is the nest of the most popular relic in Christendom: the shroud that many Christians believe was the burial cloth of Christ.


AFTER HIS OWN spiritual trouble in the 1980s, De Maria embraced the traditional Catholicism of his youth, but at the time of Twenty Days he was still a prickly unbeliever hostile to the church (Glazov told me that he considers De Maria’s anticlericalism more “dystheistic than atheistic”). When the narrator visits a church in Turin, he thinks: “I was investigating mysteries, and yet the ‘mystery’ that sustains a large part of our national life seemed to me, right then, unworthy of my recognition. I was annoyed simply by its clingy bombasticism.” There are faintly pagan strains in De Maria’s storytelling sensibility, and perhaps that’s no surprise when you consider the pagan remnants that pulse in Roman Catholicism, how both paganism and Catholicism are sure that the corporeal world is infiltrated by the netherworld.

De Maria’s employment of religious horror was his way of animating the spiritual at a moment when individuals didn’t seem to have much practical use for it, despite the papacy’s ubiquitous sway in Italy. You see the cord from religion to supernatural horror: many holy books contain their own breed of horror fiction, and both essentially concern themselves with the struggle of good against evil and with the reality of an afterlife. At its spine, all supernatural horror is about belief, about the God question. In De Maria’s conception of the heretical and unholy, sola fide will not save you. The darkling elements care nothing for your faith.

What we typically call “horror” the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called “terror”: a beguiling awareness of the supernatural, the possibility that we somehow survive our deaths, and the continuity between this life and the next one. Remember Freud’s famous definition of the uncanny: “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Ghosts must be about the past, must be from the past: there are no ghosts from the future. They might be concerned with contemporary strife—indeed they would not be present unless something was wrong, something off, in the now—but their presence is the expression of historical realities: they are a renovating of ancient myths to address current terrors. The ghosts of literature are not bored invigilators pointlessly spooking the living: they are entities with wishes, and for the writer they are at once practical and metaphorical, presence and absence. 

It’s the uncommon ghoul who preys upon the guiltless. For Jung, ghosts were the embodiments of psychic states—madness made manifest—and in that way you can see how the collective psyche of a city could bring such forces into being. De Maria both adopts and does away with the familiar psychoanalytical grasp of the ghostly as the projection of inner devils, as a haunting that happens in the psyche. His ghosts might have been stirred up by the defiled psyche of a city and nation, but they are very much out there. We have the ruined bodies to prove it. And so he has it both ways: with Poe and the psychoanalysts he’s externalizing a shaky interiority while also establishing an actual physical, historical threat.

Without revealing too much about the novel’s Dantean conclusion, or hinting at who or what the murderous entities are, I’ll note that near the end of his investigation the narrator suspects that a fresh “hidden power” once more stalks the city, that the Library is beginning to be resurrected, insomnia resurging. I’ll note too that the ending offers no tying up of loose ends, no pat attempt to edify or explicate. The best horror stories complicate our attempts to pin them down, to achieve the satisfaction of understanding, since existence itself sternly resists our reductions, our packaging of tidy comforts. Considering supernatural stories, Virginia Woolf wrote of “the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid,” and added that “it is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no kind of danger.” But if you buy into De Maria’s worldview in this novel, we are in danger: the danger of an unstanchable evil conjured by our own sins, by a broken covenant, followed by the danger of an afterlife more demonic than divine. The Twenty Days of Turin is a much-needed homage to the liberating darknesses of intelligent horror, to those confusions that recall us to the extraordinary.

Published in the February 10, 2017 issue: 

William Giraldi’s newest book is American Audacity (August 2018).

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