Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Throwbacks: Russell, Kirk, Brennan, Walter, Du Maurier
Anticipations of the Boom
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The increasing advance of weird fiction into the literary mainstream engendered a curious backlash among certain writers who sought to return the genre to its roots—in some cases all the way back to the Gothic novel, in other cases to the pulp era that had ended in the mid-1950s. Accordingly, we are faced with a succession of writers who consciously associated themselves with an older tradition; but in many cases this nostalgia failed to result in work of any great note.
American writer Ray Russell (1924—1999) made no secret of his thirst for the past. In the curiously defensive introduction to Unholy Trinity (1967), he expressed a yearning for older means of expression that go far beyond mere nostalgia to a kind of reactionary aestheticism. Speaking of a bygone day “in which romance and gallantry still lived, when candlelight or the soft glow of the gas lamp diffused and blurred the hard times of reality, when the night was still a silence broken only occasionally by the whipping of capes or the clip-clop of hooves upon cobblestones,” Rusell concluded that he was “thoroughly weary of the twentieth century” (ix—x). The result was the three Gothic novellas that form the volume.
Chronologically, the first of these is “Sardonicus” (1960), in which a British physician of the later nineteenth century, Sir Robert Cargrave, receives an invitation from an old lover, Maude Randall (now the wife of Mr. Sardonicus), to visit them in their castle in Bohemia. Sardonicus tells Cargrave that he must remedy a deformity that has plagued him ever since he dug up his father’s grave to secure a winning lottery ticket: he is plagued with in inflexible grin (the risus sardonicus) that seems impervious to medical treatment. If Cargrave does not succeed in his task, Sardonicus will subject his wife to various unspeakable punishments. The tale actually proves to be one of psychological, not supernatural, horror: from the beginning it is plain that psychological trauma has caused the risus, and Cargrave’s apparently successful remedy—a muscle-relaxing potion supposedly concocted from plants—is in fact, as he admits at the end, nothing but distilled water. And in a final twist, Sardonicus suffers from an opposite condition: his muscles are now (in his own mind) so loose that he cannot open his mouth to feed himself, and so he dies.
“Sagittarius” (1962) is set in the Paris of 1909 and involves an actor at the Grand Guignol who may or may not be the mediaeval mass murderer Gilles de Rais and may also may or may not be the son of the person on whom Robert Louis Stevenson based The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and who, finally, may in fact be Jack the Ripper! This tale suffers from having too many purportedly clever twists and too many allusions to prior legend and literature, so that it collapses of its own pretentious absurdity. The final story, “Sanguinarius” (1967), is a tale of the “vampire countess” Elisabeth Bathory, who narrates in the first person how she was unwittingly led by a gypsy to committing various acts of sadomasochism. The novelty of approach—the assumption that Bathory was fundamentally guiltless in the commission of the crimes attributed to her—and the effective archaism of the prose are what distinguish this tale.
Russell’s other work in the short story is uninspired, marred by facile jack-in-the-box twists and a general lack of substance and depth. “Comet Wine” (1967) is a pseudo-sequel to “Sardonicus” in resurrecting Cargrave, who encounters a Russian composer who has sold his soul to the Devil for musical genius. “The Runaway Lovers” (1967) is a conte cruel—about the wife of a duke and her lover who are allowed to escape from a dungeon only to be caught again—that is too similar to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s much superior tale on the same subject, “The Torture by Hope.” Curiously, in light of Russell’s manifest aesthetic antiquarianism, he wrote a number of (uninteresting and undistinguished) tales of science fiction over the course of his career.
Russell’s novel The Case against Satan (1962) is worth treating not because it is in any way a successful horror novel but because it set the stage for a much more celebrated successor. This superficial, clumsy, and stilted novel of a sixteen-year-old girl who is apparently the victim of authentic demonic possession, who is saved in the end by a priest and a bishop who conduct an exorcism to evict the annoying devil, is only a few notches above hackwork. The pathetic earnestness of Russell’s belief in the fundamental reality of what he has narrated—emphasised in a brief afterword to the novel—makes one regret the degree to which religious orthodoxy can so disfigure a work of supernatural fiction as to render it laughable and preposterous.
Russell’s best work in the field came not as an author but as an editor. As an editor at Playboy from 1954 to 1960, and a consulting editor for years thereafter, he defied his own devotion to traditional supernaturalism by publishing the innovative work of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and others. He was also the unacknowledged editor of several anthology of weird tales from Playboy, including the notable Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural (1967).
Conservatism of a very different kind is evident in the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (1918—1994), best known to the general public as the author of an unrelenting mass of politically conservative propaganda, beginning with The Conservative Mind (1953) and continuing on through many windy treatises, oceans of editorial columns, and other work. Along the way he managed to write several collections of weird tales, including The Surly Sullen Bell (1962), The Princess of All Lands (1979), and Watchers at the Strait Gate (1984), as well as several novels.
But Kirk’s work is crippled not only by the many crotchets that he addressed in his political writing—dislike of liberals and communists (much the same thing in his mind), scorn of the welfare state, disdain of gays and lesbians, and a fervent and aggressive Roman Catholicism—but, more seriously from our point of view, by a clumsiness in the manipulation of supernatural phenomena. Consider an early story, “Ex Tenebris” (1962). Here the ghost of a dead vicar protects an old woman from eviction from her cottage by throttling the “planning officer” who seeks to level the area for new development. Not only is the caricature of the planning officer ineffably crude, but his murder is an obvious deus ex machina that is aesthetically ludicrous. “The Surly Sullen Bell” (1950) is similarly flawed. What appears to be an effective supernatural conception—a man is slowly absorbing the life-force of his wife by dominating her physically (he had spoken mystically of a “spiritual triumph” )—proves to be nothing more than a sordid tale of poisoning. Another early story, “Behind the Stumps” (1950), features—as a number of other Kirk tales do—an effective portrayal of the topography of rural Michigan, but is merely the tale of a ghost of an old witch.
Other stories by Kirk prove to be equally inept as far as the supernatural is concerned. In “Uncle Isaiah” (1951) the title character, apparently a reanimated corpse, manages to spirit away an extortioner. “Sorworth Place” (1952) initially creates an effective atmosphere of a haunted house, but it resolves absurdly. A woman, Ann Lurlin, is afraid that her dead husband will fulfil his promise to return a year after his death to kill her, and she somehow manages to persuade an acquaintance, Ralph Bain, to be with her as the fateful day approaches. He confronts the dead husband and apparently tackles him on the roof, whereupon both fall down and apparently die (the one for the first time, the other for the second). “Saviourgate” (1979?) is a follow-up to the story, where Bain finds his way into the bar of a hotel that proves to be some kind of antechamber to Heaven; but the whole story is nothing more than a pedantic discuission of the afterlife.
Kirk reaches the nadir of supernatural absurdity in “The Princess of All Lands” (1979?), where a woman named Yolande (part Native American and apparently possessed of unspecified magical powers) picks up a young female hitchhiker who forces her to drive to her house, where she, her father, and her brother plan to brutalise her in the customary manner; but of course Yolande manages to summon her powers in the nick of time and set the loathsome trio aflame. Not much better is “Lex Talionis” (1979), where an ex-con, Eddie Mahaffy, who got religion in jail dispatches another criminal who had sought to pressure him to commit robbery. This kind of treacly moralism is regrettably prevalent in Kirk’s work, where we know all too clearly who are, in his view, the good guys and who are the bad.
Later stories reveal a surprisingly effective portrayal of lower-class life in the urban slums, such as “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” (1983), although in this long and complex narrative the supernatural element seems adventitious, and the morality of the tale is as naive as other of Kirk’s. Several of his tales involve a character named Manfred Arcane, who in “The Peculiar Demesne of Archvicar Gerontion” (1980) manages to ward off an evil individual who seeks to evict his soul from his body by clinging to a crucifix. “The Reflex-Man in Whinnymuir Castle” (1983) effectively employs archaic language in presenting an old document that tells a longwinded and anticlimactic tale of ghosts, revenants, and romance, where again the supernatural does not seem central to the overall narrative. For some inexplicable reason Kirk won the World Fantasy Award for the prolix tale “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” (1976), in which, so far as any sense can be made of it, an ex-con has been reincarnated in the present day because he saved the lives of a family back in 1915.
Kirk’s two early novels, Old House of Fear (1961) and A Creature of the Twilight (1966), suggest the supernatural without actually invoking it; and both are windy and verbose exercises in “Gothicism,” adventure, and the usual display of Kirk’s bêtes noires. Although gifted with a prose style of elegance and verve, Kirk was far too addicted to the sound of his own voice, with the result that most of his tales are far longer than they need be; and the naive moralism that renders so many of them the equivalent of political tracts consigns the great majority of them to aesthetic oblivion.
Joseph Payne Brennan (1918—1990) might be regarded as a kind of throwback to the pulp era—in fact, one of his earliest published stories, the elegantly titled “Slime,” actually appeared in Weird Tales (March 1953), so he could be considered one of the last relics of the pulp era. But the sad fact is that Brennan, genial and engaging as he was as a person, was plagued by a phenomenon we shall see increasingly in the later stages of this study—the occasional ability to devise a clever supernatural idea but an utter deficiency of literary talent to execute it competently. The hallmark of Brennan’s work is an almost childishly simple, unadorned prose that might be thought to facilitate the subtle incursion of the weird; but in reality this flatness of style renders his conceptions preposterous and absurd because of an insufficiency of atmospheric preparation. “Slime” itself—dealing with an amorphous entity emerging from the depths of the ocean, and almost certainly inspired jointly by Lovecraft’s shoggoth (from At the Mountains of Madness) and a similar entity in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”—is entirely lacking in imaginative scope, for the entity is actuated merely by insatiable hunger and, once having emerged on to the land as a result of a volcanic upheaval, merely consumes a certain number of hapless human beings and animals before being routed by a flamethrower.
Other stories are similarly lacklustre. “The Corpse of Charlie Rull” (1959) fuses horror and science fiction in its depiction of a corpse that is reanimated by radioactive waste. “Canavan’s Back Yard” (1958) has gained a celebrity for no reason that I can fathom, although its portrayal of a man’s back yard that, because of a witch’s curse, appears at times to be of infinite extension is minimally more imaginative than other of Brennan’s tales. “The Willow Platform” (1973) is one of several tales that feature the one notable element of Brennan’s work—an effectiveness in the portrayal of the ignorant and stunted lives of rustic folk. But this story about a farmer who summons a wendigo or elemental is no more interesting, from a supernatural perspective, than other of his works.
Brennan occasionally dabbled in non-supernatural horror, but to no great purpose. “Disappearance” (1959) is the longwinded story of a man who murders his brother and sets him up as a scarecrow on his farm, while “The Impulse to Kill” (1959) could have been an interesting tale—a man lures hoodlums to rob him so that he can kill them—if there were any penetrating psychological analysis of the murderer; but there isn’t.
The one story where Brennan’s elementary prose may actually enhance the effect of the scenario is “Levitation” (1958), even though its premise is a bit artificial. A hypnotist at a carnival puts a man to sleep and makes him levitate—at which point the hypnotist dies of a heart attack. The body continues to levitate, foiling attempts by others to catch it; and the final line—“Then it disappeared altogether” (36)—expresses in potent simplicity the terror of the inexplicable scene.
Brennan was the author of one of the only fourteen volumes that Arkham House published in the 1950s, Nine Horrors and a Dream (1958). He published other collections of his tales through his own press, Macabre House, including The Dark Returners (1959) and Scream at Midnight (1963). Later volumes include Stories of Darkness and Dread (1973) and several collections of light-hearted tales of the psychic detective Lucius Leffing, but these are scarcely to be taken seriously.
Brennan is probably a better poet than a fiction writer, and his simplicity of utterance can be highly effective in short, pungent poems of fantasy and terror. Arkham House’s Nightmare Need (1964) is well worth seeking out, as is the later Sixty Selected Poems (1985).
The Anglo-Welsh writer Elizabeth Walter (1930?—2006) can be treated here. Although substantially superior to Brennan in matters of prose, character portrayal, and story construction, her work too suffers from the conventionality of its supernatural manifestations. Walter published a number of weird collections in the 1960s and 1970s, including Snowfall and Other Chilling Events (1965) and The Sin-Eater and Other Scientific Impossibilities (1967); the Arkham House volume In the Mist and Other Uncanny Encounters (1979) was her own selection of her best tales. What we find in these stories are relatively routine ghosts, revenants, and so forth, enlivened—when enlivened at all—by crispness of characterisation and a fine ability at landscape description, particularly of the Cornwall and the Welsh Border country, where she dwelt for many years.
Walter worked best in the long short story or novella, which allowed her to expand on her literary strengths. “The Sin-Eater” (1967) may not be quite as gripping as the 1895 tale by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp), but it is an effective rendering of that old myth. Several of her tales involve the sea or seafaring, but the best of these may be “The Island of Regrets” (1965), where a supernatural curse is ingeniously interwoven with a man’s reluctance to marry the domineering woman to whom he has become engaged. Somewhat along the same lines is perhaps Walter’s single most effective tale, “The Spider” (1967), which similarly links a man’s fear of spiders with his growing fear of a lonely woman who, spiderlike, clearly wishes to possess both his body and his soul. But overall, Walter’s work lacks distinctiveness and novelty.
Daphne du Maurier (1907—1989) might be discussed here if only because, like the great majority of popular writers, her work embodies an aesthetic conservatism that was in large part the secret of her success—if, of course, the writing of an endless array of best-selling novels counts as “success.” Rebecca (1940) is, in fact, a modest success in the literary as well as the popular sense; and this throwback to the Gothic novels of a century and a half earlier could in a sense be considered a kind of non-supernatural variant of Poe’s “Ligeia,” where a dead first wife comes to dominate her living successor. Although the true villain of the piece proves to be the first wife’s maid, the novel—and, more so, the Hitchcock film—creates a powerful sense of the lingering presence of the first Mrs. De Winter.
None of du Maurier’s many novels are supernatural in any meaningful sense, but several of her shot stories—or, rather, novelettes and novellas—are. Regrettably, a number of these are marred by flaws of one kind or another, chiefly prolixity. “The Apple Tree” (1952) is too transparent in its identification of an old apple tree with a man’s deceased wife and a young tree with a young “helper” during the war whom the man (never named, oddly enough) groped on one occasion. As for the celebrated tale “The Birds” (1952), it is a textbook instance of a poor story that can be saved by imaginative treatment in film. Hitchcock’s 1963 movie bears almost no relation to the story except in the basic premise of birds attacking human beings—a premise no doubt lifted from Machen’s The Terror (1917), and one that du Maurier handles even more clumsily than Machen himself did. Aside from offering not the slightest account or explanation of why birds of all kinds have suddenly teamed up to challenge humanity’s supremacy of the earth, the tale ends in a curiously inconclusive fashion—a British farmer and his family are barricaded in their house, waiting for the next attack—as if du Maurier, for once in her lifetime, became tired of spinning out her prose and simply decided to stop. “The Blue Lenses” (1959) is no more effective, its ridiculous premise—a blind woman fitted with blue lenses during an operation sees human beings endowed with the heads of animals—making it impossible to swallow.
Two other stories are somewhat more effective tales of psychological and supernatural horror. “The Alibi” (1959) keenly portrays an ordinary officer worker who takes a flat in a run-down London neighbourhood and develops an anomalous relation with the young single mother from whom he rents a room. “Don’t Look Now” (1970) is unquestionably du Maurier’s best supernatural tale. When a man named John sees his wife, Laura, with a sad expression and in the company of a pair of elderly twin sisters, returning to their hotel in Venice when he believes she is on a plane back to England, we wonder whether he is simply mistaken or whether the twins are somehow kidnapping Laura. We are not inclined to believe one of the twins—a student of the occult—who maintains that what John saw was a vision of the future; but this hypothesis proves harrowingly true when John himself is killed, thereby accounting for the sadness of his wife.
Du Maurier’s work is not, on the whole, notably distinguished for its supernatural imaginativeness, and her general lack of skill in the portrayal of character, for all her valiant attempts, renders her tales only slightly above the usual crop of best-selling writers; but now and again she is capable of vivid horrific effects, and her work is not to be entirely despised.