The body is buried, the clothes burned, the false trail laid. You are unsuspected, safe, and at last…at last, the house and everything in it is yours. As you sink back in your chair, your eyes fall on his pipe in its rest on the mantelpiece. How you hated that pipe! And yet he would never give it up, not even in those early years when he said he loved you. Suddenly you start! A strange trick of the firelight – it looks almost as though the bowl of the pipe is glowing. And what’s that smell? It can’t be…
A trail of smoke wreathes slowly about your head and your eyes water…you can’t breathe…you’re choking…choking…and with your last conscious thought you realise… It’s…
(No, wait, don’t go! I promise I’m not going to regale you with cheesy horror stories every week…at least not ones written by me.)
Having recently decided to extend my very limited experience of horror reading, I thought I’d invite you to come along on the journey. It’s a genre I’ve always been ambivalent about because it’s very rare for me to find my spine truly tingled or my hair genuinely raised by the written word. Films can do it – I’ve still never been able to bring myself to re-watch the De Niro version of Cape Fear and the double-bill of Psycho movies was one of the most terrifying nights I’ve ever spent in the cinema. So the plan is to seek out authors and stories that can chill my blood and shiver my timbers. As Hamlet’s ghostly father put it –
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine
That’s the tale I’m seeking. I’m hoping you’ll join in by recommending any stories that have turned you into a fretful porpentine. Classic or modern, creepy in preference to gory, I aim to stick mainly to short stories though I’ll try to fit a few novels in along the way. Since I’m currently reading Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination I had intended to start with The Fall of the House of Usher, but that all changed when I read…
Silence: A Fable
A very short story indeed but spellbinding, mysterious and mystical, this prose-poem is a fable told to the narrator by a demon. From the first words – “‘Listen to me,’ said the Demon” – Poe’s use of language, repetition and imagery create a sense of wonder and dread, while the soothing almost hypnotic rhythm belies the chaos at the heart of the tale. The Demon tells us of a land where all in nature is corruption and decay:
“The waters of the river have a saffron and sickly hue; and they flow not onward to the sea but palpitate forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun with a tumultuous and convulsive motion.”
Lilies stretch their ghastly necks, mud oozes on the riverbank and around the valley a forest of horrible trees is continually agitated.
“But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And by the shores of the river Zaire there is neither quiet nor silence.”
As night falls we are told that amid this dreadful scene sits a lone man upon a rock, and the rock is marked with one word – Desolation. The Demon gradually creates more and more chaos around the man, and with each new horror, the Demon tells us in a repeating refrain:
“And I lay close within the shelter of the lilies, and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.”
Until finally the Demon curses the land with silence:
“And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE.”
The final section returns to the narrator and we see his and the Demon’s response to the fable, leading up to a last line that is mysterious, beautiful and perhaps one of the most memorable lines I have ever read.
What does it all mean? I haven’t the least idea – the joy of it is that it is open to personal interpretation. To me, it was saying that while man can distract himself by focusing on the external confusion and disorder of life, he can avoid facing his own emptiness and insignificance; but in solitude and silence his fears cannot be hidden and the demons becomes visible. But I suspect it might mean something quite different to you. Here’s a fantastic reading of it, if you’d like to find out. Or if you’ve read it before, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
Brilliantly written, atmospheric and spine-tingling, this one has set a high benchmark.
Fretful Porpentine Rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯
Overall Story Rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀