Eccentrics - The Deluge: American Branch - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Deluge: American Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

This period saw the emergence of a number of writers, some of them only on the margins of the weird, who were such literary and personal eccentrics that they deserve to be in a class by themselves. We have seen that Gertrude Atherton made note of the inveterate tendency of “imaginative” writers toward the weird; Lovecraft echoed those sentiments, writing a bit flamboyantly of the “impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them” (S 22).

The career of Robert W. Chambers (1865—1933)—whether we consider only his weird writing or his output as a whole—is the sad tale of a man who, starting with a vivid and distinctive imagination and a seemingly natural gift for putting words to paper, discovered popularity too quickly and devoted the rest of his life to catering to the whims of the reading public. The best of Chambers’s work can almost be measured by its very lack of popularity.

Of Chambers’s life we know little. Born in Brooklyn, he entered the Art Students’ League around the age of twenty, where the artist Charles Dana Gibson was his fellow-student. From 1886 to 1893 he studied art in Paris, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and at Julian’s, and his work was displayed at the Salon as early as 1889. Returning to New York, he succeeded in selling his illustrations to Life, Truth, and Vogue, but for reasons still not entirely clear turned to writing and produced his first “novel,” In the Quarter (1894), really a series of loosely connected character sketches of artist life in Paris. That Chambers was not, in any case, sincerely interested in capturing his own experiences is testified by the fact that he completely dropped the “Gallic studio atmosphere” (S 52) after The Mystery of Choice (1897), presumably because it no longer proved popular. With The King in Yellow (1895) Chambers’s career as a writer was established—not because he had felt himself a born writer but because that collection of short stories was (probably in spite rather than because of the horror tales contained in it) successful. Chambers had somehow caught the public eye; he knew what the public wanted and gave it to them.

Although from time to time he returned to the weird, Chambers never did so with the gripping and almost nightmarish intensity of The King in Yellow; nor did he ever again attempt a sincere and scathing depiction of the hollowness of American social and intellectual life as he did in the unsuccessful novel Outsiders (1898), which alone of his works may be of interest to the social historian. Instead, he wrote novels and tales that, while superficially dealing with a wide range of topics—the Franco-Prussian War; the American Revolution; modern New York society; World War I; the Civil War—all contained an unending procession of pompous and dim-witted fellows (usually of independent means and attemptedly cynical temperament) falling in love at the least provocation with an equally endless parade of simpering and virtuous women who, although capable of blushing instantly at the slightest suggestion of impropriety, nevertheless give themselves body and soul to their male pursuers after what proves to be a merely token resistance. Some passages in Chambers’s works would probably have been considered salacious at the time of their writing, and the only fitting modern parallels are Harlequin romances. It is doubtful whether any of his work would serve even as raw material for historical or sociological analysis of the period, since even in his own day he was castigated for producing wooden and unrealistic characters. It is not, then, surprising that nearly the whole of his output—of which I have counted eighty-seven different volumes, including novels, tales, one volume of poems, one drama, juvenile books on nature, and even an opera libretto—has lapsed into obscurity and has yet to be resurrected by industrious academics always on the lookout for new dissertation topics.

Chambers’s fantastic writing is limited principally to five volumes—The King in Yellow (1895), The Mystery of Choice (1897), In Search of the Unknown (1904), Police!!! (1915), and the novel The Slayer of Souls (1920)—while several ancillary volumes contain weird matter in lesser degrees—The Maker of Moons (1896), The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906), and The Tree of Heaven (1907). This wide scattering of his fantastic writing shows that Chambers never considered himself a fantaisiste in the tradition of Poe and Bierce (although he was influenced by both), but seems to have written fantasy whenever the mood struck him. It is, of course, to be noted that three of the eight works listed date to Chambers’s very early period; and future generations of fantasy readers have confirmed C. C. Baldwin’s remark on Chambers’ output: “Had I my choice I’d take the first three or four [of his books] and let the rest go hang” (90).

The inspiration for The King in Yellow—a collection of short stories of which only the first six are fantastic, and of these the first four are loosely interrelated—is, however, sufficiently obvious. Chambers must have read Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)—or the English edition of 1892, In the Midst of Life—shortly after his return to America from France, for he adopts certain cryptic allusions and names coined in some of Bierce’s tales and appropriates them for his own. The focus of these first four tales in The King in Yellow is a mysterious drama (apparently in two acts) called The King in Yellow, which incites a peculiar fear and desperation upon reading. Chambers’s descriptions of this odd volume may rank as some of his finest moments:

This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. (“The Repairer of Reputations” [9])

It has, however, not been generally noticed that Chambers has wilfully altered the components he derived from Bierce, and in any case it is not clear whether the Bierce influence really extends beyond these borrowed names. Bierce indeed created Carcosa, which he describes in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” as some great city of the distant past. Chambers maintains this notion, but in Bierce Hali was simply a prophet who is “quoted” as the epigraphs for the tales “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Finally, Chambers borrows the term “Hastur” from Bierce; but whereas Bierce imagined Hastur as a god of the shepherds (see “Haïta the Shepherd”), Chambers regards Hastur alternately as a place or as a person.

From the first four stories in The King in Yellow we learn a few more details about the contents of Chambers’s mythical play: there are at least three characters, Cassilda, Camilla, and the King in Yellow himself; aside from places such as Hastur and the Lake of Hali, we learn of regions called Demhe, Yhtill, and Alar; finally, there are other details such as the Pallid Mask and the Yellow Sign. It is obvious that Chambers intended to leave these citations vague and unexplained; he wished merely to provide dim hints as to the possible worlds of horror and awe to which his mythical book was a guide. Although in “The Silent Land” (in The Maker of Moons) Chambers twice makes mention of a “King in Carcosa,” he never develops this “King in Yellow mythology” elsewhere.

The tales in The King in Yellow differ widely in tone, mood, and quality. The first, “The Repairer of Reputations,” is a bizarre tale of the future (its setting is New York in 1920) in which Chambers, aside from predicting a general European war, imagines a quasi-utopia with euthanasia chambers for those who wish to slough off the burden of existence, while Chicago and New York rise “white and imperial” in a new age of architecture wherein the “horrors” of Victorian design are repudiated. Nevertheless, the tale cannot be called science fiction (on which see further below), since the futuristic setting does not in the end have any role in the story line, which concerns a demented young man who imagines that he is the King in Yellow and that his cousin is vying for the throne. Such a bald description cannot begin to convey the otherworldly, nightmarish quality of the tale, where the unexplained elements of Chambers’s “King in Yellow mythology,” along with a prose style bordering upon the extravagant and an intentionally chaotic exposition, create an atmosphere of chilling horror. “The Mask,” in contrast, is an exquisitely beautiful tale set in France concerning a sculptor who has discovered a fluid capable of petrifying any plant or animal such that it resembles the finest marble. Several portions of the narration, especially toward the end, are pure poetry.

“The Yellow Sign” is generally considered to be the best tale in The King in Yellow, dealing horrifyingly with the nameless fate of an artist who has found the Yellow Sign. Lovecraft in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” has well described the loathsome hearse-driver who is a harbinger for the narrator’s death—a soft, pudgy, wormlike creature who has one of his fingers torn off in a tussle and who, when found in the artist’s studio at the end, is pronounced to have been dead for months. “The Demoiselle d’Ys,” in spite of its inclusion of Hastur as a minor character, is not part of the “King in Yellow mythology,” but is another hauntingly beautiful tale about a man who is supernaturally transplanted into the mediaeval age while hunting in the Breton countryside and falls in love with a beautiful huntress three centuries dead. The rest of The King in Yellow contains a series of fine prose-poems (“The Prophets’ Paradise”) followed by several gripping tales dealing with the Franco-Prussian War.

The Mystery of Choice (1897) is an undeservedly forgotten collection and, in its more refined and controlled prose style, greater unity of theme, and exquisite pathos, ranks close to The King in Yellow in quality. The first five stories are linked by a common setting—Brittany—and some recurring characters; and although the first (“The Purple Emperor”) is an amusing parody on the detective story, the rest of the collection contains fine tales of fantasy and even science fiction.

In In Search of the Unknown (1904) Chambers begins to take another tack—the mingling of weirdness, humour, and romance—and readers must judge for themselves how felicitous this union is. His conceptions are as fertile as ever: we are here concerned with a series of tales depicting successive searches for lost species of animals, including a loathsome half-man and half-amphibian called “the harbor-master,” a group of invisible creatures apparently in the shape of beautiful women, and the like; but in every tale the narrator attempts to flirt with a pretty girl, only to lose her at the last moment to some rival. Chambers reprinted “The Man at the Next Table” (from The Maker of Moons) and “A Matter of Interest” (from The Mystery of Choice) into this work; a work that, though labelled a novel, is in fact a string of tales (several published separately in magazines) stitched together into a continuous narrative. Indeed, so many of Chambers’s “novels” are of this sort that few can be termed other than episodic. A sequel to this volume is Police!!! (1915), a collection of tales where further searches are made into lost species—including mammoths in the glaciers of Canada, a group of “cave-ladies” in the Everglades, and the like. This book places still greater emphasis on humour than its predecessor, and several of the tales are quite amusing; but there also seems to be a slight decline in Chambers’s fertility of invention: the amphibian man in “The Third Eye” too closely resembles the harbour-master, while in “Un Peu d’Amour” we encounter an irascible character obviously reminiscent of a similar character in the first segment of In Search of the Unknown. But even here there are some gripping moments: “Un Peu d’Amour” presents some horrifying glimpses of a gigantic worm burrowing beneath the fields of upstate New York, while another tale (“The Ladies of the Lake”) discloses a school of huge minnows the size of Pullman cars.

The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906) is another episodic novel, somewhat more unified than many of Chambers’s others. Most of the tales are rather flippant accounts of a mysterious gentleman, Westrel Keen, who assists young men in finding their true loves; but one haunting episode about the resurrection of an Egyptian woman suspended in a state of hypnosis for thousands of years is another remarkable fusion of beauty and horror. The Tree of Heaven (1907) is similarly not exclusively fantastic, but contains some very fine moments. The construction of the “novel” is ingenious: at the outset an odd mystic utters prophecies to a group of his friends, and the subsequent episodes are concerned with their fulfilment. For once the love-element is not extrinsic to the plot, and in several of these tales love is simply given a supernatural dimension that creates a profundity not often found in Chambers; even the non-fantastic romantic tales are handled with a seriousness and depth completely absent in other of his works. The superb atmosphere of delicate pathos and dream-fantasy maintained in some of these tales may place this volume only behind The King in Yellow and The Mystery of Choice as Chambers’s finest.

With The Slayer of Souls (1920), however, Chambers reaches the nadir of his career as a supernaturalist. Even if we could swallow the tasteless premise—that “Anarchists, terrorists, Bolshevists, Reds of all shades and degrees, are now believed to represent in modern times” (39) the descendants of the devil-worshipping Yezidi sect of inner Asia, which is poisoning the minds of misguided leftists and labour unionists for the overthrow of good and the establishment of evil—there is no escaping the tedium of the whole work, which is concerned with the efforts of the U.S. Secret Service, along with a young woman who, although having lived for years with these evil Chinese, has now defected and converted to Christianity, to hunt down the eight leading figures of the sect and exterminate them. This happens with mechanical regularity, and it is no surprise that civilisation is saved in the end for God-fearing Americans. The novel—an elaboration of the title story of The Maker of Moons (1896), although that tale is handled far better and contains some delicate moments of shimmering fantasy—is further crippled by a ponderous and entirely humourless style, and with characters so moronic that they cannot reconcile themselves to the supernatural even after repeated exposure to it. And the crowning absurdity is that the origin of all these evils is a “black planet … not a hundred miles” (289—90) from the earth! There is not a single redeeming element in this novel.

One of the more interesting features of Chambers’s weird work is a proto-science-fictional element that emerges in some works cheek by jowl with the overt supernaturalism of other tales. We have seen that “The Repairer of Reputations” is set in the future; but “The Mask” actually makes greater use of a science-fictional principle of great importance: the scientific justification for a fantastic event. Chambers never precisely explains the nature of the petrifying fluid used in the story, but we are led to believe that it would not be beyond the bounds of chemistry to encompass it. Similarly, in “A Matter of Interest” elaborate attempts are made at the outset to establish the veracity and accuracy of the narrative, which concerns the discovery of the last living dinosaur (the “thermosaurus”). Other segments of In Search of the Unknown are even more emphatic on the point, and one of the characters vigorously denies the supernatural character of the harbour-master: “’I don’t think that the harbor-master is a spirit or a sprite or a hobgoblin, or any sort of damned rot. Neither do I believe it to be an optical illusion’” (285). Less scientific justification is presented for the creatures in Police!!!, but even here few strain credulity beyond the breaking-point. Even The Slayer of Souls enunciates the principle: “’We’re up against something absolutely new. Of course, it isn’t magic. It can, of course, be explained by natural laws about which we happen to know nothing at present’” (173). Unfortunately, in this case little effort is made to coordinate the bizarre events into a plausibly scientific framework.

No writer typifies the appeal of weird fiction to temperaments seemingly antipodally opposed to it than Ralph Adams Cram (1863—1942), who in later life gained celebrity as a world-renowned architect and proponent of the neo-Gothic style in architecture, but who in his youth produced a very slim collection of horror tales, Black Spirits and White (1895), which has gained a certain cachet among collectors of the weird, for all that Cram himself in later years dismissed it as an indiscretion of his youth. Containing only six stories and no more than 25,000 words, the little book is worth remembering if only for a single classic tale.

Why Cram took to the supernatural in these early pieces does not seem apparent from the surviving documentary evidence. He wrote a few other works of fiction aside from the stories in Black Spirits and White, but they are not weird. What is, however, clear is that he used these narratives as expressions of his taste in both architecture and European travel. The six tales are set, successively, in Paris, Germany, Italy, Sicily, Brittany, and Sweden. Cram had visited these locales on several European trips, including one in the company of a friend, T. Henry Randall, who appears to be “Tom Rendel” cited by the first-person narrator in several tales.

Cram is, however, not always felicitous in the specific supernatural manifestations he stages. In “No. 252, Rue M. le Prince,” we are given an array of weird phenomena in a Paris hotel room formerly occupied by a suspected witch, but the precise nature of the phenomena—in other words, why the manifestations took the exact form they did—is never clarified. Another tale, “The White Villa,” is a routine tale of ghosts in an Italian villa.

More successful is “In Kropfsberg Keep,” where two young men, Rupert and Otto, make bold to stay in a German castle that is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Count Albert. Forty years previously, the count gave a party during which he set the place ablaze and killed all the guests. Sure enough, Rupert sees a reenactment of this party:

Around the long, narrow hall, under the fearful light that came from nowhere, but was omnipresent, swept a rushing stream of unspeakable horrors, dancing insanely, laughing, gibbering hideously; the dead of forty years. White, polished skeletons, bare of flesh and vesture, skeletons clothed in the dreadful rags of dried and rattling sinews, the tags of tattering grave-clothes flaunting behind them. These were the dead of many years ago. Then the dead of more recent times, with yellow bones showing only here and there, the long and insecure hair of their hideous heads writhing in the beating air. Then green and grey horrors, bloated and shapeless, stained with earth or dripping with spattering water; and here and there white, beautiful things, like chiselled ivory, the dead of yesterday, locked it may be, in the mummy arms of rattling skeletons. (28)

Rupert, in alarm, shoots his revolver in what he believes to be the face of Count Albert—only to find, in the morning, that his friend Otto has been killed by a gunshot.

“Sister Maddelena” is the grim story of a nun who had fallen in love with a man and was killed by her own mother superior, her body secreted within a recess of the immensely thick wall of her room. Her ghost naturally haunts the place until it is discovered. “Notre Dame des Eaux” is an interesting non-supernatural specimen. A man, crazed and disappointed in love, traps his erstwhile lover Héloïse in a church, whereupon she keeps him at bay by singing all night until help can arrive.

But Cram’s reputation as a weird writer will probably continue to rest largely on “The Dead Valley,” a magnificently atmospheric tale set in Sweden. The valley in question—“a level plain of ashy white, faintly phosphorescent, a sea of velvet fog that lay like motionless water, or rather like a floor of alabaster, so dense did it appear, so seemingly capable of sustaining weight” (80)—is a notable triumph of the imagination. The two boys who skirt this valley later seek it out again:

“There lay the Dead Valley! A great oval basin, almost as smooth and regular as though made by man. On all sides the grass crept over the brink of the encircling hills, dusty green on the crests, then fading into ashy brown, and so to a deadly white, this last colour forming a thin ring, running in a long line around the slope. And then? Nothing. Bare, brown, hard earth, glittering with grains of alkali, but otherwise dead and barren. Not a tuft of grass, not a stick of brushwood, not even a stone, but only the vast expense of beaten clay.” (83)

This would be bad enough, but when a falcon, flying above the valley, cries out and falls dead at a tree—a tree surrounded by the bones of thousands of creatures—the boys understand why they had heard a hideous shriek on their first visit to the valley. This notion of biological deadness might conceivably have a natural or science-fictional explanation, but Cram provides none, so the supernatural is the only alternative. The story was thought to have inspired the “blasted heath” in Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” but he read Cram’s story after writing his own.

Of the voluminous work of F. Marion Crawford (1854—1909), the American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and historian, sadly little is read today. The writer who in his day was compared favourably to William Dean Howells and Henry James, and who may have been the most popular American novelist of the late nineteenth century, is now remembered for a few powerful weird tales and some novels where the weird enters fitfully; oblivion has—probably justifiably—overtaken his dozens of other historical and romantic novels, although the F. Marion Crawford Society tries valiantly to perpetuate the memory of his entire work.

Although supernaturalism is tangentially involved in several works—including Mr. Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India (1882) and With the Immortals (1886)—Crawford’s weird work can rightly be restricted to four volumes, the novels Zoroaster (1885), Khaled (1891), and The Witch of Prague (1891), and, above all, the landmark posthumous story collection Wandering Ghosts (1911; published in England as Uncanny Tales). This is all that anyone with an interest in the weird need read of Crawford’s work.

Zoroaster and Khaled would nowadays be considered fantasies, so there is no need to spend much time on them, although both are worthy short novels. The former is, as the title proclaims unambiguously, a novel about the life of Zoroaster (the Greek name for Zarathustra), founder of Zoroastrianism. This description would seem to imply that the work is more properly to be categorised among Crawford’s many historical novels; and although it is true that only the faintest touches of the supernatural are found in this novel, it is really what one might call an historical fantasy. The great strength of Zoroaster is its prose style. It is really a novel-length prose poem, and it is this that raises the otherwise conventionally romantic events of the tale close to the realm of fantasy. Crawford here approaches Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith as a wielder of poetic prose.

Khaled: A Tale of Arabia is in many ways a pendant to Zoroaster, although here there is not even the pretence of giving the work an historical foundation. We are here concerned with Khaled, “one of the genii converted to the faith on hearing Mohammed read the Koran by night in the valley of Al Nakhlah” (1). Because of some misdeed, Khaled is made a human being and is wedded to the princess Zehowah; and before his mortal death, whenever that shall be, he must persuade his bride to love him so that he can gain an immortal soul. Through a long series of events involving battles and political uprisings in the domain Khaled now rules, he finally wins the love of the cold and indifferent Zehowah. I have no idea whether this tale is an actual fable, either from the Koran or anywhere else; but it has all the earmarks of a fairy tale similar to the one that La Motte-Fouqué so poignantly transformed into the story of Undine.

The Witch of Prague, written slightly before Khaled in the winter of 1889—90, is Crawford’s most ambitious work of weird fiction; it is subtitled “A Fantastic Tale.” The plot is considerably convoluted, but its principal weird element is the quest of Unorna, the witch of Prague, and her sardonic partner Keyork Arabian to extend the bounds of human life, perhaps indefinitely, through the power of hypnotism. The two have kept an aged man under hypnosis for years in the hope that this process, plus the replacement of his old blood with the blood of a younger man, Israel Kafka, will rejuvenate him. What makes the novel interesting is the ever-unresolved tension as to whether Unorna’s hypnotic powers are natural or supernatural. Crawford was writing just at the time when the science of psychology was making startling advances in charting the functions of the mind; in a footnote Crawford even cites the leading psychologist prior to Freud, Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840—1902).

The mere fact that Unorna has come to be called the “witch of Prague” suggests the uneasiness with which her contemporaries regard her strange power of will. But like Zoroaster and Khaled, The Witch of Prague is not so much a weird tale as a love story. Much of the action again centres on a very complicated love triangle. A mysterious man designated only as the Wanderer is seeking his lost love Beatrice, who is being dragged across Europe by her father because he opposes her marriage to the Wanderer; the father dies, and the Wanderer spots Beatrice in a church in Prague, but loses her again. He approaches Unorna for help in finding Beatrice, but Unorna falls in love with the Wanderer herself. She hypnotises him and strives to make him forget Beatrice; apparently she succeeds, but is no closer to being loved herself by the Wanderer for all that. The novel proceeds with many intense emotional episodes, until at last Unorna yields and unites the Wanderer with Beatrice.

The fundamental metaphor behind the whole hypnotism issue is loss of identity or individuality. It is this phenomenon that links hypnotism to old-time effects of demonic possession. When Unorna first hypnotises the Wanderer, he senses his personality ebbing away. Keyork Arabian, on the other hand, is impervious to Unorna’s powers because he is the prototypical individualist and egotist: “’Autology is my study, autosophy my ambition, autonomy my pride. I am the great Panegoist, the would be Conservator of Self, the inspired prophet of the Universal I. I—I—I! My creed has but one word, and that word but one letter, that letter represents Unity, and Unity is strength. I am I, one, indivisible, central!’” (36).

And yet, Unorna herself, when lost in love for the Wanderer, “seemed to have no individuality left” (227). It is in passages like this that Crawford unites the fantasy and love elements in this novel. Keyork Arabian is as invulnerable to love as he is to hypnosis; in one remarkable scene toward the beginning he claims to profess his love for Unorna in heart-rending tones but shatters the pretence with devilish cynicism. Indeed, as the novel progresses Keyork develops into an increasingly evil figure, as his single-minded quest to triumph over death becomes more and more ruthless and self-serving.

As a weird tale the novel is, however, only of intermittent interest; for in spite of the subtitle, it is clear that the romantic entanglement is at the heart of the novel. The moments of horror are scattered: a prose-poetic paean to death (84—91), the display of Keyork Arabian’s studio, filled with specimens from his previous attempts to conquer death (106—11); and, most gripping of all, a hallucination by Israel Kafka induced by Unorna, wherein he is made to experience the torture of Simon Abeles, a seventeenth-century Jew punished by his father for converting to Christianity (188—96). This allows Crawford to indulge not only in loathsome descriptions of physical torment but some equally repulsive anti-Semitism.

Ultimately, however, The Witch of Prague is a disappointment for not delivering upon its fantastic premise: aside from its great length (it was first published, in good Victorian fashion, in three volumes), the hypnotism issue is unsatisfactorily and hastily resolved at the end, as the old man is suddenly resuscitated in health and vigour. Crawford is simply not a profound or subtle enough novelist to keep the reader’s interest on the basis of the love element alone, and he would have done better to have written more concentratedly on the distinctively horrific theme of the novel.

But Crawford will hold a worthy niche in weird fiction merely for the seven stories in Wandering Ghosts. These stories were written over at least a twenty-year span, “The Upper Berth” dating to as early as 1886 and “The Screaming Skull” to around 1908; the impression is that Crawford wrote these tales whenever mood and opportunity arose. Perhaps he himself did not put much stock in them; it is significant that they were collected only posthumously. There is no especial progression or development of technique in these stories, and accordingly no virtue to studying them chronologically. A thematic approach will be more revealing and illuminating.

“The Dead Smile” (Ainslee’s, August 1899) is one of the most grippingly horrifying tales ever written, although Crawford could not have thought that the supposed surprise ending—that Gabriel Ockram and Evelyn Warburton, engaged to be married, turn out to be brother and sister—was really much of a surprise. Crawford fills his story with references to “their strangely-like eyes” (6) and “their faces, that were so strangely alike” (9); all this is a little too obvious, but fortunately the story’s effectiveness does not depend on the concealing of the plot’s outcome. The very title signals the loathsome perversion of the good that is at the heart of the tale: just as a smile is ordinarily an indication of happiness, so a “dead smile” is not merely suggestive of the grinning of a skeleton but a symbol for the near-incest that is warded off at the story’s conclusion. The atmosphere of horrific gloom hovering over the entire narrative is almost oppressive; and when Gabriel descends into the family crypt (“There was a frightful stench of drying death” [36]) to discover the secret of Evelyn’s birth, the culmination of horror is reached:

The dead face was blotched with dark stains, and the thin, grey hair was matted about the discoloured forehead. The sunken lids were half open and the candle light gleamed on something foul where the toad eyes had lived.

But yet the dead thing smiled, as it had smiled in life; the ghastly lips were parted and drawn wide and tight upon the wolfish teeth, cursing still, and still defying hell to do its worst—defying, cursing, and always and for ever smiling alone in the dark. (38)

The extravagance of the tone and language throughout this tale is strangely effective; and although Crawford was more restrained in his other works, we miss the luridness of what might be called the “oh-my-God” school of horror embodied in this story.

“For the Blood Is the Life” (written in 1905) was praised by Lovecraft, but is in reality a confused story of vampirism. It is one of several stories in which Crawford uses the framework of two individuals chatting idly over drinks, with one of them eventually supplying a casual narration of a ghost story; this device can be effective in allowing the horrific atmosphere to build gradually, but here it is the logic of the tale that is at fault. A young woman in Italy is killed by two robbers as she sees them burying their treasure on a mound, and they hurl her body into the pit along with their ill-gotten prize; but in some inexplicable fashion this woman becomes one of the undead and repeatedly drains the blood of her still-living lover. How this transition occurred is never clarified.

It might not occur to us to rank Crawford among the great practitioners of the sea-horror tale, but at least three of his short stories directly or indirectly involve the sea, and do so with great effectiveness. The least interesting, perhaps, is “The Screaming Skull” (Red Magazine, December 1908), where an old sea-captain tells to a friend the story of a strange murder and its supernatural revenge. However, the offhand manner of the narration here results merely in flatness and a failure to realise the atmospheric potential of the situation. In an author’s note at the end Crawford informs us that the core of the plot is based on an actual English legend; this is perhaps one more piece of evidence that the best weird tales are ordinarily based on ersatz, not real, myths.

“’Man Overboard!’” (1903), a novelette first published as a booklet, is one of Crawford’s subtlest works. Here, in a story that displays nautical erudition rivalling anything in William Hope Hodgson, the actual supernatural manifestation—the ghost of one of a pair of twins, Jim and Jack Benton, who either fell overboard during a storm or was deliberately murdered by his brother—is not displayed until the very end: throughout the story we see the ghost only indirectly, and the cumulative power and suspense are compelling. We first learn that, although Jim Benton has been lost from the crew, the cook still finds the same number of plates used after every meal; then we see the dead man’s brother holding two pipes in his hand, one of them waterlogged; then the cook appears to go mad and stabs at something near the surviving brother, Jack, shouting: “There were two of them! So help me God, there were two of them!” (135). The tale gives the impression of winding down when the ship ends its journey with no further mishaps; but then we learn that the narrator has been asked by Jack Benton to attend his wedding. After the ceremony the narrator sees this:

I looked after the couple in the distance a last time, meaning to go down to the road, so as not to overtake them; but when I had made a few steps I stopped and looked again, for I knew I had seen something queer, though I had only realised it afterwards. I looked again, and it was plain enough now; and I stood stock-still, staring at what I saw. Mamie was walking between two men. The second man was just the same height as Jack, both being about a half a head taller than she; Jack on her left in his black tail-coat and round hat, and the other man on her right—well, he was a sailor-man in wet oil-skins. I could see the moonlight shining on the water that ran down him, and on the little puddle that had settled where the flap of his sou’wester was turned up behind; and one of his wet shiny arms was round Mamie’s waist, just above Jack’s.

The quiet narration of this tale renders this climactic moment the more effective, and “’Man Overboard!’” must rank as one of Crawford’s great triumphs.

In spite of the merits of some of Crawford’s other tales, there is little reason to contradict the standard affirmation that “The Upper Berth” (in The Broken Shaft, ed. Sir Henry Norman [1886]) is his best weird tale. Here again it is the narrative voice that is the secret to the tale’s power. We are dealing with a hardy, gruff, no-nonsense figure named Brisbane, one who is not easily rattled. This trait inspires confidence in the reliability of Brisbane’s story. The gradual accumulation of horrific details—the porthole that refuses to stay closed; the air of musty dampness in the room; the fact that we never get a good look at the doomed occupant of the upper berth, who leaps to his death on the first night out—creates an intensely potent atmosphere, and prepares us for the actual confrontation with the loathsome:

I remember that the sensation as I put my hands forward was as though I were plunging them into the air of a damp cellar, and from behind the curtains came a gust of wind that smelled horribly of stagnant sea-water. I laid hold of something that had the shape of a man’s arm, but was smooth, and wet, and icy cold. But suddenly, as I pulled, the creature sprang violently forward against me, a clammy, oozy mass, as it seemed to me, heavy and wet, yet endowed with a sort of supernatural strength. I reeled across the state-room, and in an instant the door opened and the thing rushed out. (219)

Even here, however, Brisbane immediately discounts the supernatural (“It was absurd, I thought. The Welsh rare-bit I had eaten had disagreed with me” [220]), thereby setting the stage for another encounter with the cold, dead thing in the upper berth. The tale ends in Brisbane’s usual clipped manner: “It was a very disagreeable experience, and I was very badly frightened, which is a thing I do not like. That is all. That is how I saw a ghost—if it was a ghost. It was dead, anyhow” (233).

The two remaining stories in Wandering Ghosts, “By the Waters of Paradise” (in The Witching Time, ed. Sir Henry Norman [1887]) and “The Doll’s Ghost” (date of first publication unknown), are very different from the clutching horror of Crawford’s other tales. Here Crawford skirts close to a major danger in weird fiction, something that Lovecraft (in reference to Algernon Blackwood) aptly termed “the flatness of benignant supernaturalism” (S 66). The cheerful or wistfully happy ghost story always runs the risk of seeming blandly innocuous and unreasoningly optimistic; and although “By the Waters of Paradise,” which may not even be supernatural, probably fails for this reason, “The Doll’s Ghost” surmounts the difficulty and becomes a poignant little vignette. The former is nothing but a love story, in which a man sees in his garden a vision of a lovely young woman, finally tracks her down, marries her, and saves her from death by drowning, robbing the “Witch of the Water” of a new victim. It is all elegantly told, and the courtship of the couple is handled with genial wit, but we have heard too many such tales before. “The Doll’s Ghost” portrays an aged doll-repairer who falls in love with a doll brought to his shop and lovingly repairs it; in return the doll helps him to locate his lost daughter, ultimately found in a hospital after being attacked by young boys. It is a charming work where, for once, the happy ending does not seem forced or contrived.

There is also an eighth, uncollected tale by Crawford, “The King’s Messenger” (Cosmopolitan, November 1907). This story, too, is impressive in its narrative subtlety. At an elaborate dinner party the narrator notices one unoccupied seat, but is informed by the young woman, Miss Lorna, sitting next to him that the final guest shall shortly arrive. The guest is Death. The whole story becomes a double entendre, as everything Lorna says about the expected guest takes on another meaning under the bland conventionality of her words. Lorna will run away with the guest that night; the narrator thinks it merely an elopement, but we begin to suspect something more sinister when she confesses her love for “the King’s Messenger”:

“Oh, I don’t pretend that I fell in love with him at first sight; I went through a phase of feeling afraid of him, as almost everyone else does. You see, when people first meet him they cannot possibly know how kind and gentle he can be, though he is so tremendously strong. I’ve heard him called cruel and ruthless and cold, but it’s not true. Indeed it’s not! He can be as gentle as a woman, and he’s the truest friend in all the world.” (157)

In fact, the woman will commit suicide. The narrator later finds that he has been dreaming (thereby accounting for the otherwise anomalous fact that all the other guests save himself seem to know the missing man’s identity), but he receives a telegram shortly afterward telling of Lorna’s death. “The King’s Messenger” is an unrecognised jewel of weird fiction.

In the history of the weird tale F. Marion Crawford occupies roughly the same place as Robert W. Chambers. Both wrote tales of horror and the supernatural sporadically over their lifetimes, although Chambers did so principally at the beginning of his career and Crawford, if anything, toward the end; both will be remembered primarily for their scattered weird work rather than their voluminous mainstream work; and both exercised only a marginal influence on later writers in the field. The supernatural was, for both writers, a diversion or a recreation; and both were under the impression that their lasting work would be their many novels of romance—an impression, to be sure, apparently justified by the tremendous popular and (for Crawford) critical success they enjoyed during their lifetimes, but one which subsequent readers and critics have not sustained. Let us not be unfair to Crawford: his mainstream work is not nearly as ephemeral or insubstantial as Chambers’s, and he will occupy a markedy more significant place in American literature than Chambers ever will; but it is as unlikely that such of his works as Paul Patoff (1887) or Via Crucis (1899) will ever be resurrected, even by industrious doctoral candidates, as it is that Chambers’s endless series of frivolous romances will ever again be held in much esteem. The small and restricted domain of weird fiction is often kinder to its practitioners—even those, like E. F. Benson, John Buchan, or Ralph Adams Cram, who do not make it their exclusive literary focus—than mainstream fiction tends to be; and in this domain the work of F. Marion Crawford will not go unappreciated.

Finally, there is the case of Lafcadio Hearn (1850—1904). Hearn’s reputation as a weird writer is perhaps exaggerated, since it is not at all clear that he made any original contributions to the supernatural in the strictest sense of the term; but the gorgeousness of his prose, and his work as translator, lecturer, and folklorist has perhaps understandably led to his high reputation in the field. Perhaps his most signal accomplishment is his work as a translator—both of Gautier’s One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances (1882) and of Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony (posthumously published in 1910), the latter of which, in its vivid hallucination scenes, occupies a kind of borderland of the weird.

Otherwise, Hearn’s work in the supernatural is restricted to such books as Some Chinese Ghosts (1887), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Kwaidan (1904), and the posthumous Fantastics and Other Fancies (1914). The last-named, reprinting selections of a column called “Fantastics” that he wrote during his years as a journalist in New Orleans (1877—87), are chronologically the earliest of these writings. They are all exquisite prose-poems, but if anything they belong to the realm of fantasy rather than supernatural horror. Their dominant theme is the fusion of love and death—a fusion that Hearn handles with both poignancy and terrifying intensity. In “The Ghostly Kiss,” a man believes he is in a theatre, where he kisses a lovely woman—but in fact he is in a cemetery. “The Vision of the Dead Creole,” which is more of a connected narrative than most of the other items in the book, speaks plangently of a man whose lover rises from the tomb. Then there are such delicacies as “When I Was a Flower,” a gorgeous tale of a flower’s life and death, told in the first person. Hearn reported that these little sketches “are my impressions of the strange life of New Orleans” (3), and he has certainly accomplished his purpose of vividly portraying the curious sense of life-in-death that continues to pervade that metropolis.

Whether we should consider any of the books that Hearn wrote after his emigration to Japan in 1890—where he ultimately took a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo, married a Japanese woman, and apparently converted to Buddhism—as contributions to the weird (or, at any rate, to weird fiction) is greatly open to question; for of course all the books in question record age-old legendry from the Orient and cannot be considered original except in certain elements of narration. Some Chinese Ghosts was written while Hearn was still in New Orleans, but it heralds his fascination with the culture of the Far East. Both In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan are collections of Japanese folklore and legend, some of which is deliciously gruesome (“Jikininki,” in Kwaidan, tells of a corpse-eating goblin in the shape of a priest), but they constitute the raw material of weird fiction rather than finished instances of it.

Hearn occupied a curious position in his time: as a professor at Imperial University in Tokyo, he taught English literature to his Japanese pupils while writing books that artfully elucidated Japanese culture to European readers. His undated lecture “The Value of the Supernatural in Fiction” is still worth reading as a defence of the literary value of the weird tale.