Tuesday Terror! Death in December by Victor Gunn

Don’t go into the Death Room!!

crimson-snow

Each time I’ve reviewed one of the British Library anthologies of vintage crime stories, I’ve commented that several of the stories have a touch of horror. The latest collection, Crimson Snow, is no exception. This story is taken from the collection and would be perfectly suitable for a Tuesday ‘Tec post, but instead I’ve decided that it should be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2Death in December by Victor Gunn

Victor Gunn
Victor Gunn

“Christmas Eve, now, and sundry log fires awaiting us,” said Johnny gaily, as he turned the Alvis’s long nose into the lane. “Ironsides, old sourpuss, we’re going to have the time of our lives. No routine – no murders – no crooks. Nothing but jollity and laughter.”

Johnny Lister and his boss, Chief Inspector Bill Cromwell, affectionately known as Ironsides, are on their way to a Christmas house party at Johnny’s father’s place. General Lister has only recently inherited Cloon Castle to add to his existing collection of mansions, so this is Johnny’s first visit there. Johnny’s high spirits aren’t shared by grumpy old Ironsides…

“The name’s enough to give you a fit of depression,” growled the Chief Inspector. “It’s a wonder they didn’t call it Gloom Castle, and have done with it.”

ironsides-sees-red

There’s snow on the ground and the look of the sky says there’s more on the way as they drive along the entrance road to the castle. Suddenly, a strange figure appears out of the gloom – a man in a “queer, old-fashioned cape, and a high-crowned wide-brimmed hat”. He is staggering and Johnny thinks he must be ill, but by the time the car gets to where the man was standing, he has gone. Johnny shrugs and drives on, but Ironsides growls at him to stop and go back. Johnny protests, but Ironsides insists…

“I don’t know what I think,” interrupted Bill Cromwell. “Either I’m mad, or blind – but I’ll swear that there were no footprints in the snow. Didn’t you notice?”

Back they go, but find no trace of the man nor any footprints. They shrug it off because they are stout Englishmen, but secretly they’re both a little spooked. And the spookery gets worse when, after dinner on the first night, General Lister is persuaded by the assembled guests to tell the story of the Death Room, prompting his guests to ask who’s been given that room…

“Nobody is sleeping in the Death Room,” interrupted the general, almost curtly. “The Death Room is downstairs, and it is always kept heavily locked, so there’s no sense in discussing it at all. It has been locked for over a hundred years.”

the-dead-man-laughs

Naturally, this is too tempting to resist. Although the general is unwilling, one of his guests, a rather obnoxious young man, Ronnie Charton, becomes determined to spend the night in the Death Room and eventually the general is forced to give way. A decision Ronnie soon begins to regret, when he is wakened in the middle of the night by a horrible cry. By the light of the moon he sees a dreadful sight…

Panic seized him – an awful, crazy, nightmare panic. He flung himself round towards the door, his shoes slipping and slithering on the floor, so that he lost his balance and crashed into the end of the heavy table. Rebounding from this, he tottered to the door, and managed to turn the key in the lock. He was breathing in great sobbing gulps, his face turned over his shoulder, staring… staring…

* * * * * * *

Despite the fact that this is actually a crime mystery, it has some brilliantly atmospheric horror writing in it, and Ronnie’s experiences in the Death Room genuinely raised the hair on the back of my neck! The castle is a great setting – only parts of it have been modernised, so there are long unlit cobwebby passages, dark gloomy corners and a family crypt complete with disturbed coffins, not to mention the legend of the Death Room itself. It’s up to Ironsides, with Johnny’s help, to find a rational explanation of events, in which they get no help from poor Ronnie, whose nerves are so badly affected that, after incoherently babbling out his story, he collapses into a state of shock and semi-consciousness. And you remember the snow? Well, it fell… and it fell… and it fell… so no hope of assistance from the outside world for a while…

three-dates-with-death

Johnny’s general air of lightheartedness is a nice foil for Ironsides’ grumpiness, and provides plenty of humour to offset against the horror. Together they make an excellent team. The whodunit part is perhaps easier to work out than the fiendishly plotted howdunit of the ghostly goings-on, and the eventual solution depends on a nice bit of detection. I’d love to read more of the adventures of Johnny and Ironsides – I may have to start a petition to force the British Library to bring some back from the bookish Death Room…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Mezzotint by MR James

An artistic haunting…

the-mezzotint

Last week I featured Rosy Thornton’s deliciously spooky story Mad Maudlin, and to my great pleasure she popped in to the comments afterwards. She confirmed that the pub in the story is indeed The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, as I had surmised, but she then went on to tell me that “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story The Mezzotint in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving.” So that seemed like the natural choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Mezzotint by MR James

MR James
MR James

Mr Williams is the curator of the art department of a university and is responsible for acquiring new items. He often does business with a reliable dealer, Mr Britnell. One day he receives the new catalogue from Mr Britnell, together with an accompanying note…

Dear Sir,

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. Britnell.

Trusting the man’s judgement, Mr Williams asks him to send the item on approval. When it arrives, it turns out it is a mezzotint of a house…

It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre.

There is a torn off label on the back which was clearly once the address, but now shows only — ngley Hall,ssex. Disappointed at the ordinariness of the mezzotint, not to mention the ridiculously high price Mr Britnell is asking for it, Mr Williams lays the picture aside, meaning to return it the following day. But that evening Mr Williams has a visit from a friend who, during the course of the conversation, picks up the picture. Mr Williams confirms it’s from Mr Britnell and remarks on the poor quality of it, and the lack of any figures to give it some interest…

‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’

ghost-stories-of-an-antiquary

Mr Williams looks again, and sure enough…

…indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Assuming he had simply missed the small figure earlier, Mr Williams agrees it makes the mezzotint a little more interesting, and again lays it aside. Later that evening, after dinner, Mr Williams (clearly a sociable creature) has a few more friends in for drinks. He casually hands the picture to a colleague who is also interested in art, without looking at it again himself. So he’s a little surprised when his friend comments…

It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’

But he thinks no more about it, till he’s later preparing for bed by the light of a single candle…

The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Image by mcsorley
Image by mcsorley

* * * * * * *

Well, this is a good little story with some spooky moments! The picture continues to change, gradually revealing a rather horrific story, and when Mr Williams manages to track down the history of the house, he finds that it tells of a tragic crime that took place there some years earlier. It’s well written, with quite a lot of humour as well as the spooky stuff.

I must be honest and say that it didn’t tingle my spine much. It’s imaginative and he tells the story well, but there’s no sense of peril – the picture appears to present no threat to Mr Williams. So while the story behind the picture is scary, it’s distanced from the reader by being seen at a remove, if that makes sense. And all the humour and friendly interactions between Mr Williams and his colleagues take away from any build-up of tension. I know lots of people think of MR James as one of the best writers of ghost stories, and admittedly I haven’t read a lot of him, but his style never leaves me quivering although I do enjoy the imagination and the writing. Truthfully, I found Rosy Thornton’s story much spookier, especially the ending where she leaves it beautifully ambiguous, whereas MR James wraps everything up all nice and neat. So, for me, this is a case where the homage works better than the original…

If you’d like to read The Mezzotint (about 4,500 words), here’s a link.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The propentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week...
The porpentine took a bit of time out from fretting this week…

Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Revenge is a dish best served Gothic…

the-old-nurses-story-cover

I had no idea Mrs Gaskell had written ghost stories till I read about it on Helen’s great blog, She Reads Novels. Helen said “I love Gaskell’s writing and this is an excellent example of a Victorian ghost story.” So of course I had to seek it out, since it sounds perfect for these dark nights and for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Old Nurse’s Story
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

The old nurse Hester is telling the children in her care a story about their own mother, whom she also nursed back when she herself was a young girl.

There never was such a baby before or since, though you’ve all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you’ve none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall’s, in Northumberland.

Sadly, little Miss Rosamond was orphaned when she only about four or five. On her death-bed, her mother made Hester promise never to leave the child, to which Hester willingly agreed since she was devoted to Rosamond. Now Rosamond’s guardians have arranged for them to go to live with an elderly relative of Rosamond’s mother, Miss Grace Furnivall, in a rambling old house in Northumberland…

…we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew, and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; – to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected.

the-old-nurses-story-house

At first, all is well. Miss Furnivall is old and rather grim and sad, as is her servant and life-long companion Mrs Stark, but they grow to love the child, and the servants of the house are warm and friendly, welcoming both Hester and Rosamond into their lives. But gradually strange things begin to happen…

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if some one was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

The servants keep up the pretence that nothing is wrong, and Hester is young and brave, so she doesn’t let it bother her. But then, one cold, snowy winter’s evening, Hester returns from church to discover that Rosamond is missing, the only clue to where she has gone her little footsteps in the snow.

the-old-nurses-story-snow

When Hester tells Miss Furnivall what has happened, she is shocked and terrified by the old lady’s reaction…

…she threw her arms up – her old and withered arms – and cried aloud, “Oh! Heaven forgive! Have mercy!”

Mrs. Stark took hold of her; roughly enough, I thought; but she was past Mrs. Stark’s management, and spoke to me, in a kind of wild warning and authority.

“Hester! keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.” Then, Mrs. Stark hurried me out of the room; where, indeed, I was glad enough to go; but Miss Furnivall kept shrieking out, “Oh, have mercy! Wilt Thou never forgive! It is many a long year ago”

Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art
Illustration by mgkellermeyer via Deviant Art

* * * * * * *

Another great one this week! As soon as we get the description of the crumbling old mansion, dark and gloomy because of the crowding unkempt trees and with, of course, a wing sealed off, we know we’re in for a Gothic treat. The writing is excellent as you’d expect, perfectly suited to this style of storytelling. The story starts off slow, giving us time to grow to care about Hester and little Rosamond; and then Gaskell starts to build the tension, gradually at first with the mysterious organ playing, then bit by bit getting creepier and scarier till it reaches its dramatic climax. Along the way, it tells a dark story about pride, jealousy, sibling rivalry, guilt… and awful revenge! The moral of the story is clear…

“Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!”

So true! Thank goodness I was perfect in every way in my youth, but the rest of you must be so worried!

If you’d like to read it, (about 10,000 words), here’s a link. And thanks, Helen, for pointing me in this direction!

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oh, ye of little faith…

young-goodman-brown-cover

For this spookiest week of the year, where best to head but to that town whose name will be forever associated with witchcraft and devil-worship. Salem! Birthplace to Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself descended from one of the men who interrogated the Salem witches and helped send them to their death. So this story seems like a perfect choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Young Goodman Brown
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.”

Young Goodman Brown resists this pathetic plea from Faith, his pretty, loving young wife, and heads off into the forest just outside the town. We soon learn that evil is afoot…

“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it.”

He begins his journey through the dark and gloomy trees…

It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.

spooky woods

Suddenly he sees a man sitting beneath a tree. They recognise each other, and it transpires the meeting is not by chance. They are both going to a meeting in the middle of the forest in the dead of night. (It doesn’t really bode well, does it? And it gets worse…) The older man, it appears, is the Devil himself, in human form…

But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.

…and Goodman Brown is on his way to be taken into communion with those who worship him. But the Goodman is doubtful. He thinks of all the good people of the town and how hard it will be to look them in the eye on the morrow – and he thinks of his Faith, sweet, gentle creature, waiting anxiously for him to come home.

But the Devil tells him he will not be alone in the town, and reveals the sins of many of those Goodman Brown has looked up to all his life…

“…here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels – blush not, sweet ones – have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”

young-goodman-brown
Illustration by Micah Clegg

Still Goodman Brown holds out, the thought of Faith holding him firm in his resolve. But the Devil has more to tempt him with yet…

* * * * * * *

Well! This is a great little story, very well written and full of wickedness and evil. But the message! What exactly is the message? It appears that if one goes over to the dark-side one might be damned for eternity but otherwise everything will be quite jolly. But if one rejects the Devil and all his works, one is destined to be a miserable old so-and-so for the rest of one’s life and die in gloom and despondency! I was expecting it all to end either horrifically or with a big dose of uplift. Instead it’s totally depressing! Oh dear!

“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

Yeah, fine, Hawthorne, but you could have put up a bit of an argument, surely! I mean, he’s the Devil, for goodness sake! He’s bound to have a slightly skewed outlook on life!

Illustration by Corinna Roberts
Illustration by Corinna Roberts

Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do a bit of sinning. No point wasting any more time trying to be good…

(Having got that off my chest, actually I think it’s a great story – but have some medicinal chocolate on hand to aid recovery. That’s where I made my mistake!)

If you’d like to read it (about 5000 words), here’s a link.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

No wonder the porpentine's praying!
No wonder the porpentine’s praying!

Tuesday Terror! Doom of the House of Duryea by Earl Peirce Jr

Get out the garlic…

weird-tales-october-1936

Vampires have been done to death in recent years – it turns out it’s not a stake that kills them after all, it’s over-exposure. However they have been a mainstay of horror more or less since the genre began, so time to don a thick scarf and go off to meet some, in this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Doom of the House of Duryea
by Earl Peirce Jr

Can't find an author pic this week, so this'll have to do...
Can’t find an author pic this week, so this’ll have to do…

Young Arthur Duryea has come to a hotel to meet his father for the first time in twenty years. He has been living with his Aunt Cecilia, who has filled his head with tales of horror concerning his father, but now Cecilia is dead, and Arthur has come to believe her stories weren’t true.

“Ever since I was twelve years old I have disbelieved Cecilia’s stories. I have known that those horrible things were impossible, that they belonged to the ancient category of mythology and tradition. How, then, can I be indignant, and how can I hate you? How can I do anything but recognize Cecilia for what she was—a mean, frustrated woman, cursed with an insane grudge against you and your family? I tell you, Dad, that nothing she has ever said can possibly come between us again.”

His father Henry wants them to spend some time together in an isolated lodge in Maine to get to know each other again. But first he wants to be sure Arthur truly understands the events of twenty years earlier, and still trusts his father, so he tells him what happened…

“You must know that true basis to your aunt’s hatred. You must know of that curse—that curse of vampirism which is supposed to have followed the Duryeas through five centuries of French history, but which we can dispel as pure superstition, so often connected with ancient families. But I must tell you that this part of the legend is true:

“Your two young brothers actually died in their cradles, bloodless. And I stood trial in France for their murder, and my name was smirched throughout all of Europe with such an inhuman damnation that it drove your aunt and you to America, and has left me childless, hated, and ostracized from society the world over.”

No other explanation was ever found for the death of the two boys. Arthur had also been in the house that night, but in a locked room (hmm) so he survived. Despite this tale of horror, Arthur feels his father could not have done such a thing, so agrees to the trip.

Nothing to do with this story but... well... who cares?!
Nothing to do with this story but… well… who cares?!

However, once in their lodge far from other humans, when the night is dark and a storm is raging outside, things look rather different. Arthur is feeling tense and headachy and his throat hurts, all symptoms he puts down to his father’s stew (hmm) until he comes across a book in his father’s belongings which tells the legend of the curse of the Duryeas…

But this vrykolakas cannot act according to its demoniacal possession unless it is in the presence of a second member of the same family, who acts as a medium between the man and its demon. This medium has none of the traits of the vampire, but it senses the being of this creature (when the metamorphosis is about to occur) by reason of intense pains in the head and throat. Both the vampire and the medium undergo similar reactions, involving nausea, nocturnal visions, and physical disquietude.

Oh-oh!

* * * * * * *

Well, this is quite fun! It was originally published in the Weird Tales magazine in October 1936. In truth, it’s not the best written story in the world, with quite a lot of unexplained things stuck in to make the story work – like why one baby would have been sleeping in a room barred from the inside, for example, while the other two were in a different nursery, nicely accessible to any hungry bloodsucker who might be passing. The twist is fairly obvious from early on too. It’s important not to overthink it, really… 😉

Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales
Original spoilerish illustration from Weird Tales

But nonetheless it’s quite an enjoyable read, with an original feature (to me, at least) of the vampire only succumbing to his worst nature when a “medium” is present, who must be another member of his family, and only feeding on members of his own family too. (One tries hard not to feel it’s miraculous the family has managed to survive this long…) And the climax is quite well done, using the storm and Arthur’s growing fear to get a nice bit of horror going.

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀

The porpentine is fairly relaxed about his one...
The porpentine is fairly relaxed about this one…

Tuesday Terror! The Other Wing by Algernon Blackwood

Wandering along the Nightmare Passage…

spooky-corridor

I have a recurring dream that happens whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed, which fortunately is quite rare. It’s not a nightmare exactly but it feels unsettling. I believe it’s quite a common stress dream. It varies, but the fundamentals are always the same. I am in a big house, which I know in my dream though I don’t think it’s based on a real place. It’s not a spooky house, but it’s full of long corridors and odd corners that lead to rooms that are never used. Someone is lost, and I am looking for them – usually a cat or dog, but sometimes a relative or friend. That’s it – I look for them and I can’t find them. Nothing bad happens and there’s no reason in the dream to think it will. Still, the wandering, looking and not finding leaves me uneasy…

So when I tell you this story made the hair on the back of my neck rise, you’ll understand why…

Tuesday Terror 2

The Other Wing
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood

It used to puzzle him that, after dark, someone would look in round the edge of the bedroom door, and withdraw again too rapidly for him to see the face.

Young Tim is a boy of about eight or nine years old, living with his loving family and servants in a big old Elizabethan mansion. Since his older brother went off to boarding school, Tim has slept alone. He’s not exactly scared of his mysterious nighttime visitor – in fact, if anything he thinks of it quite affectionately. Even though some strange things happen at night…

When the coals settled with a soft and powdery crash, he turned his eyes from the curtains to the grate, trying to discover exactly which bits had fallen. So long as the glow was there the sound seemed pleasant enough, but sometimes he awoke later in the night, the room huge with darkness, the fire almost out — and the sound was not so pleasant then. It startled him. The coals did not fall of themselves. It seemed that someone poked them cautiously. The shadows were very thick before the bars.

Tim often wonders where his night visitors come from – where they spend their days. One day, after a conversation with his mother, he decides that they must live in the Other Wing – a wing of the great mansion long closed off, and forbidden to the children. So, of course, Tim has imagined all kinds of things about the Other Wing…

He believed it was inhabited. Who occupied the immense series of empty rooms, who trod the spacious corridors, who passed to and fro behind the shuttered windows, he had not known exactly. He had called these occupants, “they”, and the most important among them was “The Ruler.” The Ruler of the Other Wing was a kind of deity, powerful, far away, ever present yet never seen. And about this Ruler he had a wonderful conception for a little boy; he connected her, somehow, with deep thoughts of his own, the deepest of all. When he made up adventures to the moon, to the stars, or to the bottom of the sea, adventures that he lived inside himself, as it were — to reach them he must invariably pass through the chambers of the Other Wing. Those corridors and halls, the Nightmare Passage among them, lay along the route; they were the first stage of the journey.

So one day, when his parents are away, he sneaks past the servants and in through the green baize door that is usually closed, but on this day is mysteriously open, to search for the Ruler who, he now believes, is his midnight friend. And to his surprise, the Other Wing is exactly how he had imagined it… and he finds himself walking along the Nightmare Passage, carrying his grandfather’s old walking stick, until suddenly a door opens…

For the door opened with instant swiftness half an inch, a hand emerged, caught the stick and tried to draw it in. Tim sprang back as if he had been struck. He pulled at the ivory handle with all his strength, but his strength was less than nothing. He tried to shout, but his voice had gone. A terror of the moon came over him, for he was unable to loosen his hold of the handle; his fingers had become a part of it. An appalling weakness turned him helpless. He was dragged inch by inch towards the fearful door. The end of the stick was already through the narrow crack. He could not see the hand that pulled, but he knew it was gigantic. He understood now why the world was strange, why horses galloped furiously, and why trains whistled as they raced through stations…

* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is good! It’s brilliantly written to get just that sense of unease of things half-glimpsed and not fully seen or understood. Tim’s youth means he’s beautifully unscared of things that leave the adult reader shivering deliciously. It’s not at all horrible or gory – fear not for little Tim, he will survive unscathed! In fact, one could almost think the whole thing had been a nightmare, if it were not for the… but no, that would spoil the story! You shall just have to imagine the ending…

Or perhaps you’d like to read it for yourself – here’s a link. It’s a bit longer than usual – about 7,500 words, but it’s worth it. Genuinely spooky, but also quite fun, and Tim is a great little hero, full of courage and goodwill. One for those of us who prefer our spookiness to come with a feel-good ending…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯😯😯😯

Overall story rating:           😀😀😀😀😀

terrified porpentine

 

Tuesday Terror! Poor Old Bill by Lord Dunsany

The Captain’s curse…

a-dreamers-tale

Now the nights are drawing in and the spooks are stirring in readiness for their annual shindig, it’s time to indulge in some soul-harrowing, blood-freezing and raising of hair like quills upon the fretful porpentine. So to start the season nicely, here’s one you might not want to read while eating, for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Poor Old Bill
by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany

 

On an antique haunt of sailors, a tavern of the sea, the light of day was fading… Talk was low and seldom, and I was about to leave, when a sailor, wearing ear-rings of pure gold, lifted up his head from his wine, and looking straight before him at the wall, told his tale loudly…

The sailor tells of how he and his companions were on a sailing ship in exotic, far distant seas. Their captain was a cruel man, and a strange one…

We all hated the captain, and he hated us. He hated us all alike, there was no favouritism about him. And he never would talk a word with any of us, except sometimes in the evening when it was getting dark he would stop and look up and talk a bit to the men he had hanged at the yard-arm.

One day, the ship arrived at some low nasty-looking islands, on which were little cottages with thatch reaching almost to the ground and small, queer dark windows…

And no one, man or beast, was walking about, so that you could not know what kind of people lived there. But Captain knew. And he went ashore and into one of the cottages, and someone lit lights inside, and the little windows wore an evil look.

poor-old-bill-cottages

The night after he returned to the ship, the men became aware that the Captain had acquired a new skill…

Next night we found that he had learned to curse, for he came on a lot of us asleep in our bunks, and among them poor old Bill, and he pointed at us with a finger, and made a curse that our souls should stay all night at the top of the masts. And suddenly there was the soul of poor old Bill sitting like a monkey at the top of the mast, and looking at the stars, and freezing through and through.

From then on, the cruel Captain made the men ever more miserable, casting their souls into the green water or to the top of the masts, or even to the cold, cold Moon…

It was quite dark when we got back, and we were very respectful to Captain all the next day, but he cursed several of us again very soon. What we all feared most was that he would curse our souls to Hell, and none of us mentioned Hell above a whisper for fear that it should remind him.

At last the men decided to mutiny, but poor old Bill talked them into partial mercy – rather than killing the Captain, they would leave him on a desert island with enough supplies to last him for a year. Poor old Bill! Little did they know that, even at a distance, the Captain would still have the power to curse them, preventing them from making landfall on any shore. And the Captain’s food would last longer than theirs…

It was horrible to us to think what a frugal man Captain really was, he that used to get drunk every other day whenever he was at sea, and here he was still alive, and sober too, for his curse still kept us out of every port, and our provisions were gone.

Well, it came to drawing lots, and Jim was the unlucky one. Jim only kept us about three days, and then we drew lots again…

Jim may have been unlucky, but not as unlucky as poor old Bill…

26_sime_1910_dreamerstale_birdofriver

* * * * * * *

This is a great little story to bring the porpentine out of hibernation! Despite the hanged men and the cannibalism, it’s actually quite humorous because of the way Dunsany tells it. “Poor old Bill” becomes like a refrain running through it, just to keep you aware that however bad things seem, they’re going to get much, much worse. The language is perfect for this kind of tale, ornate and a little overblown. I understand he was a major influence on the porpentine’s old pal, HP Lovecraft, and there are certainly some similarities in style; but, in this one at least, Dunsany keeps to the point better than HPL usually does, and keeps his descriptions brief, though they’re no less effective for that.

I could imagine it as a campfire story, read aloud to bloodthirsty children, with them all gradually joining in each time poor old Bill gets a mention. In the story, the teller of the tale’s “wild eyes shone” the darker it got. I can imagine that Dunsany’s eyes may have had more of a twinkle while he wrote it – or perhaps a wicked glint. My first introduction to Dunsany – won’t be my last!

If you’d like to read it (approx 2000 words), here’s a link.

porpentine-5

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Secret of the Growing Gold by Bram Stoker

Wages of sin…

 

Having been kept awake all winter, the fretful porpentine is now off for a relaxing summer break in a spa hole-in-a-tree.

sleepy porpentine

But before he goes, one last chance for his quills to stand on end, with another Irish entry for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

The Secret of the Growing Gold

 

by Bram Stoker

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Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

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Two families live side by side, each once proud but now fallen, both in wealth and honour. The Brents are of high stock, while the Delandres are of yeoman class. When Margaret Delandre suddenly goes to live at Brent’s Rock, now home to Geoffrey, the last direct descendant of the family line, the scandal is great, for it is unclear if they have married. Margaret is a wild, evil woman and frankly Geoffrey is no great prize either.

He was almost a type of a worn-out race, manifesting in some ways its most brilliant qualities, and in others its utter degradation. He might be fairly compared with some of those antique Italian nobles whom the painters have preserved to us with their courage, their unscrupulousness, their refinement of lust and cruelty – the voluptuary actual with the fiend potential. He was certainly handsome, with that dark, aquiline, commanding beauty which women so generally recognise as dominant.

We do?? I mean, yes, of course, we do!

 

Well, such a combination is always likely to lead to the occasional tiff…

One thing would lead to another, and wine flowed freely at Brent’s Rock. Now and again the quarrels would assume a bitter aspect, and threats would be exchanged in uncompromising language that fairly awed the listening servants.

But during a trip abroad, Margaret meets with an accident when her carriage, conveniently being led by the exceedingly trustworthy Geoffrey, falls over a cliff. Her body is never recovered.

Some time later, Geoffrey meets a nice young Spanish lady and this time falls genuinely in love. They marry and he brings her to Brent’s Rock, and for a time all seems well. Until one day, Margaret’s brother Wykham Delandre…

…suddenly awoke to see standing before him some one or something like a battered, ghostly edition of his sister. For a few moments there came upon him a sort of fear. The woman before him, with distorted features and burning eyes seemed hardly human, and the only thing that seemed a reality of his sister, as she had been, was her wealth of golden hair…

begorrathon 2016

This vision tells him that she has come for revenge, not against Wykham (even though they had a severe case of sibling rivalry taken to extremes) but against ANOTHER! Later that night, Geoffrey’s bride is awakened as if by the sound of a latch opening. She does what any sensible woman would do in such circumstances – sends her husband down to investigate while she stays in bed…

…trembling, too frightened to cry, and listened to every sound. There was a long pause of silence, and then the sound of some iron implement striking muffled blows! Then there came a clang of a heavy stone falling, followed by a muffled curse.

Suffice to say, things are never quite the same again in the happy household…

* * * * *

This is a good little story, full of nasty people who deserve all they get – well, except for the new bride, who should probably have resisted feeling dominated by those dark, aquiline good looks. (Let that be a warning to us all, ladies! From now on, we should only go for blonds).

It’s in the gothic tradition of walled-up bodies and corpses that simply will not stay dead! But it has an original scare factor, which I must admit I found genuinely creepy. The moral of the story is that you should never argue with a man while he’s guiding your carriage along a cliff-path – or possibly that you should never go down to investigate strange noises in the middle of the night – or maybe that, when burying a body, you should take special care to do it thoroughly…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

* * * * *

Wondering who the gorgeous mystery man is in the top gallery? Prepare to be even more scared…

Tuesday Terror! The White Cat of Drumgunniol by J Sheridan Le Fanu

Who’s afraid of the big, bad cat?

 

Since it is Reading Ireland Month, it seems only appropriate that we should have a bit of Irish horror before the nights lighten and the porpentine goes into hibernation. And any story with “White Cat” in the title already chills me to the marrow – my Tommy may have the occasional black blobby bit, but I suspect that’s just to lull people into a false sense of security. But he’d never harm me… would he?

2014-01-08 00.02.09

Anyway. Let’s find out what his doppelganger is up to in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

The White Cat of Drumgunniol
by J Sheridan Le Fanu

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J Sheridan Le Fanu (source: wikipedia)
J Sheridan Le Fanu

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The story is told to the narrator by Daniel Donovan, a teacher, a simple, honest man with a “dreamy mind”. Dan tells first of an experience he had as a boy, while sitting reading by the little lough on the property, a deep pool. He saw approach a woman wearing an out-dated long grey dress…

When she came near I could see that her feet were bare, and that she seemed to be looking steadfastly upon some remote object for guidance. Her route would have crossed me—had the tarn not interposed—about ten or twelve yards below the point at which I was sitting. But instead of arresting her course at the margin of the lough, as I had expected, she went on without seeming conscious of its existence, and I saw her, as plainly as I see you, sir, walk across the surface of the water, and pass, without seeming to see me…

Dan still finds the memory of that day terrifying as he connects it in his mind with a curse that has afflicted his family for over eighty years. He explains by telling of one day long ago, when his father, having attended the local market, returned late in the evening. His face drawn and pale, he sat by the fire, unable to face the meal his wife had prepared. She berated him for having eaten elsewhere, until eventually he told her what had happened on the way home…

‘There’s something happened that leaves me that I can’t ate a mouthful, and I’ll not be dark with you, Molly, for, maybe, it ain’t very long I have to be here, an’ I’ll tell you what it was. It’s what I’ve seen, the white cat…pushin’ out o’ the long grass at the side o’ the path, an’ it walked across it, in front of me, an’ then back again, before me, the same way, an’ sometimes at one side, an’ then at the other, lookin’ at me wid them shinin’ eyes; and I consayted I heard it growlin’ as it kep’ beside me—as close as ever you see—till I kem up to the doore, here, an’ knocked an’ called, as ye heerd me.’

Mother and son were both horrified, for they knew the meaning of the appearance of the white cat. And sure enough, within a month, the father had taken a fever and died.

lady in white

Dan then tells the story of why the family seems to live under this curse. It all dates back to the time when his grand-uncle, Connor Donovan, betrayed Ellen, a young woman to whom he had made promises, by marrying another woman for money. Poor Ellen died of a broken heart (pre-feminism, obviously). Connor continued on his selfish rather cruel way, until one evening…

As he approached the ‘gap’ he saw, or thought he saw, with a slow motion, gliding along the ground toward the same point, and now and then with a soft bound, a white object, which he described as being no bigger than his hat, but what it was he could not see, as it moved along the hedge and disappeared at the point to which he was himself tending…

‘Twas not long after this that Connor met his death. But as he lay in his coffin, it became clear the white cat had not finished with him yet…

* * * * *

This is a good little story, though not overly scary. Le Fanu builds up the atmosphere with some beautifully Gothic descriptive writing…

I have looked round on the peculiar landscape; the roofless, ivied tower, that two hundred years before had afforded a refuge from raid and rapparee, and which still occupies its old place in the angle of the haggard; the bush-grown ‘liss,’ that scarcely a hundred and fifty steps away records the labours of a bygone race; the dark and towering outline of old Keeper in the background; and the lonely range of furze and heath-clad hills that form a nearer barrier, with many a line of grey rock and clump of dwarf oak or birch. The pervading sense of loneliness made it a scene not unsuited for a wild and unearthly story.

And his use of dialect within the speech adds interest without making it difficult to follow, even if a few of the words are unfamiliar. It’s a straightforward tale, told as if true, and although the narrator (who I assume is Le Fanu himself) hints that the surroundings are such as may turn a man’s mind towards superstition and fancy, he describes Dan in such a way as to make him seem a level-headed and truthful man. So it’s very much left up to the reader to decide…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link…

Now if you’ll excuse me, Tommy wants his tummy tickled, and I think I’d best obey…

2010-11-23 20.57.23

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

begorrathon 2016

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This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! Not for the faint of heart…

The stuff of nightmares…

 

Normally I stick to short stories for the horror slot, but many of our greatest poets have also turned their hand to curdling the blood from time to time. So here, from the pen of one of the most prolific poets of all time, Mr Anonymous, comes a tale so dreadful it’s not surprising cruel parents use it to torture their children into fits. If you’re brave enough, read on for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

A tale of horror by Anonymous

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Mr Anonymous's nicer brother...
Mr Anonymous’s nicer brother…

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Three blind mice! Three blind mice!

Already Anonymous tears at the reader’s gentle heart with this pathetic depiction of our main protagonists. What happened to them, we wonder? What dreadful event left them in this sorry condition? Anonymous leaves the backstory unfilled, leaving the reader palpitating with dread…

three mice

See how they run! See how they run!

Poor little things! What are they running from? What terrible pursuer do they fear? The repetition acts to drum home to us the dire awfulness of their situation…

tom chasing jerry

They all ran after the farmer’s wife

Ah! The reader is overwhelmed by a sense of relief! Thank goodness there’s someone there who can save them, protect them, nurture them! But Anonymous is playing dark, disturbing tricks with the poor reader’s sensibilities. (You may want to get out a tissue before you read on…)

three blind mice 3

She cut off their tails with a carving knife

Whaaaaaaaaaattttttttt?!? She did what?!? What is she, some kind of monster?? Now the poor little things are not only blind but tail-less!

three blind mice

Did ever you see such a thing in your life?

No, Anonymous, I did not! Not until you put the horrible idea into the middle of my nightmares anyway. You sick person, you! I hope someone chops your tail off!!!

three blind mice 2

As three blind mice!

Oh, that’s right, you sadistic creep! Rub it in, why don’t you? I hope the Pied Piper of Hamelin brings the rats round your way…

Rat 4

* * * * * * *

Oh, I’m ever so sorry! I don’t know what came over me there! Do forgive me!

* * * * * * *

Certainly the poem wins on rhythm and rhyming structure, but it’s far too graphic and gruesome for my taste, and Anonymous fails to give adequate insight into the motivation of the farmer’s wife. While it would be hard to forgive her under any circumstances, perhaps she had some terrible childhood experience that would go some way towards at least explaining her actions…

mickey mouse

Anonymous, too, one feels, must have had a traumatic childhood, when one considers some of his other works…

Humpty Dumpty – the tragic, gruesome death of an egg.

humpty dumpty

Sing a Song of Sixpence – four and twenty blackbirds are thrust live into a baking oven. One feels that when the maid’s nose was pecked off it was a form of just revenge.

pecked off her nose

Rock-A-Bye Baby – a child is first abandoned and then hurled to its almost certain death.

rock a bye baby

Now I think about, the mice got off fairly lightly…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀

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(Some people think that the farmer’s wife represents Mary Tudor – Bloody Mary – and the mice are three Protestant bishops she burned at the stake. Somehow I don’t find this explanation much more comforting than the mouse version…)

three blind mice bishops

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Tuesday Terror! The Well by WW Jacobs

Ding, dong, bell…

 

murder at the manorWW Jacobs is best known for the truly terrifying tale of The Monkey’s Paw. When his name cropped up in Murder at the Manor, another of the British Library’s anthologies of classic crime, I assumed he must also have written detective stories. However the collection’s editor, Martin Edwards, explains that, though Jacobs is primarily a writer of macabre stories, this story has been included because it is a study of the consequences of crime.

Macabre indeed! A perfect story for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Well by WW Jacobs

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WW Jacobs
WW Jacobs

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Two men stood in the billiard-room of an old country house, talking. Play, which had been of a half-hearted nature, was over, and they sat at the open window, looking out over the park stretching away beneath them, conversing idly.

Jem Benson is soon to marry the woman he loves – Olive, a sweet young girl who idolises him. His friend Wilfred Carr is, as usual, short of money and as they chat in the billiard room he asks Jem to give him a loan, as he done often before. But Jem has had enough…

“Seriously, Jem, will you let me have the fifteen hundred?”
“No,” said the other, simply.
Carr went white. “It’s to save me from ruin,” he said, thickly.
“I’ve helped you till I’m tired,” said Benson, turning and regarding him, “and it is all to no good. If you’ve got into a mess, get out of it.”

But Carr won’t give up so easily. He knows something about Jem’s past, something that would make the idealistic Olive see him a new and unflattering light… and he can prove it…

His cousin reached forward suddenly, and catching him by the collar of his coat pinned him down on the table.
“Give me those letters,” he breathed, sticking his face close to Carr’s.
“They’re not here,” said Carr, struggling. “I’m not a fool. Let me go, or I’ll raise the price.”

And Carr walks out into the garden… and disappears. When his absence is noticed, Jem explains by saying they had a row over money and Jem sent him off…

“I don’t think we shall see him again.”

the well 2

* * * * *

The well, which had long ago fallen into disuse, was almost hidden by the thick tangle of undergrowth which ran riot at that corner of the old park. It was partly covered by the shrunken half of a lid, above which a rusty windlass creaked in company with the music of the pines when the wind blew strongly. The full light of the sun never reached it, and the ground surrounding it was moist and green when other parts of the park were gaping with the heat.

The following evening, Jem and Olive are strolling in the grounds when Olive takes it into her head to wander towards the old well. Jem does his best to dissuade her, but she likes to sit there on the edge of the well surveying the wilderness around it…

“I like this place,” said she, breaking a long silence, “it is so dismal –so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t dare to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me. Ugh!”

(Isn’t she just so sweet and innocent?) As they sit there, canoodling, not to put too fine a point on it, Olive wonders when they will next hear from Wilfred, asking Jem to help him out as usual. She is startled by the bitter way Jem responds…

“You don’t know much about him,” said the other, sharply. “He was not above blackmail; not above ruining the life of a friend to do himself a benefit. A loafer, a cur, and a liar!”

the well 3

At this moment, Olive suddenly leaps up with a cry! Jem asks her what the matter is…

“I was startled,” she said, slowly, putting her hands on his shoulder. “I suppose the words I used just now are ringing in my ears, but I fancied that somebody behind us whispered ‘Jem, help me out.'”

Shivering, Jem pleads with her to come away from the well, but she’s an obstinate little thing. Not content with making Jem stay near the well, she then girlishly proceeds to drop her valuable and irreplaceable bracelet down it…

“The one that was my mother’s,” said Olive. “Oh, we can get it back surely. We must have the water drained off.”
“Your bracelet!” repeated Benson, stupidly.
“Jem,” said the girl in terrified tones, “dear Jem, what is the matter?”
For the man she loved was standing regarding her with horror. The moon which touched it was not responsible for all the whiteness of the distorted face, and she shrank back in fear to the edge of the well.

Desperate, Jem promises he will retrieve the bracelet himself the next day. And sure enough, the next day he has himself lowered into the well…

The_Scream

* * * * *

This is a brilliant little story that had the porpentine and me fairly shrieking with terror! Jacobs knows exactly how to build up atmosphere and tension, and while there’s never any doubt about what happened to Wilfred, he still manages to produce a truly shocking ending! Admittedly, had I been Jem I’d have solved the issue by lending Wilf the money and tossing Olive down the well, but that wouldn’t have made for nearly such a fun story. It’s quite short – only about 4,000 words. Go on, you’re brave enough! If your hair turns white, you can always dye it! Here’s a link…

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!
It’s a fretful porpentine!!

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Tuesday Terror! The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Traditional horror…

 

Apparently when Shirley Jackson first published this story in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so shocked by it that she was sent hate mail. Sound like it ought to be perfect for this week’s…

the lottery

 

Tuesday Terror

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

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Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

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The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

On this beautiful morning, the people of this typical small town American village gather together to celebrate the annual tradition of the lottery. The tradition goes back so far that no-one really remembers why it began, though Old Man Warner suggests it was originally some kind of ritual to ensure a good harvest. Schools are closed for the summer, so all the kids are there, and neighbours chat cheerfully as they gather in the square. But the behaviour of the boys give an early indication that something a little darker might be going on…

Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…

Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles
Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles

Everyone knows exactly what will happen, but Mr Summers takes charge as he does every year to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the rules. There are only three hundred people in the village, including children, so it won’t take long. As they chat, some mention rumours that other towns and villages have decided to stop running the lottery, but the older folk think that’s foolish – why mess with tradition?

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.

Eventually all is ready, and the man at the head of each family draws a slip of paper from the box. As they wait for Mr Summers to give them the signal to look at the paper, the holiday atmosphere changes to one of tension…

For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saying, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Who’s got it?’, ‘Is it the Dunbars?’, ‘Is it the Watsons?’.

It turns out it’s the Hutchinsons. Now the atmosphere changes again, as the mother of the family, Tessie Hutchinson, declares the draw was unfair and should be done again. But she meets with little sympathy from her friends or even her family…

‘Be a good sport, Tessie,’ Mrs Delacroix called, and Mrs Graves said, ‘All of us took the same chance.’
‘Shut up, Tessie.’ Bill Hutchinson said.

The next round of the draw begins, to decide which of the Hutchinson family is to be chosen. The father? Young Nancy? Or maybe the little one, Dave, too young to draw without assistance…

Illustration by Monica Garwood
Illustration by Monica Garwood

* * * * *

This is a chilling little tale which, even as the first story she published, shows some of the techniques Jackson used to great effect in her later work. No gothic ruins or thunderstorms, Jackson’s stories take place in the full glare of summer sunshine and it’s the contrast of the total normality of the people with the sheer craziness of what they are about to do that creates the feeling of menace – of madness. To be honest, I felt it was pretty obvious what was going to happen from the point in the second paragraph when the boys were gathering stones, but that might be because there have been derivatives of this story over the intervening decades.

What interested me more than the story was the fact that it inspired hate mail from contemporary readers. Partly it seems to have been as a result of confusion – a bit like the Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds thing – with some readers thinking it was a report of real events. But otherwise some of the hate that was hurled at Jackson seems to be wildly over the top for a story which, while well written and effectively horrifying, would be considered relatively mild today. Perhaps in 1948, the horrors of WW2 were too fresh in people’s minds for them to be willing to consider that any group of people can do evil unthinkingly if they blindly follow rules and obey their leaders without question.

The most inappropriate cover ever?
The most inappropriate cover ever?

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Apparently Jackson’s explanation was “I suppose I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” It appears she may have shocked them even more than she intended.

If you’d like to read the story for yourself, here’s a link. It’s very short – about 3500 words.

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

porpentine 3

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Highland Horror!

A ‘true’ Scottish ghost story for Hallowe’en…

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Battle of Bannockburn by Brian Palmer
Battle of Bannockburn by Brian Palmer

 

Back in the olden days, any time there were no English around to be slaughtered (see above), the Scots used to practice by massacring each other. (This rarely happens today, except after a Rangers-Celtic football match.)

 

The 1980 Scottish Cup Final
The 1980 Scottish Cup Final

 

In the early 15th century, Clan Cumming and Clan Mackintosh had been feuding for decades. The Cummings had driven the Mackintoshes from their lands in Meikle Geddes and Rait, but the Mackintoshes had bloodily retaliated and the fighting had gone back and forth ever since. In 1442, both sides agreed to down arms and the Cummings invited the Mackintoshes to a feast of reconciliation at Rait Castle, a place that had been at the centre of the feuding between the two clans since the days of Robert the Bruce.

 

 

Things were not as they appeared, however, for the Cummings secretly proposed to murder their guests. All the Cummings were under an oath not to reveal the plot, but the daughter of the Chief had fallen in love with the young leader of the Mackintoshes. Sneaking out from the castle, she met her lover by a stone, known to this day as the Stone of the Maiden, where she revealed her father’s plot.

 

The Stone of the Maiden alastaircunningham07.blogspot.com
The Stone of the Maiden
alastaircunningham07.blogspot.com

 

As the feast came to its end, a toast was announced to ‘The Memory of the Dead’. This was the signal for the Cummings to rise up and slay their guests but, forewarned, each Mackintosh drew his dirk and killed his Cumming neighbour with a strike to the heart.

Only the Chief survived. Realising that his daughter had betrayed them, he rushed in rage to the tower where she was hiding. Terror-stricken, she tried to escape through the tower window, but as she hung from the ledge, the Chief drew his sword and chopped off both her hands, crying that never again would she use them to embrace the young Mackintosh!

 

Rait Castle tower www.saveraitcastle.org
Rait Castle tower
saveraitcastle.org

 

From that dreadful bloody night the castle has been untenanted, but for the ghost of the young handless maiden who wanders mournfully still through the ruins looking for her lost love…

 

Rait Castle by jeaniblog http://www.pxleyes.com/profile/jeaniblog/
Rait Castle by jeaniblog
pxleyes.com/profile/jeaniblog/

* * * * * * *

This story is based on true events – namely, the feud and the massacre really happened, and the legend of the handless maiden is a real one, though the story seems to be told differently depending on the source. I’ve mingled a couple of versions – from wikipedia and from saveraitcastle.org – plus little bits from other sources around the ‘net.

Who knows whether it really happened? But still people claim to see the ghost…

* * * * * * *

(This lament has nothing to do with the story but frankly, I couldn’t find a good recording of the appropriate one, The Lament of the Little Supper.)
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* * * * * * *

Happy Hallowe'en!

Tuesday Terror! The Burial of the Rats by Bram Stoker

Oh, rats!!

 

Not a supernatural story this week – sometimes man, or in this case woman, can be a scarier proposition than any ghoul. Especially when they have found a way to make use of rats…

the burial of the rats

So join me in the Paris of 1850, for this week’s excursion into…

Tuesday Terror

The Burial of the Rats

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by Bram Stoker

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Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

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Leaving Paris by the Orleans road, cross the Enceinte, and, turning to the right, you find yourself in a somewhat wild and not at all savoury district. Right and left, before and behind, on every side rise great heaps of dust and waste accumulated by the process of time.

Our narrator is a young Englishman, who has been asked by the parents of the young girl he loves to stay away for a period of a year. He is spending his time in Paris and, having seen all the usual sights, has widened his walks into some of the parts of the city not usually seen by tourists. One day, his wanderings take him to an area close to Montrouge, a place where the chiffoniers of the city live and work – the rag-pickers, who go through the waste of the city looking for any discarded items of value. It is a poor place, a shanty town, and the accumulated waste is piled in heaps on the streets.

Musard_Chiffonniers_de_Paris

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In the midst of these huts was one of the strangest adaptations – I cannot say habitations – I had ever seen. An immense old wardrobe, the colossal remnant of some boudoir of Charles VII or Henry II, had been converted into a dwelling-house. The double doors lay open, so that the entire ménage was open to public view. In the open half of the wardrobe was a common sitting-room of some four feet by six, in which sat, smoking their pipes round a charcoal brazier, no fewer than six old soldiers of the First Republic, with their uniforms torn and worn threadbare.

The old men look at him curiously and then put their head together in a whispered conference. He feels a little uneasy but sees no real cause for fear. However as he continues on his walk, he occasionally comes across an old soldier and each time wonders if it is one of these old men. The men seem to be watching him.

As it is getting late in the afternoon, our narrator decides to turn back, but finds he has lost his way. He continues on hoping to find someone from whom he can ask directions, and eventually comes upon an old woman in a shanty with three walls and open at the front. At first the old woman seems friendly and, in answer to his questions, regales him with tales of her life. She had been alive at the time of the French Revolution and had been one of those who sat daily at the Guillotine. But as they talk, he first notices the rats…

Rats 1

In one corner was a heap of rags which seemed to move from the number of vermin it contained, and in the other a heap of bones whose odour was something shocking. Every now and then, glancing at the heaps, I could see the gleaming eyes of some of the rats which infested the place. These loathsome objects were bad enough, but what looked even more dreadful was an old butcher’s axe with an iron handle stained with clots of blood leaning up against the wall on the right hand side.

Now darkness is falling. The old woman has noticed the golden and bejewelled rings on his fingers, and an avaricious gleam has come into her eyes. He is not yet afraid, for he is young and strong and she is old and frail-looking. But in the darkness he sees the gleam of the eyes of the rats, and then through the rickety walls of the shanty, he sees other eyes gleaming too… human eyes. It is then that he suspects the old men have surrounded the shanty waiting only for the woman’s signal to attack. But meantime the old woman continues with her stories… she tells him of a time she had gone down into the city’s sewers to look for a lost ring and while there had come upon the corpse of a dead man…

Rats 2

There was but little water, and the bottom of the drain was raised with brick, rubbish, and much matter of the kind. He had made a fight for it, even when his torch had gone out. But they were too many for him! They had not been long about it! The bones were still warm; but they were picked clean. They had even eaten their own dead ones and there were bones of rats as well as of the man.

Our narrator realises that she is telling him of his own future – once they have murdered and robbed him, the rats will perform the task of disposing of his body, so that he will vanish without trace. His only hope is to flee…

Rat 4

 

* * * * *

This is an awfully jolly little story, full of filth and sucking mud, silent pursuers and, above all, the ever-present threat of the rats. The old woman is beautifully evil and the relentlessness of the pursuit is excellently done. The descriptive writing is great, in that old-fashioned style that works so well for gothic horror, and Stoker creates a wonderful feeling of tension. There are tiny touches of humour, mainly around the idea of the pride of the Englishman abroad, but mostly this is just a straight tale of a terrifying adventure. Though the porpentine and I didn’t have to worry about ghostly apparitions for once, we checked carefully under the bed for rats before we went to sleep…

It’s slightly longer than I usually pick for this slot at about 10,000 words, but if you’d like to read it, here’s a link. You may want to set some traps first though…

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Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

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Sleep well!
Sleep well!

Tuesday Terror! Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by MR James

…or alternatively – run, run, RUN!!!

 

I haven’t read a lot of MR James, mainly because any time I do I come away thinking that they are well written but not very scary. However, the last time I mentioned that, my old mate Lady Fancifull declared that this story made her ‘clammy spined’ – a wondrous expression, I feel, and one that should be investigated further. So here goes – another chance for Mr James to redeem himself on this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

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by MR James

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MR James
MR James

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Professor Parkins proposes to spend his holiday playing golf in the seaside town of Burnstow on the East Coast. An archaeological colleague asks him if, while there, he would mind having a look at the site of an ancient Templar preceptory with a view to determining whether it would be worth having a dig there. The Professor agrees, since he will be staying very near to the ruins, in the Globe Inn. Another colleague jokes that he hopes there will be no ghosts in the Inn, which sets Parkins off on what appears to be a well worn lecture…

“ – I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all that I hold most sacred.”

(You just know he’s going to have to eat those words, don’t you?) Off he goes, and finds on arrival at the Inn that the room he has been given has two beds in it, no singles being available, and the three windows face out to the shore.

John Hurt as Professor Parkins in the 2010 BBC dramatisation
John Hurt as Professor Parkins in the 2010 BBC dramatisation

The following day Parkins spends the morning playing golf with a fellow guest, Colonel Wilson, and in the afternoon toddles off to look at the Templar site. Digging around, he finds a recess in the structure and when he feels inside he discovers a little metal cylinder, which he promptly pockets (this being the Englishman’s normal behaviour whenever coming across anything of archaeological interest).

Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynes, the dim and murmuring sea.

As he looks behind him, he sees a strange figure apparently trying to catch up to him, but he hurries on to the Inn.

Illustration ©2012-2015 PhilipHarvey
Illustration ©2012-2015 PhilipHarvey

Late that evening, he finds the metal cylinder in his pocket and, by the light of his candles, he discovers it’s a whistle, inscribed in Latin. Part of the inscription is Quis est iste qui venitWho is this who is coming? But he can’t work out the other part, FLA FUR BIS FLE (nor me, but Google can!), which is a pity since it might have stopped him blowing it. But blow it he does…

It was a sound…that seemed to have the power…of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes.

The wind grows stronger, blowing open his window and blowing out the candles! Finally wrestling the window shut again, he tries to compose himself to sleep. But each time he closes his eyes, the same pictures appear to him – a long stretch of shore like the one outside his window, and a man running, running in fear – but of what? And then Parkins sees what is chasing the man…

Oh-Whistle-and-Ill-come-to-you-my-lad-Jonathan Barry

…a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying.

Eventually Parkins falls asleep, but not before hearing some strange sounds, he thinks rats perhaps, scuttling across the room towards the other, empty bed…

 

* * * * *

Hurrah! An MR James story that is actually creepy! It’s also well written and has a lot of humour in it – especially around Parkins trying to maintain his disbelief in the supernatural despite the mysterious goings on in the other bed. Personally I’d have been out of that room sharpish, before evening fell, but he always manages to find a ‘rational’ explanation, however unlikely. At the point where a young boy is seen running away from the hotel shrieking about a horrible figure in the window – yes, of course, Parkins’ window – even the grouchy Colonel is beginning to have doubts, but not Parkins! Of course, if people did the sensible thing and ran away there wouldn’t be so many good horror stories – and this is a good one! It’s not too long – about 8,000 words – so here’s a link if you’d like to read it and find out what happens the next night…

ohwhistle-mcbride

* * * * *

PS The title is taken from a poem by Robert Burns – James was clearly a man of impeccable taste! Needless to say, Burns’ poem is about love rather than ghosties…

* * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

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porpentine

Tuesday Terror! Horrorology edited by Stephen Jones

horrorology coverA patchy collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

This collection of short horror stories has contributions from some of the best-known names in contemporary horror writing, many of whom also showed up in a previous Stephen Jones anthology, Fearie Tales, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed with this one. A few of the stories are good, but most are middling and one or two are frankly poor.

The blurb is a rehash of Stephen Jones’ introduction, which is written in the form of a Lovecraft pastiche, telling of how the stories to come were stolen from a book called The Lexicon of Fear in the Library of the Damned. This led me to think that the stories were going to be weird tales in the Lovecraftian tradition, but in fact they’re not. There’s no over-arching theme to the collection – each one is straight horror and unconnected to the rest. That’s not a problem – in fact, personally I prefer horror to weird – but I feel the blurb could be misleading.

Tuesday Terror

The stories range from a few pages to near novella length. Some contain huge amounts of foul language – the lazy author’s friend – and one, by Clive Barker, is little more than an excuse to be so sexually explicit it comes close to being porn. And there are a couple of gore-fests, although oddly these are two of the better stories despite the blood and guts elements. Many of the stories have good, imaginative premises, though some are followed through better than others.

* * * * * * *

Here’s an idea of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Guignol by Kim Newman – Set in Paris at the tail-end of the 19th century, this is one of the major gore-fests. A series of gruesome murders have been committed in the Pigalle area, but because the victims seem to be poor and are often unidentified the police are making little effort to solve the case. So an unlikely group of three women, working for a mysterious man as a kind of dark version of Charlie’s Angels, are hired by an unknown client to investigate. It seems there may be a link to the Théâtre des Horreurs, where nightly performances set out to shock the audiences with displays of graphic blood-soaked horror. But are these performances, or could some of the actors be appearing for one night only? And are there powerful people protecting the show from investigation in the murder case? Graphic and gruesome, but also well written and gives a good feel for the period and the whole Grand Guignol atmosphere.

Horrorology Banner

Nightmare by Ramsay Campbell – a retired couple are on a trip to revisit some of the places the man remembers from his youth. They turn off the road in search of a great viewpoint he has fond memories of, but find that a village has been built there in the meantime. The villagers are unwelcoming, in a Wicker Man kind of way, but the man is determined to find his viewpoint…whatever the cost. The writing of this builds up a great atmosphere of tension leading to a satisfyingly scary climax. I must say this was pretty much the only story in the book that I found truly spine-tingling – a very traditional horror story but written with enough skill to stop it from feeling stale.

Ripper by Angela Slatter – The story of the Jack the Ripper investigation but with a couple of twists. The protagonist is Kit, a young police constable, but unknown to anyone she is actually a woman in disguise, who has taken the job to earn extra money to look after her mother and invalid brother. And the Ripper has a reason for taking trophies from his victims – he believes that they will give him access to supernatural powers. I always enjoy Slatter’s writing, and in this one she has created an interesting character in Kit. Women and witchery is a theme she returns to often and this is no exception. Plenty of gore again here, but it would be hard to do a Ripper story without it!

* * * * * * *

So some good stuff here, but overall the quality is too patchy for me to give a wholehearted recommendation to the collection as a whole. My 3-star rating is an average of the ratings I gave to each individual story, which included a couple of 5s, a couple of 1s, and the bulk of the rest coming in as 3s.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Heart of darkness…

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tales of mystery and imagination

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No October would be complete without at least one story from the master of horror himself! So join me, if you dare, for this week’s journey into madness with…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

 

True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell…

And to prove his sanity, our narrator sets out to tell us the story of why he is now locked up in an asylum. He had lived with an old man, whom he loved. It was not insanity that caused him to do the thing he did, not hatred, nor jealousy, nor greed…

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

But this will be no insane, unplanned act – no, no! Our narrator acts with caution, giving never an indication of his intention…

I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.

the tell-tale heart illustration 4

Each night at midnight, our narrator sneaks to the old man’s room and slowly, very slowly, opens the door and peers in. But each night he is disappointed – the old man is asleep and thus his eyes are closed. The act must be done when the eye is open…

…for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.

Upon the eighth night, the narrator accidentally makes a noise as he stands at the door, and the old man starts awake. He sits up, but the darkness is so intense he cannot see who or what has disturbed him. Our narrator is still patient – for a full hour he stands at the door, but the old man doesn’t lie down – he is in the grip of mortal fear. And eventually he can no longer suppress a groan of terror…

It was not a groan of pain or of grief – oh, no! – it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe… I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.

Silence falls again, and after waiting a long time, our narrator resolves to open his lantern, just a little. The light shines straight on the eye – the vulture eye! And now the narrator hears something…

the tell-tale heart illustration 2

…there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart…

And the beating grows louder, louder – till our narrator fears the neighbours must hear it! At last, he rouses himself to action…

The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once – once only.

A madman may have left some signs of this horrible crime, but our narrator is not mad – he takes every precaution to leave no trace. So when the next day three police officers arrive, alerted by neighbours who thought they heard a shriek in the middle of the night, he has no fear of discovery.

But a guilty heart has its own ways of making even the sanest man reveal his hidden secrets…

Illustration by Harry Clarke
Illustration by Harry Clarke

* * * * *

This is a great little story – no-one does the madman telling his story as effectively as Poe. He doesn’t mess about – the story is only a couple of thousand words long, but it’s all in the writing – the repetitions, yes, the repetitions, the dramatic use of dashes – of dashes! – the exclamation marks!! And (please note, modern horror writers) he sticks to the point. We know nothing about the old man or the narrator, not even their names. The house is not described except where essential for the plot. But it doesn’t matter – in fact, the delicious vagueness makes it even more creepy. Was the old man sweet or nasty? What drove our narrator mad? Why were they living together? Friends? Master and servant? Man and wife??? (There’s nothing to actually say the narrator is a man.) You could spend hours making up your own background story – Poe has left plenty of room between the lines. But don’t try to do it when the lights are out…

* * * * *

If you’d like to read the full thing, here’s a link.

And here’s the wonderful Mr Vincent Price telling this and other Poe stories – perfect for October nights!

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Tuesday Terror! The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft

the zombie stories of hp lovecraftLoathsome, blasphemous, hellish creatures galore!

 

Not one short story this week, but an entire collection, stuffed full of HP Lovecraft’s overblown language and trademark use of four adjectives whenever one would do – a truly hideous, bloated, blasphemous, loathsome collection of tales from beyond the tomb – just the thing to resurrect this little horror slot from its summer death…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft

 

hp lovecraft 2

There are five individual stories in the book, plus the Herbert West – Reanimator series, which is made up of six linked episodes. The ‘zombie’ reference in the title is a bit of a cheat – only the Herbert West stories contain what we might think of today as zombies, and I suspect were probably influential on the development of the zombie genre, but Lovecraft himself doesn’t use the word. Most of the rest do have a connection to people returning from the dead in one way or another, but in one or two of them the link is tenuous indeed.

All bar the last story were written between 1921-26, Lovecraft’s early period before he developed the themes and style of his best known Cthulhu Mythos stories. There are some mentions of things, however, such as Arkham and the library at Miskatonic University, that he would go on to develop and use in the later stories. Even at this early stage in his career Lovecraft had developed his love for overblown language, though not yet (thankfully) his penchant for ridiculously overlong descriptions of ancient alien buildings. The final story, The Thing on the Doorstep, was written in 1933 and is much more in the Cthulhu style – as a result it is by far the longest story in the book, though still reasonably tightly focused in comparison to some of his other work.

The included stories are:

The Outsider (1921) – a rather good story of a boy who grows up locked away in a castle deep within a forest. One day he ascends the black tower and after much peril finds himself in the world of men – but there is also a hideous, blasphemous creature here and a nice, if somewhat predictable, twist ending. (On that point, I always feel a little reluctant to use the word predictable with these early, influential writers, because I suspect they’re only predictable now because so many people have subsequently recycled what were probably original plots at the time.)

herbert west reanimator

Herbert West – Reanimator (1921-22) – This starts off brilliantly with a horrifying tale of a medical student obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. Each episode is told by his fellow student (unnamed) who starts out as a willing assistant but gradually becomes more appalled at West’s experiments and ends up fearing for his own life. The stories get darker and more gruesome as they go on – these are horror in the true sense of the word and very imaginative. Each story stands alone but there is also a strand that runs through them all, and the horrific ending is chillingly foreshadowed throughout. Unfortunately the series was spoiled for me by one episode in which Lovecraft uses some really vile dehumanising language about a black character. I try hard not to let contemporary attitudes get in the way when reading books of an earlier period, but that’s sometimes harder than others. It’s generally accepted, I think, that Lovecraft was particularly racist, more even than different times can account for, but this is the first of his stories that I’ve read where it has been quite so blatantly and disgustingly expressed. A pity – otherwise the series is excellent and spine-chillingly horrific.

In the Vault (1925) – Another lovely bit of horror, although I admit this one made me laugh rather than shiver. A lazy undertaker becomes trapped in a vault with the coffins containing several of his customers. A cautionary tale to remind us all that we should do our jobs properly – angry customers can make their complaints in many ways…

cool air

Cool Air (1926) – Again good! A mysterious doctor lives in rooms in a boarding house, where he has installed a refrigeration system to keep the temperature unusually low. It’s fairly easy to work out what’s going on in this one, but it doesn’t matter – the writing keeps it creepily horrible anyway. And when the refrigeration system breaks down and the temperature rises – ooh! Let’s put it this way – you may want to be sure you have an emergency ice-lolly on stand-by when reading this one…

Pickman’s Model (1926) – the only one I thought was really quite poor. A painter paints weird and horrible pictures that terrify everyone who sees them. I found the twist in this one was not only obvious but weak, and it had the Lovecraftian fault of going on and on with repetitive descriptions for far too long.

Art by Mark Foster http://hplovecraftart.blogspot.co.uk
Art by Mark Foster http://hplovecraftart.blogspot.co.uk

The Thing on the Doorstep (1933) – a story of Arkham and the hideous fish people of Innsmouth. The most traditionally Lovecraftian of the stories, and a very good one to end on. A man who has been over-protected all his life falls for a beautiful but strange girl from Innsmouth, and against the advice of his friends and family marries her. But soon it seems that she has some kind of evil control over him, and his sanity, perhaps his very life, is at risk. Again I think the reader knows what’s going on here long before the participants do, but it’s very well written and has some genuinely disturbing images, particularly towards the end.

Now that I’ve read a reasonable amount of Lovecraft I think I can say I actually prefer his earlier stuff, before he developed his rambling style and before he got so heavily into the whole Cthulhu, ancient alien business. If you can overlook the racist language in Herbert West, then this is a very good collection, which should make your porpentine pleasantly fretful…

It's a fretful porpentine!!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

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