Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Other British Masters
Other Early Twentieth-Century Masters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The neglect that has engulfed the weird work of Robert Hichens (1864—1950) is as inexplicable as it is undeserved. Had Dorothy L. Sayers not reprinted “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” in her first Omnibus of Crime (1928) and thereby ensured its status as a much-reprinted classic, it is likely that Hichens would now be virtually forgotten as a weird writer, just as his prolific and best-selling mainstream work has all but fallen into oblivion. And yet, Hichens is far more than merely a “one-story” writer: if “Professor Guildea” does indeed remain his finest weird tale, there are numerous others that deserve to be ranked just below it. His collection Tongues of Conscience (1900) can stand next to any single volume by Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, or H. P. Lovecraft as a compendium of powerful, finely crafted horror fiction.
The ignorance of most of Hichens’s weird work is in some sense understandable, for not only are the best of his tales long—some would say overly long—novelettes difficult to accommodate in anthologies, but many of them return obsessively to a single idea: the transference or survival of the soul after the death of the body. It is difficult to know how seriously Hichens took this idea: did he believe in it himself, or was he merely using it as a literary device? The number of tales in which this idea recurs, even with significant variations, points to actual belief, as does the following passage from his autobiography, Yesterday (1947), where Hichens reports his early interest in spiritualism:
At that time I was interested in “spiritualism,” as it was called … and I attended several séances, and knew various people who claimed to have occult powers. I have never been convinced that the souls of those we call dead are able to communicate with the living, and have expressed my lack of conviction in at least one book and been taken to task for it. But on the other hand, some have called me credulous. For I believe that certain people, specially endowed, are able at times to foretell the future correctly, and to foresee what is coming to those whom they call their “clients,” or for friends who consult them. And I have no doubt at all that apparitions of the dead have been many times seen haunting the places in which they have formerly lived and loved and perhaps—though not always—suffered. I have myself lived for a time in a house which was haunted by its former owner, a famous Englishman. I never saw the apparition of him, but an intimate friend of mine did on at least four occasions. And it was, I believe, seen in daylight by a famous actress when she was staying with me. (77)
The concluding part of this passage appears to suggest the inspiration for Hichens’s first weird tale, “The Return of the Soul,” published in the Pall Mail Magazine in 1895 (as “A Reincarnation”) and reprinted in The Folly of Eustace (1896). The soul-transference theme is also evident in this tale as well as Hichens’s two weird novels, Flames: A London Phantasy (1897) and the powerful The Dweller on the Threshold (1911). Hichens was never content to write merely a spook story: he never wished merely to send a shudder up a reader’s spine. The title of his collection Tongues of Conscience—containing “Sea Change,” “The Cry of the Child,” “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” and “The Lady and the Beggar”—is apt, for it suggests that it is the protagonists’ guilt or unease over some past action that brings down the supernatural manifestation upon them. A painter unwittingly lures a young boy to perish at sea; a scholar causes the death of his own child by excessive and single-minded study; a hard-hearted professor is plagued by a ghost that loves him; a woman is haunted by a beggar whose pleas for charity she cruelly ignored: these are the scenarios in which Hichens finds a wealth of human torment and misery, and it is the slow, meticulous accumulation of details—both supernatural and emotional—that allows each character in these tales to gain the fully rounded humanity that brings them to life. And it is this same attention to detail—as, for example, in “Professor Guildea,” when the ghost is first suspected by the bizarre actions of a parrot—that creates the uncanny realism of the supernatural events Hichens etches so subtly and delicately. Hichens requires the expansiveness of the novelette to convey the richness of his weird scenarios, and some of them attain a cumulative power that creates that rarest fusion in literature—the fusion of horror and pathos.
Hichens utilised the soul-transference theme by way of animals in “The Charmer of Snakes” (in Bye-ways), in which a woman’s soul appears to have entered the body of a snake, and “The Black Spaniel” (in The Black Spaniel and Other Stories, 1905), a gripping story in which the soul of a man’s dead enemy has entered the body of a dog. “The Hindu” (in Snake-Bite and Other Stories, 1919) is, however, a long and unconvincing story that suggests the supernatural—a man believes he is being pursued by the spirit of a dead Hindu who may or may not have had an affair with his wife—but is impausibly explained naturalistically. Hichens continued to write weird tales sporadically up to his latest story collection, The Man in the Mirror (1950), but he rarely achieved the almost unbearable intensity of “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” or “The Cry of the Child,” which in my estimation rank as two of the finest weird tales of their era.
The weird fiction of Barry Pain (1864—1928) constitutes a distinctive element in the work of a writer whose focus was largely elsewhere. Pain early gained a reputation as a comic writer: from as early as 1890 he contributed to some of the leading middlebrow publications of the day—Punch, To-day, Black and White, the Idler, the Sketch, and numerous others. He, W. W. Jacobs, and Jerome K. Jerome were quickly branded the New Humourists—a term initially coined in derision because it was believed by highbrow critics that these writers (all of whom, curiously, wrote the occasional weird tale) were deliberately seeking to satisfy the lowbrow tastes of the rapidly increasing British middle class. His first book, In a Canadian Canoe (1891), chiefly contained humorous tales, but does include one grim tale of psychological terror, “’Bill,’” in which a lower-class boy struggles to deal with the death of his infant sister. It is a searing portrayal of the wretched fate to which British society condemned its working classes at that juncture in history. The volume was the first of nearly sixty books that Pain published in a career that spanned nearly four decades; his uncollected tales and sketches (the great majority of them humorous, but with apparently a few weird items buried among them) number in the hundreds.
Stories and Interludes (1892) contains two weird tales that contain more promise than fulfilment—“The Glass of Supreme Moments” and “Exchange”—and, sadly, much the same can be said for Stories in the Dark (1901), a choice item for the weird collector but one that doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of some of its premises. This slim collection—it is well under 30,000 words—features a number of tales with powerful ideas that are not executed quite as effectively as one would wish. “The Diary of a God” could have been a powerful tale of psychological horror in its depiction of a man who becomes increasingly isolated from humanity and develops a fierce misanthropy, but its development is crude. “This Is All” is a somewhat more effective sketch of the universal fear of death, and “The Magnet” is another non-supernatural tale that underscores a scarcely less universal fascination with tragedy and catastrophe. But even the volume’s lengthiest and most impressive story, “The Undying Thing,” leaves us vaguely unsatisfied. It powerfully etches a generational curse in its account of an anomalous creature, born of one of the ancestors of the owners of a venerable English castle, that dwells in the woods near the estate; but Pain’s refusal to specify the nature of this entity seems less an instance of artistic restraint than a failure of imagination. The description of the birth of the creature is highly tantalising:
As Sir Edric waited at the top of the staircase he heard suddenly from the room before him a low cry. He put down the candlestick on the floor and leaned back against the wall listening. The cry came again, a vibrating monotone ending in a growl… .
“Yes,” said the doctor, “it is in there. I had the two women out of the room, and got it here. No one but myself has seen it. But you must see it, too.”
He raised the candle and the two men entered the room—one of the spare bedrooms. On the bed there was something moving under cover of a blanket. Dr. Dennison paused for a moment and then flung the blanket partially back. (80)
But this is excessively vague, and never in the remainder of the story do we get a concrete idea of the creature’s nature or attributes. The suggestion is that the birth came about because the mother was terrified by wolves that were kept on the estate, but it is not even clarified whether the creature is in fact a werewolf or something else.
The final story in Stories in the Dark, “The Gray Cat,” is a powerful tale of metempsychosis—a theme that Pain had already treated in a different way in “Exchange”—and perhaps set the stage for his novel-length working out of the idea, An Exchange of Souls (1911). That novel is clearly the pinnacle of Pain’s weird work and one of the most powerful treatments of the motif of soul or personality exchange. The scientist Daniel Myas has devised a machine whereby he can exchange his “Ego” with that of his fiancée, Alice Lade; but in the course of the experiment the machine is destroyed and Daniel’s body is killed; his “Ego” or soul is in the body of Alice. What exactly Pain means by “Ego” is not entirely clear, for it appears that Daniel’s Ego has forgotten the manner in which the machine was constructed, so that it must laboriously pore through his old notes in an attempt to rebuild it; the effort proves futile, and in the end Alice kills herself, thereby releasing Daniel’s Ego. The novel fuses poignancy and terror into an inextricable amalgam, although Pain does not deal as forthrightly as we moderns might wish with the baffling conundrum of a man’s “Ego” trapped in a woman’s body.
Pain went on to do more supernatural work, chiefly in the short story. “The Unfinished Game,” in the collection Here and Hereafter (1911), is a routine ghost story about billiards, while “The Unseen Power” is a scarcely less conventional tale of a haunted house. Stories in Grey (1912) contains two powerful specimens. “Smeath,” the longest of Pain’s weird short stories, is a richly complex tale about hypnotism and clairvoyance, with a grisly ending that even today’s splatterpunk devotees can relish. “Linda” is a powerful and moving tale of love and terror that again broaches the metempsychosis theme.
The untitled volume of short stories published in the series “Short Stories of Today and Yesterday” (1928) contains some of Pain’s most assured work; it is regrettable that it appeared in the year of Pain’s death, for it augured an impressive seriousness of conception and ability to handle complex interplays of emotion that Pain might have used in later weird work. “The Tree of Death” is perhaps the most curious item in Pain’s weird repertoire, a kind of Eastern fantasy in the manner of the Arabian Nights, told in a stately and archaic diction that is highly evocative and convincing. “Not on the Passenger-List” is a powerful tale of supernatural revenge that brings the earlier tale “The Widower” to mind. “The Reaction” vaguely echoes Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the White Powder” in its account of a strange drug that has unexpected effects, while “The Missing Years” is a strange and apparently non-supernatural narrative about amnesia.
The Shadow of the Unseen, a novel that Pain published in 1907 in collaboraton with James Blyth, is worth some attention. Little is known about Blyth (1864—1933), a British novelist who also wrote about agriculture, and there is no way to tell the exact degree of each collaborator’s contribution to the novel. It is an interesting experiment in hybridisation—an attempt to mingle the society novel, the romance novel, even the comic novel, with the tale of the supernatural. As such, it has a different texture from that of almost any other supernatural novel ever written. In spite of its generally light and bantering tone, The Shadow of the Unseen develops a cumulative power in its indirect and insidious suggestion of witchcraft, as embodied in the figure of Judith Jennis, a descendant of a purported witch of the same name, who now seeks to avenge what she believes to be the unjust death of her ancestor. Whether Judith has any actual supernatural powers is never clarified; the one genuinely weird episode—Judith’s apparent ability to depict the future by means of a mysterious substance poured into a silver cup—passes relatively quickly. Nevertheless, there is a pervasive atmosphere of weirdness in the work, even if the most powerful scene in it is a purely physical scene of a man in a death-struggle with Judith’s huge black goat.
Like Pain, E. Nesbit (1858—1924) gained celebrity for work of a very different sort—in her case, children’s fantasies such as The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and Five Children and It (1902); but early in her career she produced two volumes of weird fiction, Something Wrong (1893) and Grim Tales (1893), most of the contents of which were reprinted in Fear (1910). The stories are a mixed bag, both thematically and qualitatively. On the whole, they do not suggest any distinctiveness in the selection of weird motifs, although there is occasional power in their treatment. “From the Dead,” for example, is a grim and emotionally intense tale of a dead wife who rises up and asks forgiveness of her husband for the wrongs she inflicted upon him in life.
Two stories involving drugs are of some interest. In “The Five Senses,” a scientist has discovered a drug that can intensify the five senses in animals; will it also work on man? There are five drugs, one for each of the senses. Somewhat imprudently, the scientist tries them all at once. He appears to die, but in fact the drugs have merely “paralysed every muscle” (30). As a result, he experiences his own funeral:
He could not raise a finger, stir an eyelash. More, he could not breathe, nor did his body advise him of any need of breathing. And he had lain thus immobile and felt his body slowly grow cold, had heard in thunder the voices of Parker and the doctor; had felt the enormous hands of those who made his death-toilet, had smelt intolerably the camphor and lavender that they laid round him in the narrow, black bed; had tasted the mingled flavours of the drug and its five mediums; and, in an ecstasy of magnified sensation, had made the lonely train journey which coffins make, and known himself carried into the mausoleum and left there alone. (30—31)
But in the end, the scientist manages to cry out to his girlfriend, in spite of his fear that in so doing she might drive her mad, and, having been revived, he gives up science and settles down to a placid domesticity.
“The Three Drugs” is somewhat less effective, chiefly because Nesbit’s efforts to augment the suspense of the narrative are clumsy and obvious. A man named Roger Wroxham, being pursued by thugs, takes refuge with a surgeon who, in his search for the elixir of life, has devised three drugs that will apparently bestow immortality: “The first excites prematurely the natural conflict between the principles of life and death, and then, just at the point where Death is about to win his victory, the second drug intensifies life so that it conquers—intensifies, and yet chastens. Then the whole life of the subject, risen to an ecstasy, falls prone in an almost voluntary submission to the coming super-life” (304). The surgeon takes the drugs himself—but, in a highly artificial plot device, Wroxham is unable to come to the doctor’s aid when the second drug must be administered, and so the doctor dies.
Nesbit’s most celebrated weird tale is “Man-Size in Marble,” about two man-size statues that come to life, but it is a bit rambling and predictable. As it is, the chief virtue of her weird work is the vaguely science-fictional premise of her two tales about drugs, although in regard to the scientist of the first tale it is rightly remarked: “Like all imaginative scientists, he was working with stuff perilously like the spells of magic” (26).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859—1930) continued to write weird short fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century, almost up to the time of his death; but much of this work treads very close to the burgeoning realm of science fiction, so it cannot be treated in detail here. Indeed, even the more conventionally supernatural tales of this period are on the borderline between weird fiction and science fiction. Consider “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), one of the best of his weird tales. This story capitalises on contemporary interest in aviation, then an invention scarcely two decades old, by portraying an aviator who ascends up to the astronomical height of 41,000 feet and encounters fabulous creatures there:
“Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size—far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul’s. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble, and drifted upon its stately way. (24)
This is a fine exercise of the fantastic imagination; but Doyle augments it by depicting still more bizarre, and malignant creatures—envisioned as “a purplish patch of vapour … [with] two vast, shadowy, circular plates upon either side, which may have been eyes, and a perfectly solid white projection between them which was as curved and cruel as the beak of a vulture” (25)—that emerge in the hundreds out of space and pursue the hapless flier. A more or less plausible scientific explanation is also provided for the “great shaggy mass” (83) that is seen emerging from a cavern in the earth—partially carved out by the Romans—in the English countryside in “The Terror of Blue John Gap” (Strand, August 1910). And the late Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (Strand, January 1924) makes a clever play on the vampire myth, which Holmes ridicules at the outset in its standard form. Needless to say, nothing supernatural happens here, but even the existence of a psychologically disturbed vampire—a mother who appears to be compelled to drink the blood of her own infant child, somewhat along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Olalla”—is explained away ingeniously.
As for the Professor Challenger stories—the short novels The Lost World (1912), The Poison Belt (1913), and The Land of Mist (1926), along with a few short stories—they are entirely within the domain of science fiction, or at best of science-fantasy. There are, to be sure, moments of terror in all of them—The Lost World compellingly depicts the continued existence of dinosaurs in the Amazon; The Poison Belt appears to envision the virtual end of humanity, as the earth passes through a belt of poisonous ether; and The Land of Mist is a venture into spiritualism typical of Doyle’s post—World War I work—but, except perhaps for the last, clear scientific rationales are provided for all the bizarre events in them. The same can be said for the short novel The Maracot Deep (1929), which depicts the existence of an entire civilisation of humanoid creatures—evidently the survivors of the destruction of Atlantis—dwelling on the ocean floor.
Once again, as with Doyle’s earlier work, there is relatively little aesthetic substance to these tales—they are entertaining stories, no more. The figure of Professor Challenger, in particular, is a lamentable yielding to popular convention, being the very type of the irascible scientific genius. They all help to pass the time, but they fail to broaden or deepen one’s understanding of the world.
Like Doyle, the Scottish writer John Buchan (1875—1940) persistently broached the weird in novels and tales alike, especially in such story collections as The Watcher by the Threshold (1902), The Moon Endureth (1912), and The Runagates Club (1928). But in much of his work we find a vexing imprecision or excessive reticence in the very crux of the story—specifically, the nature and ramifications of the supernatural phenomenon. Consider the early story “The Watcher by the Threshold.” Here we read of one Robert Ladlaw, a Scotsman who appears to be terrified by—something. But in the course of this long narrative we never learn exactly what it is, as Buchan continually dances around this critical issue. There are vague suggestions that Ladlaw’s fear stems from the terror of unbounded Nature or—what he evidently regards as the same thing—the un-Christian remnants of paganism as embodied in the Roman conquest of Britain.
If there is any dominant theme in Buchan’s weird writing, it is this notion of a conflict between paganism and Christianity, with Roman Britain frequently at the core of the conflict. “The Grove of Ashtaroth” is an intermittently effective treatment of the idea, portraying a man fascinated by a grove near his house in South Africa that features an ancient conical temple. This man, Lawton (the narrator takes care to note that he is part Jewish), begins a worship of Ashtaroth, the suggestion being that he is heeding the call of the ancient Hebrews who occasionally indulged in this kind of idolatry. A friend comes to destroy the grove. This seemingly elementary resolution in favour of Christianity is, however, rendered interestingly problematical by the friend’s rueful lament that he has perhaps removed something wonderful from the face of the earth.
Even Buchan’s most celebrated, and probably best, weird tale, “The Wind in the Portico,” in The Runagates Club, is subject to the criticism of excessive imprecision. Here a man has built a pseudo-Roman temple on his estate, where an anomalous hot wind blows for no apparent reason. There had actually been a Roman temple on the site, dedicated to the worship of Vaunus, a (fictitious) Romano-British god who is purportedly “the tutelary deity of the vale” (3.188). When the owner, Dubellay, terrified of the blasphemy of worshipping a pagan god, attempts to covert the pagan temple to Christian use (finding a formula for such in the ancient writer Sidonius Apollinaris), the temple is set ablaze from below. It is the vengenace of Vaunus. This story is on the whole effective, but even here Buchan fails to engender as powerful and cataclysmic a climax as he could have done.
Much the same criticism can be leveled at two other celebrated stories in The Runagates Club, “The Green Wildebeest” and “Skule Skerry.” The former, also set in South Africa, tells of a green wildebeest “as big as a house” (3.84) that has been unwittingly released from confinement by a white man. But, aside from the fact that we never gain any true sight of the hideous entity, the moral or symbolic purpose of the creature is also vague. The narrator’s comment that the beast somehow embodies an “infinite power for evil” (3.93) is little short of fatuous. “Skule Skerry” takes us to a remote island north of Scotland where birds congregate in great numbers. A bird watcher goes there to view them; and the narration effectively portrays his sense of remoteness and isolation. Then a hideous fish-creature seems to emerge—but, in a woeful anticlimax, it proves to be nothing more than a walrus.
Buchan approached the weird in two substantial novels. Witch Wood (1927) is a long non-supernatural account of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Scotland, at the height of the witch craze. The novel is a fusion of the historical tale, the love story, and the weird, although there is never any suggestion that the instances of witchcraft that the superstitious natives attribute to the lover of the protagonist, the rationalist minister David Sempill, are in fact supernatural. The Gap in the Curtain (1932) might perhaps be considered an early science fiction novel in its premise that time is not linear—a group of individuals participate in an experiment whereby they glimpse an issue of the London Times a year in the future—but the working out of the idea is not without its terrors. Buchan’s interest in the anomalies of time go back to an early and, until recently, uncollected story “The Knees of the Gods” (1907), where a man appears to dream of the future, although this is chiefly a political satire.
Marjorie Bowen (1886—1952) also fused the historical tale and the supernatural in her best work—chiefly scattered stories in such volumes as Curious Happenings (1917), Dark Ann and Other Stories (1927), and The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (1949). “Kecksies,” for example, is the striking tale of a man who comes back from the dead and kills a woman’s husband (his former rival) and makes love to his wife. Set in the eighteenth century, the tale contains unusually explicit sexual imagery. This tale is, however, surpassed by “Scoured Milk,” which fuses the historical tale (it is set in 1733), the detective story, the conte cruel, and the ghost story. In the end nothing supernatural occurs, although the deflation of the ghostly element engenders no anticlimax. Humphrey Orford’s wife has apparently died in 1713. In 1733 he wants to marry a young woman of his fancy, but she finds his house vaguely disturbing, even hideous. Orford is later found stabbed in the back in his study, a room that was locked on the inside. Can the ghost of his wife, jealous of her husband’s intent to remarry, have killed him? In fact, the wife is still alive, having been confined in a narrow space around the chimney for two decades, her tongue having been cut out.
Bowen’s most celebrated tale is “The Avenging of Ann Leete,” but it is inferior to the two tales described above. The only novelty here is the nature of the supernatural manifestation. Ann Leete is loved by two men. One of them kills her; the other, through force of will, forces the spirit of the killer to leave his body and betray the existence of the corpse. The killer is acquitted in a trial but later commits suicide. This idea of the ghost of a living person has something of originality to it.
Bowen also combines history and supernaturalism in the early novel Black Magic (1909), but the emphasis here is heavily on the former rather than the latter. This long-drawn-out tale based on the legend of Pope Joan, the female pope who purportedly reigned for a few years in the Middle Ages, features incidental witchcraft as the female Pope, Ursula, seeks to consolidate her power; but the novel is marred by diffuseness and lack of focus.
The work of M. P. Shiel (1865—1947) is difficult to treat in small compass, not only because of its wide diversity of theme and subject-matter, but because so much of it is only on the borderline of the supernatural or of the weird altogether. And yet, Shiel is of undoubted importance, both because of the intrinsic power of at least a small proportion of his work and also because of his apparent influence on some of the writers who followed in his wake.
Shiel is very much an acquired taste, for he himself acquired a convoluted, almost tortured prose style that is the absolute antithesis of the lapidary but occasionally atmosphereless prose of, say, Conan Doyle and which, in such tales as “Xélucha,” is undoubtedly effective in creating a kind of incantatory effect of hallucinatory weirdness. Shiel’s short weird fiction is restricted to two early collections, Shapes in the Fire (1896) and The Pale Ape and Other Pulses (1911), the former of which contains “Xélucha,” a powerful statement of the hypnotic effect of women on certain male sensibilities, manifestly influenced by Poe’s “Ligeia.”
Even more powerful, and by all odds Shiel’s best weird tale, is “The House of Sounds,” originally appearing under the title “Vaila” in the former collection and extensively revised, with some of the verbal excesses pruned back, and retitled in the latter collection. Lovecraft was fond of noting that this tale is “vaguely like, yet infinitely unlike, Poe’s ’Fall of the House of Usher’” (S 56)—not a very helpful comment, but one that suggests the underlying theme of both stories: the psychic fusion of a house and its occupant. Here the fusion is far more explicit than in Poe’s story, for the remote and forbidding house in the Orkneys where one Harfager dwells is constructed in an anomalous manner: a kind of clock periodically emits little lead balls, and a family legend tells that when all the balls are expelled the house and the family line will perish. Accordingly, Harfager has developed morbidly acute hearing as he harrowingly listens to the descending lead balls counting out the term of his life. This is an extraordinarily bizarre conception, fully matched by the telling of the tale: the atmosphere of topographical remoteness, with the small island constantly buffeted by storms, is matched by the mental agitation of Harfager and the other inhabitants of the doomed household; and the story culminates in a tremendously potent and cataclysmic conclusion. This conclusion displays both the virtues and the drawbacks of Shiel’s orotund style:
At one point, where the largest of the porticoes protruded, the mansion began at every revolution to bump with grum shudderings against some obstruction: it bumped, and while the lips said one-two-three it three times bumped again. It was the maenadism of mass! Swift—still swifter—in an ague of flurry it raced, every portico a sail to the gale, racking its great frame to fragments. I, running by the door to a room littered with the ruins of a wall, saw through that livid moonlight Harfager sitting on a tomb—a drum by him, upon which, with a club in his bloody fist, he feebly, but persistingly, beat. (73)
And so on and so forth.
Nothing else by Shiel, at least in the short form, comes close to matching this tale in power and intensity. “Huguenin’s Wife” deals with metempsychosis, as the wife of the title, after being murdered by her husband, returns as a cheetah; “The Great King” anticipates Dunsany’s play The Queen’s Enemies in treating of the Egyptian queen Nitocris, although in a supernatural vein; and “The Bride” deals hideously with a woman, cast aside by her lover, Walter, for her sister, who comes back from the dead on the couple’s wedding night and enters Walter’s bed.
Of Shiel’s many novels, only The House of Sounds (1901) is worth detailed study. Even this novel may be only on the borderline of the weird, and many have considered it a landmark work of apocalyptic science fiction, dealing as it does with the virtual extinction of humanity as a result of a a volcanic eruption that has released poison gas throughout the world. An explorer, Adam Jefferson (his first name is no accident), has managed to survive because he was at the North Pole at the time of the eruption; and as he canvasses the world in search of any surviving human life, he develops a spectacular megalomania as he realises that he is the effective ruler of the planet, able to indulge in the most extravagant cuisine (what is left of it) and the most gorgeous habitations at his will. He spends years in tasks that are both destructive and constructive: on the one hand he sets many of the world’s cities aflame, and on the other hand he constructs an immense building out of gold. Shiel has brilliantly captured the mental aberration that stems from Adam’s bizarre circumstance—for he believes himself the last man on earth.
Eventually Adam does stumble upon another living human being—a young woman whom Adam names Leda. Some critics, among them Lovecraft, believe that the novel suffers a letdown at this point, as in some senses it becomes a tale of domestic conflict in which Adam, after years of life alone, struggles to accommodate this other individual into his life; but in fact this section of the work replays the dichotomy of construction vs. destruction that was on display earlier in the text. It is perhaps a concession to popular taste that Shiel ultimately has Adam yield to Leda and begin the propagation of a new human race; but the manner in which this conclusion is reached is psychologically acute and powerfully dramatic.
Like “The House of Sounds,” The Purple Cloud was substantially rewritten and pruned down for a 1929 reprint: not only have 10,000 words of the 103,000-word original text been removed, but the revision has occurred on a sentence-by-sentence basis, with the result that the revised version does flow more easily. But there will always be those who, as with “Vaila,” prefer the earlier and more florid (or, to be more charitable, engagingly flamboyant) version.
The Purple Cloud appears to comprise a loose trilogy with two novels, The Lord of the Sea (1901) and The Last Miracle (1906), but these latter two are not weird in any meaningful sense. The unifying feature in them is apparently the existence of a kind of Nietzschean superman figure. Shiel also devised two peculiar detectives, Prince Zaleski (featured in the three stories in Prince Zaleski, 1895) and Cummings King Monk (featured in three stories in The Pale Ape). Most of Shiel’s other novels are mystery or adventure stories of a more or less eccentric cast. Shiel has always had a relatively tiny but devoted following that refuses to let his work die; and interest in his work has been augmented by H. P. Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for it, although its influence on Lovecraft’s own work is largely indirect.
Several writers of a slightly later period are worth consideration. W. F. Harvey (1885—1937) wrote a number of volumes of predominantly weird short stories, including Midnight House and Other Tales (1910), The Beast with Five Fingers and Other Tales (1928), Moods and Tenses (1933), and the posthumous Midnight Tales (1946). There is, frankly, nothing particularly distinctive about either Fryer’s selection of weird tropes or his handling of them, and many of his tales fall lamentably flat; but two or three are worth discussion. The most celebrated—justly so—is “The Beast with Five Fingers,” published in an early version in 1919 and revised for the 1928 collection. This story manages to tread the line between humour and horror in a delightful fashion. For the “beast” in question is nothing but a severed hand that is apparently possessed by the spirit of its dead owner—one Adrian Borslover, a blind man who had developed skill at automatic writing. Adrian’s nephew, Eustace, taking over the property upon Adrian’s death, finds himself plagued by the pestiferous appendage, which contrives to slide down banisters and do other surprising feats of prestidigitation. Even after the hand is nailed to a board, it manages to escape and eventually burn the house down. It is no surprise that the tale was very loosely adapted into a 1946 film (which, presumably, also triggered the story collection of that year), as the scenario works better visually than in print.
Harvey’s other celebrated tale, “August Heat” (1910), is something of a trick. Here an artist, James Clarence Withercroft, draws a sketch of an immensely black man on trial for murder—and is unable to determine why he has produced such a portrait, so out of keeping with his usual magazine artwork. Later he comes upon the very man—a mason who is chiselling (for an exhibition) a marble gravestone … with Withercroft’s name and life and death dates (the latter being that very day) on it. All this is highly contrived, and of course Withercroft’s plan to stay overnight with the mason in order to keep alive has the very opposite result.
There is otherwise little worth singling out in Harvey’s work. “Miss Cornelius” (1928) is a not uninteresting treatment of poltergeists; “The Tool” (1928) intriguingly melds psychological and supernatural horror in portraying a man who seems to have “lost” a day and begins to worry that he killed a man during that time; “Miss Avenal” (1928) is a predictable tale of a psychic vampire, where an old woman draws strength from her increasingly enfeebled nurse; and “Mrs. Ormerod” is a not ineffective conte cruel about a cook-housekeeper who dominates her various employers.
Of somewhat greater interest is Thomas Burke (1886—1945), much of whose bountiful work is of consuming interest for its lush and evocative prose, and a small proportion of which deals with supernatural and psychological terror. Some critics are fond of labelling Burke’s signature volume of tales, Limehouse Nights (1916), and its sequel, More Limehouse Nights (1921), as at least tangentially weird; but the very essence of these volumes is their grim realism, focusing as they do on the lives of the impoverished residents (many of them Chinese) in the Limehouse district of London. There may be a certain sentimentality in Burke’s treatment of his down-and-outers, and the tales are certainly full of murder, lust, and mayhem; but weird they are not.
In reality, Burke’s weird fiction is restricted almost entirely to the volume Night Pieces (1935), and even this volume is not exclusively weird. Its most celebrated tale—and a marvel it is, if perhaps only because of its novel narrative strategy—is “Johnson Looked Back,” a tour de force in second-person singular narration. Here Johnson finds himself being pursued by a blind man with no hands. There are only the faintest hints of what Johnson did to earn this loathsome pursuer (“And you know that it was your work that robbed him of his hands and left him to use his feet as hands” ); and it is perhaps no great surprise when the pursuer proves to be Johnson’s “other self” (107). As an adaptation of Poe’s “William Wilson” the tale is undoubtedly effective.
Some of Burke’s other tales are open to the same criticisms of excessive authorial trickery that we saw in Harvey’s “August Heat.” Consider “Miracle in Suburbia.” Here a man asks the protagonist, Joe, to take back a valuable Chinese goblet from another man, saying that he can provide Joe magical protection. He demonstrates it by cutting Joe’s wrist with a knife—but no wound appears. Sure enough, Joe engages in a fight with the man who has the goblet, the latter slitting Joe’s throat—but nothing happens. Later the man of magical powers dies—whereupon Joe’s throat suddenly opens up. (But then, why didn’t his wrist also reveal a cut?) The story is clever without being in the least profound.
Still more trickery can be detected in the sentimental story “Yesterday Street,” where a middle-aged man goes back to the street where he grew up along with his three best friends. He meets all three—they are still children. Only later does he learn that they (implausibly) all died the previous day. Another instance of benign supernaturalism is the touching tale “The Gracious Ghosts,” where the ghosts of a young couple appear in a house: they seem very much in love, and they are finally dispelled by the appearance of the living couple, now fifteen years later, who have now reconciled after a quarrel that separated them.
“The Black Courtyard” is another ingenious fusion of the psychological and the supernatural. A man who becomes obsessed with killing an old man for his money finds himself returning repeatedly to the courtyard where the old man lives. A doctor urges him to confront his fears by going to the courtyard. He does so—and kills the old man. He is thus relieved of his anxiety—but the police arrive the next day to arrest him.
Occasionally Burke is a trifle clumsy in his handling of supernatural phenomena. In “The Man Who Lost His Head,” a man wakes up with someone else’s face, which proves to be that of a murderer. He is unable to prove to the authorities that he is not in fact the murderer. But there is not the remotest explanation for why this transformation should have occurred, as there is in, say, de la Mare’s The Return. In “Events at Wayless-Wagtail” a man, Stern, has visions of a murder taking place in the future. He manages to track down the location of the future murder and prevent it from occurring; then, a year later, the potential murderer himself dies when he makes another attempt at killing his victim. This is not the first, nor the last, story to fall victim to the determinism paradox: If Stern had actually seen the vision, there is nothing he could have done to stop it (or, rather, any actions he took would only lead to the very fulfilment of the vision); if the act depicted in the vision, by whatever means, was thwarted, then Stern could not have seen it in the first place.
Next to “Johnson Looked Back,” “The Hollow Man” may be Burke’s most effective weird tale. A powerful evocation of horrors out of Africa, it tells of a man called Nameless who had killed one Gopak in Africa fifteen years earlier; but Gopak is revived by a Leopard Man and now seeks out Nameless—not to gain vengeance upon him, but to ask for his help. Initially, Nameless is unclear what kind of help Gopak wants; but at last he realises that Gopak wants Nameless to kill him again, so that he may finally achieve rest. The image of the decaying Gopak, sitting around Nameless’s house for weeks on end, is imperishable. As it is, it is quite obvious that Gopak is nothing but the externalisation of Nameless’s guilt at committing murder; indeed, he becomes fearful that his second killing of Gopak might bring down the punishment that he had evaded the first time, but Gopak’s body turns to dust when Nameless stabs him with a knife.
The work of John Metcalfe (1891—1965) is similarly flawed but interesting. The best of his work is contained in his collections The Smoking Leg and Other Stories (1925) and Judas and Other Stories (1931), although neither is exclusively weird. In general, Metcalfe employed venerable weird motifs, not always bringing much novelty or distinction to them: “The Smoking Leg” is the tale of a curse; “No Sin” is the tale of a love triangle, where a deceased wife manages (by way of a marble statue of her that a sculptor has fashioned) to kill her husband and his ward, whom she suspected of being in love. “Mr. Meldrum’s Mania” has an ingenious premise—a man feels, but does not see, a kind of snout projecting from his face, a “mania” that is traced to his seeing a picture of the ibis-headed Thoth as a child—but the execution is unsatisfactory: even though the appendage eventually becomes visible, the tale is so crippled by verbosity that the dénouement is anticlimactic. Lovecraft enjoyed “The Bad Lands,” chiefly because of his fondness for topographical horror; but Metcalfe never satisfactorily explains why the region in question is said to have the evil qualities that several characters sense in it.
Later work by Metcalfe is still more unsatisfactory. “Brenner’s Boy” (1932) is a celebrated ghost story about a misbehaving boy, but the exposition is confused and prolix. The Feasting Dead (1954) is an incredibly bad novella about a psychological vampire. It was published by August Derleth’s Arkham House, and Derleth regularly included stories by Metcalfe in later anthologies, even after Metcalfe’s death; but these tales amount to little.
Of the prodigious output of Sax Rohmer (pseudonym of Arthur Sarsfield Ward, 1883—1959) we are obliged to take some note. I say this reluctantly, because Rohmer is without question a third-rate hack whose popularity in his lifetime stemmed precisely from his ability to cater to relatively crude literary tastes. His most celebrated series of books, the Fu Manchu novels, are mercifully beyond the purview of this study, as they are strictly crime/suspense tales. Somewhat closer to the weird is The Dream-Detective (1920), featuring the psychic detective Morris Klaw. Even more pompous and insufferable than Flaxman Low, Thomas Carnacki, and other of his predecessors, Klaw boasts the power to visualise the last things seen by a dead man—a quality that conveniently allows him to solve the various cases in which he becomes involved. But in spite of this supernatural premise, the cases themselves are straight mysteries.
Rohmer wrote an abundance of stories in such collections as Tales of Secret Egypt (1918), The Haunting of Low Fennel (1920), Tales of Chinatown (1922), and Tales of East and West (1933), playing upon English-speaking readers’ purported fascination with exotic locales; but well under half of the stories are supernatural and still fewer are of any account. In Tales of Secret Egypt a number of stories are of the “explained supernatural” type, some of them reasonably clever. “Breath of Allah,” for example, features a character who sees a scream emerging from a man’s mouth—but it turns out that he has been drugged by a cloud of hashish. “Lord of the Jackals” not ineffectively combines weirdness and romance: the protagonist, a Frenchman named René de Flassans, falls in love with a twelve-year-old Bedouin girl (he assures us that “The Bedouin girl is a woman when a European woman is but a child” ); facing inevitable pursuit by her clan, he is saved by a wizard who, by singing a song, causes hundreds of jackals to emerge from their caves to protect the Frenchman. In “The Valley of the Sorceress” legions of cats continually rebury the partially excavated tomb of Queen Hatasu, reputed to have been a sorceress.
Tales of Chinatown contains the celebrated tale “Tchériapin,” but it is at best a mixed success. Here a painter, Colquhoun, kills the celebrated violinist Tchériapin for stealing his girl. Meanwhile, a chemist, Kreener, has devised a formula for rendering any vegetable or organic substance as hard as diamonds; and so he and Colquhoun subject the body of Tchériapin to this treatment—but since the formula does not work on dental enamel, they are obliged to pull his teeth first. But curiously, Tchériapin’s body is shrunk in the process to miniature size—in spite of the fact that other objects subject to the treatment were not so shrunk.
Of Rohmer’s many novels, Brood of the Witch-Queen (1918) has gained a certain cachet because of Lovecraft’s praise of it, but it is a very inferior work. It focuses on the figure of one Antony Ferrara, the adoptive son of a celebrated Egyptologist who performs various supernatural shenanigans in order to gain his foster-father’s estate. In the end it is revealed that Ferrara is in fact the offspring of a “witch-queen” of ancient Egypt. As a tale of Egyptian horror, the novel is much inferior to Marsh’s The Beetle or Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars—not that those works are stellar contributions to literature either. Other novels by Rohmer—The Quest of the Sacred Slipper (1919), The Green Eyes of Bast (1920), She Who Sleeps (1928), The Bat Flies Low (1935)—have various supernatural elements, but they amount to little. Rohmer’s work is so uniformly crude and mediocre that a little of it speaks for the whole.