The reader of strange stories in this day and age doesn't know how good they have it. There are enough classics in print that we can go a lifetime and never need to read a living writer. (James, Machen, and Blackwood each wrote at least a dozen masterpieces. So did Poe and Bierce.)
Of course not all dead writers in the genre are classic. Amyas Northcote is a good example. Most of the stories in his lone collection, In Ghostly Company, are pretty basic nurses' or travelers' tales; Matt Cowan does an outstanding job exploring them here.
But there are two outstanding exceptions which shine out as exceptional in Northcote's collection, "Brickett Bottom" and "The Late Mrs. Fowke".
"Brickett Bottom" is the story of a young lady's disappearance. All anyone knows is what she told them: that she found a house in Brickett Botton where a charming older couple live.
...."But surely you must have seen it at some other time," said her father.
"That is the strangest part of the whole affair," answered Maggie. "We have often walked up the Bottom, but I never noticed the house, nor had Alice till that evening. I wonder," she went on after a short pause, "if it would not be well to ask Smith to harness the pony and drive over to bring her back. I am not happy about her—I am afraid—"
"Afraid of what?" said her father in the irritated voice of a man who is growing frightened. "What can have gone wrong in this quiet place? Still, I'll send Smith over for her."
So saying he rose from his chair and sought out Smith, the rather dull-witted gardener-groom attached to Mr. Roberts' service.
"Smith," he said, "I want you to harness the pony at once and go over to Colonel Paxton's in Brickett Bottom and bring Miss Maydew home."
The man stared at him.
"Go where, sir?" he said.
Mr. Maydew repeated the order and the man, still staring stupidly, answered: "I never heard of Colonel Paxton, sir. I don't know what house you mean." Mr. Maydew was now growing really anxious.
"Well, harness the pony at once," he said; and going back to Maggie he told her of what he called Smith's stupidity, and asked her if she felt that her ankle would be strong enough to permit her to go with him and Smith to the Bottom to point out the house.
Maggie agreed readily and in a few minutes the party started off. Brickett Bottom, although not more than three-quarters of a mile away over the Downs, was at least three miles by road; and as it was nearly six o'clock before Mr. Maydew left the Vicarage, and the pony was old and slow, it was getting late before the entrance to Brickett Bottom was reached. Turning into the lane the cart proceeded slowly up the Bottom, Mr. Maydew and Maggie looking anxiously from side to side, whilst Smith drove stolidly on looking neither to the right nor left.
"Where is the house?" said Mr. Maydew presently.
"At the bend of the road," answered Maggie, her heart sickening as she looked out through the failing light to see the trees stretching their ranks in unbroken formation along it. The cart reached the bend. "It should be here," whispered Maggie.
They pulled up. Just in front of them the road bent to the right round a tongue of land, which, unlike the rest of the right hand side of the road, was free from trees and was covered only by rough grass and stray bushes. A closer inspection disclosed evident signs of terraces having once been formed on it, but of a house there was no trace.
"Is this the place?" said Mr. Maydew in a low voice.
"But there is no house here," said her father. "What does it all mean? Are you sure of yourself, Maggie? Where is Alice?"
Before Maggie could answer a voice was heard calling "Father! Maggie!" The sound of the voice was thin and high and, paradoxically, it sounded both very near and yet as if it came from some infinite distance. The cry was thrice repeated and then silence fell. Mr. Maydew and Maggie stared at each other.
"That was Alice's voice," said Mr. Maydew huskily, "she is near and in trouble, and is calling us. Which way did you think it came from, Smith?" he added, turning to the gardener.
"I didn't hear anybody calling," said the man. "Nonsense!" answered Mr. Maydew.
And then he and Maggie both began to call "Alice. Alice. Where are you?" There was no reply and Mr. Maydew sprang from the cart, at the same time bidding Smith to hand the reins to Maggie and come and search for the missing girl. Smith obeyed him and both men, scrambling up the turfy bit of ground, began to search and call through the neighbouring wood. They heard and saw nothing, however, and after an agonised search Mr. Maydew ran down to the cart and begged Maggie to drive on to Blaise's Farm for help leaving himself and Smith to continue the search. Maggie followed her father's instructions and was fortunate enough to find Mr. Rumbold, the farmer, his two sons and a couple of labourers just returning from the harvest field. She explained what had happened, and the farmer and his men promptly volunteered to form a search party, though Maggie, in spite of her anxiety, noticed a queer expression on Mr. Rumbold's face as she told him her talc.
The party, provided with lanterns, now went down the Bottom, joined Mr. Maydew and Smith and made an exhaustive but absolutely fruitless search of the woods near the bend of the road. No trace of the missing girl was to be found, and after a long and anxious time the search was abandoned, one of the young Rumbolds volunteering to ride into the nearest town and notify the police.
Maggie, though with little hope in her own heart, endeavoured to cheer her father on their homeward way with the idea that Alice might have returned to Overbury over the Downs whilst they were going by road to the Bottom, and that she had seen them and called to them in jest when they were opposite the tongue of land.
However, when they reached home there was no Alice and, though the next day the search was resumed and full inquiries were instituted by the police, all was to no purpose. No trace of Alice was ever found, the last human being that saw her having been an old woman, who had met her going down the path into the Bottom on the afternoon of her disappearance, and who described her as smiling but looking "queerlike."
This is the end of the story, but the following may throw some light upon it....
The other story, "The Late Mrs. Fowke," will strike a chord with those who appreciate Arthur Machen.
Mr. Fowke, a gentle and passive Anglican minister, marries Stella Farnleigh.
....The young lady showed herself of an obliging disposition in the arrangements made prior to the wedding, her only stipulation being that Mr. Fowke should change his present living for one nearer the moors. In accordance with this Mr. Fowke negotiated an exchange with the Vicar of G., and after a short honeymoon took possession of his new cure. Here he settled down to what he anticipated would prove a peaceful and happy life. He was devoted to his new wife, and she, while less demonstratively happy, appeared to be contented both with her husband and her new surroundings.
The first flaw in their married life showed itself a few months after their arrival at G., when one day, Mr. Fowke, having occasion to speak to his wife, went upstairs to the room which she had selected as her private sitting-room and in which she had installed her voluminous library. On reaching it he heard from within a sound of low chanting in a language that he did not understand, and at the same time became aware of a singular smell as of the burning of some aromatic herb. He tried the door and, finding it locked, called to his wife. The chanting ceased immediately and his wife's voice told him to wait a few minutes and she would admit him. On the door being opened he found the room filled with a pungent smell emanating from some herbs, which were burning in a small brazier set upon the table.
"Whatever are you doing, my dear?" he asked.
Stella replied that she was suffering from a severe headache, which she was trying to cure by inhaling the smoke; it was an Hungarian remedy, she added, but she did not explain the singing. Mr. Fowke remained somewhat puzzled, and his astonishment was considerably increased when a little later his wife informed him that she intended to go to L.—a tiny hamlet far up on the Fells—that afternoon and would spend the night there, returning the following day. It was the first time that Mr. Fowke had heard of Stella's solitary visits to the moorland and he not unnaturally sought an explanation of them, which his wife refused to give in any greater detail than the mere statement that she had for long been accustomed to make these periodical trips into solitude. He asked to be allowed to accompany her, but she positively refused to permit this, and it was with a heavy and worried heart that he watched her leave the house later in the day.
The following afternoon she returned, tired and with muddy clothes, but seeming exhilarated by her expedition. She refused all information about it, save that during these trips she was in the habit of staying at the Three Magpies, a small inn at I. and making thence expeditions on the higher Fells. With this slender explanation Mr. Fowke had to be satisfied.
A few weeks passed, when again one day Mr. Fowke detected the odour of burning herbs and again learnt that his wife was on the point of starting for I. She again declined his proffered company and left the house as before.
Mr. Fowke had never been to I., which is a remote hamlet, not distant as far as mileage is concerned from G., but only approachable by a branch line of railway with an infrequent service of trains. He was, however, acquainted with its Vicar, to whom he presently wrote to inquire as to the standing of the Three Magpies, since he was not over-pleased that his wife, a foreigner ignorant of our ways, should elect to stay alone at an absolutely unknown inn. The reply he received was not at all reassuring, for the Vicar of I. wrote that the Three Magpies was a public house of poor repute, kept by an old couple of more than doubtful respectability.
This letter decided Mr. Fowke and, when for the third time his wife announced her intention of proceeding to I. and for the third time refused his company, he determined to follow her there secretly and observe her movements and surroundings. It was not difficult for him to arrange to do this, since he could easily reach I. on his motor-cycle long before her slow train could land her there, even if he did not start until after she had left the parsonage. He carried out his programme and in due course reached I. and made his way to the Three Magpies. Here he found that the old man was very nearly bedridden and quite senile, whilst his wife regarded her clerical visitor with almost open hostility. However, the gift of a sovereign and the promise of another effected a great change and unlocked the old woman's tongue, so that she poured forth volubly all she knew.
Yes, she knew the lady quite well. She had been in the habit of coming to I. once every few weeks for a long time. No; she always came alone and had never spoken to anyone except herself, to her knowledge.
"What does she do?"
"Oh, she always goes straight up to her room and shuts herself in, then she sings to herself something I cannot make out and burns something that smells sweet and strong about dark like, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, she comes down and goes out towards the Fells."
"Have you ever followed her?"
"No, never, nor anybody else as I know of. A shepherd once saw her walking all alone in a wild part of the moor but he did not follow her or speak to her."
"How long is she out?"
"Well, that depends, but generally till near morning. She takes the key of the house with her and lets herself in, but I hear her come in once in a while."
"What does she do then?"
"Why, goes up to her room and stays there quietly and has breakfast and then goes to the train."
This was about all that Mr. Fowke could find out, except the curious detail that his wife never wore a hat on her nocturnal rambles, but went draped in a hooded grey cloak.
By the time this catechism was finished it was nearly time for Mrs. Fowke to arrive, and the Reverend Barnabas accordingly ensconced himself in a room into which he was ushered by the old woman, which commanded the front door of the inn. In a short time he saw his wife arrive. After exchanging a few words with the old woman she went upstairs, and husband and wife remained in their respective seclusions till dusk fell.
Then Mr. Fowke heard Stella descending the stairs and in a few moments he saw her emerge from the house clad, as described, in a long hooded grey cloak, and walking swiftly and resolutely. Giving her a short start, he followed, and as he left the inn the well-known smell of burning, aromatic herbs was in his nostrils. His wife was by now a few hundred yards away and had nearly cleared the little hamlet, heading for the open moor. As she proceeded a singular episode occurred. Mr. Fowke thought little of it at the time, but much, later.
A sheep-dog was lying asleep by the roadside and as Mrs. Fowke drew near it suddenly started up and, with back upraised and tail depressed, uttered a melancholy howl and darted through the hedge.
Mrs. Fowke paid not the least attention to the dog, but pursued her way steadily through the rapidly falling dusk. Her husband followed as steadily, and thus for a long time they wound their way upwards towards the loneliest and wildest part of the Fells. It was by now night, but the moon had risen and flooded the landscape with her rays. The couple, one about two hundred yards behind the other, were now mounting the side of a steep hill, and hitherto Mr. Fowke had remained in the pleasant belief that his presence was unsuspected by his wife. He was to be undeceived. The lady passed round a corner of the hill, thereby disappearing from sight; Mr. Fowke hastened after her and on passing the corner in his turn found himself confronted by his wife, who stood watching for his appearance with a sarcastic smile. She greeted him:
"Well, Mr. Spy, are you very much puzzled?"
He remained silent, dumb with astonishment and chagrin, and she went on:
"I have been wondering what to do with you ever since you left home, but I have decided at last. You shall see all there is to see; I don't think you can do any harm and you may be useful by and by. Follow me." And she turned and went on again.
Mr. Fowke followed silently and abashed. Presently he became aware of a rosy light shining in front of them, and after walking a few yards more he found himself standing by the side of his wife on the edge of a small, cup-shaped hollow in the hills. In the centre of this hollow a large fire was burning and near the fire Mr. Fowke could make out a pile of stones shaped like a rough altar. A group of about half a dozen people, all clad in the same grey, hooded cloaks, were sitting silently near the fire; and towards these his wife now began to descend, first telling him in a low, imperious voice to stay where he was. As Stella advanced down the declivity the group by the fire became aware of her approach and, rising, moved to meet her with gestures of greeting and respect. Stella passed through them, haughtily returning their salutations and slowly ascending the stone altar seated herself on a rock near its summit. As soon as she had taken up her position, she gave a signal, and the others forming round the fire commenced a slow and stately dance to the accompaniment of their own low chanting.
Mr. Fowke watched absorbed. Gradually the dance grew quicker and wilder and the chanting louder, the whirling forms flung themselves into grotesque attitudes and shrieked ejaculations, the meaning of which Mr. Fowke began dimly to divine though the words were strange. Suddenly they were silent and still and at the same moment Stella rose from her seat and, throwing back her hood and turning towards the summit of the altar, began in her turn to take up the chant. As she sang and bowed towards the topmost stone, her face and figure seemed transformed. In the flickering firelight and pale moonshine she seemed to grow weirdly and horribly beautiful and to grow statelier and taller in her person. Slowly, too, as the song progressed the horrified watcher saw another change. A grey cloud formed on the summit of the altar, diminishing, thickening and turning into a Shape, a Shape of evil and fear. The silent group by the fire once more broke forth into wild gesticulations and cries, Stella prostrated herself, the Form on the altar grew clearer and with a cry of horror Mr. Fowke turned away and rushed madly across the moor.
He never knew where he went or what he did. When he once more recovered his senses it was broad day and he was alone and lost on the moors. It was late afternoon before, broken and exhausted, he reached his own home, where the first person to greet him was his wife....
Fowke tries prayer to save Stella's soul.
"How dare you interfere with us," she began, "with your paltry little prayers and tears? You disturbed us last night. The Great One was angry—" She stopped and then went on, "I shall have to find a means of silencing you; it was a mistake to show you what I did."
He looked at her.
"So it is not too late, is it?" he said. "I can perhaps save you and drag you away from—" She interrupted him.
"Silence," she cried violently, "or I will take steps to quiet you; I will blast you; I will call upon the Powers of the Air. I will—" she was going on madly in her excitement when suddenly she became rigid, her face blanched and she fell senseless to the floor in a fit.
Mr. Fowke raised the prostrate body, laid it on a sofa and summoned help. The unfortunate woman was carried to her bedroom, still unconscious, and the doctor sent for. He was an ordinary country practitioner and the case seemed to be clearly beyond his powers to deal with, but he emphasized the need of a trained nurse; and, one being fortunately available in the village, she was presently duly installed at the Parsonage.
After having seen all done that was possible, Mr. Fowke, utterly worn out, retired to rest. Towards midnight he was awakened by a knocking at his door and opening it found the nurse pale and trembling on the threshold. She instantly assured him that she must throw up the case and leave the house at once. She could or would give no clear reasons for her action, but repeated again and again that she would sacrifice her whole professional career rather than remain in that sick room. Things had happened there, she said, things she could not tell of, but the place was accursed. In vain Mr. Fowke tried to reassure her; she would not remain and so, bidding her go to her room till morning without disturbing the household, Mr. Fowke went to his wife's room to take up the vigil himself.
When he entered the sick room all was still. Stella was lying motionless, breathing gently and at intervals murmuring a few words in her native tongue. Mr. Fowke settled himself down in an arm-chair and gradually fell into a doze.
He woke suddenly as the clock struck three and glanced around him. The lamp had burnt low and the room was very cold. His wife still lay quietly in her bed, muttering softly to herself, but as Mr. Fowke watched her, by the dim light, he fancied he noticed a horrible change in her. Gone were the full rounded outlines of a woman's form, the figure on the bed had become angular and misshaped. Her hand and arm, which lay outside the coverlet, were also changed and looked like a claw. Her face, too, was changing. As he watched, her beauty faded, the features altered, they ran together, became distorted, misplaced and, with a shudder, he found himself gazing on the lineaments of an unknown, hideous beast. Paralysed with horror he could not stir.
All at once there was a movement. The figure on the bed shivered violently, lifted itself up and sat gazing out beyond the foot of the bed. Mr. Fowke followed the direction of its eyes and saw growing up slowly at the end of the room a grey, shapeless form, of which the burning eyes alone were distinct.
The creature on the bed moved and slipping back the bedclothes stepped suddenly to the floor. Mr. Fowke saw that the lower limbs and, in fact, every part of it save the face that he could see were covered with a thick, grey fur. It moved again and passed swiftly across the room towards the grim shape in the corner; he heard its hoofs tap on the bare floor as it passed. It reached the motionless watcher, whose eyes seemed to blaze as it approached, and with a swift movement the two forms met, intermingled and—Mr. Fowke could bear no more; he fainted....
The dissolution of Stella recalls even more graphic collapses in Machen's "The Great God Pan" and Michael Arlen's novel Hell! Said the Duchess.
22 September 2019