Supernatural Horror in Literature: IX – The Weird Tradition in the British Isles (1/2)

Recent British literature, besides including the three or four greatest fantaisistes of the present age, has been gratifyingly fertile in the element of the weird. Rudyard Kipling has often approached it; and has, despite the omnipresent mannerisms, handled it with indubitable mastery in such tales as “The Phantom ’Rickshaw”, “The Finest Story in the World ”, “The Recrudescence of Imray”, and “The Mark of the Beast”. This latter is of particular poignancy; the pictures of the naked leper-priest who mewed like an otter, of the spots which appeared on the chest of the man that priest cursed, of the growing carnivorousness of the victim and of the fear which horses began to display toward him, and of the eventually half-accomplished transformation of that victim into a leopard, being things which no reader is ever likely to forget. The final defeat of the malignant sorcery does not impair the force of the tale or the validity of its mystery.

Lafcadio Hearn, strange, wandering, and exotic, departs still farther from the realm of the real; and with the supreme artistry of a sensitive poet weaves phantasies impossible to an author of the solid roast-beef type. His Fantastics, written in America, contains some of the most impressive ghoulishness in all literature; whilst his Kwaidan, written in Japan, crystallises with matchless skill and delicacy the eerie lore and whispered legends of that richly colourful nation. Still more of Hearn’s weird wizardry of language is shewn in some of his translations from the French, especially from Gautier and Flaubert. His version of the latter’s Temptation of St. Anthony is a classic of fevered and riotous imagery clad in the magic of singing words.

Oscar Wilde may likewise be given a place amongst weird writers, both for certain of his exquisite fairy tales, and for his vivid Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a marvellous portrait for years assumes the duty of ageing and coarsening instead of its original, who meanwhile plunges into every excess of vice and crime without the outward loss of youth, beauty, and freshness. There is a sudden and potent climax when Dorian Gray, at last become a murderer, seeks to destroy the painting whose changes testify to his moral degeneracy. He stabs it with a knife, and a hideous cry and crash are heard; but when the servants enter they find it in all its pristine loveliness. “Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was.”

Matthew Phipps Shiel, author of many weird, grotesque, and adventurous novels and tales, occasionally attains a high level of horrific magic. “Xélucha” is a noxiously hideous fragment, but is excelled by Mr. Shiel’s undoubted masterpiece, “The House of Sounds”, floridly written in the “yellow ’nineties”, and re-cast with more artistic restraint in the early twentieth century. This story, in final form, deserves a place among the foremost things of its kind. It tells of a creeping horror and menace trickling down the centuries on a sub-arctic island off the coast of Norway; where, amidst the sweep of daemon winds and the ceaseless din of hellish waves and cataracts, a vengeful dead man built a brazen tower of terror. It is vaguely like, yet infinitely unlike, Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”. In the novel The Purple Cloud Mr. Shiel describes with tremendous power a curse which came out of the arctic to destroy mankind, and which for a time appears to have left but a single inhabitant on our planet. The sensations of this lone survivor as he realises his position, and roams through the corpse-littered and treasure-strown cities of the world as their absolute master, are delivered with a skill and artistry falling little short of actual majesty. Unfortunately the second half of the book, with its conventionally romantic element, involves a distinct “letdown”.

Better known than Shiel is the ingenious Bram Stoker, who created many starkly horrific conceptions in a series of novels whose poor technique sadly impairs their net effect. The Lair of the White Worm, dealing with a gigantic primitive entity that lurks in a vault beneath an ancient castle, utterly ruins a magnificent idea by a development almost infantile. The Jewel of Seven Stars, touching on a strange Egyptian resurrection, is less crudely written. But best of all is the famous Dracula, which has become almost the standard modern exploitation of the frightful vampire myth. Count Dracula, a vampire, dwells in a horrible castle in the Carpathians; but finally migrates to England with the design of populating the country with fellow vampires. How an Englishman fares within Dracula’s stronghold of terrors, and how the dead fiend’s plot for domination is at last defeated, are elements which unite to form a tale now justly assigned a permanent place in English letters. Dracula evoked many similar novels of supernatural horror, among which the best are perhaps The Beetle, by Richard Marsh, Brood of the Witch-Queen, by “Sax Rohmer” (Arthur Sarsfield Ward), and The Door of the Unreal, by Gerald Biss. The latter handles quite dexterously the standard werewolf superstition. Much subtler and more artistic, and told with singular skill through the juxtaposed narratives of the several characters, is the novel Cold Harbour, by Francis Brett Young, in which an ancient house of strange malignancy is powerfully delineated. The mocking and well-nigh omnipotent fiend Humphrey Furnival holds echoes of the Manfred-Montoni type of early Gothic “villain”, but is redeemed from triteness by many clever individualities. Only the slight diffuseness of explanation at the close, and the somewhat too free use of divination as a plot factor, keep this tale from approaching absolute perfection.

In the novel Witch Wood John Buchan depicts with tremendous force a survival of the evil Sabbat in a lonely district of Scotland. The description of the black forest with the evil stone, and of the terrible cosmic adumbrations when the horror is finally extirpated, will repay one for wading through the very gradual action and plethora of Scottish dialect. Some of Mr. Buchan’s short stories are also extremely vivid in their spectral intimations; “The Green Wildebeest”, a tale of African witchcraft, “The Wind in the Portico”, with its awakening of dead Britanno-Roman horrors, and “Skule Skerry”, with its touches of sub-arctic fright, being especially remarkable.

Clemence Housman, in the brief novelette “The Were-wolf”, attains a high degree of gruesome tension and achieves to some extent the atmosphere of authentic folklore. In The Elixir of Life Arthur Ransome attains some darkly excellent effects despite a general naiveté of plot, while H.B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing summons up strange and terrible vistas. George Macdonald’s Lilith has a compelling bizarrerie all its own; the first and simpler of the two versions being perhaps the more effective.

Deserving of distinguished notice as a forceful craftsman to whom an unseen mystic world is ever a close and vital reality is the poet Walter de la Mare, whose haunting verse and exquisite prose alike bear consistent traces of a strange vision reaching deeply into veiled spheres of beauty and terrible and forbidden dimensions of being. In the novel The Return we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself upon the flesh of the living, so that even the face of the victim becomes that which had long ago returned to dust. Of the shorter tales, of which several volumes exist, many are unforgettable for their command of fear’s and sorcery’s darkest ramifications; notably “Seaton’s Aunt”, in which there lowers a noxious background of malignant vampirism; “The Tree”, which tells of a frightful vegetable growth in the yard of a starving artist; “Out of the Deep”, wherein we are given leave to imagine what thing answered the summons of a dying wastrel in a dark lonely house when he pulled a long-feared bell-cord in the attic chamber of his dread-haunted boyhood; “A Recluse”, which hints at what sent a chance guest flying from a house in the night; “Mr. Kempe”, which shews us a mad clerical hermit in quest of the human soul, dwelling in a frightful sea-cliff region beside an archaic abandoned chapel; and “All-Hallows”, a glimpse of daemoniac forces besieging a lonely mediaeval church and miraculously restoring the rotting masonry. De la Mare does not make fear the sole or even the dominant element of most of his tales, being apparently more interested in the subtleties of character involved. Occasionally he sinks to sheer whimsical phantasy of the Barrie order. Still, he is among the very few to whom unreality is a vivid, living presence; and as such he is able to put into his occasional fear-studies a keen potency which only a rare master can achieve. His poem “The Listeners” restores the Gothic shudder to modern verse.

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