Category Archives: Horror

Connant nodded bitterly. “I’m human. Hurry that test. Your eyes—Lord, I wish you could see your eyes staring—”

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell Jr.

Who Goes There? is one of those books now famous(ish) because of the film that was made from it, or films I should say – in this case the 1951 science fiction horror classic The Thing from Another World!, and John Carpenter’s equally strong 1981 remake The Thing.

Most of the people who read my blog don’t care much about either science fiction or horror, which is fair enough. If you ever make exceptions though, this might be one to make, because this is something of a small masterpiece.

who goes there

Love those old pulp covers.

An Antarctic research station find a crashed alien spaceship, ancient and entombed in ice. They accidentally destroy the ship, but they do at least recover a corpse from the ice nearby.

What follows is actually rather refreshing. The scientists at the base have an intelligent debate about whether it’s safe to thaw it out, some worried that even after 20 million years it may still harbour dangerous bacteria or viruses, the biologist Blair pointing out in return that since humans can’t catch diseases from snakes they’re hardly likely to do so from something that didn’t even evolve on our planet. Some are concerned by less tangible fears, the thing’s expression seems insane, hate-filled, and the mere sight of it causes men to recoil in revulsion. That and those who brought it back had disturbing dreams, but then who wouldn’t seeing such a thing?

Of course they decide to thaw it out, they haven’t really a choice as they know they can’t safely ship it back without it thawing mid-transit, destroying any samples they might later wish to take. They take sensible precautions though. Connant, a cosmic rays specialist, stays up with it overnight since he’ll be up monitoring equipment anyway. It’s not that anything’s expected to happen, they just want to make sure nothing goes wrong. It’s fair to say, things go wrong.

Campbell has a lovely sense of place. Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE PLACE STANK. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burned cooking-fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.

There’s plenty of examples as good. You can feel the cold here, smell the stale sweat. Campbell establishes swiftly quite how hostile the environment is, how easy it is to get lost in a whiteout, how quickly you can freeze to death. There’s only one place here life can cling on, inside the base itself. There’s only men, dogs, and the thing which even after twenty million years is very far from dead.

The 1951 movie makes the thing a humanoid plant that feeds on blood. Hokey, but it works in the film. In the book though it’s quite different, much worse. The thing adapts, and how it adapts is by imitation. It can absorb creatures, replicate them at the cellular level, effectively become them. It doesn’t just absorb their bodies either, it takes their thoughts, their instincts –  it’s telepathic, making it the perfect mimic.

What that means is that anything it can reach it can infect, take over. Dog, gull, seal, whale, it doesn’t matter. Anything it can reach it can become. Anything it becomes ceases to be what it was, is now a vessel for the thing, and it remembers every form it’s ever taken. If it gets out it’s literally the end of the world. It gets to the dogs, it starts to become a dog, but the barking of the rest of the pack alerts the men of the base and they find it mid-transformation, kill it with electrical cables. They consider what they’ve seen:

“… It can imitate anything – that is, become anything. If it had reached the Antarctic sea, it would have become a seal, maybe two seals. They might have attacked a killer whale, and become either killers, or a herd of seals. Or maybe it would have caught an albatross, or a skua gull, and flown to South America.”

It’s dead though, they think. Dr. Copper starts to reflect how lucky they were, though Blair quickly corrects him:

“Then we can only give thanks that this is Antarctica, where there is not one, single, solitary, living thing for it to imitate, except these animals in camp.” “Us,” Blair giggled. “It can imitate us. Dogs can’t make four hundred miles to the sea; there’s no food. There aren’t any skua gulls to imitate at this season. There aren’t any penguins this far inland. There’s nothing that can reach the sea from this point—except us. We’ve got brains. We can do it. Don’t you see—it’s got to imitate us—it’s got to be one of us—that’s the only way it can fly an airplane——fly a plane for two hours, and rule—be—all Earth’s inhabitants. A world for the taking—if it imitates us!

That’s where the real horror starts. They killed it, yes, but what if they killed it too late? What if it’s already infected one of them? Assumed a man’s form, copied his mind, is waiting among them for the snows to lift and for them all to be taken home, where it can spread and colonise?  Connant spent the whole night with the thing, is he still Connant? Who else might it have got to? It could be anyone, it could be several of them, all they know is that it can’t be most of them since if it were it wouldn’t bother hiding any more.

What follows is probably the most chillingly paranoiac novel I’ve yet read. There were times I had to close it just because the claustrophobia was too strong, the sense of dread and isolation. The radio’s quickly smashed so as to stop the thing calling for an emergency airlift out, but time’s passing and with it the season. Eventually the relief crews will come, birds will start to pass overhead again, all it has to do is wait, pretending to be one of them, pretending to be just as afraid as everyone else.

I won’t say much more about what happens, I don’t really need to – you can probably imagine. They develop a test to distinguish between someone who’s still human and someone who just seems human, but who do you trust to administer it? If a man refuses to let the person with the test near them does that mean they’re a monster, or that they’re human and don’t know if the person doing the testing is a monster? Every man is trapped in his own solipsistic hell, except of course that’s not true because some of them aren’t men anymore.

There’s not a lot else to say other than that this really is a quite brilliant little novella. Obviously if you’ve no patience for pulp tales of alien horrors from beyond the stars it’s not for you, but if you can swallow that part what follows is intensely evocative, so much so that I was glad it was short and I could come out of it blinking in the summer sunlight, if still feeling slightly cold. I don’t know if it’ll make my end of year list yet, but it’s a definite candidate. A wonderfully chilling little tale, and golden age science fiction at its best.

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Filed under Campbell Jr., John W., Horror, Novellas, SF

‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

 THE NORTH IS the dark place.

Hammer Films used to be a British institution. From the late 1950s through to the 1970s it produced a wide range of independent British horror cinema, much of it very good. These films were made quickly and generally on a very low budget. Many were utterly forgettable, but some were absolute classics fondly remembered to this day.

Recently Hammer has had something of a revival. The brand was bought out back in 2007 and the new owners are putting out fresh horror cinema under that label (including the excellent low key British horror movie Wake Wood, which is in the best traditions of Hammer). They’ve also launched a publishing arm, which has put out horror titles by existing horror writers and in some cases by more literary writers spreading their (presumably dark) wings.

I’m a Hammer horror fan and a Jeanette Winterson fan, so when Hammer published her The Daylight Gate they pretty much had me in mind. Applying literary fiction techniques to genre though can easily come unstuck. Some writers (and readers) assume that genre is a lesser form of writing than literary fiction, the beetle-browed Neanderthal to literary fiction’s elegant Cro-Magnon. The truth of course is that genre is simply writing within a particular tradition with particular goals. Even so, if you don’t understand the tradition, or worse yet talk down to it, you can easily write a book which literary fans will dislike because it has genre elements and which genre fans will dislike because those genre elements aren’t very good.

Jeanette Winterson though isn’t a writer who has much truck with the concept of genre, or literary categories generally. As she said in the context of her Stone Gods: “I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.” So, is The Daylight Gate worth reading?

Yes, it is (I can’t be bothered with cliffhangers within a blog, they seem so self-important).

Daylight Gate

 THE PEDLAR JOHN Law was taking a short cut through that nick of Pendle Forest they call Boggart’s Hole. The afternoon was too warm for the time of year and he was hot in his winter clothes. He had to hurry. Already the light was thinning. Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.

John Law runs into some women of the Demdike clan on his journey. One asks him for some pins, and when he refuses shouts curses at him. he flees, collapses in a nearby inn where he promptly has a stroke uttering but one word, “Demdike”.

That incident, some mocking women and the collapse of an unhealthy man unwisely running through the dusk, leads to one of the most famous witch-trials in English history. The year is 1612 and the King, James 1st of England, is famously obsessed with witches. The book is fiction, but what it’s based on is real. There was a peddler by name John Law. Two women of the Demdike family did ask him for pins, he did collapse and they were later blamed. It ended in ten executions, nine women and one man. It was a pointless act of judicial barbarity, now part of England’s tourist trail.

The characters then in this novel are fictional, but not entirely so. There was a magistrate by name Roger Nowell who acted as prosecutor. There was a court clerk named Thomas Potts who wrote a detailed account of the trial that did wonders for his later career. There was an accused known commonly as mould-heels, and there was an Alice Nutter.

Alice Nutter was unusual among the accused. Where most of the supposed witches were uneducated and desperately poor, Alice Nutter was a wealthy widow. Her links to the other accused were slight, although there’s some evidence that she may have been a crypto-Catholic. Looking back all these centuries later she stands out as an oddity. It’s Alice Nutter therefore that Winterson chooses as the protagonist of her version of these terrible events.

Here Alice Nutter is that most dangerous of things, much more perilous than a witch, she’s a woman independent of the need for men. She has her own fortune made from a royal warrant granted to her by Queen Elizabeth for a magenta dye so deep and rich that none can understand how she makes it. She studied under John Dee, and her appearance belies her years for she perpetuates her youth with a lotion of Dee’s devising.

Is then Alice Nutter a witch? It’s hard to say. Her dye is a question of clever chemistry. Dee is part of the historical record so his presence proves nothing. The lotion could just be an early form of moisturiser, an unusually effective one now lost.

Alice herself is ambiguous in her beliefs about witchcraft. For her the other accused are immiserated, and so desperate for any form of power or control in their lives that they’ll take it even from a Dark Man who may or may not exist. The real crime here isn’t witchcraft, it’s oppression.

“‘Popery witchery, witchery popery'” cries Thomas Potts, “a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight.” As the machinery of justice cranks into life it pulls in a wider circle of people. The desperate settle debts through accusations, hoping to help themselves by hurting others or at least to settle a few scores on their way down:

‘I will testify against them all.’ Constable Hargreaves refilled the tankards. ‘And what of Mistress Nutter?’ Jem took his beer and drained it off. ‘I will say to Magistrate Nowell that she promised to lead us and to blow up the gaol at Lancaster and free Old Demdike.’ He started to laugh – high, hysterical. They were laughing with him. He wasn’t alone and outside any more. Not cold or hungry or afraid. He would be safe now.

Alice Nutter believes herself above all this, protected by her wealth and position, and of course by her relative innocence. That’s unwise. She’s bisexual, tending towards a preference for women (this is a Winterson novel after all). She engages with men as equals, enjoys conversation with Roger Nowell who likes her but is all too aware that if he doesn’t comply with her prosecution his own reluctance could land him in the dock right next to her.

So, an intelligent woman able to see the contradictions of the society around her and unable to hide her own separation from it. Put that way it could be a description of Winterson’s first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. It’s easy to see why Winterson found this story interesting, why she thought there was a book inside it. This isn’t though a historical novel (Winterson doesn’t write those), it’s a horror novel.

The horror here isn’t simply supernatural. This book includes graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, torture and relentless human degradation. This is a novel where two of the accused are slightly better off than the others because they’re young enough for their jailor to want to rape them, and so to let them out of the communal cell for a little while and to wash before he sets to. That’s horror, perhaps too much so. The horror genre is generally a comforting one because it’s terrors aren’t real, but there’s nothing reassuring in unjust imprisonment, brutality and sexual exploitation.

There are scenes too of witchcraft – because most of the accused here believe themselves to be witches, whether they really are or not. One particularly grisly sequence involves an attempt to animate a skull by sewing a dismembered tongue into it so as to summon imagined supernatural aid. In the main there’s no evidence it works, but Alice Nutter is again an exception. It’s not clear cut, but there’s some suggestion that during her time with Dee she may have been involved with matters beyond this world, and that this may be part of her present undoing.

‘Elizabeth has betrayed you. She sold her Soul to enjoy her wealth and power for a fixed time. Now, unless there is a substitute for her Soul, she will lose everything. You are the substitute.’ ‘I do not believe in those things.’ ‘It does not matter what you believe. Believe what is.’

If ever there were a writer comfortable with ambiguity it’s Winterson. Here the real and the unreal meet, but the unreal is a manifestation of the real. Some of the witchcraft is plainly superstition, but it’s uncertain if it all is. If magic exists though its expression is merely a reflection of wider social forces. Witchcraft is attractive because women born without power have few other options. Alice is dangerous not because she doesn’t grow old as other women do but because she thinks for herself. For once the old cliche is true, it doesn’t matter whether what the characters believe is real, all that matters is that they believe it’s real.

The book’s not without problems. There are inherent tensions in depicting real life horror and the supernatural in the same work, and as noted above it’s hard to care about the machinations of the Black Man when you’ve been reading about a serial child abuser a few pages previously. Possible horror, well written, makes it hard to care about impossible horror.

Winterson also overdoes some motifs, particularly the phrase “the daylight gate” which is frankly overused and so becomes rather tedious and the meanings of which are exhaustively spelled out for the reader. There’s a sense too that Winterson just plain crowds too much in, with John Dee entering the tale, and an encounter with Shakespeare, plus a wandering emasculated Jesuit priest (it’s telling that Alice Nutter’s only male romantic interest doesn’t have a penis). For a fairly short novel it’s dense to the point of overflowing, and it’s not as if the trial itself hasn’t already got a rich cast of characters and incident. The book doesn’t need to feel as if everyone of any note in Jacobean Britain is wandering through its pages.

It’s not then an unqualified success. Winterson is combining two forms that don’t easily sit together, and the results don’t always gel. She avoids though the main traps of this sort of exercise, she doesn’t patronise the genre, she doesn’t give the impression she thinks she’s slumming it, the concerns she explores here are concerns she’s explored before in other works and that genuinely interest her.

Ultimately it’s what it says on the cover – a Jeanette Winterson novel. It’s not her best and it’s probably not for those of her fans who don’t also like the odd slice of the macabre, but if like me you’re the target audience for a Jeanette Winterson Hammer horror novel then that’s precisely what this is. Like the Hammer classics of the 1970s it sometimes doesn’t quite convince, and sometimes you can see how the effects work, but for all that it’s still well made and a lot of fun.

Recent evidence by the way points to the Neanderthals being as intelligent and sophisticated as we are, which makes the analogy I used early on in this piece very unfair to Neanderthals. Sorry Neanderthals, and sorry about that whole driving you extinct thing too. Mistakes were made. As a final aside also I can’t write this review and not mention the (utterly unconnected save for subject matter) album 1612 Underture by the Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake – easily the best electronic music feminist satire on the treatment of the Pendle witches out there.

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Filed under Horror, Winterson, Jeanette

‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

The Devil Rides out, by Denis Wheatley

After Don Quixote I wanted a bit of readable nonsense. Something light and easy to dip into that wouldn’t require meta-anaylsis and constant attention, much as I enjoyed all that with Quixote.

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who were once household names and are now barely remembered. He wrote a mixture of spy/action thrillers and books about strange Satanic cults threatening the UK. Often he used the same characters in both. He’s perhaps best remembered now for the classic Hammer House of Horror movie that was made based on this novel.

As a teenager one of my relatives was a Wheatley fan, and I read quite a few of them. He seemed sinister and worldly, not least because of the famous Author’s Note in this particular book. There he talks about the pains he’s taken to ensure the accuracy of the magical practices he describes, and then goes on to say:

All the characters and the situations in this book are entirely imaginary, but, in the inquiry necessary to writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.

Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.

Now that’s an author’s foreword! Did he believe any of it? Who knows? But if we assume as I think we should that anything written by an author between the pages of their book is part of the book, what’s happening here is Wheatley hooking his readers before they even get to the first page proper of his story. He was a bestselling writer for a reason.

devilridesoutfront

What follows is a highly entertaining mix of the sinister and the prosaic, all written in that rather portentous style used in the foreword with its capitalisations and emphasis on how evil lurks under the surface of the everyday.

Simon Aron, a “frail, narrow-shouldered Englishman” misses a reunion with his old friends American adventurer Rex Van Ryn and “elderly French exile” Duke de Richleau. Rex and the Duke have had adventures together before (in previous books) fighting the Russians, but now they’re worried that something may be wrong much closer to home.

They drive to Simon’s house, where they discover him hosting a curious party with a strangely international guest list. When they arrive they’re taken by most of the other guests as having been invited, but that puzzles some for with Rex and Duke there are now fifteen people present, two surplus to requirements…

All this is beyond Rex, but not the Duke and he soon realises that what menaces Simon is far worse than communism, it’s Satanism (though in other books Wheatley, deeply right wing, directly linked the two). Wasting no time they knock out Simon and flee with him, but not before they encounter a beautiful young woman named Lilith who catches Rex’s eye and a “fleshy, moon-faced man” with “unsmiling eyes” named Mocata who appears to be leader of this curious band.

What’s wonderful in all this is the incredible snobbery which pervades the book. This next quote comes just after all I’ve just described and more – Rex has found himself near in love-at-first-sight with Lilith, has discovered that one of his oldest friends is trafficking in some bizarre black magic cult and has just fought a mute manservant and eluded vicious satanists. He’s now back at the Duke’s with Simon:

As Rex laid Simon upon the wide sofa he glanced round him with an interest unappeased by a hundred visits, at the walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and at the lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps, which hung above them.

I’m as much a sucker for a well-bound book as the next man, but in those circumstances I have to admit it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be thinking about. The whole book’s like that. Later when Rex and the Duke slip back into Simon’s now empty home to look for clues they take the time to note his preferred brands of champagne and foie gras before finding themselves attacked by a malevolent spirit lying in wait for them.

Writing that I realised I’d seen that odd combination of danger and high-end living once before, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps it’s a genre thing. The adventure genre is fairly vicarious by nature, and Wheatley wrote more Bond-esque fiction (much of it starring the Duke) than he did black magic tales.

I’m probably making it sound terrible. The thing is though, it isn’t. It’s oddly effective. Wheatley litters the text with asides from the Duke on his knowledge of black magic and it all sounds so matter of fact that it becomes strangely credible. The Duke knows there won’t be a dog at the house, because ‘Dogs are simple, friendly creatures but highly psychic. The vibrations in a place where Black Magic was practised would cause any dog to bolt for a certainty.’

What follows is a duel between good and evil. On one side is the Duke and Rex, fighting with white magic, prayer, fast cars, a good right hook. On the other is Mocata with his curious powers of mind control, telepathy and summoning baleful spirits. Simon is the prize. If he can be made to sign his name in the Devil’s book on May Day Eve his soul will be lost forever, and he lacks the strength to resist Mocata’s influence on his own.

I won’t spoil the plot, though if you’ve seen the movie you already know it. I will say though that it contains at least two great set piece passages, one where the Duke and Rex interrupt a grand sabbat at which Satanists from across the UK and beyond are gathered, and another where they find themselves besieged by spirits in a lengthy night during which Mocata exercises the full force of his power against them. It’s a fun read that does precisely what it promises to – Wheatley was never a great writer but he was a very reliable one.

Part of Wheatley’s appeal back in the 1970s when this stuff was huge was that he had supposedly researched all this in minuscule detail. Wheatley created an image of himself as a man who knew much about dark things most were unaware of, and perhaps he did. There are after all plenty who do believe in black magic and all that, and it’s entirely possible Wheatley did research them.

It’s that sense of veracity which makes this work. The characters aren’t exactly subtle, the plot hardly complex. Wheatley’s prose is often stilted in tone and there’s an awful lot of exposition. For all that, Mocata and his cult seem convincing. There seems to be some form of underlying logic to their powers, a sense of a greater cosmology underpinning it all. Wheatley’s vision of evil forces lurking just under the surface of (then) contemporary British life seems all too persuasive.

In the end it’s the detail, the exposition I just cited as a potential fault, that pulls it all together. Take the following rather dry passage where the Duke erects some magical defences:

Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In their rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward, and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.

There’s no real drama to any of that. It’s a mix of dry explanation and Wheatley making sure that his research is visible on the page. I’m back to that sense of veracity again though. He renders the extraordinary, ordinary and in doing so makes it very easy to imagine. In that sense he’s very cinematic.

All this ordinariness makes it all the more chilling when something truly macabre does occur,  such as when someone observes of Mocata that “‘He is walking in the sunshine–but he has no shadow!’”. Most of the book is conversation, preparation, more conversation. Then there’s an action sequence, or a shadowless man on a sunny day.

Is The Devil Rides Out a good book, whatever that means? Ultimately, yes, because you have to take books on their own terms. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s not intended to be beautiful or to challenge. It’s an entertainment, a piece of thrilling nonsense designed to while away a dull afternoon or train ride. It does that very well.

It’s dated, both in terms of style and certainly in terms of attitudes, but so’s Ian Fleming and that doesn’t stop people reading him. In his heyday Wheatley’s main output was his pure spy stories, but his black magic tales are the interesting ones because nobody else wrote this stuff quite like he did. As if it were all real. He’s now being rereleased on Kindle, which is how I came across this title, and I think he deserves a place in the British horror canon.

The ultimate test of any author is whether, having read them, you plan to read more by them. I’ve already bought Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. I don’t expect it to be well written, I don’t expect it to be remotely credible, but I do expect it to seem credible just for the time I’m reading it – that’s Wheatley’s secret.

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Filed under Horror, Wheatley, Dennis

a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

Three Ghost Stories, by Charles Dickens

I’ve always had a rather mixed view of Charles Dickens. He can create memorable characters, make a story rattle along, bring scenes to vivid life, but he’s also frequently maudlin and I’ve read more than one book by him that could have used a severe editorial pruning. When I reviewed Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger I described it as Dickensian, that wasn’t wholly a compliment.

A little while back though Sarah at A Rat in the Book Pile reviewed Dickens’ short story The Signal Man. It’s a story I already knew from a BBC Christmas adaptation, but Sarah made a good case for the original and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. And after all, was there ever a better time and place for spooks than Victorian England?

One of the advantages of owning a kindle is easy access to classic fiction. I downloaded Three Ghost Stories, and recently wanting a lighter read thought it the perfect time to indulge in these frock-coated frights.

There are (as the title rather suggests) three stories in this collection. The Signal Man, The Haunted House and finally The Trial for Murder. Sarah was right. The Signal Man is a great short story.

The Signal Man draws on a classic piece of folklore, the premonitory haunting: a spirit which brings forewarning of death or calamity. A retired traveller comes across a railway cutting, “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw”, and shouts a greeting to the signal man working down below. The signal man starts in fear, but eventually calls his visitor down to join him where he explains what it was that made him so frightened by a cheery greeting.

Here the visitor descends almost literally into the underworld:

On either side a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky: the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in which massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

I won’t give too much away. The signal man thinks himself haunted by a figure that appears to him presaging disaster on his line – a rail crash, a terrible accident. Only he can see this figure, and so only he receives these dire and useless portents. What can you do with the knowledge that something awful will happen, but no knowledge of what exactly it will be?

Dickens leaves open the possibility of psychological explanation, but for me this worked best in a more literal fashion. Premonitory apparitions are a big feature of the folklore of the British isles. One example that springs to mind are washer women seen by travellers, who on greeting are discovered to be washing blood out of clothes and the sighting of whom foretells a death in the traveller’s own family. The signal man is cursed with valueless prophecy.

Of course the figure reappears. What disaster is it foretelling this time? For that you’ll need to read the story, and it’s worth reading because it’s an absolute gem and I agree with Sarah entirely that it shows none of the faults of Dickens’ longer works.

Where The Signal Man showed all Dickens’ strengths and none of his weaknesses, The Haunted House balanced the books by showing him at his worst. It starts promisingly enough, with a narrator whose “health required a temporary residence in the country” – doesn’t it always in these tales? There’s a nice bit of satire as the narrator travels by train to the house where the mystery will unfold and while travelling meets a spiritualist who boasts of his high connections in the unseen world:

There are seventeen thousand four hundred and seventy-nine spirits here, but you cannot see them. Pythagoras is here. He is not at liberty to mention it, but hopes you like travelling.” Galileo likewise had dropped in, with this scientific intelligence. “I am glad to see you, amico. Come sta? Water will freeze when it is cold enough. Addio!” In the course of the night, also, the following phenomena had occurred. Bishop Butler had insisted on spelling his name, “Bubler,” for which offence against orthography and good manners he had been dismissed as out of temper. John Milton (suspected of wilful mystification) had repudiated the authorship of Paradise Lost, and had introduced, as joint authors of that poem, two Unknown gentlemen, respectively named Grungers and Scadgingtone. And Prince Arthur, nephew of King John of England, had described himself as tolerably comfortable in the seventh circle, where he was learning to paint on velvet, under the direction of Mrs. Trimmer and Mary Queen of Scots.

When the story gets to the actual haunted house though it wanders off in endless and very laboured comic digressions, ultimately sputtering out in a dismally sentimental conclusion. One of the other advantages of the kindle is you can make notes directly against the text. At the end of this one I wrote “flabby and dull”, after deleting my initial comment which was a lot ruder.

Finally comes The Murder Trial, which is a predictable and uninteresting story of how a jury foreman finds himself the only man at a trial who can see the murder victim’s ghost, attending and influencing events. I don’t have any quotes from this one, the whole thing was too dull for any to stand out.

So, three ghost stories. The second story is terrible, the third just utterly mediocre, but the first wouldn’t be out of place in an MR James collection and when it comes to supernatural short stories there simply isn’t higher praise.

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The situation seems to be deterioriating…

The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the first novel I have read entirely on a mobile phone.

Amazon UK recently launched the new wave of Kindles. I placed an order for one, which should arrive next week. In the meantime, I thought I’d check out the Kindle software and the range of books on offer. To do so I put the Kindle app on my iPhone and then used that to download some book samples.

The Kindle app is surprisingly easy to use. Good resolution, easy page turns, power hungry though. Anyway, I found I could read on it easier than I expected. I got curious about how it would cope with a full work, and decided to order something light and not-too-serious to test it out with.

At the same time of course I’ve been reading Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude. It turns out though that there are many situations where one can read on a mobile but where reading a novel is impractical. The result is I’ve finished a whole novel on my phone while I’m still only half way through the (excellent) Hamilton.

I’ll say a few more words about the phone reading experience and its wider implications, then I’ll talk about The Fuller Memorandum itself. For the curious, it’s a very geeky comedy-horror novel and most of the folk who read this blog probably won’t be interested in it. I’ll flag when I start talking about that so if it’s not your thing you can skip that part of this blog entry.

Also, I still think Kindle is the ugliest name for an ereader I’ve encountered. Seriously Amazon, you named your ereader by reference to bookburning? Extraordinary.

Anyway. The Kindle app is quite interesting. You can change font size, which for me means you I tend to have about two paragraphs per screen. You can bookmark “pages” (screens) and you can highlight words to check them in the dictionary (online and immediately) or to enter notes against them. That meant as I went through I was able to input notes directly against the text. A small number appears against the word you make the note against, and a menu option shows you all notes and bookmarks and lets you go straight to any of them.

Pageturning is very fast, which meant that although each individual page was a small fraction of a real page in practice reading was still fluid. Contrast is good, and the lit screen didn’t weary my eyes as computer screens do (I don’t know why not). That lit screen though meant it was a battery life hog, which isn’t ideal.

Overall, I was able to read the novel easily and without the interface getting in the way. Because it was on a mobile phone I was able to read it at odd moments in the day, with the result that I read it far faster than I had expected. All of this has implications. What it implies for me is that the killer ereader device the industry is waiting for isn’t a dedicated reader at all. Nor is it the iPad (for me a firmly transitional device). The killer ereader is the mobile phone.

With better battery life/energy usage, there’s no reason one couldn’t read multiple novels in this format. Obviously I prefer physical books, and when my actual Kindle arrives I imagine I’ll prefer that too due to screen size issues. But this was a much better experience than I had expected. I’m still not sure I’d read a serious novel in this format (I have a sample of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling on it, from NYRB, but I’d rather read that on the full device or in traditional book form) but for light entertainment it’s arguably better than the traditional form.

For existing heavy readers, indeed for any heavy readers, the phone is unlikely to be anything more than a supplemental device (if even that). For new demographics though who have grown up accessing news through smartphones, reading the internet on them, using them for chat functions and gaming and as a general purpose tool I think this is much more viable. The fact the same software allows me to read a book on my phone or on my full Kindle (and the software reconciles the versions on each device so that each knows where your bookmarks are and what page you’re up to) means that a book can be purchased electronically but read on a number of devices – potentially here iPhone, iPad and Kindle.

Again, I don’t think that will be much of a draw for existing heavy readers. Going forward though, I think it will be irresistible for many casual and new readers.

Speaking personally, there are books I buy that I expect to keep. I make an attempt to seriously engage with them, I hope for greatness. Those books I suspect I’ll still tend to want hardcopies of because I’m sentimental that way. Some publishers, Pushkin, Peirene, produce books which are attractive physical objects in their own right. That will still appeal to me.

For me though there are also books I buy as light entertainment. That’s not knocking them, good light entertainment is tricky stuff. But I don’t want to seriously engage with them, I want to be amused and to have a little fun. For those, having a copy after I’ve finished isn’t particularly useful. I probably won’t reread them. They’re not treasured physical objects as a Pushkin might be. They’re just mass market paperbacks. Or, now, a file held remotely on a server somewhere which I can access on the off chance I ever want to read it again.

I’m hopeful the full Kindle device will be useful and will work for me. Even if not though, going forward I suspect I’ll be reading books like The Fuller Memorandum more often on my phone than in a physical edition. In time, I think I’ll be far from alone in that.

And while the literary market won’t be affected nearly as much as the market for lighter books, lighter books outsell literary ones by a vast order of magnitude.

Interesting times. I’m glad I’m not in publishing.

So, over to The Fuller Memorandum itself. If you’re not interested in comedy-horror-SF with heavy Lovecraftian elements and an ocean of geek references then you can probably afford to tune out now.

Charles Stross is one of the best SF writers around today. He’s part of the UK’s renaissance of good hard SF writing, and he’s responsible for such landmark novels as Accellerando (great ideas and vision, lousy characterisation, hard sf in a nutshell really that description).

Stross doesn’t just write hard SF though. He’s also written some cross-reality semi-fantasy novels that I’ve not read (so even that basic description may not be wholly accurate) and some Lovecraft pastiche novels known as the Laundry novels.

The Fuller Memorandum is the third of the Laundry novels. The conceit of each is that the protagonist, Bob Howard, is an operative for an ultra-secret arm of British Intelligence which deals with occult threats to the UK (nicknamed The Laundry). The occult threats in question aren’t the usual ones of ghosts, vampires and so on but rather are entities out of the cosmic horror tales of HP Lovecraft. Aliens beyond our space and time that, when they intrude upon our reality, bring with them madness and death.

We human beings live at the bottom of a thin puddle of oxygen-nitrogen vapor adhering to the surface of a medium-sized rocky planet that orbits a not terribly remarkable star in a cosmos which is one of many. We are not alone. There are other beings in other universes, other cosmologies, that think, and travel, and explore. And there are aliens in the abyssal depths of the oceans, and dwellers in the red-hot blackness and pressure of the upper mantle, that are stranger than your most florid hallucinations. They’re terrifyingly powerful, the inheritors of millennia of technological civilisation; they were building starships and opening timegates back when your ancestors and mine were clubbing each other over the head with rocks to settle the eternal primate diagreement over who had the bigger dick.

The first Laundry novel is a crossover pastiche. It takes the monsters from Lovecraft, and then injects them into a story based on Len Deighton’s spy novels. The result works surprisingly well. It’s funny, makes a bizarre sort of internal sense and the whole thing hangs together better than it has the slightest right to.

The second Laundry novel is in a similar vein, but instead of Deighton this time Ian Fleming is emulated. This worked much less well for me, possibly reflecting the fact the idea wasn’t as fresh or possibly reflecting the fact I rate Len Deighton and I don’t rate Ian Fleming.

The Fuller Memorandum may be based on another spy writer, but if it is I couldn’t tell who.

The comedy of the novels comes from the contrast between the horror and spy elements, and the drabness of British civil service life. As Bob Howard reflects in The Fuller Memorandum while contemplating a super-high-tech-jet-fighter at an air base he’s sent to:

Life would be so much simpler if our adversaries could be dealt with by supersonic death on the wing – but alas, human resources aren’t so easily defeated.

As The Fuller Memorandum opens, the arrival of Case Nightmare Green (the code-name for the moment when the stars come right and the elder horrors flow through to our world en masse bringing the apocalypse with them) looks like it could be mere months away rather than years as was expected. The end of the world may well be nigh, and that’s bringing out of the woodwork crazed cultists and possible former cold-war adversaries.

Bob Howard has a new line manager, but his duties now are almost entirely for the strange and menacing figure of Angleton. Angleton is a major player within The Laundry, and an accomplished sorceror. Howard is a computer programmer by background, and since magic is really a form of higher mathematics the journey from mathematician to sorceror (or inadvertent sorceror, a usually fatal condition) is a short one. Howard is also, following the last two books, a highly experienced field agent.

After an accident in the field, Howard is put on compulsory leave, but not before Angleton asks him to look into certain files in the Laundry’s archives. Meanwhile, cultists seem to be targeting Howard’s girlfriend and fellow-operative Mo, and it starts to appear as if the Laundry may itself have a mole passing secrets on to those cultists (suggesting a Le Carre inspiration here, though I understand Stross doesn’t like Le Carre’s writing and if that is an inspiration it’s not one worn heavily).

The plot has a few twists and turns, but while it drives the action it’s not a novel one reads for that plot. What’s interesting here is Stross’s take on the Lovecraftian mythos and his contrasting of the frustrations of living in London with its malfunctioning tube system and muggy summers with the cosmic horrors that lurk in its shadows.

I had a sense in this book of Stross hitting his stride with this series. As I said above, the second wasn’t wholly successful for me and I thought the Bond elements too large for the comedy which was about the smallness of much British life. The first novel worked better, but is essentially a short story and a novella bolted together to form a longer work that isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Here the novel is just that, a properly integrated novel, and the scale is better judged.

The Fuller Memorandum is packed with in-jokes. So many that I very much doubt I caught them all. Many are gaming references. When Bob buys an iPhone his girlfriend mocks him saying “‘Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card…'” Later, when captured by cultists, Bob worries they might be vampire larpers and reflects “the prospect of falling into the clutches of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharoah is quite bad enough without accidentally crossing the streams with a bunch of live-action Vampire: The Masquerade fans”.

I noticed a reference to an undead horde at one point forming an “abhuman pyramid” with their bodies, a clear reference to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories (which I’ve covered here in case you’re reading this and hadn’t seen that entry) and there’s plenty of other in-jokes. Essentially, if you’re not steeped in geek culture then you’ll miss a lot of this (and you probably won’t enjoy much the bits you do get).

If, however, you are steeped in geek culture then this is a lot of fun. Stross’s take on Lovecraft seems to owe a lot more to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than it does HPL’s actual stories (though apparently Stross hadn’t read Delta Green when he wrote the first novel so those particular similarities are just coincidence), but I grew up with Call of Cthulhu so that’s fine with me.

The computer, sf and horror jokes generally work well. The characters are straightforward (to be nice) and the writing not Stross’s best by a long way (there’s a surprising amount of repetition and some overly heavy handed foreshadowing, plus sometimes the gags get too obvious and get in the way of the story) but this is a 21st Century pulp novel – an electronic penny dreadful – and in that vein it works very well.

Stross’s best work for me is his hard sf. That said, his Laundry stories are a lot of fun, for the ultra-geeky audience they’re aimed at. If you’re going to read a novel on your mobile phone, frankly I can think of few more apposite.

All the more so since The Fuller Memorandum features a lengthy skit on the iPhone and it’s peculiar power to charm people into buying it even though it’s not remotely clear to them what they’ll use it for. It’s an irony Bob Howard would appreciate.

While writing this, I found two Laundry short stories online, here and here. The Kindle version which I read is available here.

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Filed under Horror, Publishing, SF, Stross, Charles

…to what extent materialisation of an ab-natural creature is possible…

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, by William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson was a sailor, a bodybuilder and physical trainer, a writer of nautical and supernatural fiction and from 1914 a volunteer in the Great War. He was discharged in 1916 after an injury, but once recovered he reenlisted and was killed at Ypres in April 1918. He was forty years old.

Despite his brief writing career (he was only first published in 1905) he produced a reasonable body of short stories, novels and poems. He’s not a well known writer today, but he’s well regarded by those who do know him. He’s best remembered for his weird fiction and supernatural detective fiction, and the interesting thing about that is that neither genre really still exists today. I’ll talk a bit about how genres come into existence and are forgotten in a follow-up post.

Among Hodgson’s various short story collections is one about a supernatural investigator named Thomas Carnacki. Six Carnacki tales were published in Hodgson’s lifetime, and in 1913 those six tales were collected together and released under the title Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Three other tales were written but not then published, I don’t know why not, and in 1947 another edition was released with those three included. The original 1913 version is available on Project Gutenberg. The full nine are available in a Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural print edition with an excellent forword by David Stuart Davies.

I read the original six stories on my iphone, but decided to hold off on talking about what they were like until I’d read the final three. Having done so, I now find myself wondering if the reason those final three weren’t published was that they weren’t as good as the six in the 1913 version.

Generally the Carnacki stories aren’t Hodgson’s best work. I said recently on this blog that I sometimes preferred them to MR James, but having finished the whole set I went too far. MR James at his best created masterpieces of chilling tension in a handful of pages. There’s a reason he’s the touchstone for the ghost story. James took that form and developed it as far as it would go in its traditional form. I won’t say he can’t ever be bettered in that vein, but I will say I personally doubt he ever will be.

The Thomas Carnacki character was born of a different tradition to that James drew on – Carnacki’s literary ancestor is Conan Doyle’s spectacularly successful Sherlock Holmes’ stories. Holmes was a huge success, and naturally he had a lot of imitators and competitors (I rather like the now quite obscure Glasgow Detective stories for example). Some of those competitors were pretty much direct copies of Holmes, but a lot of them came with a twist. Thomas Carnacki’s twist (not unique to him by any means) is that he is a consulting detective who specialises in investigating hauntings.

The framing device for each story is of Carnacki inviting friends round to hear of his latest adventure. One of those friends writes the stories, a Watson to Carnacki’s Holmes (save that he’s only a scribe, he never actually accompanies Carnacki). Carnacki makes plain to his guests that the stories he tells them are just one hundredth of his investigations. That’s because in ninety-nine out of each hundred he discovers a mundane explanation and nothing of any real interest, but the hundredth on the other hand…

Even with that one per cent. caveat, not all the tales in the collection actually involve the supernatural. In some of them it’s a case of pure fakery with what’s really going on being interesting enough to merit a tale but really being a story of human greed and duplicity. In others there is a supernatural element, but enhanced by trickery with someone taking advantage of the haunting for their own ends and exaggerating it. And then in a few it really is the genuine article. An intrusion from beyond. From the “outer spheres”.

The consequence of all that is that when you start a tale as a reader you’ve no way of knowing what you’re getting into. Will there be something supernatural? If so, is that the whole story? Is there perhaps just some crime being committed under a supernatural disguise? Carnacki doesn’t know, and nor do you.

What’s also wonderful about that is that Carnacki frequently spends nights alone in atmospheres of dread and gloom without knowing how much of his terror is supernatural influence and how much his own imagination. In some tales he feels a dreadful presence and a malignant intelligence at work yet later learns that there never actually anything there.

The other interesting thing with Carnacki is that he’s a very scientific investigator (Holmes’ influence again). Here he prepares to investigate a room reputed to be haunted by a mysterious force that slams the room door and pulls sheets from the bed during the night. The night before this scene, he’d strung ribbons at ankle height throughout the room to detect signs of anyone moving through it in secret:

‘First, I cleared away all the ribbons across the floor; then I carried the cat – still fastened in its basket – over towards the far wall, and left it. I returned then to the centre of the room, and measured out a space twenty-one feet in diameter, which I swept with a “broom of Hyssop”. About this, I drew a circle of chalk, taking care never to step over the circle. Beyond this I smudged, with a bunch of garlic, a broad belt right around the chalk circle, and when this was complete, I took from among my stores in the centre a small jar of a certain water. I broke away the parchment, and withdrew the stopper. Then, dipping my left forefinger in the little jar, I went round the circle again, making upon the floor, just within the line of chalk, the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and joining each Sign most carefully with the left-handed crescent. I can tell you, I felt easier when this was done, and the “water circle” complete. Then, I unpacked some more of the stuff that I had brought, and placed a lighted candle in the “valley” of each Crescent. After that, I drew a Pentacle, so that each of the five points of the defensive star touched the chalk circle. In the five points of the star I placed five portions of the bread, each wrapped in linen, and in the five “vales”, five opened jars of the water I had used to make the “water circle”. And now I had my first protective barrier complete.

‘I turned now to fit the Electric Pentacle, setting it so that each of its “points” and “vales” coincided exactly with the “points” and “vales” of the drawn pentagram upon the floor. Then I connected up the battery, and the next instant the pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes shone out.

Yes, an electric pentacle. Carnacki is nothing if not modern.

One of the strengths of the stories (save the last one, not in the original six) is an implication of some wider logic to everything that occurs. Carnacki refers in his tales to other incidents not described (“but you all remember the Black Veil case, in which I believe my life was saved with a very similar form of protection, whilst Aster, who sneered at it, and would not come inside, died.”). He categorises the entities he encounters and speculates about the rules of the realms they emerge from. He draws on ancient magical practices, but tries to systematise them and work out the principles. Above all that though is a sense that every supernatural (ab-natural as he says) phenomenon he investigates forms part of a pattern, a (super)natural order, that we can’t perceive but which is present all the same.

Two of the final three stories fail for me in part because they depart from that approach. One is an investigation into an entirely mundane crime with no supernatural element at all, turning Carnacki into a second-rate Holmes. The other contains something definitely supernatural but also pages of exposition explaining how Hodgson’s cosmology works. An implied cosmology creates a sense of a greater reality than that we read, an explained cosmology is dull and worse a bit silly.

The problem with the Carnacki’ stories’ modernity is that it now makes them a little bit dated. Characters exclaim things like “by Jove!” which to a contemporary ear is comic rather than dramatic. That said, there is still a charm to the combination of bruised garlic, ancient rituals and electric pentacles that Carnacki employs. The hauntings that are real are interesting in being manifestations of powers wholly inhuman in origin rather than simply ghosts. Above all, although the framing device of a friend retelling Carnacki’s post dinner conversation is slightly creaky Hodgson is good at building mood and suspense. Here Carnacki sits in a chapel haunted by an apparently knife throwing spirit, clad in a suit of antique plate mail in case it attacks:

‘And so you must picture me sitting there in the dark; clumsy with armour, and with my revolver in one hand, and nursing my lantern, ready, with the other. And then it was, after this little time of partial relief from intense nervousness, that there came a fresh strain on me; for somewhere in the utter quiet of the Chapel, I thought I heard something. I listened, tense and rigid, my heart booming just a little in my ears for a moment; then I thought I heard it again. I felt sure that something had moved at the top of the aisle. I strained in the darkness, to hark; and my eyes showed me blackness within blackness, wherever I glanced, so that I took no heed of what they told me; for even if I looked at the dim loom of the stained window at the top of the chancel, my sight gave me the shapes of vague shadows passing noiseless and ghostly across, constantly. There was a time of almost peculiar silence, horrible to me, as I felt just then. And suddenly I seemed to hear a sound, nearer to me, and repeated, infinitely stealthy. It was as if a vast, soft tread were coming slowly down the aisle.

For whatever reason, the tales of MR James are often enjoyed by those who do not otherwise enjoy genre fiction. I’m not sure that would be true for Hodgson. The elements I like best in these stories are where he draws on the weird fiction tradition rather than the ghost story, and weird fiction has never really achieved wide appeal. As I often mention, I love the pulps and Hodgson is pretty pulpy. If you don’t share that love, you might find this collection less enjoyable. If you only read one, The Gateway of the Monster is probably as good as any to see if he’s to your taste.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder. As I said, the foreword is good but the extra three tales don’t add much. Here‘s a link to the Project Gutenberg version of the original six tales.

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Filed under Hodgson, William Hope, Horror, Short stories

Lovecraft on Hodgson

I found this interesting excerpt online. It’s taken from HP Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.

He’s rather scathing of the Carnacki stories, which I’m rather fond of. Oh well. I think the professional occultism of the Carnacki stories is key to their charm personally, but I’ll leave further comment on that until I write up the stories themselves.

In the meantime, here’s the man from Providence himself:

Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.

In The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907) we are shown a variety of malign marvels and accursed unknown lands as encountered by the survivors of a sunken ship. The brooding menace in the earlier parts of the book is impossible to surpass, though a letdown in the direction of ordinary romance and adventure occurs toward the end. An inaccurate and pseudo-romantic attempt to reproduce eighteenth-century prose detracts from the general effect, but the really profound nautical erudition everywhere displayed is a compensating factor.

The House on the Borderland (1908) — perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works — tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator’s spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system’s final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.

The Ghost Pirates (1909), regarded by Mr. Hodgson as rounding out a trilogy with the two previously mentioned works, is a powerful account of a doomed and haunted ship on its last voyage, and of the terrible sea-devils (of quasi-human aspect, and perhaps the spirits of bygone buccaneers) that besiege it and finally drag it down to an unknown fate. With its command of maritime knowledge, and its clever selection of hints and incidents suggestive of latent horrors in nature, this book at times reaches enviable peaks of power.

The Night Land (1912) is a long-extended (538 pp.) tale of the earth’s infinitely remote future-billions of billions of years ahead, after the death of the sun. It is told in a rather clumsy fashion, as the dreams of a man in the seventeenth century, whose mind merges with its own future incarnation; and is seriously marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness, artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality, and an attempt at archaic language even more grotesque and absurd than that in Glen Carrig.

Allowing for all its faults, it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget: Shapes and entities of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort — the prowlers of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid — are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency; while the night-land landscape with its chasms and slopes and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror beneath the author’s touch. Midway in the book the central figure ventures outside the pyramid on a quest through death-haunted realms untrod by man for millions of years — and in his slow, minutely described, day-by-day progress over unthinkable leagues of immemorial blackness there is a sense of cosmic alienage, breathless mystery, and terrified expectancy unrivalled in the whole range of literature. The last quarter of the book drags woefully, but fails to spoil the tremendous power of the whole. Mr. Hodgson’s later volume, Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, consists of several longish short stories published many years before in magazines. In quality it falls conspicuously below the level of the other books. We here find a more or less conventional stock figure of the “infallible detective” type — the progeny of M. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and the close kin of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence — moving through scenes and events badly marred by an atmosphere of professional “occultism.” A few of the episodes, however, are of undeniable power, and afford glimpses of the peculiar genius characteristic of the author.

I love Lovecraft dearly. A flawed writer, but one who deserves his recent and very belated recognition by Penguin Modern Classics. At his worst, his writing was racist and overwrought. At his best, it was weird in the finest sense of that word. I’ll write about him more another day, though I have an adolescent fondness for him which makes impartiality difficult.

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Filed under Hodgson, William Hope, Horror, Lovecraft, H.P.

if they had fooled the green huntsman once…

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

The Black Spider is a Swiss-German novella first published in 1842. Today, it’s published by Oneworld Classics and effectively translated by H.M. Waidson, who also writes a useful (and spoiler free) introduction. It was, apparently, one of Thomas Mann’s favourite works, though sadly it’s not also one of mine.

The locations in Spider are real places, ones that would be familiar to many of its original readers. The story by contrast is a mix of parable, myth and folklore. The book opens in the then present day, on the morning of a christening, a family of rich Swiss peasants preparing for celebration and feasting secure in the knowledge of their piety, good neighbourship and solid work ethic. The opening paragraphs show a scene of bucolic near-paradise:

THE SUN ROSE OVER THE HILLS, shone with clear majesty down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to joyful consiousness the beings who are created to enjoy the sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush burst forth in her morning song, while between sparkling flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young.

In the middle of the sun-drenched hillside nature had placed a fertile, sheltered, level piece of ground; here stood a fine house, stately and shining, surrounded by a splendid orchard, where a few tall apple trees were still displaying there finery of late blossom; the luxuriant grass, which was watered by the fountain near the house, was in part still standing, though some of it had already found its way to the fodder store. About the house there lay a Sunday brightness which was not of the type that can be produced on a Saturday evening in the half-light with a few sweeps of the broom, but which rather testified to a valuable heritage of traditional cleanliness which has to be cherished daily, like a family’s reputation, tarnished as this may become in one single hour by marks that remain, like bloodstains, indelible from generation to generation, making a mockery of all attempts to whitewash them.

Despite that last and ominous note regarding the possibillity of tarnish, this is a vision of temporal loveliness. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. From there, we go to the preparations for the christening, the good natured banter between the locals, lingering descriptions of the fine table laid out for guests, these are people who live solid, sensible and godfearing lives and they are rewarded by their god accordingly.

All this is a framing device, for the house has one curious feature, an ancient black post which sits oddly with the otherwise pristine design. A grandfather explains its provenance, with a chilling tale that forms the heart of the book.

Centuries past, when the Teutonic knights ruled the territory, an indifferent lord was working the peasantry into penury. As harvest time approached, he decided he wanted a shady grove in which to walk on the hot summer days, and so ordered the peasants to move a grove of beech trees from the valley to his mountain keep – roots and all. The task is near impossible, and even if it can be completed it can only be achieved by letting the harvest rot in the fields and so means sure starvation for the villagers.

After hearing his demands, the villagers return to their homes, but on the way sit down despairing in the road and cry out about their plight. They are heard, and a green huntsman appears and enquires as to the cause of their sorrow:

A red feather was swaying on his bold cap, a little red beard blazed in his dark face, and a mouth opened between his hooked nose and pointed chin, almost invisible like a cavern beneath overhanging rocks, and uttered the question ‘What’s the matter, good people, that you are sitting and moaning like this, as if to force the rocks out of the earth and the branches down from the trees?’ Twice he asked thus, and twice he received no answer.

Then the green huntsman’s dark face became even darker and his little red beard became even redder, so that it seemed to be crackling and sparkling like pine wood on fire; his mouth pursed itself sharply like an arrow and then opened to ask quite pleasingly and gently: ‘But good people, what use is it your sitting and moaning there? …’

The villagers ultimately ask for his aid, and ask what he requires in return.

Then the green huntsman showed a cunning face; his little beard crackled, and his eyes gleamed at them like snakes’ eyes, and a hideous laugh came from the two corners of his mouth as he opened his lips and said, ‘ as I was saying, I don’t ask for much, nothing more than an unbaptised child.’

The villagers of course refuse, but nothing goes right for them from that point. They make no progress moving and planting the trees, everything goes wrong. Only one among them, a foreign woman named Christine brought to the region by one farmer to be his wife, is willing to have any truck with the green huntsman (whose true identity they understand all too well). Finally, on a night when a storm cracks overhead with unusual force, they collectively decide to follow Christine’s advice and take the bargain, calculating that they can always renege on their side of it later. The next day:

The morning was beautiful and bright, thunder and lightning and witchcraft had vanished, the axes struck twice as sharply as before, the soil was friable and every beech tree fell straight, just as one would like it; none of the carts broke, the cattle were amenable and strong and the men protected from all accidents as if by an invisible hand.

Indeed, the only seeming downside is that the carts become peculiarly heavy when taken past the church and the men and animals filled with an inexplicable fear.

There’s a definite issue of gender politics in this book, Christine is a domineering wife, prideful and headstrong. Her husband doesn’t control her, and rather than assuming her place of wifely support she intrudes on the men’s deliberations and sways their judgement. Disaster ensues. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive in seeing in the book a suggestion that it simply isn’t a woman’s place to take decisions that men ought to be taking, and that no good can come from her rebelliion against the natural order of things.

The grove is swift erected, but when time comes to hand over a baby the villagers do not live up to their end of the bargain, instead they ensure that the child is quickly baptised and so beyond the devil’s power (and it then promptly dies, which the book informs us means god has protected it from the possibility of later sin). From there, things go wrong again, with a black spider growing literally out of Christine’s cheek and laying devastation upon them, all those it touches swelling black with poison and dying in agony. The villagers have mocked the devil, and he will not lightly be mocked.

This section is the most effective in the book. There is a chilling sense of horror as the spider grows from Christine’s face and causes her increasing pain as the villagers seek to outwit the devil. Then, the spider born and intent on their destruction, each villager begins considering whether their life is not perhaps more important than some neighbour’s next newborn. Instead of turning to god, they turn to further selfishness, and so long as they do so the spider’s reign continues uninterrupted:

Thus it was that the spider was now here, now there, now nowhere, now down in the valley, now up on the hills; it hissed through the grass, fell from the roof or sprang up from the ground. When people were sitting over the midday meal of porridge, it would appear gloating at the far end of the table, and before they had time to scatter in terror the spider had run over all their hands and was sitting on the head of the father of the family, staring over the table at the blackening hands. It would fall upon people’s faces at night, it would encounter them in the forest or descend upon them in the cattle shed. No one could avoid it, for it was nowhere and everywhere; no one could screen himself from it while he was awake, and when he was asleep there was no protection. When someone thought himself to be safest, in the open air or in a treetop, then fire would crawl up his back, and the spider’s fiery feet could be felt in his neck as it stared over his shoulder. It spared neither infant in the cradle nor the old man on his deathbed; it was a plague more deadly than any that had been known before, and it was a form of death more terrible than any that had previously been experienced, and what was still more terrible than the death agony was the nameless fear of the spider which was everywhere and nowhere and which would suddenly be fixing its death-dealing stare on someone when he fancied he was most secure.

The spider afflicts peasants in their fields and homes, knights in the castle, pallbearers taking the dead to funeral, it is a pestilence that sweeps the village bringing horrible and unpredictable death and it’s as clear a metaphor for bubonic plague as ever I’ve seen.

Eventually, a pious mother traps the spider, giving her own life in the process. A virtuous woman, she is not afraid to die so that her child might live. Again, there’s a touch of gender politics to the story. The spider lies imprisoned and time passes, but generations later the villagers again grow prideful and vain and forget their god, the spider is once more unleashed and the horror renews. This time too, the fault is a woman’s. Another foreign wife, married to a man who dare not stand up to her nor to his browbeating mother who chose the wife for him. Once again, women have stepped out from the authority of men, and plague, terror and death is the consequence.

And that’s where I struggle a bit. The contemporary framing device shows people who live in memory of god and with piety informing all their lives, but for all that they seemed a bit smug about it. They are confident of their standing with god and secure in the knowledge that they are saved, perhaps it’s the remnants of my own Catholic upbringing which make me uncomfortable with that. Frankly, they could use being a bit less sure of themselves.

For me as a modern reader, another problem is the fact that much of what happens is the fault of uppity women who don’t know their place. That’s, well, perhaps not a point of view I feel wholly able to subscribe to. And the theology of it all I find rather troubling, this Swiss god after all allows children and elderly folk who surely played no part in the decision to deal with the devil to pay for the sins of others, there’s a sense of collective judgement that I struggle to square with my own conceptions of what’s right.

The Black Spider is essentially a Christian morality tale. It’s an enjoyable read in large part, particularly (and isn’t this always true?) the parts where the devil is running rampant either in person or through his servant, the spider. But, the point of the book for me was to contrast what it means to live in the light of god, and what it means not to, and given I don’t consider myself a Christian or indeed religious at all that’s a message that’s slightly lost on me.

All that said, I would recommend The Black Spider for any prosperous nineteenth Century Swiss readers, who wish to remind themselves to be thankful for their many blessings, and though I can’t speak to this with accuracy I suspect it might make quite a good thanksgiving tale for American readers who in that season would like to read a story about the importance of being thankful for good fortune and (if they’re religious) who they owe that good fortune to.

Update 11/11/13: Since I wrote this a new translation of The Black Spider has been issued by NYRB Classics. There are reviews of it at themookseandthegripes here and at His Futile Preoccupations here. Stu of winstonsdadsblog has also recently written a review but of the same translation as the one I reviewed above. Stu’s translation is here.

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Filed under Central European fiction, Gotthelf, Jeremias, Horror, Novellas, Swiss fiction

Microgenres and new publishing models

The other night, I had to stay late in the office waiting for documents. Too tired to do meaningful work in the meantime, I followed a link I had recently come across to a novel published online by its author, a novel also available for purchase in the normal fashion.

Reading that novel has inspired me to talk a little about the publishing model that its author, David Wellington, is using. Along the way, I’ll need to dip into microgenres, before returning to wider publishing issues. I’m going to save my thoughts on the novel itself until the end of this piece, as I’m aware there will be readers who might be curious about the publishing model but who have no interest in a horror novel which for me was in any event unsuccessful. I’ll flag when I’m turning to the work itself, so those with no interest can know to duck out gracefully at that point.

Put simply, when David Wellington has a new work, he publishes it on a weekly or biweekly basis online, chapter by chapter. Each chapter comes with a comments section, allowing fans to directly comment and discuss the work with each other, and a sidebar asks those who read the whole work to buy his most recent novel in print form, and encouraging those who enjoy his works online to also buy copies of those also in print form.

The essence of the approach then is free access to the work, interactivity with fans (of which more shortly), and an honour system to encourage fans to buy that which they can obtain at any time for free. I have seen David Wellington’s novels on sale in London in mainstream bookshops, so while I cannot say how successful this model is for him, my impression is that it has worked.

David Wellington’s approach is not of course unique. Recently, some bands have taken to putting albums free online, either for a limited period or indefinitely, counting on the free distribution to itself boost sales. Stephen King experimented with online serial publication, albeit for a fee, for one of his works. An experiment which in his case ended in failure. Other authors have tried placing example chapters online, so that potential readers can read a fair selection of the relevant novel, before making a buying decision. Writer Jeff Long, author of bestselling (I think, I could be wrong on that actually) novel The Descent took this approach, placing the first chapter of his novel at his website – a move which if nothing else shows he has confidence in his own story (and although I didn’t like the chapter and so didn’t buy the book, clearly plenty of folk disagree with me given its success). The, on its face fairly risible sounding, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took a similar approach (god help me, I read the first chapter of that online too, from morbid curiosity. It is, if anything, worse than the title would suggest. Again, clearly many disagree with me).

Of the examples above, David Wellington is the only one I know of that has published his entire output online for free, Jeff Long and the PP&Z author are merely using online publishing as a method of giving tasters of normally published books, extended versions of the Amazon “see inside the book” concept. Wellington is much braver, much more experimental, the question arises then why does this technique work for him and could it work for others?

By now, it should be apparent what all my examples have in common, all are horror writers. I have no personal interest in the horror genre, save early examples such as Poe, Lovecraft and MR James. It doesn’t, as a genre, speak to me or interest me. I am, however, aware that in the 1990s it saw a fall in popularity that led to many bookshops discontinuing or reducing their horror sections, but in the last few years has seen a popular resurgence, helped in part by the emergence of the young adult supernatural romance genre.

Still, whatever fall or partial reprieve in popularity the horror genre may have suffered, I suspect it still significantly outsells most literary fiction, it’s possible then that though the two have little in common, there may be lessons capable of being learned.

David Wellington is not only a horror writer, he is also to be more precise a writer within a microgenre – zombie apocalypse fiction, which turns out to be a fairly vibrant subgenre – and which is as specific a niche genre as I can imagine. That niche quality, however, has certain advantages. I doubt that zombie fiction has a vast number of fans, but with the internet that doesn’t matter as however dispersed they may be it’s easy for them to find each other. Being a microgenre, it’s perhaps easier for an author to engage more directly with fans, to have a feel for their expectations and so produce works that will build a solid and reliable fan following. Further, lowering that barrier between author and fan, creating a sense of a relationship (a rather illusory sense, I suspect) must help with relying for income on an honour system. A fan who reads a work online, who feels they have a relationship with the author, that their comments are invited and valued, will I suspect then want to support that author by buying the print editions of their works.

Turning to the comments aspect of David Wellington’s publishing model, while reading his novel I dipped into three or four of the chapters’ comments sections. The comments were generally pretty content free, lot of “OMG! This so rocks!” and “Wow, great chapter” which while probably cheering for Mr Wellington didn’t add much to my life. More interestingly, it became apparent with Plague Zone that several fans were (rightly in my view) unhappy with the final section of the book and in particular the ending, Wellington let those comments stand, showing firstly a laudable fairness on his part with regard to his fans input, but also illustrating that he has received valuable direct feedback on what his fans liked and what they didn’t. On another note, Wellington conducted a competition, the winner of which was included in a chapter as a minor supporting character, so further drawing in fans and involving them in his work.

As best I can tell, Wellington didn’t actually change the course or content of his novel as a result of fan feedback. I don’t know if he writes it as he goes along in line with a predetermined story outline, or writes the whole thing and then releases it bit by bit (I suspect the former), but the fact of serialisation and fan comment doesn’t seem to cause him to change his direction. Equally, he doesn’t himself appear much in the comments section, leading to my own comment earlier that I suspect the relationship fans feel with him is largely illusory, the real relationship being still one of author and reader. This isn’t then a shared writing experiment, an interactive novel, rather it is simply a publishing model.

Could it work for other genres? Perhaps, the hyperniched nature of David Wellington’s work must I think be a factor in his success with this model, but much literary fiction is also read only by a very narrow readership base. Admittedly, literary fiction enthusiasts have the benefit that newspaper review sections take their interests seriously, a luxury Mr Wellington’s fans don’t enjoy, but for all that external support literary novels still aren’t that widely read – with some deserving writers getting only a few thousand readers.

Over on The Asylum, Linda Grant (who likely has more than just a few thousand readers) has appeared to discuss works, and both at The Asylum and The Mookse and the Gripes I have seen authors give interviews, discussing their works with John and Trevor, the bloggers at each of those sites. Would it be such a large step for an author to take control of the process themselves? To publish their work free online as well as in print, to discuss directly with their readers their thoughts, to engage with their readership as Mr Wellington has with his?

David Wellington uses fan loyalty, competitions, the ability to comment as a work develops and a self-created fan community to encourage his readership to actually buy print copies of his books. Were a literary author to do the same, I suspect they would in some ways find it actually easier, few readers of literary fiction ultimately will want to read such works on a computer screen, they’ll want a physical copy. I’d guess that many more zombie horror fans will be happy just with the online version.

David Wellington has demonstrated with his works an alternative publishing model, one that sits not in replacement of normal publishing, but alongside it supporting it. It’s an interesting experiment, one that appears to have worked for him and if for him I would have thought could also work for novelists such as say Indra Sinha (a very online-aware author), potentially allowing him to reach more readers than is presently the case.

That ends my thoughts on publishing models, I’m now going to talk about Plague Zone, the novel. Those of you who’ve stuck with me this far may want to bail at this point if a discussion of a specific zombie horror novel is outside your interests.

Right, I suspect I’m now writing for myself even more than usually. Still, here goes. Plague Zone is a work of zombie horror by David Wellington. It tells the tale of a librarian, Tim Kempfer who while embarking on an affair at an out of town librarians’ conference sees a news report of a zombie attack, a news report in which he recognised both the zombie and the victims – his wife and sitting in the unlocked car next to them his young son. Tim decides, through what fairly clearly is a form of guilt displacement, to get back to his home city of Seattle and have revenge on the zombie that killed his family. In other words, to find and kill one zombie in a whole city full of them.

The writing style is straightforward, it’s very much about telling the story without effect, recounting events. In my view, that’s appropriate, the genre wouldn’t support overly clever attempts at narrative technique, indeed given the inherent improbability of a zombie apocalypse a relatively flat writing style is perhaps an advantage. Some flaws emerge, twice Tim encounters zombies that were once women in print dresses, it’s clear what’s attempted there. A zombie that was once a woman in a print dress is a reminder of normality lost, that the monsters were once our friends and neighbours. Two such women though is a bit clumsy. Still, it’s the only such problem I noticed.

You don’t read this sort of novel though for the literary technique, and to analyse it on that basis wouldn’t really be fair. There is a strong tendency to tell rather than show, but that fits with the generally flatly descriptive approach taken:

He turned around, the fear threatening to paralyze him if he kept looking at the slowly creeping mass of droolers. He turned toward the entrance of Safeco Field, then to the street that ran past it. If he kept his calm, if he didn’t trip over something in the dark, he knew he could outrun the infected. He could put them behind him and after a few blocks of pursuit surely they would lose his scent and give up. He didn’t need to shoot every drooler he saw—that would be a waste of time and ammunition.

And:

Tim slammed the office door shut behind him, twisted the deadbolt. Backed up until his legs hit the desk behind him. He could hear the droolers coming up the stairs. They couldn’t climb fences but a simple staircase was still within the limit of their powers, it seemed. Before he’d even caught his breath they were pounding on the door. He could see one through the rectangle of glass set into the door, its face pale and patchy, broken with sores. It felt a film of black drool on the window as it pressed its mouth against the glass, its lips making an obscene seal there. He could see its blackened tongue lolling for him.

The writing then is workmanlike, efficient and adequate to its task (hm, damning a bit by faint praise there, but I do think a more nuanced writing style would actually be an error for this genre). The problems with the book don’t arise from that, particularly given Wellington’s many fans clearly enjoy his writing technique.

The book does however have three significant problems, characterisation, the fact that Tim is the sole hero (I’ll come to why that’s a problem shortly) and sheer (even given the book’s premise) implausibility.

Tim is not a terribly persuasive character, although badass librarian has a certain ring to it, he is basically a moving plot device and viewpoint character. At the opening of the novel, Tim is about to have an affair, we’re told he hasn’t had one before, there seems no reason for him to have one now, really my impression was that the only reason he was uncharacteristically about to have an affair was so as to give him something to feel guilty about, and so send him on his bizarre assassination mission after one zombie.

Other characters act equally without reason, a military commander who is easily the book’s best character effectively imprisons Tim for his own good, and is running a small and hyper-surveillanced militarised state consisting of a town full of survivors and refugees. That’s fine enough, but when Tim inevitably escapes the commander is so keen to recover him (his mission apparently being to protect everyone he finds alive) that he sends troops into a zombie-infested city and uses massive resources to recover one apparently suicidal man. It just didn’t persuade, there seemed no good in-character reason for him to go to such lengths. Other characters risk their lives for Tim, even offer to die for him, but precisely why is never terribly clear. The characters act as the plot demands, not as what little we see of their personalities would dictate, and it’s a fatal flaw.

Tim himself is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the zombies aren’t really literal zombies. They’re actually living victims of a disease that causes aggression and severe brain damage. Tim’s mission then is to kill an admittedly dangerous, but actually profoundly neurologically impaired disease victim. To Wellington’s credit, the distinct lack of heroism in this is intentional and several characters do query whether Tim is simply mad in pursuing his pointless, suicidal and ultimately cruel quest for vengeance.

That’s fine, characters in a survival horror context need not be sympathetic, but with Tim unsympathetic more weight is placed on other characters, and other than the military commander they can’t really carry it.

The book is also weighed down in places with tremendous implausibility, I’ve mentioned the military commander’s quest to recover Tim, a quest a deranged as Tim’s own. Much worse though is the ending, which I won’t go into here but which given the already established abilities of the zombies simply makes no sense, a point made by several in the comments following the last chapter. That said, the ending does involve a degree of psychological subtlety in Tim’s character that is welcome, though sadly which I cannot discuss without giving that ending.

Finally, there is the issue of Tim as sole survivor. Zombie horror is an example of what is known as survival horror, the horror comes from the possibility of sudden character death, from the frequent randomness and sheer unfairness of such death. Wellington tries to include that here, but with only one central character we know that Tim must at least reach the last chapter. That undermines any suspense, Tim will make it to Seattle, he will get past the obstacles trying to stop him, if he’s to die it won’t be until the end of the book – all that has to be true as Tim is the only viewpoint character and without him the novel stops.

It’s a big problem, without the possibility of random death, of bad luck or a single bad choice killing a loved character (not that I loved Tim, but that’ not quite the point), there’s no suspense and thus no horror. The choice of having a sole protagonist undercuts the genre, means we know pretty much what will happen in the book, and indeed I guessed the ending very early on and was right in pretty much all key particulars.

So, Plague Zone didn’t work for me, reading the comments it looks like David Wellington has written more successful novels, and since I wish him well in future I hope he continues to push his craft and extend his range – my strong impression was that here he wanted to write a more psychological study of one man under terrible pressure but didn’t wholly succeed. He is, however, an author with many fans and while I don’t think the zombie horror genre is the best place to explore psychological trauma, Stephen King moved from supernatural to psychological horror and I see no reason why with time David Wellington shouldn’t do the same, if that’s where his talent leads him.

Plague Zone

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Filed under Horror, Publishing