Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Looking Ahead: Dahl, Grubb, Serling, Case
Anticipations of the Boom
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
More representative than the nostalgic writers who sought to take weird fiction back to its centuries-old roots is a group of writers, having little or no connexion with one another, who adopted to the full the modes and mannerisms of the literary mainstream and applied them to the weird. These writers succeeded in placing their work—short stories for the most part—in prestigious mainstream venues that helped to bring greater attention to the weird and thereby laid the foundations for the popular explosion of weird fiction in the early 1970s.
Roald Dahl (1916—1990), a British writer of Norwegian parentage, burst on the scene in 1946 with a stirring collection of stories, Over to You (1946), based on his experiences as an RAF pilot during World War II. Working slowly and meticulously, Dahl began publishing short stories in major periodicals such as the New Yorker and Harper’s, publishing two celebrated collections, Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss Kiss (1960), which shall be our chief interest here.
Dahl has customarily been seen as working in the tradition of satirical fantasy or horror, in the manner of Ambrose Bierce, Saki, L. P. Hartley, John Collier, and his contemporary Shirley Jackson. But there is such little overt supernaturalism or even anything remotely resembling horror in many of his tales that his inclusion within the rubric of the weird becomes highly problematical. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, there is—even more than in his presumed predecessors, just named—an element of authorial trickery in his work that makes it superficially clever but entirely insubstantial. Dahl, so far as I can tell, has no message to convey aside from a predictably cynical view of human nature and human relationships, especially the institution of marriage. (His own marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, although marred by painful misfortunes to some of their children, appears to have been a model of harmony, and he nursed her back from a serious illness in the 1960s; they divorced after thirty years of marriage.)
The one story in the entire corpus of Dahl’s early work that could be said to be supernatural is “The Wish” (1948), in which a child imagines that something dire will occur to him if he steps on either the black or the red portions of a carpet in his house; what seems a harmless game proves grimly real (“and at the last moment, instinctively he put out a hand to break the fall and the next thing he saw as this bare hand of his going right into the middle of a great glistening mass of black and he gave one piercing cry of terror as it touched” ). “The Sound Machine” (1949) is a science fiction/horror hybrid about a man who devises a machine that can hear vibrations above those detectable by the human ear—and learns that plants cry out in pain and horror when they are torn up.
Fusing supernatural horror and tart satire is “William and Mary” (1959), in which a man with pancreatic cancer agrees to have a neurosurgeon friend of his extract his brain and preserve it, apparently indefinitely. The tale is really one of marital discord, as his wife then claims the brain and deliberately smokes in its presence, knowing that her late husband disapproved of the practice. Somewhat similar is “Royal Jelly” (1959), in which a beekeeper begins feeding his malnourished baby with milk laced with royal jelly (a secretion of bees used to feed queens, with the result that they become enormous). The formula seems at first to work wonders, but the suggestion is that the baby will similarly become incalculably huge. “Edward the Conqueror” (1953) is an ambiguous supernatural tale in which a woman begins to suspect that a stray cat that responds strongly to music is the reincarnation of Franz Liszt; this preposterous hypothesis seems to gain uncanny corroboration from the cat’s behaviour, which in many ways mimics Liszt’s known predilections. Her husband ostensibly thinks his wife is crazy and eventually throws the cat in the bonfire—or is he in fact unnerved that his wife may have been correct?
The great majority of Dahl’s stories are of course non-supernatural, but the flippancy and mockery of the narrative voice have the unfortunate result of rendering them aesthetically innocuous, as readers merely wait for the surprise ending that they know will inevitably come. In only a few tales is there any searching analysis of aberrant personality. Perhaps the most accomplished is “Georgy Porgy” (1959), in which a curate who had had a traumatic experience as a child—he had been terrified by the sight of a mother rabbit eating one of her newborn babies, an incident that led him unwittingly to cause his own mother’s death—becomes alarmed by a woman’s flirting with him: he develops the fantasy that he himself has been swallowed by her. The tone of this story is also light-hearted, but a grim substratum of psychological horror emerges. Less successful but still powerful is “Neck” (1953), in which a woman’s neck becomes stuck in a wooden sculpture by Henry Moore, causing her discontented husband nearly to cut it off with an axe. Here there is keen psychological analysis of all the relevant characters involved.
Otherwise, we have merely a succession of crime stories—the most famous of which is, perhaps, “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1953), in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks the lamb and feeds it to the policemen investigating the case—or caper stories, such as “The Champion of the World” (1959), in which poachers attempt to steal pheasants from a wealthy landowner’s estate. As I have stated, it is difficult to find an overarching message or philosophy in Dahl’s stories, and many of them are far more susceptible than Bierce’s or Collier’s to the accusation of clever trickery.
But Dahl’s influence in the field of weird fiction was perhaps greater than his own literary contributions reveal. Firstly, his writing, always skilful and elegant, was of the sort that appealed to the editors and readers of mainstream magazines, although in this regard Shirley Jackson preceded him by a few years. As such, his substantial fame and reputation—as a writer for both adults and children—elevated the tale of psychological horror out of the pulp ghetto. Much later, Dahl’s work extended into the media: while some of his tales were adapted for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in the 1950s, he adapted his own stories for the sporadic but long-running series “Tales of the Unexpected” (1979—88), leading to reissues of his tales under the titles Tales of the Unexpected (1979) and More Tales of the Unexpected (1980). Dahl’s original writing, however, became increasingly less weird with the passage of time, and such a volume as Switch Bitch (1974) merely contains four long stories chiefly focused on sexual situations or aberrations.
The American writer Davis Grubb (1919—1980) contributed to both supernatural and psychological horror with Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural (1964). Grubb had previously gained celebrity with the crime thriller Night of the Hunter (1953), adapted into a celebrated film two years later. The stories in his first collection are perhaps a bit lacking in emotive impact, but they gain cumulative strength from their meticulous character portrayal and landscape description, especially of the author’s native West Virginia.
One of Grubb’s earliest stories, “One Foot in the Grave,” actually appeared in Weird Tales (May 1948), but he subsequently published in more mainstream venues such as Collier’s and Woman’s Home Companion. “One Foot in the Grave” is an effective tale of a man’s detached foot that appears to gain a life of its own—but this is the least interesting facet of the story, which focuses instead on the unspoken love for the man that is felt by his secretary. Several of Grubb’s tales are tantalisingly ambiguous in their supernatural manifestations. In “Busby’s Rat” (1953), are we to believe that a man has developed an anomalous relationship with an immense river rat? In “The Rabbit Prince” (1949), does an itinerant magician turn a schoolteacher into a rabbit then back again? More conventionally supernatural are such tales as “The Horsehair Trunk” (1946), in which a man trains his soul to leave his body, with dire results; and “Where the Woodbine Twineth” (1964), which uses animate dolls effectively.
Perhaps Grubb’s most powerful tale is “Radio” (1964), in which a radio that can’t be turned off becomes a symbol for the ubiquitous presence of intrusive technology into modern life. Of a quasi-science fiction sort is “Nobody’s Watching!” (1964), in which a television engineer has apparently discovered the means of transporting matter through space, doing so by means of a television. Has he actually sent an annoying television actor, Toby Burns (who, incidentally, was having an affair with the engineer’s wife), through the television set at three in the morning, when nobody is watching? And perhaps parts of Burns will come back at some point… .
Grubb later wrote more weird tales in the volumes The Siege of 318: Thirteen Mystical Tales (1978) and You Never Believe Me and Other Stories (1989). Although a few of his stories were adapted for television in shows by Hitchcock and Serling, his work generally fell uneasily between the weird and the mainstream, and he never received substantial recognition in either field.
Another American writer, David Case (b. 1937), has also failed to receive his due as a weird writer. Case published a collection of novellas, The Cell: Three Tales of Horror (1969), with little fanfare, followed quickly by the short novel Fengriffen (1970), later packaged with two long stories as Fengriffen and Other Stories (1971). Evidently failing to receive encouragement for this work, Case turned to other writing—including Westerns and hundreds of pornographic novels—before briefly returning to the horror field with a pair of novels, The Third Grave (1980) and Wolf Tracks (1981). In recent years he has resumed horror writing in such collections as Brotherly Love and Other Tales of Faith and Knowledge (1999) and Pelican Cay and Other Disquieting Tales (2010).
Case’s early horror work is unusually thought-provoking, going well beyond mere shudder-coining. All three of the tales in The Cell deal with metempsychosis, but in radically differing manners. “The Cell” is the grim first-person account of a man who turns into a werewolf at every full moon. This seemingly conventional scenario is enlivened by the narrator’s unwitting revelations about his own disturbed mentality. Although denying that he is a “sex pervert” (53), he later reveals that his brutal killing and sexual mutilation of a young woman in the woods was impelled by his witnessing her having sex with two men in turn—with the result that, in his view, “that girl needed to be punished” (58). He later elaborates on his twisted justification of murder:
And when one considers how many young men that woman would have debased, how many she would have led into sin and degradation and ruin … well, perhaps I have saved a good many. And surely the girl herself is better off dead. She had nothing whatsoever to live for. Young as she was, she was already old with win, and she could never have been happy in her depravity … (60—61)
More than the lycanthrope’s vicious killings, his sanctimonious rationalisations for his brutality engender the true horror in the narrative.
“The Hunter” is a bit less successful. Focusing on a police investigation of a succession of murders in England, the tale makes little secret of the fact that the culprit is one Byron, a hunter who has evolved a brutal philosophy of violence—a kind of dumbing-down of Nietzsche’s vigorous “saying yes to life.” In the end, although lycanthropy is hinted at—a trail leading to a murder victim appears to show the perpetrator sometimes walking on two legs, sometimes on four—an unconvincing non-supernatural explanation (Byron has trained a wolverine to do his killing) is offered. The tale has some relation to another unsuccessful venture, “Among the Wolves” (in Fengriffen and Other Stories), where an ecologist offers similarly crude Social Darwinist views as his justification for killing elderly people he regards as “useless.”
The final tale in The Cell, “The Dead End,” may be the most impressive. A virtual short novel dealing with the expedition of Arthur Brookes, an employee of a London museum who travels to Tierra del Fuego to examine rumours of a “strange creature … that appeared vaguely manlike, but behaved like an animal” (92), the narrative comes to focus on a reclusive scientist, Hubert Hodson, who has been studying genetic mutation—and makes the remarkable claim that he knows what causes it. In the end, the creature, seen fleetingly throughout the tale, proves to be the result of Hodson’s manipulation of the genes of the creature’s parents. This skeletonic outline cannot begin to convey the textural richness of the story, with its vivid evocation of its desolate landscape and its impressive portrayal of a genuinely Nietzschean scientist seeking to engender the next stage of human evolution.
The short novel Fengriffen might, again, seem a reversion to conventionality as a routine modern Gothic, set in an imposing mansion in England, but Case introduces novelty by deft characterisation and an unusually forthright sexual scenario. A psychologist named Pope is brought in to examine Charles Fengriffen’s wife Catherine, who appears vaguely disturbed and perhaps even insane. In the course of his examination he learns the hideous tale of Fengriffen’s grandfather, Henry, who had raped a woman who had just married one of his tenants, a woodsman named Silas, in a hideous resurrection of the practice of droit de seigneur. Silas curses Henry: “he made his vow: swore that the monstrous spirit evoked in the blood of this night would know no rest until it had known vengeance, and that the next virgin bride of Fengriffen House would taste the horror of violation” (68). Can Catherine be the virgin bride in question? When Charles hears his wife in the throes of sexual ecstasy and bursts into her bedroom, he finds no one—but the window is open. She is discovered to be pregnant soon thereafter. Throughout the text, the tale dances between a supernatural explanation (has a demon actually impregnated Catherine?) and a non-supernatural one (is the son of Silas the violator of his master’s wife?), until, at almost the very last line, the former appears to be confirmed.
Case’s work is rich in philosophical substance, and his prose is nuanced and deft. His novels, Wolf Tracks (a werewolf tale) and The Third Grave (a variation of the mummy theme), are less distinguished than his novellas, but the latter constitute a substantial contribution to the weird tale, for all their failure to receive attention when they were first published.
Fame and notoriety were certainly not in short supply in the relatively brief but crowded career of Rod Serling (1924—1975), who burst on the scene with the scintillating mainstream teleplays Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) before he initiated “The Twilight Zone” in 1959. Serling’s literary talents tend to be denigrated by those writers and critics who are perhaps resentful of his celebrity as a television personality, but they were not inconsiderable. He is properly to be regarded as a late member of The Group, although he was in fact older than both Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (both of whom he enlisted to write teleplays for “The Twilight Zone”). Serling’s three slim collections of “Twilight Zone” stories (1960—62), his collection of novellas The Season to Be Wary (1967), and his two volumes of “Night Gallery” stories (1971—72) comprise a far from insignificant addition to the weird literature of the period, if for no other reason than because their author’s fame allowed them to reach a far wider audience than might otherwise be the case.
Serling’s early teleplays make clear his sympathy for down-and-outers and others who have have been on the short end of the socioeconomic spectrum. His weird work—ranging from grim tales of psychological horror and interpersonal conflict to innovative tales of science fiction—is no different; and his gift for pungent and cynical satire enliven narratives that might otherwise seem drearily mundane. Serling wrote up only a tiny fraction of his “Twilight Zone” teleplays into short stories—he found the task of writing short fiction inordinately difficult and painful—but they cover a wide thematic range, from chilling tales of obsession (“The Fever”—about a man who succumbs to gambling mania and accordingly endows a slot machine with quasi-human and malicious emotions) to non-supernatural tales on contemporary themes (“The Shelter”—perhaps Serling’s finest tale, about the vicious in-fighting in a placid suburban community over who will occupy a fallout shelter when a nuclear attack appears imminent) to mordant science fiction stories (“The Rip Van Winkle Caper”—about thieves who bury a large quantity of gold and then seal themselves away in suspended animation for a century, only to find upon awakening that gold is valueless).
The misanthropy latent in several of these narratives reaches its pinnacle in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” where all it takes to turn people against one another is to “stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers” (TZ 134). And yet, Serling also succumbs perhaps a bit too frequently to sentimentality, although some of these ventures are undeniably effective. “The Big, Tall Wish” poignantly depicts a boy’s fervent wish that an ageing boxer win a fight—and the wish appears to accomplish the desired result. Nostalgia of the Bradbury sort is evoked in “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” where harried businessmen appear to return, at least fleetingly, to the scenes of their cherished boyhood. Much less successful, in my estimation, are those tales by Serling that are overtly comic (“The Mighty Casey,” “The Whole Truth,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong”), although “Showdown with Rance McGrew,” in which a cowboy actor appears to encounter the ghost of Jesse James, is effective as a self-parody.
The three novelettes comprising The Season to Be Wary were later adapted as the two-hour pilot of “Night Gallery,” and they are among Serling’s most effective tales. His pungent cynicism is at its height here, with some imperishable metaphors: the Nazi pursued by Jews in “Escape Route” is “some stale breath left over from a death rattle” (60); and the hapless ex-fighter Charlie Hatcher, who in “Eyes” has agreed to give up his eyes so that they can be transplanted into the head of a wealthy socialite, is etched as follows: “What a Goddamned and miserable shame it was that God said to some men the moment they were born—’You lose’” (145).
The two volumes of “Night Gallery” stories are also powerful, although Serling expressed dissatisfaction with the television series as a whole, since editorial control rested with his producer, Jack Laird, who seemed to want pure horror without the heavy moral overlay that Serling was inclined to add. He commented on one occasion: “I wanted a series with distinction, with episodes that said something; I have no interest in a series which is purely and uniquely suspenseful but totally uncommentative on anything” (Engel 328). Not surprisingly, the stories that Serling wrote up from his teleplays are cleary commentative on something: “The Messiah on Mott Street,” in which a young Jewish boy apparently comes upon the Messiah—in the form of a black man—who cures his father; “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” another excursion into nostalgia whose effectiveness is marred by an adventitious happy ending; and “Make Me Laugh,” an extraordinarily grim account of a failed comic.
In the end, however, for all Serling’s literary gifts, his importance in the history of weird fiction will reside in his television work. In both “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” he presented either original teleplays or adaptations of work by Matheson, Beaumont, Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Conrad Aiken, Harlan Ellison, and a host of other classic and contemporary weird and science fiction writers, and accordingly helped to lay the foundations for the horror “boom” of the 1970s and 1980s.