Some Short Story Writers
Horror at Midcentury
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
An array of British short story writers at midcentury probed the weird from a generally mainstream perspective. The result was, in some senses, a diminution of purely weird elements but an enhancement of other elements such as character portrayal, social and political relevance, and even some pungent satire. To some degree their work helped to prepare a mainstream readership for the proliferation of supernatural horror that began gathering steam in the 1960s.
John Collier (1901—1980) began writing short stories as early as the late 1920s, continuing to do so almost up to the time of his death. The best of his weird specimens were gathered in The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It (1943), expanded as Fancies and Goodnights (1951). A retrospective collection, The Best of John Collier (1975), contains a large proportion of his short fiction, but a surprising number of tales remain uncollected and unpublished.
Collier fits reasonably well into the class of satirical fantaisistes—and, like even the best of his predecessors, including Ambrose Bierce, Saki, and L. P. Hartley, there is a perennial suggestion of authorial trickery in the manner in which clever dénouements and twists are offered. Surprisingly little of Collier’s work is supernatural. I do not refer to whimsical fantasies such as “Bottle Party” (1941), in which a man who buys a bottle with a genie in it ultimately finds himself trapped in the bottle himself. Here there is not the remotest suggestion that we are to take the story literally as an actual occurrence; all the fun in the tale is seeing the working out of the implausible premise. Analogously, “Halfway to Hell” (1934) tells of a man who almost goes to hell, but manages to shunt a rival off into a demon’s hands. Once again the quasi-supernatural is used purely for comic effect.
The one genuine tale of the supernatural in Collier’s work, so far as I can ascertain, is the celebrated “Thus I Refute Beelzy” (1940). A young boy apparently invents a playmate named Mr. Beelzy (i.e., Beelzebub), but his father demands that his son acknowledge it as a fantasy; he thinks it is unhealthy to engage in delusions of this kind. Eventually the father is found dead in a hideous manner (“It was on the second-floor landing that they found the shoe, with the man’s foot still in it” ). But the essence of the story is not this supernatural climax but the plain implication that the son has been physically abused by his father, so that Mr. Beelzy becomes, in the most literal sense of the term, a defence mechanism.
The bulk of Collier’s most piquant tales are non-supernatural, and a number of them deal with marital troubles of various kinds. This is also the burden of the curious early novel His Monkey Wife (1930), featuring a bizarre triangle between a man, his fiancée, and an ape. In such stories as “De Mortuis” (1942) and “Back for Christmas” (1939), Collier seems to take relish in the grim dispatching of a tiresome spouse. In the first, a physician appears to be burying his murdered wife in the basement. Two friends, who have discovered him in the act, decide to aid him in escaping the law—after all, the wife, Irene, was the “town floozy” (18). It turns out that Irene is not in fact dead—but she will be, as the friends have now provided the physician with an unbreakable alibi. “Back for Christmas” is slightly less effective. Here a man actually does kill his wife and buries her in a hole in the cellar designed for a wine bin; but he is disconcerted when he receives a letter from a building company (hired, clearly, by his late wife) saying that it will be installing the wine bin before Christmas.
Some of Collier’s most powerful tales are those in the very borderline of the weird, where nothing supernatural can explicitly be seen to happen. Consider “Evening Primrose” (1940), which engenders a pervasive atmosphere of strangeness in its account of people living in a New York City department store at night. Somewhat similar is “Special Delivery” (1941), a long, seriocomic tale about a man in love with a mannikin. The indescribable “Green Thoughts” (1931) introduces us to man-eating orchids in a manner that combines humour and loathsomeness.
Collier’s lapidary prose, full of pungent wit, keen observation of human foibles, and on occasion a surprising modicum of poignancy and tenderness, is melded with a meticulous story construction that renders each of his tales a flawless aesthetic gem. If he had chosen to devote a greater proportion of his output to the explicitly weird, he would occupy a still greater place in the field than he does.
H. F. Heard (1889—1971), who sometimes published as Gerald Heard, deserves some consideration on the strength of two volumes, The Great Fog and Other Weird Tales (1944) and the Lost Cavern and Other Tales of the Fantastic (1948). In actuality, several of the more noteworthy tales in these collections straddle the boundary between horror and science fiction, perhaps tending a bit more toward the latter than the former. “The Great Fog” tells rivetingly of a mildew, created by scientists as part of the war effort, that ultimately spreads around the globe. While there is indeed terror in this scenario—and an uncanny anticipation of global warming (“the balance of life has been upset” [GF 38], one scientist laments)—the greater portion of the narrative focuses on the radical changes in life and society engendered by the phenomenon. In “Wingless Victory” an explorer in the Antarctic is captured by immense intelligent birds, the leader of whom learns human speech and conducts a long colloquy with the captive. At this point the focus of the tale shifts from horror to a discussion of comparative physiology, where the bird makes compelling arguments for the superiority of his species over human beings. Not dissimilar is “The Lost Cavern,” where an explorer enters a cave in Mexico and is captured by hideous creatures: “I was in the hands of a huge tribe of man-size, or nearly man-size, bats!” (LC 26). But the initial terror of the situation again dissipates in a long discussion of the comparative merits of the two species; and, as in the earlier tale, the explorer gains a “dawning sense of their uncanny superiority” (LC 42).
Two long stories, one in each volume, “Dromenon” and “The Chapel of Ease,” seem to evoke the antiquarian ghost story of M. R. James, but their ultimate focus is elsewhere. The first tells of a scholar on Gothic architecture who goes to a country church and meets the organist, with whom he seems to undergo strange mystical experiences. In the other, a civil servant during wartime takes refuge in an old Norman church and first hears curious groaning and sobbing from no apparent source and then sees a figure—perhaps a symbol for the “sheer misery of existence” (LC 210) during a world war. But both stories are too prolix and, at times, intellectualised to be effective weird narratives.
Somewhat more conventional are two tales of metempsychosis, “The Swap” (in which two professors switch bodies, each finding the other’s horribly uncomfortable) and “The Cat, ’I Am’” (in which a cat appears to exhibit human personality traits). Heard gained more celebrity for his unorthodox mystery novels—such as A Taste for Honey (1941), about killer bees—and his science fiction novels and tales than his weird work, but the latter is an interesting if ultimately insignificant contribution to the literary supernaturalism of the period.
It is difficult to treat the short fiction of Gerald Kersh (1911—1968) in the context of supernatural literature, since—as with his younger contemporary Robert Aickman, to be discussed in the following chapter—so many of his tales are “strange” without being explicitly horrific or supernatural. In his half a dozen or more collections from 1944 to 1964, one or more weird items could reliably be found; most of them were gathered in the compilations On an Odd Note (1958) and Nightshade and Damnations (1968), the latter assembled by Harlan Ellison, who has been a particular champion of Kersh’s work.
Consider “The Queen of Pig Island” (1953). Here a motley array of members of a freak show—including a beautiful woman with no arms and legs (the queen of the title)—are stranded on a deserted island. Nothing remotely supernatural occurs, but the tale is nonetheless infused with an appealing sense of strangeness. More closely approaching the supernatural is the eccentric fairy tale “Seed of Destruction” (1947), where a ring that is said to bring bad luck if it is given or stolen (as opposed to being purchased) brings bad luck. The story seems to be a commentary on human credulity, as doubt is cast on the truthfulness of the man telling the tale—until it is seen that he himself has died as a result of being given the ring.
As with Heard, several of Kersh’s tales straddle the borderline between supernatural horror and science fiction, including his most noteworthy tale, “Men without Bones” (1954). In this shocking narrative, a professor tracks down legends of “a race of gods that came down from the sky in a great flame when the world was very young” (54). Actual remnants of the ship, apparently from Mars, are found, as also are a race of small boneless men—but how could these creatures have built the metal ship? In one of the most striking climaxes in weird fiction, the professor realises to his horror that we are the Martians and that the boneless men are the “humans”—the original inhabitants of this planet. There is a double emotive impact here: not only is our own species suddenly seen to be a group of alien invaders, but the loathsomeness of the boneless creatures makes us question the very meaning of what it is to be “human.”
“Voices in the Dust of Annan” (1947) tells of the ruins of a city named Annan, whose precise location Kersh deliberately obscures. It turns out to be the city of London—for we are in the far future, after a cataclysmic war. Vaguely similar is “The Brighton Monster” (1948), where a monster found off the coast of Brighton in 1745 proves to be a Japanese man thrown back in time by the atom bomb. More conventionally supernatural is “The Eye” (1957), where the eyes of a criminal, transplanted into the body of a child, compels the child to speak in the patois of the criminal. In “Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?” (1953) the corporal of the title makes the outrageous claim that he is 438 years old: in the sixteenth century he had been the recipient of a magic potion from an alchemist that allowed even fatal wounds to heal in short order. Once again, the credibility of the tale-teller is at issue—but his uncanny knowledge of events of the remote past (he had once met Shakespeare: “puffy-faced man, bald on top; used to wave his hands about when he talked” ) seem to ring true… .
In recent decades the work of L. T. C. Rolt (1910—1974), as contained in the volume Sleep No More (1948), has found a new audience, especially when it was reprinted in anthologies by Hugh Lamb; but his work is in fact disappointingly conventional. While it cannot be said that he is one of M. R. James’s cadre of undistinguished disciples and imitators, he did confess to have been inspired by James’s ghost stories from an early age. The fact becomes plain in the routine supernatural scenarios found in his tales: conventional supernatural revenge in “The Cat Returns” and “Bosworth Summit Pound,” an elemental (“whatever that may mean”! ) in “Agony of Flame,” the haunting of a foundry in “Hawley Bank Foundry,” and psychic possession in “Music Hath Charms.” In several tales there is an unconscionable vagueness in the very nature of the weird or supernatural phenomenon, as in “Cwm Garon,” in which a man ultimately sees a black mass being held at a Welsh church and concludes that “there stalked through the valley something intangible, unearthly, monstrous and very terrible” (48—49).
All that distinguishes Rolt’s work is a heartfelt love of the English countryside and a technical knowledge of engineering, railways, canals, and even music boxes. “New Corner” is at least notable for its novelty of setting—an apparently haunted section of a racetrack. But again there is no account of why the haunting has occurred, and all we are given is a coy conclusion: “I think there is something on the inside of that fence that is best left alone” (32).