book reviews by Althea

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson – Darryl Jones, ed.

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E.T.A. HOFFMANN, The Sandman
(1816). Remarkably modern-feeling in theme, probably because lately we’ve had quite a few writers harking back to this kind of story. The sinister traveling merchant Coppelius/Coppola, selling his ‘eyes-a’ is reflected in “Ilse, Who Saw Clearly” by E. Lily Yu, for example. And of course, the whole steampunk genre loves to explore the idea of clockwork automata.
To a modern reader, the structure of the story flows a bit oddly and unevenly, and the language is quite overwrought (although this may be an artifact of translation (?) – but its careful ambiguity and depiction of a decline into madness are effectively done. I was familiar with the plotline of the ballet, Coppélia, which was based on this story – but the original tale is far, far darker.

WILLIAM MAGINN, The Man in the Bell
(1821). A bell-ringer is accidentally trapped in a belfry while his colleagues are ringing the bell: an overwhelming experience. That’s it. I guess that the brief piece is supposed to function as a metaphor for psychological breakdowns and the difficulty of dealing with life in general… but still. The overwrought language left me saying, “Dude! OK, that all sounded a bit dangerous and unpleasant and all, but pull yourself together already!”

JAMES HOGG, George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell
(1827). This is one of those creepy tales that feels suited to late nights around a bonfire.
A coachman is hired to take a fare to an unusual destination: “‘there is no man in Scotland who knows the road to that place better than you do. You have never driven on any other road all your life; and I insist on you taking us.’
‘Very well, sir,’ said George, ‘I’ll drive you to hell, if you have a mind…”
With hell, getting to your destination is easy. But it requires a contract to get out of that place… a contract promising to return.
I usually don’t like tales that depend on the “it was all just a dream… or WAS it?” device, but this story actually uses that human tendency upon wakening to confuse dream and reality to great effect.

HONORÉ DE BALZAC, La Grande Bretêche
(1831). Very familiar-feeling… perhaps I’ve read this before, possibly a different translation? Similar to Edgar Allan Poe in feel (view spoiler).
I’m not at all sure the multiple ‘layers’ of the story are necessary: At a social gathering, a man tells a story about a man who is drawn to the grounds of a decrepit and abandoned mansion, who is then told a story about the circumstances of that abandonment, and then seeks out further information on the former inhabitants of that home and the appalling events that occurred there.
However, the story itself is quite effectively horrific, driving home its point about the cruelty and evil that men can do…

(1835) I’ve read nearly all of Poe at some point or another, but I didn’t have a memory of reading this one before.
For such a short piece, I felt like it took a while to draw me in. However, it certainly ends with some drama… (“Pow, right in the kisser…?”)
Here we have a young couple – the young man: dark, brooding, and perhaps unhealthily obsessive… the young woman: lovely, without fault, yet languishing of illness.
Of course, tragedy will strike – and horrors beyond tragedy.
Just coincidentally, I read this the same day i went to see the Poe exhibit at the Grolier Club:

SHERIDAN LE FANU, Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
(1839) Another multi-layered tale: our narrator tells us that he used to know a man who owned a strangely evocative painting with an illustrative air about it. Whne he finally asked his acquaintance to tell him more about the artwork, this tale was the one that was told.
An artist of no great means has long been in love with the daughter of his wealthy patron. However, since he has never declared his hopeful intentions, can he really say anything when the father decides to bestow his daughter’s hand upon another? There’s true love – and then there is the hope of wealth and position – and then there is the possibility of far, far worse than a simply loveless marriage; which is what befalls this hapless bride.

(1843) A young woman has always thought that the small birthmark on her cheek was rather a charming feature. Certainly none of her many beaus ever thought it detracted from her beauty. But the man she finally married not only sees it as a flaw, but becomes obsessed with this imperfection, and insists on trying medical and alchemical methods to remove it.
This obsession leads to the destruction of the couple’s happiness, some ethically suspect actions, and, of course, eventual tragedy.
The whole piece is heavily allegorical and works as a metaphor for the potential that all of have to let small things bother us more than they should. I actually thought the piece would’ve been stronger if the message was a little less heavy-handed, and a little less religious.
(Previously read… many years ago.)

HERMAN MELVILLE, The Tartarus of Maids
I’ve read elsewhere that ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ is usually published along with another ‘sketch’ called ‘The Paradise of Bachelors’. I do find it rather odd to only present one, because ‘The Tartarus of Maids’ refers several times to the ‘Paradise of Bachelors’ in a way that is quite confusing to one who has not read it.
‘The Tartarus of Maids’ is a socially-motivated piece. The protagonist travels to a paper mill to place an order for his company, and takes the opportunity to tour the facility. While there, he observes the wan-ness and misery of the female workers, and describes their plight with sympathy.
The language is very poetic and evocative – it’s a beautiful piece, and relevant as well, considering that unhealthy and unhappy working conditions in factories are still a problem in many places around the globe.
I also found it fascinating that this writing – as early as 1855! – points out the problem with calling working women ‘girls.’
Too bad that apparently few people took this bit of Melville’s writing to heart…

A very Hammer-Horror feel to this short horror story.
The proprietress of a boarding house decides to move the location of her premises from Bleecker Street to a bit further uptown, 26th St. She’s got a great deal, because the house she’s moving into is reputed to be haunted.
Her boarders are more enthused than otherwise about the move. Indeed, it sparks a veritable craze for the supernatural. The common area is all abuzz with the possibility of ghosts.. but for quite some time, nothing unusual occurs.
However, one night, after two men have been smoking perhaps a bit too much opium, something does happen…
No morals or allegories here, just a fun, spooky story. Loved the New York City setting.

CHARLES DICKENS, No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man
(1866) I believe I read this one years ago… it seemed familiar.
Out for a stroll, a man decides on a whim to strike up a conversation with the railroad-worker he encounters. The signal-man seems intelligent and interesting – but something is clearly bothering him. When he starts talking about strange spectres and phantom bells, his new acquaintance begins to seriously consider trying to get him to seek help.
However, there may be more to the eerie manifestations the signal-man reported that those of a more scientific bent would have credited…
Nicely creepy, classic ghost story.

ÉMILE ZOLA, The Death of Olivier Bécaille
(1880). What would you do if you were buried alive?
No, really, what would you do?
This story takes this horrific scenario, and deals with it remarkably calmly and realistically. A man becomes conscious of his wife wailing over his seemingly-dead body. he can hear and see, and is aware of everything in the room around him. However, he’s unable to move a muscle to respond to her. He wonders: is he actually dead? Might it be that consciousness does not depart the dead body?

RONALD ROSS, The Vivisector Vivisected
(1882). Apparently, this story was unpublished at the time of its writing, which is slightly odd, because out of all these stories I definitely felt most with this one that I was missing nuances that would’ve been obvious to a contemporary reader. But humor is often like that, and this is clearly intended as a humorous story. Some of the ‘Irish’ humor feels… dated, to put it kindly, but other bits have aged quite well, as in the description of Dr. Silcutt, “famous for his excellent work on the encephalon of politicians. He was… at the time, much excited by his recent excellent discovery that gold produces effects different from those of copper when approached to the different nerves of those engaged in public services. Titillation of the palm with the former metal produces contraction of the flexors, with the latter, contraction of the extensors.”
It’s a riff on the Frankenstein tale, with mad scientists and a moral message. The story is of particular interest to those with an interest in the history of medicine for its prediction of an artificial ‘heart.’ Interestingly, the author was himself a physician.

(1884) Great set-up, excellent writing… but the ‘scary’ ending didn’t work for me at all. I felt like it was on the level of spooky stories kids tell each other during sleepover parties (do kids still do that?)
It’s about some young medical students whose duty to procure dead bodies for their eminent professor leads them down a spiral of moral depravity and blackmail. A nice exploration of guilt and complicity.

RUDYARD KIPLING, The Mark of the Beast
(1890) Just recently, Kipling’s horror stories were recommended to me. This one is quite excellent.
The ‘mark of the beast’ here has nothing to do with Satan. It’s a bit more literal than that…
Some wealthy British men in India are out late at a party. One of their number gets falling-down drunk, and two of his associates take it upon themselves to get him home. However, on their way, the drunk man gets aggressive, and before his friends can stop him, in a move of total douchebaggery he intentionally desecrates a shrine of Hanuman that they happen to be passing. Religious services were in progress and the less-drunk men fully expect to be physically attacked in punishment for their serious transgression. Instead, the only thing that happens just then is a strange encounter with a leper at the temple.
Later, however, they realize that they might not actually have gotten off as easily at it seemed.
Kipling often gets a bad rap for his colonialism and belief in manifest Destiny – but this story, while it may not portray Hinduism accurately, has a pretty strong message about having respect for belief systems that may differ from your own.

(1891) This is an attempt by Bierce to depict the horror of the aftermath of the Battle of Chickamauga (1863)- a significant Union defeat, and a bloodbath. To do this, he describes the perspective of an uncomprehending toddler who comes upon the retreat by chance. It really didn’t work for me – I found it too over-the-top and contrived.

(1892) A re-read of a classic. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a spooky-as-hell ghost story which maintains a nice ambiguity all the way through – but it’s also a raw, effective protest against the infantilization of women and even a call to arms regarding awareness of mental illness. Gilman is great at leaving what doesn’t need to be said unsaid. There are no ‘morals’ stated here, but her stance is clear.
(And was that room ever a ‘playroom’ or ‘gymnasium’? Oh hell no.)

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, The Case of Lady Sannox
(1893) Not a Sherlock Holmes story – nor would I say it’s one of ACD’s best. It is, indeed, truly horrific – but it’s also quite predictable. Perhaps that’s intentional. At the very outset of the story, we’re told that a society lady has ‘taken the veil’ and that a celebrated surgeon, who had ‘relations’ with her, has gone insane.
Naturally, we expect to find out what caused this – and indeed we do, in a disturbing tale of jealousy and vengeance.

(1893) Sometimes evil comes wrapped up in a jolly package.
A honeymooning couple, travelling through Europe, make the acquaintance of a vacationing American, straight from the Wild West (and it’s rather hilarious to read the British stereotypes of such a character). The American seems genial and amusing, and they gladly accompany him to Nuernberg, where they visit the torture museum. (Which is still there – although the iron maiden that the story references is now on display in Rothenburg ob de Tauber.)
When the American kills a kitten through a combination of foolishness and callousness, the events that transpire weirdly echo and reflect a story he told the honeymooners about something that happened among the Native American tribes – a story that the reader feels has had some of the worst – and most damning – details removed.
Mothers are legendarily fierce in the protection of their children – or in taking vengeance for them – and this tale makes full use of that.

ROBERT W. CHAMBERS, The Repairer of Reputations
(1895) I have the whole ‘King in Yellow’ collection sitting on my ereader… I really need to get around to reading it! This story is wonderfully weird – and disturbing on several levels.
Set in a future 1920, the world has made several steps toward peace and stability. (I’m not sure I like them, and I’m also not so sure the author does, either.) The introductory segment drags on a bit, reminding me a bit in style of Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888). Then, the story really starts…
Our narrator lets us know that after a fall from a horse, he was unjustly confined to a mental institution for some time, until his doctor realized that it was all a mistake, and released him. However, he still seems to have a strong desire for vengeance against this doctor. He also seems to harbor ambiguous feelings toward his brother, and his brother’s vibrant young fiancee.
He enjoys spending time with a grotesque and mysterious man who claims to make his living ‘adjusting’ reputations – dealing with scandals – through a network of informers. Everyone else seems to think this man is insane. Is he? And our narrator himself? It’s true that he admits to having read ‘The King in Yellow’ – the enigmatic work that is reputed to drive every reader mad…

ARTHUR MACHEN, Novel of the White Powder
(1895) Straight-up horror, here. The narrator is concerned about her brother. Intent on becoming a lawyer, he has devoted himself to his studies… to the point of obsession. His health seems to be declining from stress and long hours. Finally, she convinces the young man to see a doctor. He returns with a prescription – and soon, he’s more outgoing and relaxed. She breathes a sigh of relief – but not for long, as the pendulum swings in the other direction. Soon, he’s out partying all the time, neglecting his studies completely. And that’s only the beginning…
The first section, the story, is excellent. I wasn’t so enthused about the overlong ‘explanation’ appended to the story. I felt it detracted from the horror.

RICHARD MARSH, The Adventure of Lady Wishaw’s Hand
(1898) Have I read this one before? I’m not sure. It was familiar, but it’s not the only horror story to feature a disembodied hand…
Here, the hand in question is received as an unsolicited gift by a collector of curios. However, such a gift is too morbid for his tastes. He’s further squicked out when he touches the hand and discovers that it feels alive… and even moves. Yet more disturbing is when he realizes that he is unable to even speak to his friends about the strange object.
Gradually, the grisly story behind this curio is revealed. Classic, spooky stuff.

W. W. JACOBS, The Monkey’s Paw
(1902) Previously read (several times).
The definitive tale of wishes gone wrong. Strong, but not as scary as I’d remembered it, somehow. (I didn’t recall there being so much forethought about what state the son might be in when he returned.)

(1902) Classic horror. There’s a haunted house in town… since it was abandoned, fifty years ago, only one person has dared to try to live there… and she promptly died. Rumors abound about the curse on the place… but only one elderly town resident remembers the woman who used to live there, Luella Miller, and what happened to give the house a bad name forevermore.
The tale skirts around the edges of the supernatural in such a way as to remain thoroughly believable – and its insights are cuttingly acute. I hope you’ve never known anyone who’ll you’ll see in the character of Ms. Miller – but chances are, you have.
I liked this well enough to immediately pick up a whole collection of the author’s stories.

M. R. JAMES, Count Magnus
(1904) The ‘Dracula’ influence is strong in this one… A definite must-read for fans of classic vampire fiction.
Some papers found in a long-empty house reveal the story of one would-be travel writer’s experience with the titular Count, whose locked sarcophagus lies in a remote Scandinavian church. The writer uncovers local stories of men who walk when they should be lying dead… and the reader can assume that there’ll be no good end to this investigation.

FRANCIS MARION CRAWFORD, For the Blood is the Life
(1905)Previously read; not sure when – this is a heavily-anthologized piece!
A classic of vampire fiction; it features a seductive femme fatale whose unrequited love persists beyond the grave. The supernatural elements are mixed in with a story of mundane theft and murder in a small village, with all the expected drama of the Italian setting (as the author puts into his character’s mouth: “Deeds that would be simply brutal and disgusting anywhere else become dramatic and mysterious because this is Italy and we are living in a genuine tower of Charles V built against genuine Barbary pirates.”)
However, I found that the most memorable part of the story was its framing device, with the eerie image of the grave with a body lying on top of it, which is only visible from a distance.

(1910) A hunting party that ventures into forbidden territory has a run-in with a creature out of legend. This horror classic has some very well-done elements. I like how the ‘rough’ talk of the huntsmen and their guides is contrasted with the lovely and evocative descriptions of nature. Blackwood does an excellent job of conjuring up the vastness and mystery of the untamed North American wilderness. Unfortunately, it does contain a few racial slurs and depictions which, while they may serve to contribute to the setting of the story, are quite jarring to a modern reader. There are also elements of the ‘horrific’ in this story that came off as… well, just a bit silly. But overall, the juxtaposition of small blustering (but strangely vulnerable) men against the unknown is quite effective. It does indeed evoke “savage and formidable potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists…”

W. F. HARVEY, August Heat
(1910). One day, an artist, feeling restless in the stifling August heat, sketches the vivid image of a man that’s popped into his head… a man clearly caught at a significant and dramatic moment. Later, he goes for a walk – and encounters not one, but two eerie coincidences.
Very nicely structured, and the tale ends at a perfect moment of suspense.

E. F. BENSON, The Room in the Tower
(1912) Previously read, but not sure where. This on has appeared in quite a few anthologies over the years.
A young man has been having a recurring nightmare for over a decade. In the dream, he’s usually a guest at an acquaintance’s home. When the hostess lets him know that he’ll be sleeping in the tower room, he is overcome by an inexplicable feeling of dread.
Then one day, in real life, a friend invites him to a party. Although it’s a different friend, and the details are different, he is overwhelmed by deja vu as he enters the house. Will he finally find out what his dreadful presentiment foreshadowed?

(1912) Loved this one!
After a ship is blown off course in a storm, a derelict ghost ship is revealed, drifting in the distance. After completing their necessary repairs to their own vessel, the sailors set off in a longboat to investigate. They’re curious, of course, but also hoping for lost treasure. Unfortunately, what they find is in no way anything like what they were hoping for.
Vivid, tense, and also pretty disgusting. I kept picturing this one getting told by a portside tavern’s fireplace…

All in all – this book is a wonderful collection of classic horror tales. My only quibble is with the footnotes. The items selected for footnoting seem completely random. A good number of them are simple dictionary definitions [copied from the OED] of basic vocabulary words (not even obsolete or archaic language – some that come to mind are ‘gewgaw,’ ‘doublet,’ ‘ineludible’). Meanwhile, more obscure terms and references to long-gone customs go without explication. However, I didn’t want to ignore the footnotes completely, because some of them DID include interesting information. I would advise the author to trust his readers to have a decent vocabulary (and access to a dictionary, if necessary.)

Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read this hefty, classic collection. As always, my opinions are my own.


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