Monday, December 26, 2016

The Great God Pan (1890)

by Arthur Machen

Halfway through Arthur Machen’s Victorian horror story “The Great God Pan” one of the characters has this to say about the things he has experienced:

          Villiers mused curiously over the story he had heard, and wondered
          whether he had heard both the first and the last of it. “No,” he thought,
          “certainly not the last, probably only the beginning. A case like this is
          like a nest of Chinese boxes; you open one after the other and find a
          quainter workmanship in every box. Most likely poor Herbert is merely
          one of the outside boxes; there are stranger ones to follow.”

This is essentially the conceit of a truly fascinating story whose only modern parallel seems to be Ghost Story by Peter Straub. It’s a series of seemingly unrelated chapters that halfway through begin to coalesce around a particular woman described in this way: “Everyone who saw her at the police court said she was at once the most beautiful woman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I have spoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positively shuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn’t tell why. She seems to have been a sort of enigma.” The woman also seems to be the cause of death and carnage wherever she goes, and yet is as elusive as a ghost.

The story opens on the observations of a Mr. Clarke who is in the process of witnessing an operation to be performed by a Dr. Raymond. But this is not a medically sanctioned procedure. Raymond believes he has uncovered the secret to the existence of other dimensions that the human mind cannot comprehend in its present state. “You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the great god Pan.” By altering the brain slightly he believes that he can allow humans to experience these other dimensions. “The present day men of science are unable to account for the presence, or to specify the functions of a certain group of nerve-cells in the brain . . . I can set free the current, with a touch I can complete the communication between this world of sense and a spirit-world.” The subject for this experiment is an orphan girl named Mary whom Raymond saved from poverty when she was a child. As Raymond prepares his operatory, Clarke waits in a chair and begins dreaming of a walk in the woods he had taken as a child, only this time with disturbing results. “For a moment in time he stood face to face there with a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form.” Finally Raymond brings the girl in to perform the operation, but Clarke is a little too squeamish to look directly at the surgical field. When she wakes up afterward it is clear things have not gone according to plan.

          The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from her head to foot; the soul
          seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke
          rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor . . . Three days later Raymond took Clarke to
          Mary’s bedside . . . “Yes,” said the doctor, still quite cool, “it is a great pity; she is a hopeless idiot.
          However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan.”

The second chapter moves to Clarke at home. It soon becomes clear that his experience with Dr. Raymond is one of many that the man seeks out to satisfy his curiosity about unexplained phenomena in the world. “The horrors that he had witnessed in the dreary laboratory were to a certain extent salutary . . . Clarke had a fine contempt for published literature; the most ghostly story ceased to interest him if it happened to be printed; his sole pleasure was in the reading, compiling, and rearranging what he called his “Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil.” One of his manuscripts, given to him by a Dr. Phillips, concerns a young girl named Helen who was placed by her adopted father in a rural house in which to grow up. He paid the family plenty of money and left strict instructions to allow her to do whatever she wanted. Most of Helen’s days were spent wandering in the woods from sunup until dusk. The only clue to what she did out there came from a small boy who happened on her one day. He saw her playing with a “strange naked man” and became a frightened and fearful boy from that day on. It was only later, in the house of a gentleman his father was doing work for, that “they were both horrified by a piercing shriek and the sound of a fall, and rushing out they found the child lying senseless on the floor, his face contorted with terror.” It turns out the boy had seen a stone gargoyle that was believed to be in the form of a satyr, the implication being this was the strange man he had seen Helen with.

Helen’s story continues when she befriends another girl named Rachel, and the younger girl begins accompanying Helen on her nature walks.

          “One evening, however, after Rachel had come home, her mother heard a noise which sounded
          like suppressed weeping in the girl’s room, and on going in found her lying, half undressed, upon
          the bed, evidently in the greatest distress. As soon as she saw her mother, she exclaimed, “Ah,
          mother, mother, why did you let me go to the forest with Helen?” Mrs. M. was astonished at so
          strange a question, and proceeded to make inquiries. Rachel told her a wild story. She said--"
          Clarke closed the book with a snap . . .

At this point Clarke remembers Phillips telling him the rest of the story, so horrified at what happened that he couldn’t believe it. “‘My God!’ he had exclaimed, ‘think, think what you are saying. It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be . . . There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.’” This is a technique Lovecraft would use later, allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild, a force more powerful than anything Machen could have written down. Though he does end the chapter with Clarke writing in Latin: “And the Devil was made incarnate and was made into man.”

The third chapter concerns a Mr. Villiers who enjoyed walking through London’s more interesting neighborhoods at night. One evening when a beggar comes up to him he recognizes the man as gentleman he had gone to school with, a Mr. Herbert. After taking him home and feeding him Herbert begins to recount the story of his downfall, which began with his marriage to a woman named Helen. “The night of the wedding I found myself sitting in her bedroom in the hotel . . . I listened to her as she spoke in her beautiful voice, spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in the blackest night, though I stood in the midst of a wilderness . . . I have seen the incredible, such horrors that even I myself sometimes stop in the middle of the street and ask whether it is possible for a man to behold such things and live.” Apparently Herbert sold his entire estate, and Helen took the money and left him destitute. Later, Villiers meets another gentleman, Mr. Austin, and he is told the story of Herbert’s former house in London while he was married to Helen. A man was found dead in the front yard and even the doctors couldn’t determine a cause of death. When Austin confronted one of the doctors later, the physician had this to say: “I know perfectly well what caused death. Blank died of fright, of sheer, awful terror; I never saw features so hideously contorted in the entire course of my practice, and I have seen the faces of a whole host of dead.”

Chapter Four then returns to Mr. Clarke who is visited one night by Mr. Villiers, who tells him the story of his old schoolmate, Herbert. Clarke, however, has no idea that he was married to the same Helen that was in the story told to him by Phillips. It turns out that Herbert was found dead recently, starved to death in his room. Villiers had gone to Herbert’s former London home, which had remained empty since Herbert and Helen moved out, and discovered a drawing, which he hands to Clarke. After looking at the drawing, of a woman’s portrait, he experiences the same sensations as he had during the operation in Chapter One. Then he turns the picture over and finds the word “Helen” written on the back. While Villiers is intent upon finding the woman, Clarke has barely enough energy to usher him out of his house. In Chapter Five Villiers meets again with Austin, and shows him a letter he received from Clarke urging him to burn the portrait and cease his attempts to find Helen. As the two are walking they find themselves in front of the home of a wealthy widow named Mrs. Beaumont from South America. Austin’s rooming house is nearby and they go there. He tells Villiers about the death of an artist he knew, who died in Argentina, and left him a book of sketches. They turn out to be frightening images. “The figures of Fauns and Satyrs and Aegipans danced before his eyes, the darkness of the thicket, the dance on the mountain-top, the scenes by lonely shores, in green vineyards, by rocks and desert places, passed before him: a world before which the human soul seemed to shrink back and shudder.” And on the last page of the book is a portrait of Helen.

Chapter Six begins with the apparent suicide of one of the most happy and convivial gentlemen in all of London who had hanged himself, and with it a strong feeling by the reader that somehow Helen is responsible. In the coming weeks, three more men are found to have committed suicide in exactly the same manner, none of them with even the slightest possibility of an explanation. At this point it’s Austin who comes to see Villiers, curious about the man’s inquiries into the whereabouts of Mrs. Herbert. Clarke is apparently refusing to assist with the investigation, and since Villiers knew one of the men who killed themselves he hasn’t looked into things any further, except to believe she had gone abroad. When Austin tells about meeting Mrs. Beaumont, with whom the first victim had dined the night before, Villiers has the feeling that it might be Helen, though he doesn’t say it aloud. Then a paperboy comes up the street, and the news tells of a fifth hanging victim. Villiers, it turns out, had seen this man leaving the house of Mrs. Beaumont the night before, and ran away from him in horror. “I almost fainted as I looked. I knew I had looked into the eyes of a lost soul, Austin, the man’s outward form remained, but all hell was within it. Furious lust, and hate that was like fire, and the loss of all hope and horror that seemed to shriek aloud to the night . . . That man no longer belonged to this world; it was a devil’s face I looked upon.”

Three weeks later Austin returns to Villiers’ house in Chapter Seven and learns that he believes Mrs. Beaumont is actually Helen Herbert. Villiers claims he had no expectation of discovering Helen while searching into the past of Mrs. Beaumont, but nevertheless the two became one amidst his inquiries. For the reader, a shocking discovery happens when the origins of both women begin with her true identity, Mary Raymond, the girl that Clarke had seen operated on, who had evidently seen the great god Pan. His description of following Ms. Raymond / Mrs. Herbert has a distinct resemblance to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially when he follows her to the house of Mrs. Beaumont and she goes inside. Villiers recounts going to see Clarke and receiving a manuscript of a man who escaped the Beaumont house with his life and little else. As Austin glances at the text he quickly says, “Take it away, Villiers, never speak of this again. Are you made of stone, man? Why, the dread and horror of death itself, the thoughts of the man who stands in the keen morning air on the black platform, bound, the bell tolling in his ears, and waits for the harsh rattle of the bolt, are as nothing compared to this. I will not read it; I should never sleep again.” Villiers’ plan is to confront Helen with Clarke, give her a piece of rope and tell her she has a choice before he calls the police. Austin gives Villiers one last piece of news before he goes. The woman his artist friend was seeing in Argentina before he died was Helen.

The final chapter begins with a fragment of text that, again, like Lovecraft enjoyed doing, could only hint at in words what the writer had experienced with his eyes. The story is from a Dr. Matheson, apparently describing a body he had been called in to look at.

          I saw the form waver from sex to sex, dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then I
          saw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and that which was on the heights go
          down to the depths, even to the abyss of all being. The principle of life, which makes organism,
          always remained, while the outward form changed . . . as a horrible and unspeakable shape,
          neither man nor beast, was changed into human form, there came finally death

The fragment is part of a letter from Clarke to Dr. Raymond, telling about what he and Villiers had witnessed along with the doctor after Helen killed herself. Clarke goes on to wrap the story up by hinting at what Helen had done in the woods. But it’s the return letter from Raymond that provides the chilling conclusion, as he gives the true identity of Helen.

At the time it was published Machen managed to achieve accolades of sorts, with the general press severely criticizing the story as being too horrific and suggestively sexual, tantamount to a badge of honor for a writer of the macabre. Of course H.P. Lovecraft was a huge fan of the story, saying, “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.” But he was just as conscious of how far belief must be suspended in telling a story of this nature, much as he would have to do in his own work. “Melodrama is undeniably present, and coincidence is stretched to a length which appears absurd upon analysis; but in the malign witchery of the tale as a whole these trifles are forgotten, and the sensitive reader reaches the end with an appreciative shudder.” Ultimately it’s the structure here that is so compelling. It’s a lengthy story, but nothing is really superfluous. All of the pieces of the mystery gradually fall into place along the way, and the reader’s own calculations and predictions are used to fill in the rest of the tale.

There are a couple of unique aspects to the story, one being that the character of Helen is never really part of the plot, as such. That is because everything in the story is reported by someone else rather than having the reader experience it along with the narrator. Again, this is what connects the story to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, for which Machen’s work must have been an inspiration. Straub used the idea of a woman who went after men and destroyed their lives, but took it across generations. He even had his protagonists sit around and tell ghost stories in their Chowder Society. Much has been written about Machen’s story but those detailed analyses tend to lose track of the point. Dr. Raymond created a portal for evil to come into this world when he operated on Mary, similar to what Lovecraft would write about his entire career. Part of Machen’s genius was to combine sex with the horrific, a perfect combination for Victorian readers. But the story is still impressive today in the way that it gradually unfolds its horrors for the reader. As such, “The Great God Pan” remains a classic for good reason.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Children of the Corn (1977)

by Stephen King

Children of the Corn is one of the dozens of bad films made from Stephen King stories. The story in question, “Children of the Corn,” first appeared in Penthouse magazine in 1977, one of first group of stories by the author that were published in men’s magazines and collected in his book Night Shift. As someone who lived through the seventies the story is very much of its time. It begins with a couple travelling across country. Burt Robeson and his wife are making a last-ditch attempt to salvage their marriage, but things rapidly deteriorate when they take the scenic route in Nebraska and get lost among the cornfields. Like the stories of Raymond Carver, they reflect the un-evolved nature of relationships at the time. Of his protagonist, King says, “He was gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. He decided he was holding it that tightly because if he loosened up, why, one of those hands might just fly off and hit the ex-Prom Queen beside him right in the chops.” It was a time not so different from our own, except that that no one would write about spousal abuse today with the expectation of laughter from his audience. As Burt takes his eyes off the road to argue with Vicky he runs over something in the road, which turns out to be the body of a young boy whose throat was cut. Out in the cornfield he finds a suitcase and fresh blood on the leaves, leading him to understand that the boy would be dead even if he hadn’t hit him.

Robeson is a Vietnam vet, and keeps a shotgun in the back of his car. After Vicky gets it for him he wraps the body and a blanket and puts it in the trunk of his car, intending to take it to the nearest town. All the while, Robeson can’t escape the feeling he’s being watched from the cornfields. Turning on the radio a sermon blasts from the speakers, “There’s some that thinks it’s okay to get out in the world without being smirched by the world. Now, is that what the word of God teaches us?” It is the voice of a young man, and the kind of villain that King was drawn to early in his career, fundamentalist religious zealots whose syntax betray his New England upbringing and would be uses in novels like The Dead Zone. For Vicky Robeson, the words bring back only angry memories of her own childhood and she snaps off the sound. She tells Burt all about the many children who were “possessed” by God and used by religious leaders to win converts at tent revivals. But here descriptions sound more like freaks show carnival attractions. “She nodded at his look of unbelief. “There were plenty of them on the circuit. They were good draws.’” But all Burt can think of is a phrase he heard just before the radio went off, “No room for the defiler of the corn.” In the suitcase is a crucifix made of cornhusks and a figure of Jesus made from a dried corncob, which gives Vicky the creeps.

Once in the tiny town of Gatlin Burt is intent on finding a police station, but Vicky demands that they turn around and head back to the highway because she is convinced that there are no people in the town. Sure enough, the local coffee shop is empty, though they do hear the laughter of children in the distance. What Burt also notices is the smell. The fertilizer he was used to smelling in upstate New York when he was a boy, was somehow mingled with the smells he associated with his work as a medical orderly in Vietnam. Burt then tries the church on the corner, the only building that looks as if someone has been there recently. In the vestibule King has Burt inexplicably take the time to rearrange the letters that had once been attached to the front of the building spelling out the name of the church. Inside, along with a creepy Christ made of corn, he finds log books implying that something had happened to the crops around the town in 1964 and people were being killed as a sacrifice to God to bring back the corn—killed before their twentieth birthday. A blast on the car horn sends Burt running outside, only to find Vicky and the car surrounded by children with knives and other implements of death, and he watches impotently as they attack.

          They converged on the Thunderbird. The axes and hatchets and chunks of pipe began to rise and
          fall. My God, am I seeing this? he thought frozenly. Knives crawled spirals through the sidewalls of
          the tires and the car settled. The horn blared on and on. The windshield and side windows went
          opaque and cracked under the onslaught. . . and then the safety glass sprayed inwards and he could
          see again. Vicky was crouched back, only one hand on the horn ring now, the other thrown up to
          protect her face. Eager young hands reached in. She beat them away wildly. The horn became
          intermittent and then stopped altogether.

As the children drag Vicky out of the car, Burt runs toward her and is hit with a pocketknife in the arm. As the boy who threw it comes for him, Burt pulls the blade out and kills the boy with it. But in the time it has taken him to do this, Vicky has disappeared, one of the boys indicating she has been killed. So when the children give chase, Burt begins to run. He heads down the street, all the way out of town and in desperation, once beyond the city limits, he dives into the green sea of corn. By the time the sun begins to set, he can’t hear them chasing him anymore and begins to walk toward the road. But before long he notices that the rustling of the stalks that he has been hearing for some time can’t be the result of the wind, because there is no wind. Then, as he comes into a clearing he realizes something strange about the fields. Not only were there no bugs that he could see, but no weeds of any kind. It didn’t seem possible. As the light nearly disappears, he comes into a clearing and sees Vicky.

          She had been mounted on a crossbar like a hideous trophy, her arms held at the wrists and her
          legs at the ankles with twists of common barbed wire, seventy cents a yard at any hardware store
          in Nebraska. Her eyes had been ripped out. The sockets were filled with the moonflax of cornsilk.
          Her jaws were wrenched open in a silent scream, her mouth filled with cornhusks.

Before he can run, or do anything else, Burt hears something coming through the corn. He doesn’t live long enough to see the moon come up. At the meeting of the children of the corn the next day, it becomes clear that whatever is killing the children is not the other children. When the children reach nineteen they simply walk into the corn at night and never come out again. Those of childbearing age gave birth and then walked out into the corn when they were of age. And the cycle continues.

“Children of the Corn” is a classic King story, ordinary people out of their element, meeting up with the inexplicable. One of the things that King was always impressed with was the idea of the monster that was never seen. In this case the children were attempting to appease the monster by allowing them to kill those who grew to adulthood. Or perhaps the monster had already killed the adults and created the town of children in the first place. Anything a reader can imagine, he always said, is much more frightening that what a writer can put on the page. But more disturbing is the idea of how religion twists the minds of children before they ever reach the age of understanding. This is something Vicky has vivid recollections of, episodes that have left a bad taste in her mouth ever since childhood.

          That’s what’s so monstrous about the whole trip. They like to get ahold of them when their minds
          are still rubber. They know how to put all the emotional checks and balances in. You should have
          been at some of the tent meetings my mother and father dragged me to . . . some of the ones I was
          ‘saved’ at.”

Later, when she refuses to go into the church, the revulsion is clear. “I haven’t been in a church since I left home and I don’t want to be in this church and I don’t want to be in this town.”

The truth is, the story works almost better without the presence of the supernatural in the form of He Who Walks Behind The Rows. The story has been compared to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and with good reason. The delusion of religion is fertile ground for those who don’t have a complete grip on sanity. And religion provides them with something akin to a state sanctioned justification for their delusions. As such, the supernatural belief in sacrifice that is the underpinning of all Christian sects can be easily transferred to the real world and murder rationalized away by the religiously unhinged. Combine that with the perversion of childhood that has been written about in numerous stories and novels, turning childhood innocence on its head and making it evil, and the evil the men do becomes more than enough to sustain the horror King was after. The small, isolated town is also something that H.P. Lovecraft was fond of using, though King’s New England seems a much more likely location that the Midwest. And the one aspect of the story that strains credulity is how the town could stay isolated for twelve years.

The coda that King ended the story with is not only the creepiest part of the story, but somewhat titillating with children becoming pregnant and committing what amounts to suicide before they turn twenty.

          And that night all of those now above the Age of Favor walked silently into the corn and went to
          the clearing, to gain the continued favor of He Who Walks Behind the Rows. ‘Goodbye, Malachi,’
          Ruth called. She waved disconsolately. Her belly was big with Malachi’s child and tears coursed
          silently down her cheeks. Malachi did not turn. His back was straight. The corn swallowed him.

The film version of the story didn’t hit the screen until 1984. King himself wrote the original screenplay, which was basically an expanded version of the story. The emphasis was on the two protagonists and an expanded history of the children. But King’s screenplay was abandoned in favor of one by George Goldsmith that was more of a conventional horror story. It did build on one aspect at the end of King’s story, where Ruth expresses her dissatisfaction with the cult. “Ruth turned away, still crying. She had conceived a secret hatred for the corn and sometimes dreamed of walking into it with a torch in each hand when dry September came and the stalks were dead and explosively combustible.” In the film Goldsmith had Burt and Vicky survive long enough to join forces with Ruth and Job to defeat the cult. The film spawned a lengthy series of equally tepid films as well as a recent TV movie, but none capture the shock and paranoia of the original. Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” is ultimately a story in the classic King vein that, while not necessarily one of his best, is certainly entertaining.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991)

by Michel Houellebecq

At first glance Michel Houellebecq’s biography H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life is a bit of a disappointment. It actually includes two lengthy stories by Lovecraft at the end of the book and, after the introduction by Stephen King, the essay itself takes up only a scant 62 pages. Though King is somewhat promiscuous in his praise for works of and about the macabre, it’s still something of a coup. As always, he takes an autobiographical approach, telling the reader about an idea that he had for a story called “Lovecraft’s Pillow” that tries to imagine what kind of strangeness could be absorbed by lying one’s head in the same place that Lovecraft did while he was writing his stories. Eventually, however, he arrives at Houellebecq’s essay, beginning with the fact that the author takes some arguable stances when approaching his subject. Which is good. Rather than a straight biography, of which there are already several, the author tries to get into the mind of Lovecraft, looking at things from his worldview, and then place his work within that context. There is also the argument that HPL is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, a view that is becoming more accepted as time goes on. The subtitle of the essay comes from the imagination of the writer of weird fiction who does not believe in the world as it is, and knows that there's nothing more. That writer will also cast aside human life as easily as academics want to cast aside Lovecraft. In King’s words,

          All literature, but especially literature of the weird and the fantastic, is a cave where both readers
          and writers hide from life. (Which is exactly why so many parents and teachers, spotting a teenager
          with a collection of stories by Lovecraft . . . are apt to cry, “Why are you reading that useless junk?”)
          It is in just such caves--such places of refuge--that we lick our wounds and prepare for the next
          battle out in the real world. Our need for such places never subsides, as any reader of escapist
          literature will tell you.

Houellebecq begins the brief first part of the essay with an assault on reality, making the claim that realistic fiction is worthless because of the way it simply reflects the mundane real world that we are mired in. In this context escapist fiction is exactly that, a way out. For Lovecraft, a man who held an extreme disliked for the world and the people in it, his transition to adulthood was a traumatic one, and was reinforced--in Houellebecq’s view--by an extreme materialistic view of the world, the idea that nothing else exists but matter. In Lovecraft’s words, “all rationalism tends to minimalize the value and the importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness. In some cases the truth may cause suicidal or nearly suicidal depression.” What is really at play here in Houellebecq’s assertion is that Lovecraft’s fiction is a jolt out of the numbness and mendacity of life. “To call it a shock would be an understatement. I had not known literature was capable of this.” But Houellebecq takes this even further to say that Lovecraft’s fiction isn’t even literature at all, but mythology.

To support this idea, he goes on to list all of the authors who subsumed their writing to encompass and expand on what Lovecraft had already written. The then states that, “In an age that exalts originality as a supreme value in the arts, this phenomenon is surely cause for surprise . . . nothing like it has been recorded since Homer and medieval epic poetry.” Well, there is something almost exactly like it that happened shortly after Lovecraft’s death with the advent of bebop in the jazz world when nearly every young musician--on every instrument, no less--began to copy Charlie Parker. His influence was far more widely felt in jazz than Lovecraft’s was even among authors of weird fiction. But it is significant, and Houellebecq calls the resulting homage “ritual literature.”

Part Two is the analysis of Lovecraft’s work. It begins with a brief summarization of the worldview of Lovecraft’s fiction, that amid the humdrum routine of human existence, in every gap in the web of the human presence on Earth, “in every place where human activity is interrupted, where there is a blank on the map, these ancient gods crouch huddled waiting to take back their rightful place.” But his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Houellebecq states, is a bit disappointing for the fact that it simply recounts the history of such literature without offering a glimpse into how Lovecraft would go on to change it, from describing a supernatural which not only depends on human existence but in many ways is created by humanity, to a supernatural in which man is so insignificant as to be meaningless in the design of the cosmos. Thus the fears that Lovecraft taps into are not just the primal one of human death, but the far more philosophical one of contemplating human non-existence. The initial discussion of Lovecraft’s fiction is setting. Rather than spending time on the banal and the intrusion of evil into it, Lovecraft usually begins his stories in media res, with the fa├žade of human significance already cracked wide open.

Houellebecq sees a weakness in the fact that Lovecraft’s characters--often first-person narrators--do not have the ability to comprehend the significance of events as they transpire, that somehow they should be able to understand in the moment what they only seem to grasp in retrospect. Far from diminishing his great work, however, this only seems to make it that much more breathless in the retelling. Lovecraft’s work is then contrasted with that of the novelist, whose mission is to realistically replicate life--something Lovecraft believed was impossible--including all of it’s emotional baggage surrounding sex, finances, and personal relationships. Lovecraft eschewed all of these in favor of descriptions of things that could not be described, things outside of human experience. Lovecraft is far more interested in architecture, and the idea that man is only mean to “build vast beautiful, mineral things for the moon to delight in after he is dead.” In terms of sensual imagery, Lovecraft is also a master manipulator in the way that only writers are, using words to describe perception in ways that are also outside human experience, and yet utterly evocative. Finally Houellebecq delves into the elements of Lovecraft that resulted in the first of his stories to be published in France appearing in a collection of science-fiction. But unlike those writers descriptive detail, both scientific and topographic, are used by Lovecraft to reinforce the supernatural even more, demonstrating their aberration in defying humanity’s carefully constructed laws of the universe.

Part Three, the lengthiest section in the book, could be most aptly described by the title of one of the chapters in it: Antibiography. He had little in the way of money, and nibbled through a small inheritance throughout his life. He met Sonia Haft Greene in 1922 and she induced him to marry her two years later. When he moved to New York to live with her, his life seemed to begin anew, but things changed with Sonia lost her job and suddenly the city lost its appeal, all of which is described in his autobiographical story, “He.” Though he put everything he had into attempting to get a job, he had no experience and no one would hire him. Despair ensued, Sonia moved to Ohio for work, and after a year of separation he moved back to Providence and the couple divorced a few years later. It is at this point that a latent racism begins to emerge in his work, no doubt influenced by his time on the streets of New York City, watching immigrants and those he felt beneath him gaining employment while he was left to suffer. These personal horrors were also those that he employed in his writing, allowing all of his protagonists to resemble himself in some manner, and be tortured by those lesser species of sub-humans who did not.

This obsession, claims Houellebecq, is most evident in “The Dunwich Horror,” which can be seen as something of an inversion of the Christian mythos, by replicating those tropes in evil form. In this, Houellebecq makes a fascinating point. By casting himself as the victim and the sub-humans as the enemy, the gateway into this world for the old gods, Lovecraft was living his own nightmare. And this he sees as one of the major elements of Lovecraft’s later period, a genuine fear that comes across in his writing as few other writers have been able to achieve. But his fear extended to life itself. One of the anecdotes he relates earlier in the book is how Lovecraft kept a bottle of cyanide at hand with which to kill himself. And he ends the book with this quote by the writer:

          And as for Puritan inhibitions--I admire them more every day. They are attempts to make of life
          a work of art--to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence--and they
          spring out of that divine hatred for life which marks the deepest and most sensitive soul.

One of the great joys of the piece is that Houellebecq is able to talk about Lovecraft’s style and use generous examples, but gives away nothing. In that, it is possible to read this book and still enjoy the works later but have a new appreciation of them. Not all of Houellebecq’s arguments are convincing, but all of them can be appreciated for the thoughtfulness and the way in which he weaves them into a cohesive theory of Lovecraft’s art. And in that respect, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, is an essential work in an ever-growing cannon of literature about one of America’s great, unsung literary talents.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dracula's Guest (1914)

by Bram Stoker

Dracula’s Guest” is widely believed to be the original opening chapter of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but the reason for that is primarily due to Stoker’s widow, Florence. Stoker had been planning to publish collections of his short fiction, and his wife decided to include the story in the third one published two years after her husband’s death. “I have added an hitherto unpublished episode from Dracula. It was originally excised owing to the length of the book, and may prove of interest to the many readers of what is considered my husband's most remarkable work.” It’s possible that she simply made the assumption that it was part of the larger work because of the title. Though it’s far more likely that its inclusion was at the insistence of the publisher in order to have the name Dracula in the title to ensure sales. If the story has any relationship to the novel itself it is probably as the beginning of an alternate draft. And it is all the more intriguing for that. As it stands, it certainly doesn’t fit with the epistolary construct of Stoker’s eventual novel, and the main character doesn’t appear to share any similarities to Jonathan Harker, as he is much more irresponsibly reckless for someone who has an important task to carry out for the Count. The draft idea has further traction because there are some real inconsistencies to the story that don’t lend themselves to the feel of a polished and completed work. What that novel would have been like with that character as the protagonist, however, is incredibly intriguing.

The story opens with an unnamed British traveller in Munich, heading out into the countryside by coach. In a scene that would be repeated in numerous Universal horror films, the innkeeper warns the coachman to be back well before nightfall as it is April 30th, Walpurgisnacht, “when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad--when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.” The coachman readily agrees, yet during their journey he is unable to convey to his rider exactly why the date is so infamous. This is the first of the inconsistencies, as the narrator seems genuinely frustrated by the coachman’s inability to tell him what he was so frightened of.

          There was just enough of English mixed with the German for me to understand the drift of his
          talk. He seemed always just about to tell me something--the very idea of which evidently fright-
          ened him; but each time he pulled himself up, saying, as he crossed himself: “Walpurgisnacht!”
          I tried to argue with him, but it was difficult to argue with a man when I did not know his language.

And yet, later in the story when the narrator himself becomes frightened, it is he who provides the description of Walpurgisnacht given above. In fact, this makes his British arrogance all the more insulting when he seems to have known all along why the man was frightened and yet refused to acknowledge it. “I pitied the poor fellow, he was deeply in earnest; but all the same I could not help laughing. His English was quite gone now. In his anxiety he had forgotten that his only means of making me understand was to talk my language, so he jabbered away in his native German.”

While it is the beginning of spring, and it is sunny out, the weather has not quite turned all the way, and the driver has been warned about a storm that is on the way. But the narrator has seen an intriguing road that leads down into a valley, which he wants to explore. At this, however, the coachman hops down and flatly refuses, and during their discussion there is plenty of foreshadowing about the folly of such an adventure.

          Then the horses became restless and sniffed the air. At this he grew very pale, and, looking
          around in a frightened way, he suddenly jumped forward, took them by the bridles, and led
          them on some twenty feet . . . Whilst he was petting the horses and trying to quiet them, dark
          clouds drifted rapidly across the sky. The sunshine passed away, and a breath of cold wind
          seemed to drift over us. It was only a breath, however, and more of a warning than a fact, for
          the sun came out brightly again.

The narrator insists on going, in spite of the warning, sending the coachman back to Munich and walking alone. Just before he loses sight of the coach, the narrator sees a man walking along the road who stops the coach. The horses rear in fright, and after the coach lurches forward the man seems to have disappeared. There is supposedly the ruins of an old village where the narrator is headed, which the coachman said was cursed, evil and unholy, something to do with dead people who would not die, looking very much alive in their coffins. After a couple of hours walking in the desolate countryside, the narrator feels a definite chill in the air, especially after the sun goes behind the trees. “The air was cold, and the drifting of clouds high overhead was more marked. They were accompanied by a sort of far-away rushing sound, through which seemed to come at intervals that mysterious cry which the driver had said came from a wolf.” Before long it begins to snow, hard and steadily, and soon the narrator winds up off of the road and seeks shelter in a dense copse of trees. Discovering a decaying rock wall, he decides to see if he can find the ruins of a home that might offer more protection, but when the storm breaks momentarily and the moon illuminates his surroundings he realizes that he is in a graveyard.

One of the things that always bothered me when I read the story before was the idea of a storm that suddenly comes out of nowhere. It was a sunny day in the spring, and while one understands a squall, it seemed to strain credulity to thing that something this sever could seeming appear with no warning. But recently I read a description from The Denham Tracts, written by Michael Denham in 1892, that talked about exactly this sort of phenomenon and demonstrating that it’s not as much of a freak occurrence as I had previously thought.

          In the mountainous parts of this country, towards the northwest, a very remarkable phenomenon
          frequently appears called the helm-wind. A rolling cloud, sometimes three or four days together,
          hovers over the mountain tops, the sky being clear in other parts. The [cloud] is not dispersed or
          blown away by the wind, but continues its station till a violent hurricane comes roaring down the
          mountain. Then, on a sudden, ensues a profound calm, and then again . . . the tempest gradually
          ensues. This tempest, however, seldom extends into the country beyond a mile or two from the
          bottom of the mountain.

Another of the inconsistencies in the story is the matter of language. Early in the story, the narrator claims to understand little German at all. “The advantage certainly rested with him, for although he began to speak in English, of a very crude and broken kind, he always got excited and broke into his native tongue.” At the end of the story, however, he is apparently listening to all of the conversation around him and understanding German with perfect clarity. There’s also the matter of the crypt at this point in the story, on which is written an inscription in German and which he reads quite easily, informing him that the countess buried there had died in 1801. This in addition to the Russian Cyrillic writing on the iron stake driven into the top of the tomb reading, “The dead travel fast.” The narrator is in no mood to explore any further, but when the snow turns to hail he is driven inside the crypt, and there he sees something inexplicable. “I saw, as my eyes were turned into the darkness of the tomb, a beautiful woman, with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly sleeping on a bier. As the thunder broke overhead, I was grasped as by the hand of a giant and hurled out into the storm.” The hand would turn out to be very real, though from here on the narrator loses any semblance of full consciousness. The last of his recollections of the event are related in a dreamlike state of near hallucination, and he wakes to find a great wolf sitting on his chest.

Though his rescue at first seems more than improbable, the denouement of the story is actually quite good in the way that it weaves all of the loose threads together, in addition to giving the reader information about Dracula’s motivations and identity. The end result is that the inconsistencies are minor and in no way detract from the telling of the tale. The collection the story first appeared in was Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories, from 1914, and included both published and unpublished works by the author. David O. Selznik originally purchased the story for MGM, but there was no way the studio could have produced the film owing to Universal’s copyright on the character name, and so he eventually sold it to Universal. The studio attempted to produce it as a film, but after numerous rewrites the film it was made into, Dracula’s Daughter, bears no resemblance to Stoker’s tale. Several other films have taken the name of the story for their inspiration, but none have followed the plot closely enough to be recognizable as Stoker’s work either. The story itself has also appeared in a variety of anthologies, and under a number of different names in collections edited by Peter Haining, attempting to make them appear as new stories by Stoker. What it may lack in finesse, “Dracula’s Guest” more than makes up for in thrills and is certainly a satisfying part of the Dracula mythos.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Night Wire (1926)

by H.F. Arnold

No less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft is said to have enjoyed this story tremendously. And it is a good one. Little is known about the author, H.F. Arnold, and because of that there has been speculation that it may not even be the author’s real name. But some biographical material does exist. Born in 1901 and died in 1963, Henry Ferris Arnold was a journalist who published only three stories, two of them in Weird Tales magazine and one in Amazing Stories. This was his first, from the September of 1926 issue of Weird Tales, and “The Night Wire” remains one of the most popular stories in the magazine’s history. In begins on the night shift of a newsroom on an upper floor of a building in a big city. The first person narrator tells about the strangeness of taking down wire stories in the middle of the night, when the city is asleep, hearing events from all over the world as if they are happening right in front of him. But he also conveys a sense of boredom, that even though some of the events are horrible, natural disasters and murders, unless a name that the operator recognizes comes over the wire they rarely notice what they are typing.

The narrator is the night manager in the news office of a West Coast town on the water. San Francisco seems the most likely candidate, especially with the presence of the fog. The story he is relating is a strange occurrence that he wishes he could forget. It begins with one of the men who work for him in the office, John Morgan. His notoriety has come about because he can operate two wires at the same time, that is, listening to two Morse Code signals simultaneously and typing them out, one on each hand, on two separate typewriters. Arnold does a nice job of setting the atmosphere. “Alone in the quiet hours between two and four, the receiving operators doze over their sounders and the news comes in. Fires and disasters and suicides. Murders, crowds, catastrophes. Sometimes an earthquake with a casualty list as long as your arm. The night wire man takes it down almost in his sleep, picking it off on his typewriter with one finger.” One night, however, something strange happened that the narrator wishes he could forget.

Morgan is the only wire man on that night, and the narrator recalls that he said he felt tired, remarkable because the man had never said a word about himself for the entire three years he had been working there. Later in the evening the narrator notices that both wires are open, also unusual in that nothing major was happening to warrant it. So he picks up the piles of reports and goes to his desk to read them. The one wire was normal stuff, but the other was from a town called Xebico, a place he had never heard of. Apparently they were experiencing a fog of unusual density that had virtually stopped traffic. Fifteen minutes later, another batch of feeds came in. “Morgan was slumped down in his chair and had switched his green electric light shade so that the gleam missed his eyes and hit only the top of the two typewriters.” The fog in Xebico was now so thick it had darkened all the lights and was emitting a strange, unpleasant odor. An eyewitness account from the local sexton said that the fog was emanating from the cemetery. “‘It was first visible as a soft gray blanket clinging to the earth above the graves,’ he stated. ‘Then it began to rise, higher and higher . . . I turned and ran from the accursed spot. Behind me I heard screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard.’”

What Arnold does at this point is impressive. He manages to make the rest of the story like something out of a dream, where the protagonist experiences the horror from a distance but can do nothing to stop it, powerless to help. By now he is searching for further news from Xebico to the exclusion of the rest of the news. A search party was sent out to the graveyard and disappeared. Then another was sent out. Meanwhile the fog is now invading homes, coming inside and forcing residents to leave and gather in the church.

          From the outskirts of the city may be heard cries of unknown voices. They echo through the fog
          in queer uncadenced minor keys. The sounds resemble nothing so much as wind whistling
          through a gigantic tunnel. But the night is calm and there is no wind. The second rescue party . . .

And the wire cuts off there. While the narrator is a veteran of the news/disaster business, he admits to becoming a bit unnerved by the whole thing. When the reporter from Xebico comes back, he is now writing in first person. His office is cut off from all communication and he doesn’t even know if anyone is receiving his reports, but he can see what is happening out of the window of his office building.

          From my instrument I can gaze down on the city beneath me. From the position of this room on
          the thirteenth floor, nearly the entire city can be seen. Now I can see only a thick blanket of black-
          ness where customarily are lights and life . . . People are running to and fro, screaming in despair.
          A vast bedlam of sound flies up to my window, and above all is the immense whistling of unseen
          and unfelt winds . . . It is now directly beneath me.   God!   An instant ago the mist opened and I
          caught a glimpse of the streets below. The fog is not simply vapor -- it lives! By the side of each
          moaning and weeping human is a companion figure, an aura of strange and vari-colored hues.
          How the shapes cling! Each to a living thing!

The report continues, describing the lights and the fog and the power that it possesses as it envelops the people in the town, eventually climbing up the building toward him. Then the wire stops dead. Morgan, hunched in his chair, has stopped typing and the narrator is so unnerved that he rushes to the phone to call the Chicago wire to find out where this town is. But Chicago informs him that they haven’t had their wire on all night. And this isn’t even the final shock. The ending is a wonderfully written reveal that, while not entirely unexpected, is still a terrific shock. Later, when the narrator can’t find the name of Xebico in the atlas, he decides to quit the night shift permanently though he will never be able to forget the incident.

The story as it originally appeared in Weird Tales had the wire copy set in typewriter type on the page, giving an added touch of realism as the narrator states that he saved all of the wires, the conceit being that they are being presented as the actual stories typed out by Morgan. The idea of the fog itself being alive, with some kind of prehensile ability to kill humans, would be explored later by Stephen King in his story The Mist as well as John Carpenter in his film The Fog, but this story really stands apart from those in construction and intent. Arnold’s second story for Weird Tales was a two-part story called “The City of Iron Cubes,” a science-fiction story about space invaders who land in Peru. It was serialized in the magazine in 1929, with part two appearing in the same issue as Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” His final story, “When Atlantis Was,” also appeared in two parts in Amazing Stories in late 1937. “The Night Wire” is frequently anthologized and deservedly so. It’s a story that is written for effect rather than character or plot, and in that respect the effect is entirely successful.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Monkey's Paw (1902)

by W.W. Jacobs

The Monkey's Paw” by William Wymark Jacobs, is one of the most familiar stories to readers of weird fiction, if not in its original form, then in the multitudes of mutations it has undergone in film and fiction. It’s such a familiar tale that it would be difficult for it not to have lost much of its original power over the last century, but those with the ability to suspend their “delighted glibness,” to use a phrase by Lionel Trilling, will be rewarded by their own imagination in a greater way that all the more explicit horror stories put together. The story actually holds an exalted place in the history of horror fiction. H.P. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, introduced his subject by stating that, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” What Jacob’s tale, which Lovecraft called melodramatic but still praised, gives the reader is just that, the unknown on the other side of the door. But Jacobs also succeeds in one of Lovecraft’s other injunctions. “Serious weird stories are . . . made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself.” These are the reason’s that “The Monkey’s Paw” will always remain one of the classics of the genre.

The story opens on the small home of Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert. It’s a dark and stormy night and, while they are expecting a guest, Mr. White seems surprised when he actually hears the gate and realizes his guest has arrived. Sitting by the fire, Sergeant-Major Morris regales the family with tales from his time in India, and one story in particular Mr. White asks him to tell is about the monkey’s paw. Though initially reluctant, he pulls the shriveled paw from his pocket and tells how an Indian fakir put a spell on the paw that would grant three wishes to three different men. The old magician, he said, “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” Morris is the second to have owned it and when Herbert jokingly asks if he received his three wishes Morris blanches. He confirms that he did and then throws the paw on the fire. Horrified, Mr. White retrieves it quickly, the implication being that he’s intrigued with the possibility of the three remaining wishes. One of the important aspects of the story is that after Morris leaves, Mr. White has difficulty thinking of something to wish for. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.” This is the real idea that the story revolves around.

Unlike similar tales where the lesson is about greed, here it is simply attempting to interfere with fate. Mr. White is already a happy man and has everything he wants. Fate, it would seem, has been kind to him. When his son suggests that if he could pay off the house that might make him happier, Mr. White goes ahead and wishes for two hundred pounds. The three wait for a moment, but nothing happens, and then he puts the paw on the mantle and they forget about it. The next morning there are jokes about the wish and then Herbert goes to work at his factory job. Later that day a man comes to the door from the company Herbert works for. There’s a small element of foreshadowing when the man comes inside and the couple wants to know what has happened to their son. “‘Is he hurt?’ demanded the mother, wildly. The visitor bowed in assent. ‘Badly hurt,’ he said, quietly, ‘but he is not in any pain.’ ‘Oh, thank God!’ said the old woman, clasping her hands. ‘Thank God for that! Thank—’ She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s averted face.” Herbert, it turns out, has been caught in a machine and killed, and the company wants to give them two hundred pounds as compensation.

The fascinating thing here is the use of the words themselves. While Mr. White wishes for two hundred pounds, there is a sense in his getting it that the money must come from somewhere. It can’t just appear out of nowhere. In scientific terms it is the idea of conservation of mass, that despite whatever chemical reaction occurs the same number of molecules exist afterward and so nothing is lost. But further than that, the fakir’s intent of making one pay to interfere with fate makes the attaining of the wish that much more cruel. In the delivery of the news of the death of their son, the man also demonstrate the same kind of twisting of words as he says that Herbert is in no pain, but leaves out the fact that his death is the reason. From here the story marches grimly to its conclusion. Two miles down the road is the cemetery, and the two hundred pounds seemingly a coincidence, paltry compensation for the loss of their son. It is in her grief afterward that Mrs. White suddenly embraces the potential of the monkey’s paw in demanding that her husband bring their son back to life with another wish. But by now the husband knows the way the paw works. He was the one to identify the body and knows that this is the wrong thing to do. “He has been dead ten days, and besides he-—I would not tell you else, but—-I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?” Nevertheless, the wife is not to be denied this chance to get her son back.

          He went down in the darkness, and felt his way to the parlour, and then to the mantelpiece. The
          talisman was in its place, and a horrible fear that the unspoken wish might bring his mutilated son
          before him ere he could escape from the room seized upon him, and he caught his breath as he
          found that he had lost the direction of the door. His brow cold with sweat, he felt his way round the
          table, and groped along the wall until he found himself in the small passage with the unwholesome
          thing in his hand.

It is this thought, of his son still mangled by the machinery and yet knocking on the door for his eager wife to let in, that accounts for the dramatic conclusion. It’s still a story that can pack a lot of punch if the reader allows it to. Stephen King even devotes a section of his book Danse Macabre to the importance of “The Monkey’s Paw” as a horror archetype in its ability to evoke terror, the finest of the fear emotions. “We actually see nothing outright nasty . . . It’s what the mind sees that makes these stories quintessential tales of terror. It is the unpleasant speculation called to mind when the knocking on the door begins in the latter story and the grief-stricken old woman rushes to answer it. Nothing is there but the wind when she finally throws the door open . . . but what, the mind wonders, might have been there if her husband had been a little slower on the draw with that third wish?”

In addition to the plot itself, there are some nice atmospheric touches to the story as well. When Mr. White is making his first wish he drops the paw on the floor when he feels it moving in his hand. “‘It moved,’ he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. ‘As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.’” Then later, when he is sitting alone watching the fire die, he began “seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement . . . His hand grasped the monkey’s paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went to bed.” There is also the most chilling part of the story, for me, and I’m not sure it was even meant to be. After wishing their son alive and nothing immediately happens, the couple goes to bed, the wife in disappointment, the husband with relief. But when they both hear the knocking on the door, the wife utters the most disturbing line in the story: “ ‘It's my boy; it’s Herbert!’ she cried, struggling mechanically. ‘I forgot it was two miles away. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door.’” The thought of the formerly dead son shambling along the road from the cemetery two miles away is absolutely breathtaking. What makes it so, as King would say, is the fact that it is not explicitly shown in the story.

W.W. Jacobs was primarily known as a humor writer, but like many writers of the era he did essay several ghost stories as well and they are collected in his book, The Lady of the Barge. RKO produced a version of his most famous story in 1933 when they were riding high on the success of King Kong. Like that film, it was also directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, and starred Ivan F. Simpson, Louise Carter and C. Aubrey Smith, but much to the dismay of fans it is now considered a lost film. The story was also filmed a couple of times during the silent era and again in 1948 by the aptly named Butcher’s Film Service, for television in 1965 by Alfred Hitchcock for his television program, and most recently in 2013 starring Stephen Lang and Charles Dutton. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, the entrenchment of the story into popular culture does not diminish its importance. In fact, it reinforces it. It’s a short tale but, given a leisurely read, “The Monkey’s Paw” still has the power to terrify over a century later.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Bully of Brocas Court (1921)

by Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the most interesting things about Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Bully of Brocas Court” is something that has nothing to do with fiction at all. Though this is one of the author’s ghost stories that I read in a collection of his supernatural fiction, it’s primarily a boxing tale and it was originally included in his collection on boxing, Tales of the Ring and the Camp. The first couple of pages are actually an engaging summary of boxing in England in the late eighteen-seventies. Bare-knuckle boxing had already been outlawed because of the gambling involved, but “the era of the reserved building and the legal glove-fight had not yet arisen, and the cult was in a strange intermediate condition. It was impossible to regulate it, and equally impossible to abolish it, since nothing appeals more directly and powerfully to the average Briton.” In watching the most recent film version of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr., I always wondered about the ad hoc nature of the boxing match in the film, but Doyle’s story provides the answer: “Therefore there were scrambling contests in stableyards and barns, hurried visits to France, secret meetings at dawn in wild parts of the country, and all manner of evasions and experiments.”

In this story, however, the official sparring is to take place within the confines of the military. A farrier-sergeant by the name of Burton has bested everyone in the military and so an army captain, a baronet by the name of Frederick Milburn, nicknamed Mubles, is sent to London to procure the services of a professional boxer who can best Burton. But because of the nature of boxing at the time, this is not an easy task. Nevertheless, he finds a young man by the name of Stevens, an undefeated middleweight who gives up a few pounds and inches in reach but still looks quite confident. “He was a man who had never yet met his master and was still upheld by the deep sustaining confidence which is never quite the same after a single defeat. The Baronet chuckled as he realized what a surprise packet was being carried north for the Farrier-Sergeant.” As the two head north Milburn remembers a legend about a boxer along the road who had won a number of informal matches, the Bully of Brocas Court. “Some say they’ve seen him, and some say he’s a fairy­tale, but there’s good evidence that he is a real man with a pair of rare good fists that leave their marks behind him.” Thus, when they are stopped by a pair of men wearing old-fashioned clothing and speaking in an odd way, it seems strange that it takes Milburn so long to recognized that they’ve been stopped by the Bully. It only takes a few minutes of taunting, however, before Stevens is ready to tangle. “‘If you want a fight you’ve come to the right shop,’ said he; ‘it’s my trade, so don't say I took you unawares.’”

With the horses are clearly agitated, the Bully leads the men to a clearing of grass where they can do battle, but the atmosphere is something else again. “It was a sinister place, black and weird, with the crumbling pillars and the heavy arching trees. Neither the Baronet nor the pugilist liked the look of it.” As the battle begins, the Bully takes off his hat and Stevens is even more unnerved by his visage than he is by the surroundings. “Stevens gave an exclamation of surprise and horror. The removal of the beaver hat had disclosed a horrible mutilation of the head of his antagonist. The whole upper forehead had fallen in, and there seemed to be a broad red weal between his close-cropped hair and his heavy brows.” Once they begin brawling, however, it’s clear the Bully is an exceptional fighter. He seems to have an endless store of energy and no matter how long the rounds go, he never seems to tire.

          Young Stevens sprang forward and rushed at his man with all the strength that was left to him.
          By the fury of his onset he drove him back, and for a long minute had all the better of the
          exchanges. But this iron fighter seemed never to tire. His step was as quick and his blow as
          hard as ever when this long rally had ended. Stevens had eased up from pure exhaustion. But
          his opponent did not ease up. He came back on him with a shower of furious blows which beat
          down the weary guard of the pugilist.

But before Stevens can be defeated, the Bully becomes frightened of something and he and his partner run off into the woods. A few seconds later a white dog emerges from the brush and follows them. As with most ghost stories of the period, it is the denouement where the real import of the episode becomes clear. The two race for the cart and whip the horses to get away as fast as they can. At a pub a few miles away the innkeeper finally relates the story of the Bully, as well as the dog, who had been killed in a roadside accident over fifty years before.

In his introduction to The Best Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, fantasy editor E.F. Bleiler says that this is Doyle’s only traditional Victorian ghost story. It was written relatively late in the author’s life and published in The Strand Magazine in November of 1921. One of the nice things about the story is the way that the viewpoint character, the Baronet, is so intent on the boxing match between Stevens and the Bully that he doesn’t have much time to think about the supernatural implications of his presence there. In terms of the story itself, it isn’t the most compelling story ever written. Bleiler even says as much in his introduction. “Arthur Conan Doyle, it must be admitted, was not the towering figure in supernatural fiction that he was in the detective story or the historical novel . . . Not a new vision, his was merely respectable accomplishment.” But that is only an admission of fact rather than a judgment, and he continues by suggesting, “this is not to say that his supernatural stories are not worth reading.” In particular, he praises this story because Doyle’s love of boxing shines through and, “not surprisingly, since it strikes a sports note that Doyle delighted in, it is one of Doyle’s best stories.” Economical as it is, the story does have a surprising vigor.

One of the things that struck me while reading was thinking about the class system in England, something that is present in some way in all British fiction. The protagonist of the story is Sir Frederick Milburn, whom the reader is eventually told is a captain in the army. He is therafter referred to as the Baronet, by Doyle, which continually makes clear the difference in station between him and the young boxer, Alf Stevens. “Twilight was already falling and the light dim, but what the Baronet saw pleased him well. The man was a fighter every inch, clean-cut, deep-chested, with the long straight cheek and deep-set eye which goes with an obstinate courage.” It’s not an obvious distance between them, but there is still the implication in the description of the man that Milburn is in charge, not only in the obvious sense of anyone who hires men for sport, to entertain at the behest of their employer, but by rank and privilege as well. In the middle of the boxing match, however, loyalties quickly become established and the Baronet becomes less of an employer and more of a ringside coach. “‘He knows a lot,’ said the pugilist. ‘I don’t know where he learned it, but he’s had a deal of practice somewhere.’” to which the Baronet replies, “‘Keep him at out-fighting. I think you are his master there.’” It doesn't seem much here, but in the context of the story there is a real sense of camaraderie between the two in facing the Bully together.

Ultimately it’s an enjoyable story, and because of its brevity it reminds me more of Ambrose Bierce than anyone else. “The Bully of Brocas Court” is a very competent ghost story and as such I’m looking forward to reading more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction.