Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The Horror Novel
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
One interesting development during this period is the seemingly sudden re-emergence of the horror novel as a viable aesthetic venue. This tendency does not necessarily contradict the general predominance of the short story as the preferred vehicle for expressing supernatural terror, but could instead be seen as an expansion of the overall genre to incorporate scenarios complex and substantial enough to require the novel for proper execution. There is not much evidence that the recrudescence of the horror novel was in any way a return to the outmoded Gothicism of a century earlier, since those Gothic novels had largely been forgotten and their aesthetic shortcomings plainly evident. The fact that many of the current batch of novels were compact, tightly written works suggests that they are in large part merely expanded short stories.
Hodgson’s work quickly fell into obscurity following his death, and there is little suggestion that he exerted much of an influence on his successors until at least the 1930s. One early and, until very recently, utterly forgotten work that may betray Hodgson influence is The Hole of the Pit (1914) by British writer Adrian Ross (pseudonym of Adrian Reed Ropes, 1859—1933). Ross was actually a popular writer of musical theatre, but his one novel (dedicated to M. R. James) seems distinctly Hodgsonian, both in its sound imitation of seventeenth-century prose (as opposed to the botched archaism of The Night Land) and in its evocation of horrors from the sea. The Hole of the Pit tells of a strange slimy creature that dwells in a marsh near a castle, victimising a small band of Royalists (the novel is set in 1645) who are defending themselves against a siege by an army of Roundheads during the English Civil War. The archaic diction is flawless, the characters fully realised, and the horror kept in the distance until the very end. And yet, the book was forgotten until Ramsey Campbell reprinted it in his anthology Uncanny Banquet (1992).
Arthur Ransome (1884—1967) attained celebrity by a series of children’s books—including Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916), Swallows and Amazons (1930), and Peter Duck (1932)—that featured liberal doses of fantasy. As a literary critic he attained prominence with such works as Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Study (1910) and Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912). His one excursion into supernatural horror, The Elixir of Life (1915), is by no means to be despised, although until its recent reprinting it was a work of extreme rarity. The basic theme is, of course, rather venerable and speaks of the continuing if attenuated strength of motifs derived from the Gothic novels of a century or more before. Ransome’s baleful hero-villain, Killigrew, poignantly records in his diary his gradual moral corruption as he continues to seek eternal youth—something that can only be achieved by murder.
Of the two werewolf novels written during this period, only one deserves extended discussion. The Door of the Unreal (1919) by Gerald Biss (1876—1922), a British journalist and crime writer, is so drearily mediocre that one is left baffled by Lovecraft’s relatively cordial assessment of it. Much superior is The Thing in the Woods (1913/1924) by “Harper Williams.” Perhaps the most interesting thing about this work is the author herself. Harper Williams is the pseudonym of British writer Margery Williams Bianco (1881—1944), who like Ransome also wrote several popular works for children. The novel was published in England in 1913 under the name Margery Williams and, in slightly revised form, in the United States in 1924 under the name Harper Williams. In spite of the author’s English background, The Thing in the Woods is set in rural Pennsylvania and vividly evokes both the chilling remoteness of the setting and the complex interplay of emotions involved in the case of two half-brothers, one of whom is a werewolf.
Two short novels by Americans—Sinister House (1919) by Leland Hall (1883—1957) and The Thing from the Lake (1921) by Eleanor M. Ingram (1886—1921)—are worth more than passing notice. Sinister House, set in upstate New York and dealing with ghostly phenomena surrounding a lonely house, has some fine moments of supernatural terror but is on the whole thin and unsubstantial. The Thing from the Lake appears a striking anticipation of Lovecraft’s extraterrestrial monsters in its depiction of an entity in a lake that appears to have come from another dimension; but the resemblances are far fewer than they appear on the surface. The cause of the supernatural manifestions proves to be an eighteenth-century witch named Desire Michell who summoned the entity in a spirit of vengeance, and who is again evoked by her present-day namesake.
Two substantial novels by British writers appeared in the mid-1920s. Cold Harbour (1924) by popular writer Francis Brett Young (1884—1954) suggests the supernatural but ultimately resolves naturalistically. The novel is focused on Humphrey Furnival, a domineering and sinister man who lives at a house in the Midlands called Cold Harbour. The house is reputedly haunted, and many of its inhabitants or guests—including Furnival’s wife, Jane, and her various relatives—have witnessed bizarre phenomena (bloodstains, dead bodies on the floor, etc.). There is some suggestion that sinister forces may lurk in the house as a result of its construction upon Roman foundations. Ultimately, it is learned that Furnival’s powers of hypnosis have engendered the “supernatural” phenomena in the minds of those who witnessed them in Cold Harbour. The novel’s weird atmosphere, up to the time it is dissipated by the naturalistic explanation, is impressive, but it is never clarified why Furnival is undertaking his hypnotic experiments.
The Remedy (1925), by H. B. Drake (1894—1963), better known under its American title, The Shadowy Thing (1928), has been both lauded and condemned; but on the whole it is a substantial work in spite of awkwardnesses in prose and narration. It is one of the finest stories of personality exchange, although inferior in this regard to Barry Pain’s An Exchange of Souls (1911). A man, Avery Booth, reveals powers of hypnosis to such a degree that he can oust the mind or personality from the body of another person’s body and occupy it. Booth appears to do just that, possessing a weak-willed schoolmate, Gaveston, who is confined in an insane asylum as a result of his aberrant behavior. Moreover, Booth’s powers appear to extend beyond the grave: although apparently killed during World War I, his personality seems to survives and to oust the body of another soldier who has himself been horribly maimed. Although weighed down by verbosity and an extraneous romance element, The Shadowy Thing is an able supernatural novel.
Two novels by the American Leonard Cline (1893—1929) are of considerable interest. Some rank his first novel, God Head (1925), as his greatest weird tale; but, firstly, it is weird only indirectly, dealing with a man’s quest for immortality by ruthless domination of others, and, secondly, its reliance on Finnish myth as found in the Kalevala renders it more than a little esoteric—a feature augmented by Cline’s rather recherché and faintly pretentious prose style.
There is no reason to doubt that Cline’s premier novel, and contribution to the weird, is The Dark Chamber (1927). Immortality of a sort is also at the core of this work, as a man, Richard Price, seeks to preserve his entire past by the compulsive setting down of every memory he can recall, with the result that he erects an immense library or archive containing thousands or millions of documents. In the process, Price resorts to the use of drugs, music, and other stimulants to aid in his recovery of memory; and, fascinatingly, he begins to experience hereditary memory—memory of the lives of his remotest ancestors. As such, he begins a reversal along the evolutionary scale, to such an extent that his own dog, Tod (German for “death,” as anyone with elementary linguistic knowledge will have deduced), kills him at the end. The powerful conceptions in this novel, harnessed in this case with a prose style of unmatched elegance and suppleness, will cause The Dark Chamber to remain a permanent contribution to the weird. Cline’s own fate, however, was less happy: a month before the publication of the novel, he was convicted of manslaughter and spent a year in jail, dying of heart failure shortly after he was released.
Skirting the supernatural but powerfully suggesting it is The Place Called Dagon (1927) by Herbert Gorman (1893—1954), an American novelist and biographer who wrote the first book on James Joyce. Gorman’s novel is set in a rustic locale in central Massachusetts and centers on a strange individual named Jeffrey Westcott, a student of the occult. Westcott is fascinated by “the place called Dagon,” which turns out to be a valley deep in the woods where the bones of the Salem witches were buried by relatives who settled there from Salem; he believes it has power to evoke the “old gods” if a proper ritual be enacted there. This ritual, involving the sacrifice of a virgin, is interrupted, and Westcott later dies in a fire. The supernatural may not actually come into play, but there are enough suggestions of it to make The Place Called Dagon a substantial contribution to supernatural literature, especially in its powerful evocations of the ancient Puritan heritage of the region, its crisply realised characters, and its skilfully handled climax.
Leading British critic and novelist J. B. Priestley (1894—1984) surprisingly contributed to weird fiction with Benighted (1927), published the following year as The Old Dark House and filmed by James Whale in 1932 under that title. The focal character of the novel appears to be Sir Roderick Fenn, who has been portrayed as a half-mad invalid confined to his room, but the true villain turns out to be his entirely insane brother Saul. Saul finally emerges, threatening to set fire to the house; but he is stopped by others from doing so. The novel simultaneously etches the postwar sentiment of decadent nihilism in England along with an atmosphere of weirdness.
Two novels by E. H. Visiak (1878—1972) are studies in contrasts—both in quality and in subject-matter. I wish to study the second, Medusa (1929), before the first, The Haunted Island (1910), because the former strikingly and dismayingly exhibits flaws that the latter avoids. Medusa has gained cachet as a lost classic of supernatural literature, but it is in fact quite mediocre. Large portions of it babble on tediously to no purpose, and when the novel’s purported subject finally gets underway, almost at the very end, the reader’s patience has already been exhausted. The premise of the work is the voyage undertaken by one Huxtable to find his son. It takes considerable verbiage to establish that this son was kidnapped by pirates in the area of China and held hostage; Huxtable, who was also on the ship, was allowed to return to England to raise a ransom. At long last Huxtable’s ship comes into contact with the pirate ship—but it is deserted. Later it is discovered that a “little plump man” (175) still survives on the ship—he is the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Vertembrex. All of a sudden a monster appears: “’Twas squat and shaggy dark, having prodigious great limbs and hands and feet, that were webbed as a fish’s fins, or a manatee’s flappers; but his face, with its dwindled high peaked forehead, and great globular black glistering eyes, was like to that dreadful apparition I vaguely beheld three several times before, in manner related and described” (188). This monster promptly jumps overboard. Finally the sailors come to a strange island whose most prominent characteristic is an immense pillar of black rock; more monsters appear, and they take the narrator, Will Harvell, into an underground chasm, from which he finally emerges after glimpsing yet another immense creature of undetermined sort. That is how the novel ends: there is not the slightest shred of explanation of any of the weird phenomena, nor is Huxtable’s son ever recovered.
Medusa may well have been an ill-conceived attempt to rewrite The Haunted Island, for the latter features many of the same details; but in this case the narrative is much more concise and compelling, for Visiak never fails to keep the putatively supernatural premise—an island that is haunted by a monster that is guarding a treasure of immense value—in the forefront of the reader’s mind while writing a thrilling sea-adventure story about the efforts of two brothers, Francis and Dick Clayton, to reach the baleful place. Even though the supernatural premise—the appearance of an immense human figure as the haunted island comes into view—is ultimately dissipated (the figure proves to be an enormous face carved on a high rock), the narrative has by this point picked up such force that the reader’s interest is maintained. The subtitle of this compact little work, “A Pirate Romance,” would seem to make it ripe for reprinting in an age in which pirates, both real and fictional, have surprisingly returned to public attention.
Of the delicate novel The Lady Who Came to Stay (1931) by American writer R. E. Spencer (1896—1956) it is difficult to speak without superlatives. The “lady” of the title is Katherine (no surnames are provided for any characters), who with her young daughter Mary comes to stay with her four sisters-in-law, Phoebe, the twins Lucia and Emma, and Milly, after the death of her husband. Dying of illness after protesting the mistreatment of her daughter, Katherine becomes a ghost who “stays” in the house far longer than her living form; indeed, she causes the death of the evil Phoebe, who had hated her. Ten years later a young man, Richard, seeking convalescence, senses Phoebe’s ghostly presence in her old room. He marries Mary and six years later they are forced to leave their young child, Dicky, in the house alone. He senses both Phoebe’s presence and Katherine’s, as the latter struggles to protect her grandson from the harm that Phoebe seeks to cause him. Emma herself dies while protecting Dicky, and she too manifests her ghostly self to Lucia, now alone in the house. Lucia finds that the only way to foil Phoebe’s continuing plans to destroy Mary’s family is to set the house on fire; she does so, dying in the process. The novel is clearly inspired by Henry James’s careful dissection of every nuance of character and emotion.
Some note should be taken of American novelist Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933), although it is not quite as good as its devotees suggest. Somewhat rambling and unfocused, the novel purports to identify the origin of werewolves—or, at least, of one particular werewolf, Bertrand Caillet—in the acts of his remote forbears. His mother, an orphan named Josephine, was raped when she was a teenager by a corrupt priest, Father Pitamont; but this act itself was only the proximate cause of Caillet’s lycanthropy, which goes back several centuries to an earlier Pitamont who had been trapped in a dungeon and forced to eat raw meat. All this is an interesting adaptation of conventional Gothic motifs, and Endore augments the sociological significance of the novel by setting its central scenes in the Franco-Prussian War and its aftermath, suggesting that the horrors of war far eclipse the random depredations of his werewolf, who repeatedly regrets his loathsome condition and strives valiantly, but usually in vain, to battle against it. At times the novel—based on the real case of Sergeant Bertrand, a Frenchman who was convicted of graverobbing and mutilation of corpses in the 1850s—reads like a poor translation from the French, but it does manage to develop a certain cumulative power toward the end. On the whole, however, it is by no means superior to Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf on purely aesthetic grounds.