Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Between the Genres
The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
This period saw the gradual emergence of two genres parallel to weird fiction—science fiction and mystery/detective fiction—in the form of its two most noteworthy early practitioners, H. G. Wells (1866—1946) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1869—1930). It cannot be said that either genre was definitively established at this juncture, but both were gathering the momentum that led to their establishment early in the next century. As for science fiction, while some overly enthusiastic historians have traced the form back to Plato’s Republic, one cannot legitimately maintain that the genre as we know it can be dated any earlier than the work of Jules Verne in the 1860s, when such works as A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and From the Earth to the Moon (1867) appeared in French. Even these works are now regarded more as “scientific romances”—as, indeed, are many of Wells’s works. In Verne the sense of wonder surrounding the imagined invention of new technologies and the probing of either the depths of the earth or the depths of space far eclipses any sense of terror these events might generate; but with Wells it is a very different matter.
The remarkable burst of writing that constitutes the first decade and a half of Wells’s literary career—chiefly from 1895 to about 1910—is virtually unparalleled in the history of imaginative fiction. Of his novels, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and especially The War of the Worlds (1898) are laced with terror and gruesomeness, and the same can be said for his bountiful short stories, gathered in five collections from The Stolen Bacillus (1895) to The Country of the Blind (1911). If in the present discussion I focus on the latter body of work rather than the former, it is chiefly because it is only in the former that one can find occasional—and only occasional—examples of weird fiction in a relatively pure form.
The difficulty in examining a writer like Wells in the context of weird fiction is precisely due to the rarity with which he presents defiances as opposed to extensions of natural law as commonly understood. If, as Lovecraft asserted, the “crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen,” then virtually none of Wells’s work qualifies as weird: it is precisely the possibility (whether in the present or the future) of the phenomena he displays in his novels and tales that makes them so breathtakingly compelling. This is, indeed, the chief distinction between weird fiction and science fiction. And yet, as Lovecraft wrote on another occasion, some of Wells’s conceptions are so inherently terrifying—the mingling of human and animal body parts in The Island of Doctor Moreau, the invisible man of that novel—that they create an emotion of terror that does not depend either upon a suspension or violation of natural law (as in supernatural fiction) or upon a sense of personal danger or of mental aberration (as in psychological horror fiction). In a letter Lovecraft captured this paradoxical sensation: “H. G. Wells is a ticklish question on my literary scales. I can’t derive a really supernatural thrill from matter which keeps my mental wheels turning so briskly; & yet when I think of some of his things in retrospect, supplying my own filter of imaginative colour, I am reduced to doubt again” (Selected Letters 2.210). Part of Lovecraft’s difficulty (and mine) rests upon the relative absence of a decisive atmosphere of weirdness. In his early work, Wells seemed so bursting with dynamic ideas that he frequently failed to vivify them in a way that brought out their full emotional resonance; his relatively dry and workmanlike prose contributed to this deficiency. Nevertheless, those ideas remain compelling both from a (proto-)science-fictional and a weird perspective.
As is appropriate for an author whose first book was a textbook of biology, many of Wells’s tales focus on anomalous flora and fauna in remote corners of the globe. It may be a convenient device to unveil these oddities in places far off the beaten track, but Wells turns the trick well enough. Hence in “Empire of the Ants” (Strand, December 1905), we find giant ants in British Guiana, with a hideous possibility that they will ultimately bring about the overthrow of human domination of the earth; in “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894), a man buys an unusual orchid (one that may have already killed its previous owner) and, reduced to fainting by its heavy scent, awakes to find it sucking his blood; “In the Avu Observatory” (Pall Mall Budget, 8 August 1894), a scientist in Borneo is attacked in the dark by a huge black winged creature; “In the Valley of Spiders” (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903) reveals enormous spiders in a desolate valley.
The mysteries of the sea are not avoided by Wells, as witness “The Sea-Raiders” (Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896), about human beings attacked by strange deep-sea creatures unknown to science. A much more compelling story on this subject is “In the Abyss” (Pearson’s, August 1896). A man goes down to the bottom of the sea (a depth of at least five miles) in a steel sphere. When he finally comes back to the surface, and he tells not only of the spectacular creatures he saw in the deep (“It was a biped; its almost globular body was poised on a tripod of two frog-like legs and a long thick tail, and its fore limbs, which grotesquely caricatured the human hand, much as a frog’s do, carried a long shaft of bone, tipped with copper” ), but, even more remarkably, of a city on the sea-bottom, manifestly built by some of the strange creatures he has seen. This suggestion of an entire underwater civilisation unknown to the creatures on the earth’s surface is the source of terror in this tale.
Wells is surprisingly effective in comic or half-comic treatments of his imaginative conceptions. We have already seen his dynamiting of the ghost in “The Inexperienced Ghost.” A tale like “Æpyornis Island” (Pall Mall Budget, Christmas 1894) reads like a delightful self-parody. A man landing on a remote island finds huge dinosaur eggs—fresh ones—and, after eating one or two, sees the last of them hatch. A creature emerges and eventually grows to fourteen feet in stature, raised by the man for a period of years. When the creature begins fighting over food with the man, the latter reaches his limit (“I told him straight that I didn’t mean to be chased about a desert island by any damned anachronisms” ) and he kills it, to the irreparable loss of science but with the result that the man is eventually rescued. “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” (Illustrated London News, July 1898) tells of a man, Fotheringay, who has somehow developed the ability to make things happen merely by commanding them. It hardly matters how this wondrous trait came to be, for Wells manifestly intends a send-up of this type of narrative. There is, first of all, the awkward matter of the policeman who, having irritated Fotheringay, is commanded to go to Hades; thinking this punishment a bit harsh, Fotheringay revises his command so that the policeman finds himself in San Francisco. When he, like Joshua, wants the earth to stop its rotation around the sun, he unwittingly causes everything to be smashed up, so he takes the obvious course of wishing that everything be restored to the way it was before he made his wish—and, at the same time, that his powers be terminated.
But the best story of this kind in the Wells corpus is “The Truth about Pyecraft” (Strand, April 1903). Pyecraft, a hugely fat man, takes a liking to the narrator, a very thin man, as they meet in their club. The narrator provides Pyecraft with a formula—derived from his great-grandmother, who was from India—for “Loss of Weight” (972); but it quickly becomes clear that the wording of this formula is erroneous, for instead of shedding pounds, Pyecraft ends up floating up to the ceiling. Initially horrified and dismayed, Pyecraft eventually adjusts to his life above the ground; as the narrator reports, “it was delightful to think of Pyecraft like some great, fat blow-fly, crawling about on his ceiling and clambering round the lintel of his doors from one room to another, and never, never, never coming to the club any more” (979).
Some of the stories that are definitively science fictional—and in which nothing even remotely supernatural can be said to occur—are nonetheless fraught with terror. Consider “The Star” (Graphic, Christmas 1897), about a star that appears to be approaching the Earth (it has already destroyed Neptune). Is the earth doomed? A professor seems to think so, as he utters the ponderous dictum: “Man has lived in vain” (721). Wells’s spectacular tableau of both the natural and the human cataclysms that take place around the world as the star grows larger and larger in the horizon is imperishable; it is a little unfortunate that the star does not in fact hit the earth, bypassing it instead and perhaps (in Wells’s naively optimistic view) effecting a moral regeneration of human society. In “The New Accelerator” (Strand, December 1901), in which a chemist has invented a potion to speed up mental and physical action thousands of times over, the result is not that the two characters who imbibe the potion operate at super-speed, but that they seem to see everything else around them functioning with incredible slowness: “He pointed, and there at the tip of his finger and sliding down the air with wings flapping slowly and at the speed of an exceptionally languid snail—was a bee” (1038). There is a certain half-comic treatment here also, but the phenomenon is depicted in such a hypnotic manner that for much of the narrative we are held in a state of awe and wonder.
The two Wells stories that come closest to orthodox weird fiction are “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” (Idler, May 1896) and “Pollock and the Porroh Man” (New Budget, 23 May 1895). Both are substantial. In the former, the narrator, Edward George Eden, encounters an old man, Robert Elvesham, who wants to leave all his assets to a healthy young man—on condition that he take Elvesham’s name. In spite of his misgivings, Eden agrees, drinking a strange elixir given by Elvesham. The end result is that his own soul or personality is ejected from his body and thrown into the decrepit body of Elvesham—who, it is suggested, has performed this nefarious act numerous times in the past, continuing his life by jumping from body to body. Eden reflects poignantly on the loss of his own life: “You who are mind and body together at your natural years, cannot imagine what this fiendish imprisonment meant to me. To be young and full of the desire and energy of youth, and to be caught, and presently to be crushed in this tottering ruin of a body” (420). But the greatest source of terror to Eden (and, no doubt, to Wells) is a philosophical one: “I have been a materialist for all my thinking life, but here, suddenly, is a clear case of man’s detachability from matter” (424). (This approximate premise is used in a later but less effective story, “The Stolen Body” [Strand, November 1898], in which a man’s soul leaves his body, at which point another soul occupies it and runs amok.)
As for “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” we are taken to West Africa, where Pollock shoots in the hand a Porroh man (a witch-doctor) who had killed a native woman. Is the Porroh man then sending various curses—snakes, aching bones, and so forth—to Pollock? Or are we witnessing merely a series of coincidences? Pollock makes the mistake of having the Porroh man killed, for now the curse cannot be lifted. The Porroh man’s decapitated head keeps showing up, even when Pollock returns to England. And yet, the narrative tone suggests that many of the later incidents in the tale are the products of Pollock’s hallucinations and sense of terror that he has in fact been the victim of a dead witch-doctor’s curse. His death by suicide is no surprise.
Two other stories that tread close to the weird are “The Moth” (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895) and “The Red Room” (Idler, March 1896; sometimes titled “The Ghost of Fear”). In the former, are we to imagine that an entomologist’s soul has entered the body of a moth in order to plague a rival scientist? Wells leaves the matter unresolved. “The Red Room” seems to be an orthodox haunted house tale about the haunted red room of Lorraine Castle. The cumulative power of the narrative is impressive: a man lights seventeen candles all around the room but is horrified when they go out one by one, so that he is left in darkness. He can only conclude that the room is haunted, not by a conventional ghost, but by Fear: “Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms” (512).
It is difficult to give up talking about Wells’s stories; they are, as I say, so full of potentially rich and powerful conceptions—“Under the Knife” (New Review, January 1896), about the spectacularly cosmic perceptions of a man undergoing surgery; “The Crystal Egg” (New Review, May 1897), about a crystal egg that may provide glimpses of the world on Mars; “The Magic Shop” (Strand, June 1903), about the wonders of a magic shop—that one can only regret Wells’s occasional failure to treat these conceptions with the detail and expansiveness they deserve. Some of them should have served as the basis of full-fledged novels.
As for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it cannot be said that he genuinely mingles mystery or detection with the weird, except in a few instances, but his celebrity—both in his own time and in after years—as the inventor of the prototypical fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, makes his frequent ventures into both weird fiction and pseudo-scientific fiction something of an anomaly. It is well known that Poe’s three or four detective stories of the 1840s launched the form, but he had few imitators for some decades. Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) showed the boundless possibilities of the detective novel, and his example was quickly adapted by the American novelist Anna Katharine Green beginning in the late 1870s. Doyle himself first published two novels about Holmes (in 1887 and 1890) before issuing the first Sherlock Holmes collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), the stories of which had appeared in the Strand in 1891—92.
In the various weird tales he wrote in the latter two decades of the twentieth century, Doyle generally adhered to relatively conventional supernatural conceptions—ghosts, vampires, femmes fatales, horrors out of Egypt—and also wrote a number of tales involving spiritualism. This last-named point is of some interest because, especially following World War I and the traumatic death of his son, Doyle became a wholehearted convert to spiritualism, spirit photography, and the like, thereby engendering a mortifying collapse in his reputation for sanity. One can sense his increasingly credulous leanings in this direction even during this period.
An early story, “The American’s Tale” (London Society, Christmas 1880), is surprisingly on the verge of science fiction in its depiction of a man in Arizona who is eaten by an immense flytrap plant. But the story is poorly executed, its climax telegraphed almost from the outset. A later tale, “The Los Amigos Fiasco” (Idler, December 1892), may also be thought to have a quasi-science-fictional premise. A criminal, set to die by electrocution, is wired up to a whole series of electrical generators in the town of Los Amigos, but the result is that he gains preternatural strength and endurance thereby: he is subsequently able to withstand prolonged strangulation and also a pistol shot. The idea, apparently, is that “Electricity is life” (230), but the whole tale is crippled by implausibility.
“The Captain of the Polestar” (Temple Bar, January 1883) is a touching tale of a sea captain, recklessly hunting for whales in the ice-fields near Spitzbergen, who is plagued by inexplicable fear and sorrow. It turns out that he is mourning his dead lover, whom he then thinks he sees on the ice. He later goes out on the ice to embrace her—a “pale misty figure” (39) who is seen to be bending over the captain’s dead form to give him a kiss. Another celebrated sea story is “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” (Cornhill, January 1884), which has been credited with virtually creating the myth of the “lost” ship Mary Celeste. Doyle takes numerous liberties with the actual account of the ship, which was lost at sea in 1872—73, especially in that he gives it the erroneous name of the Marie Celeste. Jephson, the narrator, claims to have been on board the ship when it was deserted; but his tale veers off into another direction, focusing on a man named Septimius Goring, a quadroon who has “devoted my life to the destruction of the white race” (139). (Jephson, conveniently, is a rabid abolitionist.) There is also a peculiar episode about a black stone that acts as a magic talisman, as it proves to be the missing part of a statue made from the sacred black stone of Mecca. Again, the tale is unconvincing in its incidents and crude in its characterisation.
Somewhat more successful is the femme fatale story “John Barrington Cowles” (Cassell’s Saturday Journal, 12—19 April 1884), about several men who fall under the spell of a cruel, domineering woman who is variously referred to as “beautiful; but the devil!” (255) and “A fiend! … A ghoul from the pit! A vampire soul behind a lovely face!” (269). It is not entirely clear whether there is anything actually supernatural about this person. Somewhat along the same lines is the novelette “The Parasite” (Harper’s Weekly, 10 November—1 December 1894). The thrust of the story is mesmerism, embodied in the form of a Caribbean woman named Miss Penclosa. The narrator, Austin Gilroy, becomes convinced by a series of demonstrations that Penclosa’s mesmeric powers are real and undergoes mesmerism himself. Later, however, he is disconcerted to find that Penclosa has fallen in love with him and is seeking to break up his engagement with his fiancée, Agatha—in particular by mesmerically commanding him to throw sulphuric acid in her face. The attempt fails, Gilroy eventually finds himself able to resist Penclosa’s mesmeric powers, and—in a woeful anticlimax—she proceeds to die. “The Parasite” is sometimes referred to as a vampire story, but the term is never used in the tale and the most one can assume is that Miss Penclosa is some kind of psychic vampire.
Doyle tried his hand at comic weird tales, with indifferent success. One example is “Selecting a Ghost” (London Society, December 1883), in which a man hires a “ghost-dealer” to furnish a ghost for his mediaeval castles, since of course all mediaeval ghosts must have a ghost. The dealer makes several different types of ghosts appear in succession in a kind of interview process. In reality, however, he is merely bamboozling the castle owner by drugging him and then robbing him. The tale is a bit heavy-handed and obvious, but not entirely without its chuckles. Somewhat better is “The Great Keinplatz Experiment” (Belgravia, July 1885), in which a Professor von Baumgarten, determined to prove that the soul is separable from the body, engages in a mesmeric experiment that will allow his soul to enter the body of a pupil, Fritz von Hartmann, while Hartmann’s soul enters his own body. The experiment works, although the two men aren’t immediately aware of it: incredibly, each soul fails to realise that it has entered a different body until well along in the proceedings. A second experiment reverses the process.
Doyle’s reputation as a weird writer will rest on his two substantial tales of Egyptian horror, “The Ring of Thoth” (Cornhill, January 1890) and “Lot No. 249” (Harper’s, September 1892). The first might in fact constitute a genuine mystery/horror hybrid in that, at the outset, the crux of the tale is the puzzle represented by an Egyptian attendant at the Louvre who appears to be paying an unusual amount of attention to a female mummy. The narrator, the Egyptologist John Vansittart Smith, finding himself (implausibly) locked in the Louvre at night after having fallen asleep in some remote alcove, sees the attendant unwrap the mummy, whose body is remarkably well-preserved. Confronting the man, Smith finds that the attendant is one Sosra, born in 1600 B.C.E. Sosra had discovered a chemical formula that “would endow the body with strength to resist the effects of time, of violence, or of disease” (214). He had fallen in love with Atma, but she was hesitant in taking the formula (“was it not a thwarting of the will of the gods?” she wonders ), and she died of the white plague before Sosra could prevail upon her to take the formula. A friend, Parmes, who had also taken the formula had found an antidote to it—because he had in fact become tired of living forever and wished to die naturally. A key ingredient of this antidote was placed in the hollow crystal of the ring of Thoth, now on the finger of the female mummy, who of course is Atma. The most memorable phase of the story is not the formula for eternal life (which a physician like Doyle must have known was ludicrously implausible) but Sosra’s cosmic reflections on his long life: “’I have travelled in all lands and I have dwelt with all nations. Every tongue is the same to me. I learned them all to help pass the weary time. I need not tell you how slowly they drifted by, the long dawn of modern civilization, the dreary middle years, the dark times of barbarism. They are all behind me now’” (219—20). Sosra goes on to state, remarkably, that he wishes to “shake off that accursed health which has been worse to me than the foulest disease” (221).
“Lot No. 249” is Doyle’s most celebrated weird tale and, on the whole, it deserves its celebrity. We are at Oxford, where Edward Bellingham has purchased a very large mummy (six feet seven inches in height) at an auction—it was lot number 249. The mystery element here is really not much of a mystery: when we learn successively that a servant hears someone walking about in Bellingham’s room when he is not there, and when a student who had a grudge against Bellingham is attacked by an apelike creature, the only likely scenario is that Bellingham has somehow managed to revive the mummy. The mummy’s pursuit of the protagonist, Abercrombie Smith, who is attempting to combat Bellingham’s nefarious scheme, is a memorable action-adventure scene, and the tale climaxes effectively with Smith compelling Bellingham to cut up the mummy and throw it in the fire, along with the papyrus that evidently contains the secret of its reanimation.
Doyle worked reasonably effectively in the non-supernatural horror tale. “The Case of Lady Sannox” (Idler, November 1893) is somewhat reminiscent of “The Parasite” in its account of a man who revenges himself upon an unfaithful wife by contriving to have her doctor lover unwittingly disfigure her face. “The Brazilian Cat” (Strand, December 1898) contains some hair-raising scenes in telling of a man, Marshall King, who finds himself trapped in a room with a very large and vicious Brazilian cat but manages to redirect the cat’s ferocity against its owner, his cousin Everard, who had sought to gain a title and inheritance by putting Marshall out of the way.
We will have occasion to treat some of Doyle’s later science fiction/horror hybrids in a later chapter. For now, it can be said regretfully that most of Doyle’s early horror tales really amount to very little: they are just stories, told well or badly as the case may be, with little underlying depth or substance. They lack even the vivid play of ideas that enlivens the tales of H. G. Wells, and at best can be regarded merely as competent examples of the weird fiction of their time, no better or worse than the work of Doyle’s contemporaries.