There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Crown Jewels: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories: Volume 3 ​Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories: Volume 3
​Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle

Absolutely first-rate. It is such a pleasure after forty years of reading horror to open an anthology and find that all the stories are new to me.

    The collection gets off to a ghoulishly roaring start with "Don't Go Up Them Stairs." I had always been of the received opinion that Chetwynd-Hayes was a mediocrity. One of the many benefits of these Valancourt collections has been to correct that opinion.

Forrest Reid COURAGE
    A lovely story about a boy having to grow up too soon. Which has been one of the genre's major motifs. Reid handles the material with a fine-tuned chilliness.

    A well-turned story about madness on the Canadian plains. The element of coincidence is nicely disguised.

Steve Rasnic Tem THE PARTS MAN
    My encounter with Tem has been delayed for three decades. But after reading "The Parts Man" I can see where his reputation for excellence comes from. The protagonist's emotionally charged and physically devastating reckoning with a lifetime's habit of inflicting pain on others is unforgettable.

   The position of women in society is mirrored in horror. Mathers' story, a puzzle-piece, might outwardly resemble drawing room melodrama, but there is a steel spine here.

Charles Beaumont THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
    "The Life of the Party" is a perfectly engineered mousetrap. It waits for the reader, who begins tinkering with it out of arrogance.

    Short, but not slight. Edgar Allan Poe strenuously edited by Gordon Lish.

    Hartley is always a pleasure. The plain hard work required to create stories that strike the reader as effortless apologues is cause for thanksgiving. "Monkshood Manor" is pure Hartley: inevitable doom expressed as individual psychology.

    Two women make their way in the world. One works, the other survives as a social  parasite. Each faces a different reckoning.

James Purdy MR EVENING
    Purdy is new to me, and "Mr. Evening" is a weird and unsettling masterpiece.

Elizabeth Jenkins ON NO ACCOUNT, MY LOVE
    Jenkins, like Hartley, is a jeweler. Every story element is brought together to make something sublime.

    The biter bit.

    Keir Cross' collection The Other Passenger gave me a more than a few unsettled days. "Mothering Sunday" is filled with the same smothering level of dread. And the best snowman this side of Ramsey Campbell.

Simon Raven THE BOTTLE OF 1912
    A postwar family reunion. (As written by His Satanic Majesty).

Ethel Lina White 'WITH WHAT MEASURE YE METE . . .'
    I assumed White would be a writer of "Had I But Known" material. But in this story the atmosphere of confusion and the author's crafty indirection result in something very modern.

Robert Westall BEELZEBUB
     The perfect complement to the Chetwynd-Hayes story that opened this collection. Superb comedy, genuinely disturbing.

30 September 2018

Machen's doctors: Notes toward a review of The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories (Oxford University Press 2018).

                               These are the Alps
Fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

--Basil Bunting, "On the Flyleaf of Pound's Cantos"

The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. Edited by Aaron Worth. (Oxford University Press 2018).

Machen, the hidden master obscured under Wilde, Marsh, Stoker, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle, is canonized by Oxford University Press.

And high time, too. Machen is the great semi-colonial (Wales) aesthetic perfectionist, though I suspect his sublime style and tone of voice was taken for granted by himself, since it is so unerringly and consistently applied from start to finish in his ouvré.

*  * *

I found Machen at age 51, one year ago. To paraphrase Engels, a reader does not start on an author until he is ready to appreciate/conquer him. (For me: King, age 14; Lovecraft: age 15; Wodehouse: age 24; M.R. James, age 27; Machen, age 51.) This belated "encounter" with Machen probably accounts for the deep emotional response I have to his work. For instance: a grown man and hardened Marxist weeping every time he reads "The Tree of Life." Or getting gooseflesh every time the sublime story "N" is finished.

*  * *

Machen's Doctors

I used to think Machen's diabolical women were a product of his era's patriarchal sexism.

Reading anew in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, I find quite the opposite. Our Arthur was prematurely #MeToo.

"The Great God Pan" is the tragedy of Helen Vaughan. Dr. Raymond may be remorseful in the end, but the ruination of two women and the suicides of many men cannot be scrubbed from his escutcheon. A rope without "an inch of jute" should have been offered him.


Dr. Black in "The Inmost Light" is a vile narcissist. A man-child rejecting adult responsibility in employment and in the duties of matrimony:

....'Ever since I was a young man'— the record began —'I devoted all my leisure and a good deal of time that ought to have been given to other studies to the investigation of curious and obscure branches of knowledge. What are commonly called the pleasures of life had never any attractions for me, and I lived alone in London, avoiding my fellow students, and in my turn avoided by them as a man self-absorbed and unsympathetic. So long as I could gratify my desire of knowledge of a peculiar kind, knowledge of which the very existence is a profound secret to most men, I was intensely happy, and I have often spent whole nights sitting in the darkness of my room, and thinking of the strange world on the brink of which I trod. My professional studies, however, and the necessity of obtaining a degree, for some time forced my more obscure employment into the background, and soon after I had qualified I met Agnes, who became my wife. We took a new house in this remote suburb, and I began the regular routine of a sober practice, and for some months lived happily enough, sharing in the life about me, and only thinking at odd intervals of that occult science which had once fascinated my whole being. I had learnt enough of the paths I had begun to tread to know that they were beyond all expression difficult and dangerous, that to persevere meant in all probability the wreck of a life, and that they led to regions so terrible, that the mind of man shrinks appalled at the very thought. Moreover, the quiet and the peace I had enjoyed since my marriage had wiled me away to a great extent from places where I knew no peace could dwell. But suddenly — I think indeed it was the work of a single night, as I lay awake on my bed gazing into the darkness — suddenly, I say, the old desire, the former longing, returned, and returned with a force that had been intensified ten times by its absence; and when the day dawned and I looked out of the window, and saw with haggard eyes the sunrise in the east, I knew that my doom had been pronounced; that as I had gone far, so now I must go farther with unfaltering steps. I turned to the bed where my wife was sleeping peacefully, and lay down again, weeping bitter tears, for the sun had set on our happy life and had risen with a dawn of terror to us both. I will not set down here in minute detail what followed; outwardly I went about the day's labour as before, saying nothing to my wife. But she soon saw that I had changed; I spent my spare time in a room which I had fitted up as a laboratory, and often I crept upstairs in the grey dawn of the morning, when the light of many lamps still glowed over London; and each night I had stolen a step nearer to that great abyss which I was to bridge over, the gulf between the world of consciousness and the world of matter. My experiments were many and complicated in their nature, and it was some months before I realised whither they all pointed, and when this was borne in upon me in a moment's time, I felt my face whiten and my heart still within me. But the power to draw back, the power to stand before the doors that now opened wide before me and not to enter in, had long ago been absent; the way was closed, and I could only pass onward. My position was as utterly hopeless as that of the prisoner in an utter dungeon, whose only light is that of the dungeon above him; the doors were shut and escape was impossible. Experiment after experiment gave the same result, and I knew, and shrank even as the thought passed through my mind, that in the work I had to do there must be elements which no laboratory could furnish, which no scales could ever measure. In that work, from which even I doubted to escape with life, life itself must enter; from some human being there must be drawn that essence which men call the soul, and in its place (for in the scheme of the world there is no vacant chamber)— in its place would enter in what the lips can hardly utter, what the mind cannot conceive without a horror more awful than the horror of death itself. And when I knew this, I knew also on whom this fate would fall; I looked into my wife's eyes. Even at that hour, if I had gone out and taken a rope and hanged myself, I might have escaped, and she also, but in no other way. At last I told her all. She shuddered, and wept, and called on her dead mother for help, and asked me if I had no mercy, and I could only sigh. I concealed nothing from her; I told her what she would become, and what would enter in where her life had been; I told her of all the shame and of all the horror. You who will read this when I am dead — if indeed I allow this record to survive — you who have opened the box and have seen what lies there, if you could understand what lies hidden in that opal! For one night my wife consented to what I asked of her, consented with the tears running down her beautiful face, and hot shame flushing red over her neck and breast, consented to undergo this for me. I threw open the window, and we looked together at the sky and the dark earth for the last time; it was a fine star-light night, and there was a pleasant breeze blowing: and I kissed her on her lips, and her tears ran down upon my face. That night she came down to my laboratory, and there, with shutters bolted and barred down, with curtains drawn thick and close, so that the very stars might be shut out from the sight of that room, while the crucible hissed and boiled over the lamp, I did what had to be done, and led out what was no longer a woman. But on the table the opal flamed and sparkled with such light as no eyes of man have ever gazed on, and the rays of the flame that was within it flashed and glittered, and shone even to my heart. My wife had only asked one thing of me; that when there came at last what I had told her, I would kill her. I have kept that promise.'

The Three Imposters: The Novel of the Black Seal offers us Dr. Gregg (pace Miss Lally). What are we to think of this respectable ethnologist? He brings a mentally challenged teenage Jervase Cradock into his home, whatever the skepticism of his own children's governess. Not of course as "catamite,", but treated with all the associated signifiers of a catamite.


30 September 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Folk: No-Man's Land by John Buchan (1899).

….I had come a wild cross-country road, and was now, though I did not know it, nearly as far from my destination as at the start.

An anthology could be built of stories about narrators lost in uncanny open country as darkness falls.

Munby's "An Encounter in the Mist" is a fine example.

"No-Man's Land" by Buchan is a novella-length thriller with an unmatched lost-hiker scene in which Oxford archaeologist Mr. Graves has a tumultuous encounter in the mountains above the Scottish moors.

....after my better judgment had warned me of its folly. At last, about three in the afternoon, I struck my camp, and prepared myself for a long and toilsome retreat.

And long and toilsome it was beyond anything I had ever encountered. Had I had a vestige of sense I would have followed the burn from the loch down to the Forest House. The place was shut up, but the keeper would gladly have given me shelter for the night. But foolish pride was too strong in me. I had found my road in mist before, and could do it again.

Before I got to the top of the hill I had repented my decision; when I got there I repented it more. For below me was a dizzy chaos of grey; there was no landmark visible; and before me I knew was the bog through which the Caulds Water twined. I had crossed it with some trouble in the morning, but then I had light to pick my steps. Now I could only stumble on, and in five minutes I might be in a bog-hole, and in five more in a better world.

But there was no help to be got from hesitation, so with a rueful courage I set off. The place was if possible worse than I had feared. Wading up to the knees with nothing before you but a blank wall of mist and the cheerful consciousness that your next step may be your last—such was my state for one weary mile. The stream itself was high, and rose to my armpits, and once and again I only saved myself by a violent leap backwards from a pitiless green slough. But at last it was past, and I was once more on the solid ground of the hillside.

Now, in the thick weather I had crossed the glen much lower down than in the morning, and the result was that the hill on which I stood was one of the giants which, with the Muneraw for centre, guard the watershed. Had I taken the proper way, the Nick o' the Threshes would have led me to the Caulds, and then once over the bog a little ridge was all that stood between me and the glen of Farawa. But instead I had come a wild cross-country road, and was now, though I did not know it, nearly as far from my destination as at the start.

Well for me that I did not know, for I was wet and dispirited, and had I not fancied myself all but home, I should scarcely have had the energy to make this last ascent. But soon I found it was not the little ridge I had expected. I looked at my watch and saw that it was five o'clock. When, after the weariest climb, I lay on a piece of level ground which seemed the top, I was not surprised to find that it was now seven. The darkening must be at hand, and sure enough the mist seemed to be deepening into a greyish black. I began to grow desperate. Here was I on the summit of some infernal mountain, without any certainty where my road lay. I was lost with a vengeance, and at the thought I began to be acutely afraid.

I took what seemed to me the way I had come, and began to descend steeply. Then something made me halt, and the next instant I was lying on my face trying painfully to retrace my steps. For I had found myself slipping, and before I could stop, my feet were dangling over a precipice with Heaven alone knows how many yards of sheer mist between me and the bottom. Then I tried keeping the ridge, and took that to the right, which I thought would bring me nearer home. It was no good trying to think out a direction, for in the fog my brain was running round, and I seemed to stand on a pin-point of space where the laws of the compass had ceased to hold.

It was the roughest sort of walking, now stepping warily over acres of loose stones, now crawling down the face of some battered rock, and now wading in the long dripping heather. The soft rain had begun to fall again, which completed my discomfort. I was now seriously tired, and, like all men who in their day have bent too much over books, I began to feel it in my back. My spine ached, and my breath came in short broken pants. It was a pitiable state of affairs for an honest man who had never encountered much grave discomfort. To ease myself I was compelled to leave my basket behind me, trusting to return and find it, if I should ever reach safety and discover on what pathless hill I had been strayed. My rod I used as a staff, but it was of little use, for my fingers were getting too numb to hold it.

Suddenly from the blankness I heard a sound as of human speech. At first I thought it mere craziness—the cry of a weasel or a hill-bird distorted by my ears. But again it came, thick and faint, as through acres of mist, and yet clearly the sound of 'articulate-speaking men.' In a moment I lost my despair and cried out in answer. This was some forwandered traveller like myself, and between us we could surely find some road to safety. So I yelled back at the pitch of my voice and waited intently.

But the sound ceased, and there was utter silence again. Still I waited, and then from some place much nearer came the same soft mumbling speech....

Machen readers will note the phrase 'articulate-speaking men.'

Graves, setting out earlier that day for fishing, recalls a college encounter that only increases his uneasiness when he becomes lost:

....with some uneasiness I reflected on that older and stranger race who were said to have held the hill-tops. The Picts, the Picti—what in the name of goodness were they? They had troubled me in all my studies, a sort of blank wall to put an end to speculation. We knew nothing of them save certain strange names which men called Pictish, the names of those hills in front of me—the Muneraw, the Yirnie, the Calmarton. They were the corpus vile for learned experiment; but Heaven alone knew what dark abyss of savagery once yawned in the midst of the desert.

And then I remembered the crazy theories of a pupil of mine at St. Chad's, the son of a small landowner on the Aller, a young gentleman who had spent his substance too freely at Oxford, and was now dreeing his weird in the Backwoods. He had been no scholar; but a certain imagination marked all his doings, and of a Sunday night he would come and talk to me of the North. The Picts were his special subject, and his ideas were mad. 'Listen to me,' he would say, when I had mixed him toddy and given him one of my cigars; 'I believe there are traces—ay, and more than traces—of an old culture lurking in those hills and waiting to be discovered. We never hear of the Picts being driven from the hills. The Britons drove them from the lowlands, the Gaels from Ireland did the same for the Britons; but the hills were left unmolested. We hear of no one going near them except outlaws and tinklers. And in that very place you have the strangest mythology. Take the story of the Brownie. What is that but the story of a little swart man of uncommon strength and cleverness, who does good and ill indiscriminately, and then disappears. There are many scholars, as you yourself confess, who think that the origin of the Brownie was in some mad belief in the old race of the Picts, which still survived somewhere in the hills. And do we not hear of the Brownie in authentic records right down to the year 1756? After that, when people grew more incredulous, it is natural that the belief should have begun to die out; but I do not see why stray traces should not have survived till late.'

'Do you not see what that means?' I had said in mock gravity. 'Those same hills are, if anything, less known now than they were a hundred years ago. Why should not your Picts or Brownies be living to this day?'

'Why not, indeed?' he had rejoined, in all seriousness.

I laughed, and he went to his rooms and returned with a large leather-bound book. It was lettered, in the rococo style of a young man's taste, 'Glimpses of the Unknown,' and some of the said glimpses he proceeded to impart to me. It was not pleasant reading; indeed, I had rarely heard anything so well fitted to shatter sensitive nerves. The early part consisted of folk-tales and folk-sayings, some of them wholly obscure, some of them with a glint of meaning, but all of them with some hint of a mystery in the hills. I heard the Brownie story in countless versions. Now the thing was a friendly little man, who wore grey breeches and lived on brose; now he was a twisted being, the sight of which made the ewes miscarry in the lambing-time. But the second part was the stranger, for it was made up of actual tales, most of them with date and place appended. It was a most Bedlamite catalogue of horrors, which, if true, made the wholesome moors a place instinct with tragedy. Some told of children carried away from villages, even from towns, on the verge of the uplands. In almost every case they were girls, and the strange fact was their utter disappearance. Two little girls would be coming home from school, would be seen last by a neighbour just where the road crossed a patch of heath or entered a wood, and then—no human eye ever saw them again. Children's cries had startled outlying shepherds in the night, and when they had rushed to the door they could hear nothing but the night wind. The instances of such disappearances were not very common— perhaps once in twenty years—but they were confined to this one tract of country, and came in a sort of fixed progression from the middle of last century, when the record began. But this was only one side of the history. The latter part was all devoted to a chronicle of crimes which had gone unpunished, seeing that no hand had ever been traced. The list was fuller in last century; in the earlier years of the present it had dwindled; then came a revival about the 'fifties; and now again in our own time it had sunk low. At the little cottage of Auchterbrean, on the roadside in Glen Aller, a labourer's wife had been found pierced to the heart. It was thought to be a case of a woman's jealousy, and her neighbour was accused, convicted, and hanged. The woman, to be sure, denied the charge with her last breath; but circumstantial evidence seemed sufficiently strong against her. Yet some people in the glen believed her guiltless. In particular, the carrier who had found the dead woman declared that the way in which her neighbour received the news was a sufficient proof of innocence; and the doctor who was first summoned professed himself unable to tell with what instrument the wound had been given. But this was all before the days of expert evidence, so the woman had been hanged without scruple. Then there had been another story of peculiar horror, telling of the death of an old man at some little lonely shieling called Carrickfey. But at this point I had risen in protest, and made to drive the young idiot from my room.

'It was my grandfather who collected most of them,' he said. 'He had theories,[*] but people called him mad, so he was wise enough to hold his tongue. My father declares the whole thing mania; but I rescued the book had it bound, and added to the collection. It is a queer hobby; but, as I say, I have theories, and there are more things in heaven and earth—' But at this he heard a friend's voice in the Quad., and dived out, leaving the banal quotation unfinished.

[* In the light of subsequent events I have jotted down the materials to which I refer. The last authentic record of the Brownie is in the narrative of the shepherd of Clachlands, taken down towards the close of last century by the Reverend Mr. Gillespie, minister of Allerkirk, and included by him in his 'Songs and Legends of Glen Aller'.

The authorities on the strange carrying-away of children are to be found in a series of articles in a local paper, the Allerfoot Advertiser', September and October 1878, and a curious book published anonymously at Edinburgh in 1848, entitled 'The Weathergaw'. The records of the unexplained murders in the same neighbourhood are all contained in Mr. Fordoun's 'Theory of Expert Evidence', and an attack on the book in the 'Law Review' for June 1881. The Carrickfey case has a pamphlet to itself—now extremely rare—a copy of which was recently obtained in a bookseller's shop in Dumfries by a well-known antiquary, and presented to the library of the Supreme Court in Edinburgh.]

"No-Man's Land" is a fine addition to the small library of "very old people" stories handled with confidence and a wholly satisfactory resolution

26 September 2018

Monday, September 24, 2018

Face of fear: The House with the Brick-Kiln by E. F. Benson

....there came a crisp step on the gravel, a rattle at the front-door, and Jack came in.

“Good sport,” he said, “you gave up too soon.”

And he went straight to the table above which hung the picture of the man at the brick-kiln, and looked at it. Then there was silence; and eventually I spoke, for I wanted to know one thing.

“Seen anybody?” I asked.

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“Because I have also; the man in that picture.”

Jack came and sat down near me.

“It’s a ghost, you know,” he said. “He came down to the river about dusk and stood near me for an hour. At first I thought he was real — was real, and I warned him that he had better stand further off if he didn’t want to be hooked. And then it struck me he wasn’t real, and I cast, well, right through him, and about seven he walked up towards the house.”

“Were you frightened?”

“No. It was so tremendously interesting. So you saw him here too. Whereabouts?”

“Just outside. I think he is in the house now.”

Jack looked round.

“Did you see him come in?” he asked.

“No, but I felt him. There’s another queer thing too; the chimney of the brick-kiln is smoking.”

Jack looked out of the window. It was nearly dark, but the wreathing smoke could just be seen.

“So it is,” he said, “fat, greasy smoke. I think I’ll go up and see what’s on. Come too?”

“I think not,” I said.

“Are you frightened? It isn’t worth while. Besides, it is so tremendously interesting.”

Jack came back from his little expedition still interested. He had found nothing stirring at the kiln, but though it was then nearly dark the interior was faintly luminous, and against the black of the sky he could see a wisp of thick white smoke floating northwards. But for the rest of the evening we neither heard nor saw anything of abnormal import, and the next day ran a course of undisturbed hours. Then suddenly a hellish activity was manifested.

That night, while I was undressing for bed, I heard a bell ring furiously, and I thought I heard a shout also. I guessed where the ring came from, since Franklyn and his wife had long ago gone to bed, and went straight to Jack’s room. But as I tapped at the door I heard his voice from inside calling loud to me. “Take care,” it said, “he’s close to the door....”

The House with the Brick-Kiln

E. F. Benson

Above the river Fawn: The Man Who Went Too Far by E. F. Benson

....though one would have thought that these benign and cheerful influences of wholesome air and spaciousness of forest were very healthful comrades for a man, in so far as Nature can really influence this wonderful human genus which has in these centuries learned to defy her most violent storms in its well-established houses, to bridle her torrents and make them light its streets, to tunnel her mountains and plough her seas, the inhabitants of St. Faith’s will not willingly venture into the forest after dark. For in spite of the silence and loneliness of the hooded night it seems that a man is not sure in what company he may suddenly find himself, and though it is difficult to get from these villagers any very clear story of occult appearances, the feeling is widespread. One story indeed I have heard with some definiteness, the tale of a monstrous goat that has been seen to skip with hellish glee about the woods and shady places, and this perhaps is connected with the story which I have here attempted to piece together....

The Man Who Went Too Far

E. F. Benson

Not a sound could I utter: "Between the Lights" by E.F. Benson

A "round the Christmas fire" tale, but no clanking chains or moaning specters.

....A sudden draught fluted in the chimney, and the fire flared up as the current of air caught it.

The wind also drove the snow against the windows, and as he said, "Listen," we heard a soft scurry of the falling flakes against the panes, like the soft tread of many little people who stepped lightly, but with the persistence of multitudes who were flocking to some rendezvous. Hundreds of little feet seemed to be gathering outside; only the glass kept them out....

The first anecdote: croquet on a warm Christmas day the previous year:

...."Anyhow, I was sitting out," he said to me, "while you and my wife played your half-game of croquet. Then it struck me that it was not so warm as I had supposed, because quite suddenly I shivered. And shivering I looked up. But I did not see you and her playing croquet at all. I saw something which had no relation to you and her — at least I hope not."

Now the angler lands his fish, the stalker kills his stag, and the speaker holds his audience.

And as the fish is gaffed, and as the stag is shot, so were we held. There was no getting away till he had finished with us.

"You all know the croquet lawn," he said, "and how it is bounded all round by a flower border with a brick wall behind it, through which, you will remember, there is only one gate.

"Well, I looked up and saw that the lawn — I could for one moment see it was still a lawn — was shrinking, and the walls closing in upon it. As they closed in too, they grew higher, and simultaneously the light began to fade and be sucked from the sky, till it grew quite dark overhead and only a glimmer of light came in through the gate.

"There was, as I told you, a dahlia in flower that day, and as this dreadful darkness and bewilderment came over me, I remember that my eyes sought it in a kind of despair, holding on, as it were, to any familiar object. But it was no longer a dahlia, and for the red of its petals I saw only the red of some feeble firelight. And at that moment the hallucination was complete. I was no longer sitting on the lawn watching croquet, but I was in a low-roofed room, something like a cattle-shed, but round. Close above my head, though I was sitting down, ran rafters from wall to wall. It was nearly dark, but a little light came in from the door opposite to me, which seemed to lead into a passage that communicated with the exterior of the place. Little, however, of the wholesome air came into this dreadful den; the atmosphere was oppressive and foul beyond all telling, it was as if for years it had been the place of some human menagerie, and for those years had been uncleaned and unsweetened by the winds of heaven. Yet that oppressiveness was nothing to the awful horror of the place from the view of the spirit. Some dreadful atmosphere of crime and abomination dwelt heavy in it, its denizens, whoever they were, were scarce human, so it seemed to me, and though men and women, were akin more to the beasts of the field. And in addition there was present to me some sense of the weight of years; I had been taken and thrust down into some epoch of dim antiquity."

He paused a moment, and the fire on the hearth leaped up for a second and then died down again. But in that gleam I saw that all faces were turned to Everard, and that all wore some look of dreadful expectancy. Certainly I felt it myself, and waited in a sort of shrinking horror for what was coming.

"As I told you," he continued, "where there had been that unseasonable dahlia, there now burned a dim firelight, and my eyes were drawn there. Shapes were gathered round it; what they were I could not at first see. Then perhaps my eyes got more accustomed to the dusk, or the fire burned better, for I perceived that they were of human form, but very small, for when one rose with a horrible chattering, to his feet, his head was still some inches off the low roof. He was dressed in a sort of shirt that came to his knees, but his arms were bare and covered with hair.

"Then the gesticulation and chattering increased, and I knew that they were talking about me, for they kept pointing in my direction. At that my horror suddenly deepened, for I became aware that I was powerless and could not move hand or foot; a helpless, nightmare impotence had possession of me. I could not lift a finger or turn my head. And in the paralysis of that fear I tried to scream, but not a sound could I utter.

"All this I suppose took place with the instantaneousness of a dream, for at once, and without transition, the whole thing had vanished, and I was back on the lawn again, while the stroke for which my wife was aiming was still unplayed. But my face was dripping with perspiration, and I was trembling all over....

"Between the Lights" by E.F. Benson

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Creatures by Walter De La Mare

"The Creatures" by Walter De La Mare

First published in London Mercury, January 1920

Our narrator listens to the experience of a fellow night-train passenger, describing  an encounter he had while on a walking tour in the mountainous UK west.

A delicate, moving tale, mentioned in Carole G. Silver's Strange and Secret Peoples.

....He asked, rather in courtesy than with any active interest, a few questions, referring to the world, its business and transports – our beautiful world – as an astronomer in the small hours might murmur a few words to the chance-sent guest of his solitude concerning the secrets of Uranus or Saturn. There is another, an inexplorable side to the moon. Yet he said enough for me to gather that he, too, was of that small tribe of the aloof and wild to which our cracked old word "forsaken" might be applied, hermits, lamas, clay-matted fakirs, and such-like; the snowy birds that play and cry amid mid-oceanic surges; the living of an oasis of the wilderness; which share a reality only distantly dreamed of by the time-driven thought-corroded congregations of man.

Yet so narrow and hazardous I somehow realized was the brink of fellow-being (shall I call it?) which we shared, he and I, that again and again fantasy within me seemed to hover over that precipice Night knows as fear. It was he, it seemed, with that still embracive contemplation of his, with that far-away yet reassuring smile, that kept my poise, my balance. "No," some voice within him seemed to utter, "you are safe; the bounds are fixed; though hallucination chaunt its decoy, you shall not irretrievably pass over. Eat and drink, and presently return to 'life'." And I listened, and, like that of a drowsy child in its cradle, my consciousness sank deeper and deeper, stilled, pacified, into the dream amid which, as it seemed, this soundless house of stone now reared its walls.

'I had all but finished my meal when I heard footsteps approaching on the flags without. The murmur of other voices, distinguishably shrill yet guttural even at a distance, and in spite of the dense stones and beams of the house which had blunted their timbre, had already reached me. Now the feet halted. I turned my head – cautiously, even perhaps apprehensively – and confronted two figures in the doorway.

'I cannot now guess the age of my entertainer. These children – for children they were in face and gesture and effect, though as to form and stature apparently in their last teens – these children were far more problematical. I say "form and stature", yet obviously they were dwarfish. Their heads were sunken between their shoulders, their hair thick, their eyes disconcertingly deep-set. They were ungainly, their features peculiarly irregular, as if two races from the ends of the earth had in them intermingled their blood and strangeness; as if,
rather, animal and angel had connived in their creation....

Walter de la Mare, like Aickman, is a taste I have yet to acquire.

I find Machen, E.F. Benson and M.R. James are far more congenial and aesthetically energizing.

But more tales like "The Creatures" could well turn the tide.

22 September 2018