A few weeks ago I spent some birthday money on an op-shopping adventure. I was on the hunt for a pencil skirt, which I found, but I also snaffled up a chunky, schlocky-covered compendium of horror stories for three dollars. It was suitably brick-sized and smelt of yellowing paper. Yay! Took me back to childhood, huddled in a cool bluestone corner, working my way through the library during recess. So I thought I would do some mini reviews.
One thing that immediately strikes you reading some of the late-nineteenth / early twentieth-century pieces is the intolerance for difference – ‘chink’ and ‘darky’ jarring you out of the text, mental disabilities being portrayed as creepy in themselves (as in Conrad’s The Idiots, which was quite compelling for other reasons). Somehow it leapt out at me a little more than in early Victorian fiction, perhaps because different races are beginning to live closer to each other, yet with little increase in understanding. However, having a background in Classical Studies has allowed me to switch off a large degree of mental jarring when reading historical literature. If I took what the Romans said about women to heart I’d have been unable to continue with them and missed out on so much! So, onward to the stories.
I started with The Words of Guru by C.M. Kornbluth. Maybe I’ve gone soft, but I found it so creepy I discarded it midway through. I will pick it up again, but given recent events it turns out I don’t want disturbing, just meaningless escapism – the cotton candy of dark literature. Then it was A Little Place off the Edgeware Road by Graham Greene. This was so satisfying, short and sweet with a little twist – just what you want in a horror story. I definitely recommend it. I’m sure many of these are online for free now. Hardy’s The Withered Arm and Balzac’s An Episode of the Terror were both neatly done, as you would expect. Classic short stories – with the ends tied off nicely. Conrad, mentioned above, disturbing and poignant for the woman’s brutal defence of her body against her husband’s desire for progeny. I skipped Edgar Allen, because I had waaaay too much of him in high school. Like the first drink you get truly drunk on, it gets you a little queasy for the rest of your life! Sorry Edgar, but possibly nevermore. Geoffrey Household’s Taboo was, as the name suggests, framed by psychoanalysis yet read like many other werewolf tales (despite a little more ambiguity). Since I enjoy reading werewolf stories, that’s no bad thing. It was remarkable for this lovely image: ‘It feels as if the woods had got under your skin, and you want to walk wild and crouch at the knees.’
Arthur Machen’s The Terror. Okay, he gets a paragraph to himself because, well gosh. This story was set during WWI, when an inexplicable fear began to creep through the English and Welsh countryside. I say inexplicable just because I wish it had remained so. The mysterious deaths are rather beautifully described. Truly creepy at times, and the episode in the farmhouse I found truly haunting – especially the possibility that they were suffering from a kind of madness. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a trope of Gothic tales of an earlier time that the narrator fits the story into a quasi-scientific context, and this one attempts to do the same, with the result that … huh??? Really??? I recommend you read it and tell me what you think. As I said, truly unsettling at times, but too much exposition transformed it into something almost comic. Lured by horses. I’ll say no more. I almost wished he’d stopped writing after the farmhouse scene, maddening as that would be. Sometimes there’s more power in mystery.
I am looking forward to reading his The Great God Pan, as it’s apparently a bit of a classic that I somehow missed. “One of the best horror stories ever written,’ according to Stephen King (who I’m afraid sits alongside Edgar Allan and Bacardi Rum as currently untouchable due to former excesses).
Perhaps these reviews are a little mysterious, but it is very easy to undermine the power of a short story through excess description. If you’d like to read The Terror for yourself, here is the link (not smelling of yellowing paper, I’m afraid).