Horror and Satire - Novelists, Satirists, and Poets - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

Horror and Satire
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Ambrose Bierce was perhaps the first writer of weird fiction to link horror and satire in a meaningful way: much of the horror engendered in his work is a direct product of his low view of humanity (a view, as I have argued, not precisely equivalent to full-throated misanthropy, although it can easily be mistaken for such); at a minimum, Bierce’s pungent satire of human folly, weakness, and hypocrisy add a sharp tang to the supernatural or psychological terror of his scenarios.

In the early twentieth century, three British writers appeared to follow Bierce’s example after a fashion, although there is no compelling evidence that any of them were directly influenced by him. If anything, all three made brilliant use of Poe’s theories of the short story in writing tales whose concentrated venom occasionally crossed the line into actual terror.

Burmese-born Hector Hugh Munro (1870—1916), who disguised himself under the pseudonym “Saki” (a word derived from the last stanza of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám), wrote hundreds of compact tales as well as three short novels and several plays before succumbing to an early death in World War I. Of the six collections of tales that he published in his lifetime, four—Reginald in Russia (1910), The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914), and The Toys of Peace (1919)—contain some horror content. Not all his horror stories are explicitly satirical: “Gabriel-Ernest” is a relatively straightforward tale of a boy who turns into a werewolf, while “The Music on the Hill” tells of a woman killed by Pan.

Saki’s chief claim to celebrity in horror fiction rests on two stories, “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Open Window.” Both are clever and amusing, but no more. The former deals with a ten-year-old boy, Conradin, who secretly keeps a “polecat-ferret” (137) in a disused toolshed; he names it Sredni Vashtar, and he comes both to fear and to worship the creature. On one occasion, his loathed guardian, Mrs. Kopp, goes into the shed, where the ferret kills her. Saki maintains a distinctively British reserve even in describing this grisly turn of events (“out through that doorway came a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat” [140]). In “The Open Window,” an impish fifteen-year-old girl tells a guest at her house that her aunt has been driven mad by the death of her husband and his two brothers, who died in a bog while hunting, and whom the aunt expects at any moment to return from the dead; sure enough, three men lumber in, driving the guest to flee. In fact, the girl has been pulling the guest’s leg. This climax should have been predicted by any astute reader, so the tale’s celebrity—and the frequency of its inclusion in horror anthologies—remains somewhat of a mystery.

A later story, “The Hedgehog,” is a kind of mirror-image of “The Open Window.” Here a psychic, staying at a country house, claims to have seen the ghost of a huge white hedgehog. The owners convince her it was a trick they engendered to bamboozle her: they do not wish to acknowledge the existence of a ghost, because it would give the house a bad reputation. And yet, while this outline suggests that, in contrast to “The Open Window” (where the supernatural is suggested but deflated), the supernatural is here proposed as “true” even if denied by the protagonists, there are hints in the narrative that the psychic’s vision of the hedgehog was in fact a hallucination.

That humour rather than horror was Saki’s dominant concern is made evident by any number of other stories, such as “The Peace of Mowsle Barton,” about witches in the English countryside; “Laura,” a comic treatment of the metempsychosis motif; and “Tobermory,” a tale of a talking cat. A recent collection, Sredni Vashtar: Sardonic Tales (2008), contains much that falls well outside the domain of weird fiction, and it must be confessed that Saki’s total contribution to the genre is slight.

One does not really know what to make of A. E. Coppard (1878—1957). While his many short stories—collected from as early as Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (1921) to as late as Lucy in Her Pink Jacket (1954)—are models of craftsmanship and piquant in style, they are somewhat of an acquired taste, and in a number of senses they are not entirely satisfactory from the perspective of weird fiction. Coppard’s weird tales were collected in one of the early Arkham House publications, Fearful Pleasures (1946), but their emphasis on pure fantasy, and their generally flippant tone, lessen their power as ventures into terror.

There is also a bit of authorial deception here and there. One of his most celebrated tales, “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me,” is subject to this criticism. Here we appear to be dealing with a man with the odd name Jaffa Codling who purportedly has an out-of-body experience, possibly also involving the future. But at the end it is announced that the man is named Gilbert and that he appears to have had a vision regarding the birth of his son. But if so, why was he named Jaffa Codling at the outset?

“Old Martin” seems to have promising weird elements, but Coppard’s treatment is very curious. Martin’s niece, Monica, dies, and he is beset by an old superstition that “The dead do not rest. The last-comer serves the lost souls” (55). How can Martin relieve Monica from fetching and carrying for the dead? Perhaps he should kill himself—but in doing so, he would have to disguise the fact of his suicide, as otherwise he would not be buried in the consecrated plot where Monica rests and therefore could not relieve her of her posthumous burden. Even more alarming, Martin learns that the churchyard in question is full, so that it appears that Monica will have to be a servant to the dead for all eternity. But later a parson dies and is buried beneath the pavement of the church; evidently, this is close enough to the churchyard that Monica is now relieved of her duties. The general morbidity of the scenario, and its appeal to primitive superstition, would seem to make this a prototypical weird tale; but Coppard’s narrative is, by design, entirely devoid of terror.

Much the same could be said of several other stories. “Polly Morgan” tells of a woman who wants a ghost to make love to her; when Polly’s niece drives the ghost away, it kills the niece’s fiancé. In “Ahoy, Sailor Boy!” a sailor meets a young woman in a small village in the evening. She claims she is a ghost, but he refuses to believe her, whereupon she sheds her clothes and disappears. Coppard is here explicitly playing on the notion that real ghosts cannot be wearing clothes, since that would imply the ghosts of clothing. The same idea is taken up in the whimsical, almost flippant story “The Kisstruck Bogie.”

The one story where Coppard focuses on terror is a masterful one. “Gone Away” tells of three British tourists, two men and a woman, in France. Bizarre events increasingly overtake them: first their car’s odometer goes haywire; when they come to a small town, one of them, Anson, vanishes when looking for a newspaper; then Mary Lavenham disappears while looking for Anson; then their car disappears while Mary’s husband, John, is being interrogated at the police station. Finally, in a spectacular climax, John himself disappears. This mad, irrational story builds splendidly to its grim climax, and one only wishes Coppard had engaged in this type of narrative more frequently.

Coppard is adept at non-supernatural horror as well, if the single instance of “The Gruesome Fit” is any gauge. Here a man who is terrified that he might one day commit a murder finds that he does that very thing, killing a tramp who had become a bit too annoying. He gains his just desserts when he sets fire to the house containing the body of the tramp, but crazily rushes back into it when set upon by charging cattle.

Coppard’s work is perhaps not satirical in the strictest sense, but the general tone of levity and pungent whimsy that characterises his work would seem to place him within the class of horrific satirists for lack of any better placement. In his introduction to Fearful Pleasures he unwittingly betrays some of his failings as a supernatural writer when he notes that, although “I have not the slightest belief in the supernatural,” he enjoys dipping into the mode on occasion, “for with its enchanting aid a writer can ignore problems of time and tide, probability, price, perspicuity, and sheer damn sense, and abandon himself to singular freedoms on the aery winds of the Never-was” (vii). Evidently he would not agree with L. P. Hartley’s wise dictum, in the introduction to Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book (1955), that in a weird tale “Chaos is not enough. Even ghosts must have rules and obey them” (viii).

Hartley (1895—1972) is, indeed, the most accomplished horrific satirist since Bierce, and his strong emphasis on both horror and satire gives his work a power and pungency far beyond that of Saki or Coppard. Like both these writers, Hartley produced a succession of distinguished story collections—Night Fears (1924), The Killing Bottle (1932), The Travelling Grave (1948), The White Wand (1954), Two for the River (1961), and Mrs. Carteret Receives (1971)—and, like Coppard, had a volume (The Travelling Grave) published by Arkham House. In a sense, of course, this short story work was a sideline in comparison to his distinguished mainstream novels—specifically, the “Eustace and Hilda” trilogy (1944—47) and The Go-Between (1953)—but his weird tales continue to be appreciated by those who value subtlety, and not a little covert malice, in favour of explicit bloodletting.

Weird themes claimed Hartley’s interest throughout his short-story writing career. Nearly half of his sixty-three (or more) stories are at least on the borderland of the weird, and some—notably “A Visitor from Down Under” and “The Travelling Grave”—are among the most distinguished and frequently reprinted horror tales of their time. And yet, it may have been from external encouragement that Hartley actually entered the realm of supernatural horror. Although a number of tales in Night Fears skirt the weird, it was not until Cynthia Asquith asked him to write an original story for The Ghost Book (1926) that Hartley produced an authentically supernatural story. This was “A Visitor from Down Under,” later collected in The Killing Bottle and The Travelling Grave. Other Hartley stories appeared in Asquith’s second (1952) and third (1955) Ghost Books as well (“W. S.” and “Someone in the Lift,” respectively); he also wrote “The Cotillon” for Asquith’s When Churchyards Yawn (1931).

I have already cited one element of Hartley’s theory of weird fiction, as discussed in his introduction to The Third Ghost Book. Another important point he makes there is his assertion that the modern ghost appears in many more forms than his chain-clanking predecessor. Hartley does not appear to have been entirely sympathetic to this extension of the ghost’s functions or manifestations, and he remarks a little wryly that “Now their liberties have been greatly extended; they can go anywhere, they can manifest themselves in scores of ways. Like women and other depressed classes, they have emancipated themselves from their disabilities” (viii). What this really means is that the ghost is now capable of appearing in a tale in such a way that we scarcely realise it is a ghost until the last moment; indeed, oftentimes the fact that a character is a ghost, and not an ordinary human being as we have up to that point assumed him to be, forms the climax of a Hartley tale. As he says in his introduction: “There must come a point, and it must strike the reader with a shock of surprise and horror, a tingling of the spine, at which we realise that he is not one of us” (viii—ix).

These basic principles—the manifestation of the weird as governed by some internally consistent set of “laws,” and extreme subtlety in the presentation of the supernatural—are all we need to understand the bulk of Hartley’s weird tales. Both his supernatural and his non-supernatural tales are much concerned with the analysis of aberrant mental states, and in many instances we are not certain until the very end whether the supernatural actually comes into play; in some tales this uncertainty is never resolved, nor is it intended to be.

The graveyard humour that Hartley can create when his characters talk at cross-purposes in some particularly hideous context is no better displayed than in his celebrated tale, “The Travelling Grave.” This is entirely non-supernatural, but pungent satire raises it to the level of horror. Richard Munt has developed a peculiar penchant for collecting coffins, but his friend Valentine Ostrop, one of the guests invited to spend a weekend with him, is unaware of this predilection, and by misunderstanding the dialogue of the other guests assumes that Munt collects baby perambulators. One can imagine the consequences. Valentine’s remark that “They perform at one time or another … an essential service for us all” (102) is particularly succulent.

A great many of Hartley’s weird tales are tales of supernatural revenge. This, I think, is what he meant when he said that the weird writer must “invent laws” for his supernatural phenomena. It is not enough to have a ghostly manifestation that serves no purpose; but if the ghost is on a mission to avenge some wrong, either against himself or against others, then the scenario gains that internal or aesthetic logic that satisfies the reader. It is remarkable how many of Hartley’s tales are of this one type; but he has rung enough changes on the theme in scene and atmosphere to produce a handful of weird masterpieces.

“A Visitor from Down Under” once again displays a macabre wit, this time in its punning title: the disheveled man who hunts down Mr. Rumbold in his elegant London hotel is indeed from Australia, but is also from some other place “down under.” The plot of this story is extremely simple—Rumbold has killed his colleague in Australia, presumably for gain, and the colleague comes back to avenge his murder—but the brilliance of the tale rests in the extraordinarily subtle manipulation of details and symbolism. Mr. Rumbold is seen lounging contentedly in his hotel, revelling in “his untroubled acceptance of the present and the future” (63). As he lapses into a doze, he seems to hear a radio programme in which a children’s game is being broadcast. This programme is narrated at anomalous length, and a number of peculiarities in the account finally make us realise that it is in fact a sort of dream or hallucination on Rumbold’s part; it is also prophetic, as it tells ingenuously of some horrible revenge about to take place. When the dead man arrives at the hotel, dripping icicles, he demands to see Rumbold; the latter tries to evade him, but finally throws caution to the winds and has the porter tell him: “’Mr. Rumbold wishes you to Hell, sir, where you belong, and says, “Come up if you dare!”’” (73). The outcome is inevitable, and the tale ends on one final hideous detail as seen by the porter in Rumbold’s room: “But what sickened him and kept him so long from going down to rouse the others was the sight of an icicle on the window-sill, a thin claw of ice curved like a Chinaman’s nail, with a bit of flesh sticking to it” (73).

One of Hartley’s most powerful tales of supernatural revenge is “Podolo.” Actually, doubt is retained to the end as to whether the supernatural comes into play: all we know is that something horrible has occurred. This exquisitely modulated story tells of an English couple, Angela and Walter, who wish to visit an uninhabited island, Podolo, off the coast of Venice. When they arrive, Angela comes upon a scrawny cat who has evidently been abandoned on the island. She immediately takes pity on the cat, feeds it some scraps of chicken, and tries to capture it to take it back with them. But the cat proves surprisingly feisty, refusing all Angela’s attempts to catch it. Frustrated, Angela makes a hideous resolve: “’if I can’t catch it I’ll kill it’” (77). Mario, the Italian boatman who took them to the island, remarks wistfully, “’She loves it so much … that she wants to kill it’” (78). No one can dissuade Angela from her twisted mission, but night falls as she scours the island alone hunting down the cat. Walter and Mario begin to worry about Angela, and then see some dark figure in the distance. Mario remarks: “’There is someone on the island … but it’s not the signora’” (80). Mario and Walter get out of the boat and explore the island; they find the crushed head of the cat, then one of Angela’s slippers. Mario, wandering off alone, finds Angela, apparently on the point of death. The tale ends in tantalising inconclusiveness: it is clear that the entity on all fours has avenged the death of the cat by killing Angela, but what is the nature of that entity? Is it human (but if so, how did it get to the island?—there is no other boat aside from Mario’s)? Is it some hideous Darwinian ape-thing? Hartley wisely refrains from resolving the issue.

Another fine tale is “Fall In at the Double,” a grim narrative of ghostly soldiers who, in life, took revenge on their cruel colonel. “The Two Vaynes” is interesting in being a sort of pseudo-Doppelgänger tale in which a statue appears to exact vengeance on its creator.

A number of Hartley’s best tales are so unclassifiable that they must be placed in the weird only by default. Here the supernatural may or may not come into play, and yet the stories develop such an atmosphere of the bizarre that they present an excellent case for the extension of the weird to encompass tales of psychological terror. “Night Fears” is among the best of these. Here a night watchman encounters a strange derelict who repeatedly torments him about the disadvantages of this type of work: the pay is bad, it is difficult to sleep in the daytime (“’Makes a man ill, mad sometimes. People have done themselves in sooner than stand the torture’” [227]), you don’t get to see much of your children, you don’t know what your wife is doing (“’You leave her pretty much to herself, don’t you? Now with these women, you know, that’s a risk’” [228]). The pacing of the story is masterful, and it may be a textbook instance of the conte cruel. While there is gruesome physical horror here—the derelict ultimately kills the night watchman and leaves him dead at his post—Hartley also manages to leave the subtlest hint that the derelict himself is some otherworldly creature.

Other Hartley stories are perhaps too nebulous for detailed analysis: “Home, Sweet Home,” a strange, dreamlike tale that tells of a couple who return to their long-deserted home and find the ghosts of disturbed children who had been interred there; “The Shadow on the Wall,” perhaps a conscious nod to the story of a similar title by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman, in which a woman has a peculiar encounter in her bath with a man who may be a ghost; “Conrad and the Dragon,” a twisted fairy tale; “Feet Foremost” and “Monkshood Manor,” stories of supernatural curses; “Three, or Four, for Dinner,” a somewhat obvious tale of a man who returns from the dead; and several others. All these tales, some more effective than others, testify to Hartley’s pervasive interest in the weird, an interest that must be regarded as central to his entire literary work.

The virtues of Hartley’s weird fiction, as of his work as a whole, speak for themselves: a polished, fluid, exquisitely restrained style; an attention to fine nuances of character portrayal; a penetrating awareness of the psychological impact of the weird upon human consciousness; and an elegant nastiness that only the British seem capable of getting away with. Hartley’s actual weird scenarios are on the whole very simple, but are narrated with such oblique subtlety, and with such attention to atmospheric tensity, that many can stand as models of weird writing.

One should probably discuss here The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935), by the American writer Charles G. Finney (1905—1984). This highly eccentric short novel tells a simple story: a strange circus run by a Chinese man, Dr. Lao (who speaks alternately in perfect English and grotesque pseudo-Chinese pidgin English), comes to the (imaginary) town of Abalone, Arizona, and proves moderately engaging to the local denizens. The novel is peculiarly static—not much happens except that some of the more unusual exhibits (a unicorn, a sphinx, a satyr, a gorgon, Apollonius of Tyana, a mermaid, a chimera, and so forth) engage in amusing dialogues with the locals, providing fleeting glimpses of their history. Toward the end, Apollonius summons a witches’ sabbath during which Satan appears.

The overall satirical thrust of The Circus of Dr. Lao is difficult to specify. The most one can say is that it is a satire on the average American’s stolid indifference to fantasy and wonder, since the Arizonans are only mildly surprised at the exhibits, nearly all of which constitute stupendous violations of natural law and a recrudescence of ancient myth into the modern world. Apollonius, in speaking to a widow and predicting a dismal future of loneliness and frustration for her, utters a pungent barb—“I cannot fathom your place in life’s economy” (85)—that perhaps sums up the novel’s scorn of bourgois mediocrity.