Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

If you go down to the woods today…

Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

The Man Who Went Too Far
by EF Benson

EF Benson

The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.

At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…

“Frank!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?”
Darcy took his hand.
“What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”

It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…

He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt.
“And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.

Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…

“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”

He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.

“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”

Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…

“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”

Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.

“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”

And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.

“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”

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Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.

The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!

The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.

(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Weird Tales of William Hope Hodgson

“…always be ready before the dark comes.”

I came across William Hope Hodgson for the first time last year when I read one of his stories, The Derelict, in another anthology and thought it was wonderfully weird and truly horrific. So I was thrilled when the British Library brought out this collection of ten of his stories, giving me an opportunity to get to know him better. I’m happy to report that he has lived up to my hopes – I thoroughly enjoyed every story in the collection, with the majority getting the full five stars.

I’m still fairly new to weird fiction, so certainly no expert. But the authors of whom I’ve read most seem each to develop a kind of overarching mythology in which they set most of their tales. The most famous of these is HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, full of ancient forces, Elder Gods and sometimes alien beings. It seems to me that Hodgson, writing a decade or two earlier, must have had some influence on Lovecraft, and the usual informative introduction, this time by Xavier Aldana Reyes, tells us that Lovecraft described him as ‘second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality’. I haven’t read enough Blackwood to confirm or argue with that, but my limited reading would put Hodgson third in the ranks of the weird greats, not far behind Lovecraft himself and Arthur Machen. Hodgson’s use of language isn’t nearly as lavishly spectacular as Lovecraft’s, but he does have one advantage as far as I’m concerned, in that he’s mastered the art of being succinct!

The stories collected here fall into two main categories. Many of them are set on the sea, making full use of the forces of nature, the isolation of the wide expanses of the oceans, and man’s ignorance, especially over a century ago, of what may be lurking in the deeps. Some of these use ‘natural’ horrors, such as monstrous squids or sea-serpents, while others have a supernatural element of the ghostly apparition variety, and yet others cross over into definite ‘weird’ territory. (Reyes defines ‘weird’ fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.)

Hodgson’s own ‘mythos’ seems to be of forces beyond the understanding of puny humanity (puny humanity is a definite feature of weird fiction) which can channel themselves into inanimate matter, making it animate. He develops this more clearly in his second category of stories: those about Carnacki, a psychic investigator, who tackles all kinds of strange occurrences using the knowledge he has gained from the study of ancient texts (another recurring feature of weird). Carnacki talks of the ‘Outer Monstrosities’, psychic forces held in gases circling the planet far away which sometimes come to Earth to generally wreak havoc. The Carnacki stories take the form of him recounting his adventures to a group of friends as a kind of after-dinner entertainment. There’s quite a lot of repetition in how Carnacki goes about his work – lots of gadgets and harnessing of the powers of pentagrams and stuff – but there is a lot of originality in the horrors he faces, from a haunting by a horse, to an evil hog-like creature, to a mysteriously terrifying whistling room.

I often look at other reviews on Goodreads, and it seems as if I’m more enthusiastic about Hodgson than many of the other reviewers. Reading more closely, this often seems to be because the reviewer is comparing him unfavourably to Lovecraft, the undoubted master of the genre. I have mixed feelings about Lovecraft’s weirdest stuff, sometimes loving it but sometimes finding it too long and repetitive, and getting totally annoyed with his repeated assertion that the horrors his characters face are ‘indescribable’. Happily for me, Hodgson describes his horrors, perhaps with fewer adjectives but certainly with more clarity. So as always, it’s all subjective. Subjectively, here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Gateway of the Monster – I reviewed this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Horse of the Invisible – a Carnacki story. An old family legend has it that the first-born daughter will be haunted by a horse on announcing her betrothal. Carnacki is called in when it seems to be coming true for the current daughter of the house, A nice blend of human wickedness and supernatural evil in this one.

The Derelict – blown off course by a wild storm, the narrator’s ship comes across an ancient derelict ship and he and a couple of others go aboard her just out of interest. Bad move! This one is an introduction to Hodgson’s theme that there is a life force that can give inanimate objects a kind of intelligence. Some fantastic horror imagery, and I liked that the hero turns out to be the uneducated Captain, using his skills and experience when the brains and nerves of his ‘intellectual superiors’ fail.

The Riven Night – another sea story, this time of a strange light that appears in the starless darkness of night and draws the ship towards it. There’s a kind of mystical, almost religious edge to this one, as each man sees something different in the light according to his own experiences. Again, excellent imagery, and perhaps more thought-provoking than some of the other stories.

The Whistling Room – another Carnacki tale. A man buys an old Irish castle, not believing the rumours that one of the rooms is haunted by a mysterious whistling. Bad move! This is a kind of mash-up between a straight haunting and Hodgson’s running weird theme, and works very well. It also has an explanation for the haunting which many of the stories don’t – an intriguing tale of revenge. Very well told, despite the rather mystical babble in which Carnacki sometimes indulges.

Great stuff! I do hope the BL continues to do for ‘forgotten’ horror what they’ve done so well for vintage crime.

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

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The porpy found some of these stories pretty scary!

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Bog by HP Lovecraft

Wraiths and frogs…

HP Lovecraft has become an annual fixture on Tuesday Terror! ever since I first came across him and mocked his overblown style a few years back. Somehow his “weird” imagery wormed itself into my brain and, while I still occasionally mock him, I’ve come to admire his work and to realise how influential it has been on horror and weird fiction right up to the present day. The porpy and I first read this story last year and still remember some of the imagery distinctly, so it seems a perfect choice for this week’s…

The Moon-Bog
by HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.

Ah, frogs! Deliciously Lovecraftian! Having made his money in America, Denys Barry has purchased the decayed ancestral castle of his family in Ireland and has spent the last few years restoring it to its former glory, much to the joy of the local peasantry who benefited from the work and money he provided.

But in time there came troubles, and the peasants ceased to bless him, and fled away instead as from a doom. And then he sent a letter and asked me to visit him, for he was lonely in the castle with no one to speak to save the new servants and labourers he had brought from the north.

Artist unknown

Our narrator hastens to be by his friend’s side…

I had reached Kilderry in the summer sunset, as the gold of the sky lighted the green of the hills and groves and the blue of the bog, where on a far islet a strange olden ruin glistened spectrally. That sunset was very beautiful, but the peasants at Ballylough had warned me against it and said that Kilderry had become accursed, so that I almost shuddered to see the high turrets of the castle gilded with fire.

That evening, Denys tells him of the trouble…

The peasants had gone from Kilderry because Denys Barry was to drain the great bog. For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up. The legends and superstitions of Kilderry did not move him, and he laughed when the peasants first refused to help, and then cursed him and went away to Ballylough with their few belongings as they saw his determination.

Art by bealinn via deviantart.com

Our narrator laughs too. Oh, how they laugh! Superstitious peasants! What rational man would pay attention to their absurd fears?

They had to do with some preposterous legend of the bog, and of a grim guardian spirit that dwelt in the strange olden ruin on the far islet I had seen in the sunset. There were tales of dancing lights in the dark of the moon, and of chill winds when the night was warm; of wraiths in white hovering over the waters, and of an imagined city of stone deep down below the swampy surface. But foremost among the weird fancies, and alone in its absolute unanimity, was that of the curse awaiting him who should dare to touch or drain the vast reddish morass.

Here’s a tip for anyone thinking of moving to a new neighbourhood: always listen to the fears of the local peasants! Denys proceeds with his plans, bringing in labourers from outside since the locals have left. Meantime our narrator’s nights are disturbed by dreams of wild music and mysterious figures on the bog. And then on the night before the bog is due to be drained, he is woken by the sound of shrill piping and a strange light…

Terrible and piercing was the shaft of ruddy refulgence that streamed through the Gothic window, and the whole chamber was brilliant with a splendour intense and unearthly.

Finally plucking up his courage, he looks out of his tower room window at the bog below…

Half gliding, half floating in the air, the white-clad bog-wraiths were slowly retreating toward the still waters and the island ruin in fantastic formations suggesting some ancient and solemn ceremonial dance. Their waving translucent arms, guided by the detestable piping of those unseen flutes, beckoned in uncanny rhythm to a throng of lurching labourers who followed dog-like with blind, brainless, floundering steps as if dragged by a clumsy but resistless daemon-will. As the naiads neared the bog, without altering their course, a new line of stumbling stragglers zigzagged drunkenly out of the castle from some door far below my window, groped sightlessly across the courtyard and through the intervening bit of village, and joined the floundering column of labourers on the plain.

And then the shrieking begins…

Art by Stephen Fabian

* * * * *

I think this is my favourite of all the Lovecraft stories I’ve read. A wonderful mix of Gothic horror and weird fiction, the frogs are not to be missed, and the whole thing is full of Lovecraft’s amazing imagery. I read it in the gorgeous British Library hardback, The Gothic Tales of HP Lovecraft – a book that I highly recommend both for the quality of the stories and for the tactile beauty of the book. However if you’d like to read this story online, here’s a link.  I warn you, though, if you ever let Lovecraft inside your head, you may never be able to rid yourself of him…

The porpy is refusing to come out of the tree till
he’s sure there are no frogs around…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday Terror! Out of the Dark by Robert W Chambers

The spice of life… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of 22 stories or extracts which, although the collection is part of a horror range, cross through a variety of genres. My previous experience of Robert W Chambers, amounting to one short collection of four stories, The King in Yellow, had left me rather underwhelmed, so I had fairly low expectations going into this. Yet again, I was proved wrong! The quality and range of the stories here and their general enjoyability made me appreciate why Chambers was a best-selling author of his day.

The book is divided into two parts: Origins (1895-1899) and Diversions (1900-1938). Each section has an introduction by Hugh Lamb, telling us a little about Chambers’ life and more about his development as a writer. The first section is mainly horror and weird fiction and fantasy, including a few of his The King in Yellow stories. Having become successful as a result of these, Chambers began to expand his range so that many of the stories in the second section would be better described as adventures or even romances.

Chambers lived for some years in France and many of his stories are set there or in England, as well as in his native America. There are a few that are only a few pages, but most are around twenty to thirty pages which I always find a good length for a short story, allowing room for some plot and character development. As time passes, the stories begin to include more humour and some pretty over-the-top high romance, and the quality of the writing, especially in his descriptions, is exceptionally high. He developed a couple of series characters: Mr Smith, a zoologist from the Bronx Zoo who goes off on highly entertaining adventures in search of reputedly extinct or fabulous creatures; and Westrel Keen, the Tracer of Lost Persons, a private investigator whose deductive skills would put Sherlock Holmes to shame (though with considerably less credibility to them). The supernatural often appears, as does the mysterious Orient in “Yellow Peril” stories, but the horror of the early stories is rarely repeated in the later ones.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Pleasant Evening – a beautifully written story which, although ghostly, is mostly the story of a tragic love affair. The narrator meets separately two strangers in the Bronx Park, who gradually reveal to him a story of injustice and tragedy. Along the way, Chambers gives some wonderful descriptions of New York, the place and its people, the constant rush and battle in pursuit of gold. This was the story that first made me realise I had seriously underestimated him.

Across the long meadow I could see the roofs of the city faintly looming above the trees. A mist of amethyst, ever deepening, hung low on the horizon, and through it, steeple and dome, roof and tower, and the tall chimneys where thin fillets of smoke curled idly, were transformed into pinnacles of beryl and flaming minarets, swimming in filmy haze. Slowly the enchantment deepened; all that was ugly and shabby and mean had fallen away from the distant city, and now it towered into the evening sky, splendid, gilded, magnificent, purified in the fierce furnace of the setting sun.

The Maker of Moons – a fantastic story that is a mash-up of weird, horror and adventure with more than a dash of Yellow Peril thrown in. I described this one more fully in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Messenger – the longest of the stories, this tells of the finding of a mass grave in Brittany and a family curse. There’s some deliberate vagueness around the narrator and the history of the place which adds to a well-developed feeling of dread and some genuinely scary moments. It has some wonderful imagery and an excellent denouement that is both horrifying and haunting.

The Third Eye – I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the included stories about Mr Smith of the Bronx Zoo and would happily seek out more of them. This one tells of his search to confirm an old Seminole legend of a tribe of men with a third eye, somewhere in the Black Bayou region. This is written for laughs and gets them in abundance. Mr Smith is a great narrator – he manages to reveal things to the reader that his own obtuseness prevents him recognising for himself. And he’s always on the look-out for love, usually with consequences that are sad for him but fun for the reader.

The moon was magnificent; and I think the pretty waitress must have been a little tired, for her head dropped and nodded at moments, even while I was talking to her about a specimen of Euplectilla speciosa on which I had written a monograph. So she must have been really tired, for the subject was interesting.

The Bridal Pair – a ghostly romance about a young man who, when a child, loved a little girl called Rosamund but forgot her as they grew up. Now, as a man, he suddenly starts seeing a woman everywhere… this is pure romantic slush of the soppiest sort, but very well done, and I freely admit it made me cry!

There were some I didn’t like so well, mainly the early King in Yellow ones and the three extracts Lamb has included from Chambers’ most famous novel, The Slayer of Souls, which I didn’t feel worked as standalone stories. But the majority got either four or five stars and several of them are stories I will undoubtedly read again. Maybe he’s better known than I think, but personally I had never heard of him till recently. I wondered if perhaps his sheer variety of styles means that he’s difficult to pigeon-hole and so gets overlooked, but on the basis of these stories I feel he certainly deserves to be remembered and read. Highly recommended!

The porpentine was fairly relaxed throughout, but thoroughly entertained…

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

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The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Fear, frogs and fungoids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”

I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.

There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.

HP Lovecraft

Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Music of Erich Zann – I used this for a Tuesday Terror! post. Great stuff!

The Music of Erich Zann

The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!

The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.

The Moon-Bog
by bealinn via deviantart.com

The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.

The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.

In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.

It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…

The Strange High House in the Mist
by tikirussy via deviantart.com

The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

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