H.P. Lovecraft often used his fiction to ask an unsettling question such as ‘What is down there?’ or ‘What lies underneath that headstone, tomb, or ruin?’ But other authors have asked the opposite question: What is up there—in the attic, on the roof, at the top of the mountain, in space? E.F. Benson combines precipitous exploration, interest in lost races, and reflection on what it means to be human in his 1922 story, The Horror-Horn.
The Horror-Horn is not about a musical instrument, nor the grotesque antler of some ferocious beast, (though this is the implied metaphor). This is about a horn you can climb, as in Matterhorn, or Ungeheuerhorn. The German word suggests “monster”. Benson’s story takes place at a winter resort in the Swiss Alps, not far from the base of the legendary Ungeheuerhorn. A winter storm has begun to rage outside, momentarily confining the skiers and ice skaters indoors.
In the hotel, sitting by the fire, the narrator and his cousin discuss news from another mountain. Explorers on Mount Everest have discovered human-like footprints in the snow. The cousin is a professor and famous alpine explorer, and he believes there is some truth to the report. He himself had an encounter with a mysterious creature twenty years earlier while climbing the Ungeheuerhorn, now visible from the hotel window.
Professor Ingram provides some additional biological detail about these creatures. They are carnivorous and uncouth, but also apparently have an affection for both males and females of our species. He comments on the horrifying bestiality of these almost human creatures: “There was a horror of the spirit,” he said, “which I experienced then, from which, I verily believe, I have never entirely recovered. I saw then how terrible a living thing could be, and how terrible, in consequence, was life itself.”
The narrator, however, is not initially persuaded of this horror, but will soon have his own encounter. Benson skillfully builds up suspense with weather changes, fading sunlight, and later, pursuit. On his way back to the resort, alone in a wooded stretch, the narrator becomes disoriented in the forest beneath the Ungheurerhorn. As the sun begins to set he must soon flee for his life. Yet he observes a detail later that illuminates a connection between these creatures and humanity.
Fans of The X-Files may remember the fifth episode in the first season, (October of 1993) called “The Jersey Devil” which also presents the theme of a lost, remnant race of near-human creatures, this time hidden in the forested areas near Atlantic City. As in Benson’s story, the possibility of a sexual encounter with humans is suggested in a scene in which Detective Mulder is attacked by a female creature.
There is an entertaining and more recent treatment of this subject in The Man Who Shot Bigfoot, by Mark Edwards, a short story featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Space and Time. It describes the intersecting fates of a grizzly, a famous hunter and a Sasquatch. The tone is droll and ironic, but with an unsettling note of suspense toward the end. As in The Horror-Horn, the forest—in other words, wilderness or wildness—provides cover and a route downwards for the creature, into the realm of humans.