Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Horror and the Mainstream
Novelists, Satirists, and Poets
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
In the nineteenth century, such distinguished practitioners of mainstream literature as Charles Dickens and Henry James dabbled occasionally in the weird. This tendency continued in the first decades of the twentieth century, where a host of writers chiefly known for their ventures into social or psychological realism found occasion to employ the supernatural to convey some conceptions beyond the bounds of mimetic realism.
Possibly inspired by the example of Henry James, William Dean Howells (1837—1920) produced two volumes of weird stories, Questionable Shapes (1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907). But the element of terror, or even the supernatural, in these stories is so attenuated—and, more significantly, so subordinated to the exploration of social and psychological niceties—that the overall effect is a kind of pale-pink weirdness entirely in keeping with the era in which they were written. Like many mainstream writers, Howells merely uses terror and the supernatural—in these cases, ghosts or the fear of death—as springboards for the study of character. As examples of weird fiction, these tales amount to little. Another distinguished American novelist, Theodore Dreiser, published a volume misleadingly titled Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916), but there is no supernaturalism or even terror in these largely political plays.
A very different American writer, Jack London (1876—1916), danced around the supernatural in a number of works but did not actually engage in it, with the possible exception of one or two minor stories. Some of London’s tales have rightly been seen as foreshadowings of science fiction, but it would seem that his predominantly realistic temperament prohibited him from venturing into the supernatural. Such grim tales as “To Build a Fire” (1902/1908) and “A Piece of Steak” (1909) have sometimes been included in anthologies of horror fiction, but their chief virtue is the chillingly realistic treatment of human endeavour at its extremes, and the supernatural has no place in them.
The relatively early tale “Even unto Death” (1900) may be typical of London’s inexperience in handling the supernatural, as it is an unoriginal supernatural revenge story of a dead man who returns to exact vengeance on a faithless fiancée. “Planchette” (1906) is interesting in reflecting contemporary interest in spiritualism, as the item in question—a device used to generate automatic writing—appears to produce genuine messages from the deceased parents of Lute Story, both of them pertaining to her fiancé, Chris Dunbar. Although Dunbar himself argues strenuously for the psychological origin of these messages, the implication that they in fact emerged from the dead parents is strong. The tale is, however, weakened by prolixity.
Some of London’s proto-science fiction tales border on the weird, although there is no great emphasis on the element of terror. “A Thousand Deaths” (1899) tells of a man whose own father has devised a means for reviving from death and compels his son to die many deaths—by poisoning, suffocation, and far more dreadful means—so that he can revive him and thereby prove the validity of his invention. “The Red One” (1916)—based on a plot by London’s friend, the poet George Sterling (1869—1926), who apparently also wrote some of the prose—tells fascinatingly of an immense red sphere from outer space that is apparently the herald of an extraterrestrial race.
One of London’s novels, Before Adam (1906), may be worth considering. It is a compelling tale of hereditary memory, in which a man of the present has dreams of the life of his remote ancestor in primitive times. The same plot was used in the later story “When the World Was Young” (1910).
Several other novelists of social realism produced the occasional supernatural or horrific novel in the early twentieth century. W. Somerset Maugham (1874—1965) admitted that the central character of his novel The Magician (1908), Oliver Haddo, was based upon the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley, whom he had met sporadically during his years in Paris in the early twentieth century. In the novel, Haddo, a fat, repulsive, but strangely compelling figure, is thought to be conducting strange experiments involving the creation of life from dead matter: he had often spoken of how the mediaeval alchemists had come close to, and perhaps stumbled upon, the creation of homunculi. The protagonists later find hideous evidence of these experiments. Crowley wrote a scathing review of the book in the London Vanity Fair (30 December 1908).
Of Crowley (1875—1947) himself there is little need to speak in detail. He continues to attract a following among occultists, probably because they secretly wish they had the courage to follow him in his amoral and hedonistic indulging in sex, drugs, and occasional torture; but, if nothing else, he represents the culmination of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century interest in occultism and spiritualism—a movement directly engendered by the monumental advances in human knowledge effected by the scientists of the period, which to many weak minds represented a diminution of the wonder and mystery of the universe. We have already seen that Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, in their varying ways, subscribed to this idea, and it is no surprise that both of them, along with Crowley, were for a time members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the most celebrated of the numerous spiritualist or occultist organisations of the period.
Of Crowley’s own fleeting ventures into weird fiction it is best to pass over in merciful silence. The three tales in The Stratagem and Other Stories (1929) amount to little, although the long story “The Testament of Magdalen Blair” (1912) is a moderately interesting excursion into sadism; and the novel Moonchild (1917) is really nothing more than a lightly fictionalised treatise about his own theory and practice of Black Magic.
Arnold Bennett (1867—1931), best known for novels and plays that keenly dissected class-bound British society and investigated the influence of history and landscape on the development of character, wrote two novels in quick succession, one before and one after his most celebrated novel, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). The Ghost (1907)—its title says it all, as it deals with the ghost of a dead lover—is frankly a potboiler and lacks the careful attention to character and topography typical of Bennett’s other work. The Glimpse (1909)—an elaboration of a short story of the same title (New Age, 4 November 1909)—is a very different proposition. A writer on music, Morrice Loring, suffers a heart attack and appears to die. His soul leaves his body and experiences the wonders of the afterlife: it sees thoughts as different colors emerging from bodies, it communes with other souls, and—in a scenario somewhat reminiscent of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), although it is unlikely that Bennett was actually influenced by that work—it somehow traverses the universe and gains a comprehension of the very origin of all entity. Morrice’s soul is about to experience some further revelation (the “glimpse” of the title) when it is abruptly summoned back into his body: Morrice had only undergone what would later be termed a near-death experience. In the final chapters of the book Morrice tells of his mental transformation now that he is aware of what awaits the soul after death. A serious, poignant work, with finely drawn characters and a keen sense of the complexity of human emotion, The Glimpse can take its place as an unusual contribution to the literature of the cosmic.
It is curious that the more advanced novelists of the period—especially those of the Modernist movement of the 1920s—generally fared more poorly in the writing of supernatural or horrific work than their more stodgy compeers in social realism. Take the case of E. M. Forster (1879—1970). In his two short story collections, The Celestial Omnibus (1911) and The Eternal Moment (1928), there is in fact only a single story—“The Story of a Panic,” the opening story in the former volume—that can be considered genuinely supernatural. It is, indeed, a fine specimen, telling of a teenage English boy vacationing in Italy who is evidently possessed by the spirit of Pan and therefore becomes transformed, behaving with the natural freedom of an animal and scorning the hidebound social conventions of his fellow English tourists. The story is not notably subtle, as the underlying theme is hammered home again and again. Other stories in the two collections are either whimsical fantasies or narratives that draw even more explicitly upon Greek myth, but not in a way that renders them genuinely horrific. “The Machine Stops” is an interesting riposte to the science fiction of H. G. Wells.
Violet Hunt’s Tales of the Uneasy (1911) is almost a textbook for the failings of a mainstream writer in attempting to generate supernatural menace. Hunt (1862—1942) was one of the most literarily well-connected writers in English literature, graduating from her early involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde to such notables as Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, and Rebecca West. But for all her elegance of diction and sharpness of observation, not a single one of her purportedly weird tales is a success. “The Operation” tells of the symbiotic relationship between two women, one of whom had stolen the husband of the other, but the overall effect is marred by prolixity. The premise of “The Prayer” would seem to be promising: a woman whose husband died a year after their marriage had uttered a prayer that he come back to life, and he does; but he is quite literally “a walking funeral” (117), lacking the vigour and spirit he possessed in life. But the atmosphere of the story is more of melancholy than terror.
Hunt’s most celebrated weird tale is “The Coach,” but this story is more a parable, even an allegory, than a work of supernatural horror. As the narrative unfolds, it quickly becomes evident that the coach in question is picking up the recently dead, and in the course of the tale they simply tell of their lives and deaths in a more or less undistinguished manner. Hunt lets out the secret so early in the game (as in her reference to “the Coach of Death” ) that no suspense or terror can attach to the events she is relating. As for “The Witness,” it is a not incompetent tale of psychological horror, as a woman who had stolen the husband of another and who then killed her is overcome with terror of her new spouse’s dog, who had witnessed the dreadful proceedings. Hunt wrote a second collection, More Tales of the Uneasy (1925), but there are no supernatural specimens in it.
As for “The Haunted House” (1921) by Virginia Woolf (1882—1941), it is a more or less inscrutable tale of a ghostly couple who recall their past life in the house in which they dwelt. This extremely brief narrative is effectively impressionistic in the telling, but its overall effect is ephemeral.
Much the same can be said of the occasional weird work of Elizabeth Bowen (1899—1973), confined to about a half-dozen to a dozen of her short stories. No one is likely to dispute the high artistry of Bowen’s writing as a whole; but there is a serious question as to whether she ever intended to terrify her readers even in those scenarios that might suggest the horrific. Only three of her tales need to be discussed. “Telling” (1927) speaks of a young man who kills a woman but who is regarded as so ineffectual that no one believes him when he confesses the crime. As a psychological case study it is of some interest. “The Cat Jumps” (1929) is a disappointingly crude story of a couple influenced by the spirit of the previous occupant of a house, a murderer; as with Virginia Woolf’s “The Haunted House,” the frequency with which this tale has been included in horror anthologies only points to editors’ desire to elevate the tenor of their selections with the inclusion of some standard writer from the mainstream. The only tale of Bowen’s that genuinely inspires fear—and it indeed does so effectively—is “The Demon Lover” (1941), where a whiff of supernaturalism is strong in the account of a woman whose dead lover—he perished in the first world war—comes back to her twenty-five years later in the form of the driver of a taxicab:
The driver braked to what was almost a stop, turned round and slid the glass panel back: the jolt of this flung Mrs Drover forward till her face was almost into the glass. Through the aperture driver and passenger, not six inches between them, remained for an eternity eye to eye. Mrs Drover’s mouth hung open for some seconds before she could issue her first scream. After that she continued to scream freely and to beat with her gloved hands on the glass all round as the taxi, accelerating without mercy, made off with her into the hinterland of deserted streets. (666)
Not bad—but even here Bowen’s overriding concern with reticence and elegance of diction mutes what could have been a powerfully horrific moment. Bowen was encouraged by Cynthia Asquith to contribute to several of the latter’s original anthologies of horror tales, and she even wrote the introduction to The Second Ghost Book (1952), in which she speaks interestingly of how “ghosts have grown up” (vii) in the modern age; but her own biases are revealed when she remarks that “Almost all the ghosts in these stories build themselves up out of the neuroses of those who see them” (ix) and that “the world of the ghost should inspire, when it impacts on our own, not so much revulsion or shock as a sort of awe” (ix).
The weird work of Hugh Walpole (1884—1941) is also generally disappointing, chiefly because of its lack of imaginative innovation. A sizeable volume of his supernatural tales, Tarnhelm (2003), has appeared, consisting chiefly of stories from such of his collections as The Silver Thorn (1928) and All Souls’ Night (1933); the tales range from 1913 to 1948, bespeaking a pervasive interest in terror, but very few items are in any way notable. Perhaps the best of the lot is “The Silver Mask” (1932), an effective conte cruel in which a beggar, with a wife and baby, insidiously ingratiates himself into the life of a lonely middle-aged woman, Sonia Herries, and eventually takes over her house and assets. The tale keenly etches the woman’s weakness and desperate need to feel useful. Otherwise, we have such specimens as “Tarnhelm” (1929), an obvious and telegraphed tale of a shape-changer; “The Little Ghost” (1922), a reasonably effective story about a man who takes pity on the ghost of a little girl who is frightened by the noisy children in the house she used to occupy; “Mrs. Lunt” (1927), an unremarkable tale of a vengeful ghost; and “The Tiger” (in The Silver Thorn), a curious tale about an Englishman in New York City who is terrified at the appearance of a tiger that he sees repeatedly and thinks will pounce on him (evidently the tiger symbolizes the speed and danger of the big city). “The Snow” (1929) is worth a little more consideration: a powerful and intense tale of marital discord, its scenario of a second wife being overwhelmed by the ghost of the first wife appears to symbolize the husband’s inability to overcome the loss of his first spouse.
Walpole’s novel Portrait of a Man with Red Hair (1925) has sometimes been regarded as a horror novel, but it is really an adventure story about a man who seeks to rescue a young woman who is being terrorised by her father-in-law, the “man with red hair” of the title. There are some interesting passages in which the red-haired man expounds a kind of philosophy of sadism, but that is as close to terror as we get.
Much more powerful and skilled in mingling mainstream and weird motifs is May Sinclair (1863—1946), whose two collections of supernatural tales, Uncanny Stories (1923) and The Intercessor and Other Stories (1931), contain much good work. Sinclair’s family life cannot be said to have been happy: her father suffered from bankruptcy and alcoholism, some of her five brothers died when she was in her teens or twenties (several of them had a congenital heart defect), and she herself never married. This last fact may or may not be of some significance in the assessment of her weird work; for much of it relies on the evocation of a horror of sex—or, at the very least, of what is perceived as sexual irregularity.
Consider the most effective tale in Uncanny Stories, “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched.” This remarkably potent item tells the compact story of some thirty-five years of a woman’s life, as she successively faces various disappointments in love—but after her death, she continually revisits those sites that were associated with her brief involvement with a married man with whom she had had an affair when she was thirty-two. This is, of course, her hell, as evoked in the biblical allusion in the title (“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched”: Mark 9:44, 46, 48)—but the “fire” could also refer to the unholy fire of immoral sexuality. This may be a somewhat curious attitude for one who associated with such daring modernists as Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot—but Sinclair was born in the height of the Victorian era, and no doubt her sexual attitudes were shaped early in life both by her cultural milieu and by her troubled family life.
Various elements of sexuality also appear in other tales in Uncanny Stories, such as “The Token” (where a wife comes back from the dead to make sure that her husband truly loved her); “If the Dead Knew” (where a man feels remorse for wishing his mother dead so that he could have money to marry; when she does die and he marries, he is unable to have sex with his wife because he senses his mother’s presence); and “The Nature of the Evidence” (a rather crudely executed tale of a man’s first wife who prevents her husband from becoming intimate with his second wife). The long story “The Flaw in the Crystal” also indirectly addresses this same issue. Here a woman, Agatha Verrall, has gained some kind of healing power and finds that she can heal Harding Powell, the husband of a close friend; but in so doing she loses her hold on Rodney Lanyon, a married man to whom she is attracted and who clearly wants to commit adultery with her. When Agatha relinquishes her healing power over Harding, he immediately falls ill again. The whole story is a bit long-winded and nebulous, for the exact nature and parameters of Agatha’s healing power is never satisfactorily addressed.
“The Intercessor” (1911) should probably have been included in Sinclair’s earlier volume, for it may have been the first of her weird tales; but for some reason it was postponed until her second. It is indeed a powerful story about the ghost of a little girl who, having been denied love from her own mother, perpetually haunts the mother’s house, banging pitiably on the door of her bedroom to be let in. Garvin, a local historian staying with the family, acts as the intercessor between the ghost and the mother, seeking to overcome her fear and receive the ghost, which only wants love. It is a touching story, but also goes on a bit too long. Moreover, Sinclair’s psychological analysis of the characters is a bit too cold and clinical to be genuinely moving; in this sense the story as a whole is markedly inferior to Robert Hichens’s “The Cry of the Child,” which similarly seeks—successfully—to evoke pathos and horror at the notion of a love-deprived child. The other stories in The Intercessor can be dealt with quickly: “The Mahatma’s Story” is a tale of metempsychosis, as an Indian guru manages somehow to switch the souls of two rival painters; but this is a makeshift ploy to study the interpersonal conflicts of the painters and their wives. “Heaven” is a clever story of a man who seems to have ended up in a very peculiar and not particularly appealing heaven; it transpires that he is only in the heaven envisioned by his domineering mother. “The Villa Désirée” is one more instance of Sinclair’s apparent horror of sex. Mildred Eve is staying at the villa of her fiancé, Louis Carson, whose first wife died on their wedding night. At one point she senses a presence in the bedroom—but it is of Louis, not of the ghost of his first wife. This figure is for some reason “unfinished” (217), and it turns out that Louis was something of a roué and had a long string of women staying at the villa. Why exactly this should cause him to appear as a quasi-ghost in his own villa, when he is still alive, is anyone’s guess.
Sinclair’s prose is nothing if not elegant and refined, and her mingling of mysticism (she belonged to the Society for Psychical Research) and psychological analysis (she was an early student of Freud) can be engaging. Her utilisation of the supernatural for social and moral purposes is emphatic, if at times a bit crude and obvious. Her preoccupation with sexual irregularities is something I will leave to her biographers.
A little surprisingly, one of the most successful mainstream writers to tackle the weird and supernatural was D. H. Lawrence (1885—1930). Nearly a dozen of his tales, long and short, could be considered weird. The first such venture, “Odour of Chrysanthemums” (1911), is perhaps nothing more than an expression of Lawrence’s loathing of death—a loathing that had come to him through a kind of Nietzschean affirmation of the wonders and glories of life intensely lived. Its setting among the miners of Selston, a village in Nottinghamshire, is manifestly autobiographical. “The Prussian Officer” (1914), although apparently written before the outbreak of World War I, is clearly influenced by Frieda Weekley (whom Lawrence married on July 13, 1914, after a two-year European tour), but also reflects Lawrence’s own conflicted views of class distinctions in its depiction of an orderly who kills his high-born superior officer.
The long story “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925), where a European woman becomes enmeshed in primitive rituals in the American Southwest, is a product of Lawrence’s decision to emigrate to Taos, New Mexico, in 1922. The story shares thematic links with the novel The Plumed Serpent (1926), with its implications of the revival of ancient gods. It was around this time that Lawrence was contacted by Lady Cynthia Asquith to contribute to her anthology, The Ghost Book (1926). Why Asquith, who had known Lawrence from as early as 1913, decided to invite him to contribute is not entirely clear. It is possible that she read his story “The Border Line” (1924), which might qualify as his first actual supernatural tale: its account of the ghost of a first husband who prevents his former wife from saving the life of her second husband stresses many of those elements of liminality—the border between life and death, strength and weakness, and (in its locale) Germany and France—that were central to Lawrence’s thought. In any case, Lawrence wrote “Glad Ghosts” for Asquith, but she rejected it, ostensibly because it was not sufficiently ghostly. But some critics believe that Asquith saw that the story was in fact about her and her husband, Herbert Asquith, son of the prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith. “Glad Ghosts” presents two sets of ghosts: the first, the ghost of Lucy (Cynthia Asquith), the first wife of Colonel Hale, who plagues the colonel because of his fear of physical love, and the second, the ghost of Lathkill, who is “laid” (in every sense of the term) by the narrator, Paul Morier (probably a stand-in for Lawrence), who awakens the sexual feelings of the young Carlotta Lathkill.
In any case, Lawrence took the rejection of “Glad Ghosts” in stride, quickly writing “The Rocking-Horse Winner” instead. This is probably the most celebrated story in The Ghost Book, and it is Lawrence’s most widely reprinted weird tale. It is, however, extraordinary chiefly on account of its psychological acuity. Even if we are to assume that the young boy’s ability to predict winners of horse-races is a supernatural capacity (although there is some suggestion that it is merely a product of lucky guesswork), the riveting aspect of the story resides in the grim, even hideous psychological portrait of a boy who consumed with the prospect of his family’s imminent poverty that he rides his hobby-horse to death. Can we again detect an autobiographical implication? Are we to see in the harried boy a reflection of Lawrence’s own memories of his hardscrabble upbringing?
Asquith subsequently asked Lawrence to contribute to another anthology, The Black Cap (1927), and he obliged with “The Lovely Lady,” a compelling story of a domineering woman who, it is suggested, has sucked the life out of her dead son, Henry, and is about to do the same to her other son, Robert. A little earlier Lawrence wrote “The Last Laugh” (1925). Just as “The Border Line” was a thinly disguised account of J. Middleton Murry (the weak second husband, Philip), Katherine Mansfield (the surviving wife, Katherine), and Lawrence himself (the ghost of the strong first husband, Alan), so “The Lovely Lady” depicts a triangle between Lorenzo (Lawrence himself), Marchbanks (Murry), and Miss James (Dorothy Brett, a deaf painter). The supernatural manifestations here are very subtle, as they are in the short but powerful tale “Smile” (1926), which also appears to feature Middleton Murry and his grief over the death of Katherine Mansfield.
Of Lawrence’s weird work it is difficult to speak in small compass, largely because it is of widely varying character—ranging from tales of psychological terror to pure ghost stories to stories that fuse supernatural and psychological elements. There is also a question of definition, or more precisely of inclusiveness: exactly what constitutes a “weird tale” in Lawrence’s work? Only four or five stories involve a readily recognisable supernatural phenomenon, chiefly a ghost or revenant; but even here, the ghosts are largely symbolic, serving to enhance the interpersonal conflicts that are at the heart of Lawrence’s entire work. And what do we make of “The Woman Who Rode Away,” a splendid tale by any right, and one that seemingly lifts the supernatural from symbolism to myth? “The Blind Man” (1920) has no supernatural element, but it generates substantial terror from what seems a very simple and possibly innocuous act—a blind man’s touching of another man’s face. It is plain that Lawrence was not interested in supernaturalism for its own sake, but instead employed ghosts, revenants, and similar elements as particularly potent tools to convey his core aesthetic and philosophical conceptions—the sexual tension between men and women, the power of a dominant personality to tame and even crush those within its scope, the conflict created by distinctions of class, race, religion, and nationality. What can scarcely be denied is that a writer of Lawrence’s immense talent—and immense insight into human personality—has produced more than one monument to the literature of the supernatural, and for that we must remain forever grateful.
The degree to which weird conceptions entered into purely mainstream work during this period may be best exemplified by the curious novel Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893—1978). In what is largely a character study, the novel depicts the varied stages of Lolly’s life—living with her father on a rural estate until the age of twenty-eight, then spending the next twenty years in London with her brother and his family, then revolting against her sense of uselessness by returning to the country and living alone in a village called Great Mop. Here she believes she has become a witch and has made a pact with the Devil. Up to this point it appears clear that this suggestion of the supernatural is entirely in Lolly’s mind, but a final conversation with what appears to be the Devil himself turns the story on its head. And yet, Lolly justifies her transition to a witch as a kind of feminist gesture (“Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives” ). There is not the slightest trace of terror in Lolly Willowes—a point made not to criticise the novel but merely to characterise it. It is a powerful work, but it is not, fundamentally, a weird tale.
In the United States, Conrad Aiken (1889—1973) wrote two celebrated tales suggesting the supernatural, both included in the collection Among the Lost People (1934): “Mr. Arcularis” (1931) and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1932). In the latter, Paul Hasleman, a twelve-year-old boy, finds himself increasingly mesmerised by the thought of snow engulfing the town in which he lives. Gradually his fascination with this “secret snow” leads to daydreaming and declining schoolwork, and his parents have him examined by a doctor. Threatened by the loss of his private snowstorm, Paul retreats still further into his own self and, in an ambiguous ending, is found either asleep or dead in his room. Paul’s visions of the deadening snow are metaphors for the alienation he feels from his parents and his schoolmates, suggesting also a desire for his own death and perhaps the death of all life around him. Rod Serling produced a haunting adaptation of it for “Night Gallery” (20 October 1971).
In “Mr. Arcularis” the title character, a Bostonian, is about to undergo a serious heart operation. After its apparent conclusion, Arcularis, although weak, seems improved and sets off on a sea voyage to recover his health. There he meets a woman who reminds him strikingly of one of his nurses, and he slowly falls in love with her; but he is frequently disturbed both by the increasing cold (even though it is June) and by his apparent fits of sleepwalking. In a surprise ending surely derived from Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” we learn that Arcularis did not in fact survive the operation and that his entire experience on the ship was a hallucination on the operating table. In a play version written years later, Mr. Arcularis (1958), Aiken elaborates the basic plot but adheres to its essentials, making clearer the fact of Arcularis’s hallucination by having the same actors play the parts of the doctors and nurses at the hospital and various passengers on the ship.
Aiken also wrote a splendid horrific poem, “La Belle Morte,” included in his early collection The Jig of Forslin (1916), Another poem, “The Vampire: 1914” (1924), employs strikingly bloody imagery as a symbol for the world war and its aftermath. The poem is not found in standard editions of Aiken’s collected poetry.
The ghostly work of Ellen Glasgow (1873—1945) deserves some consideration, if only for one superlative specimen. “The Shadowy Third” (1916), the title story of Glasgow’s 1923 collection, exquisitely conjoins horror and pathos in depicting the ghost of a little girl who was killed by her stepfather, Dr. Maradick, a prominent physician, in order that he might gain access to his wife’s assets. Glasgow brilliantly allows the supernatural to enter before we are even aware of it by having the new nurse of Mrs. Maradick see the child before we learn that she is dead; it turns out that no one but she and Mrs. Maradick ever catch a glimpse of the ghost, because they are the only ones who are in sympathy with it. Later Mrs. Maradick dies, and the nurse delivers a chilling epitaph on her: “My own belief is that she died simply of the terror or life” (68).
Unfortunately, Glasgow repeated this scenario—a ghost that is glimpsed only by select indviduals—not once but twice, first in “The Past” (1920) and in “Whispering Leaves” (1923). The latter is an effective tale that again fuses terror and poignancy. Here a woman sees the black nurse (Mammy Rhody) of her small cousin, Pell, although no one other than Pell does so. In the climactic scene, Mammy saves Pell from a burning house and hands him to the cousin—an obvious piece of symbolism, since the cousin had earlier expressed a wish to save Pell from his unhappy environment. “Dare’s Gift” (1917) also features the supernatural in its suggestion of psychic possession—the ghost of a woman in Virginia who betrayed the Confederacy causes a woman of the present to commit a similar act—but is crippled by verbosity. Like D. H. Lawrence, Glasgow was manifestly not interested in the supernatural as such but only in its ability to foster metaphorically the analysis of character and society, especially of Southern society, that dominates her novels; but in “The Shadowy Third” she produced one authentic masterwork, so her work deserves at least some attention here.
One wishes the same could be said for the weird work of Stephen Vincent Benét (1898—1943), but, in spite of the celebrity of certain items, it is almost uniformly mediocre. Surprisingly, the most effective item is what appears to be Benét’s first story, “Elementals” (1925), a remarkably grim conte cruel in which a wealthy man dares an impecunious professor to test his love for his fiancée: they are both to go without food for a week, and then a single piece of bread is to be placed between them: can they prevent themselves from fighting over the scrap of food? In spite of its happy ending, the tale is cumulatively powerful. It is of interest that Benét never gathered the story in any of his collections: its intensity of expression would seem out of keeping with the rather mawkish whimsicality of his other prose work.
I refer specifically to his most celebrated venture into weirdness, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), which depicts the celebrated orator and lawyer as defeating the Devil with surprising ease when the latter demands the soul of an impoverished farmer. In spite of the occasional tart comments by the Devil as to his suitability as a citizen of the new country (“When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck” ), the tale quickly lapses into vapid patriotism and sentimentality. Even worse is “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent” (1937), a purportedly comic story in which Webster uses a female sea serpent who has fallen in love with him as a bargaining chip for a treaty with England. As for “The King of the Cats” (1929), this whimsical tale of a celebrated musician who conducts an orchestra with his tail, and who turns out to be a cat, is one of the best arguments one can possibly offer as to the aesthetic disaster that can result in combining humour and horror.