Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Animated Corpse as Practical Joke

Astounding Stories of Super Science first appeared in 1930, later becoming a “Clayton Magazine” when that company took over the original publisher a year later.  Initially considered by some to be an imitator of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the publication underwent several name changes over the following decades.  The title was shortened to Astounding Stories, then became Astounding Science-Fiction by 1938. 

Under the able and visionary leadership of John W. Campbell, the magazine became immensely influential as the Golden Age of Science Fiction unfolded in the late 1930s and 1940s.  In 1960 the magazine took the name of Analog Science Fact and Fiction, which it retains to this day.   It is considered to be longest running genre magazine of its type.

But in 1930, the first year of publication, Astounding Stories of Super Science was different in tone and quality than its later incarnations.  It published the stories of several early pulp science fiction writers like Ray Cummings and Murray Leinster, but also included shudder pulp masters like Paul Ernst and Hugh B. Cave.  Cave had an interesting story in the second issue of the magazine, The Corpse on the Grating.  It is more of a shudder pulp tale than science fiction, though there is a slight nod to the importance of scientific credibility.  (See also A Weird Menace from Hugh B. Cave.)

The Corpse on the Grating concerns three old friends who have known and aggravated each other for years.  “M.S.” and Professor Daimler are older men, described as students of mesmerism and spiritualism, gentleman occultists of the type to be found in similar stories of the time by Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft.  Howard’s The Children of the Night (1931) contains several examples of this kind of character.  On the other hand, Dale, the narrator, is the practical man of science.  “I am a medical man, and my own profession is one that does not sympathize with radicals”, he says of himself.

Not to over glorify the material, but it appears that M.S. and Professor Daimler may represent “old school” stock characters from horror and supernatural fiction circa the 1920s and early 1930s, while Dale symbolizes the “thinking man” attracted to the science of the then emerging field of science fiction.

In the beginning of The Corpse on the Grating, Professor Daimler has invited the two others to his laboratory one dark night.

"I've summoned you, gentlemen," he said quietly, "because you two, of all London, are the only persons who know the nature of my recent experiments. I should like to acquaint you with the results!"

In keeping with the title of the magazine, some science is presented at this point.  Whether it constitutes super science may be debatable.  Readers are reminded that a dead frog can be reanimated by attaching parts of it to “a common dry cell battery with enough voltage to render a sharp shock.”  The three friends debate whether this constitutes a true re-animation.  (It doesn’t.) 

Under some conditions, an apparently deceased individual can be revived via a thorough application of heat, which is Professor Daimler’s approach.  Finally, it is known that epileptics who have not been prematurely entombed—at least for long—can be revived from their deathlike catatonic states through mechanical procedures involving warmth.  This last observation is possibly derived from that famous scientific treatise on the subject, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). 

This is pretty much all the science that readers of The Corpse on the Grating, need to know.  The professor shows off a table full of test tubes and other paraphernalia, and admits that he has recently failed to revive a dead man by applying his technique—it involves “acid heat.” The narrator is dismissive of all of this and mocks the other two gentleman.  Perhaps Dale also represents the reader, who may have some questions, too.  Such as, where is the body of the experimental subject, the titular corpse? 

So this is the set up:  science suggests that the dead can be revived, if only temporarily, through a relatively straightforward process involving extreme heat. And something needs to be done about the narrator’s annoying skepticism.  Dale and his friend M.S. leave the disappointed professor and walk down the street, arguing and mocking each other.

This being a shudder pulp story, a horror is encountered in just under five minutes.  It is only a block away, in an old warehouse the two reach on foot.    M.S. and Dale find a corpse attached to the wrought iron grated doorway of an old warehouse.  It is a corpse, but not the corpse. The dead man’s posture and facial grimace suggest that he was trying to escape from something that frightened him to death.  He apparently was the night watchman in the warehouse.  With the body count increasing in the neighborhood, shouldn’t someone call the police? 

Instead, M.S. dares Dale to spend the night in the warehouse, and Dale rises to the challenge—he has to, because he is a man.  (A similar motivation can be found in the effectively spooky collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, The Horror in the Museum, published in 1932).  

There is an amusing scene, near the end of The Corpse on the Grating, when Dale finds the dead night watchman’s flashlight and a book the man had been reading on his long shift.  This creates literally a story within a story, for Dale passes the time by reading the dead man’s anthology of horror stories.  Cave is having some fun with his readers here.

It was a book of horror, of fantasy. A collection of weird, terrifying, supernatural tales with grotesque illustrations in funereal black and white. And the very line I had turned to, the line which had probably struck terror to that unlucky devil's soul, explained M. S.'s "decayed human form, standing in the doorway with arms extended and a frightful face of passion!" The description—the same description—lay before me, almost in my friend's words. Little wonder that the fellow on the grating below, after reading this orgy of horror, had suddenly gone mad with fright. Little wonder that the picture engraved on his dead mind was a picture of a corpse standing in the doorway of room 4167!

As he reads a description of the approaching menace in the story, he perceives some of the same sights and sounds as the lead character, but they are coming from just outside in the hallway.  Readers may get the impression that Cave took pleasure in concocting his story for the same reason people enjoy constructing haunted houses or elaborately decorating the yard for Halloween.  Certainly this is a noble and adequate motivation for horror writers today, to throw something together with the minimum believability needed to give someone a bad dream or insomnia.

Cave and his colleagues in the shudder pulps wrote like H.P. Lovecraft—if Lovecraft had replaced all his adjectives with verbs.  There is a lot of action, and not a lot of time before the horrible or appalling makes an appearance.  The convention also involved including an explanation for the terrifying phenomena. (One is supplied by his triumphant friend M.S.)

In some respects, The Corpse on the Grating can be seen as a 1930s version of flash fiction, though at about 5,000 words it would probably qualify more as a “short short story.” However, Cave was able to keep this swift moving tale fairly brief, often omitting explanatory passages and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Part Two)

The previous post introduced the topic of Freud’s 1919 essay, which began with an analysis of the German word “unheimlich” and its related meanings.  It also applied traditional psychoanalytical perspectives to an early 19th century horror story, E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman. 
In his essay, Freud endeavors to develop a clear definition of the uncanny, and explain why experiences of the uncanny are so frightening. He suspects that uncanny events are connected to the infantile stage of consciousness that we all experience.  Furthermore, they are manifested by a recurrence or similarity of situations, objects or events linked to infantile fears.  Earlier he indicates that “…the uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

A version of Freud’s essay can be found at  This second of two posts will continue to summarize some important points that Freud makes in his essay, and suggest how several of his perspectives can inform both the reading and writing of horror fiction.

Recurrence, Repetition and Meaningful Coincidence as Neurotic Obsession
After his analysis of The Sandman, Freud goes on to cite examples from mythology and his own personal and clinical experience to further illustrate the element of recurrence in experiences of the uncanny.  Patients who suffer from obsessional neuroses seem cognitively predisposed to look for meaningful coincidences in recurring numbers, names, events and objects.  Freud believes the pattern is ultimately traceable to primitive instinct.  Highly patterned, repetitive behavior is also commonly seen in young children.

Freud tells the story of one man who initially had a pleasant experience at a health resort.  His room was next to that of an attractive nurse.  Later on he returns to the resort, hoping to get the same room, but finds it is occupied by an older gentleman.  “Well I hope he’ll have a stroke and die,” he says, annoyed.  Sure enough, this is exactly what happens to the man not long afterwards.  Freud is struck by how his patient readily derives meaningful connections between what would otherwise be seen as random, though coincidental events.  He feels that this is a common characteristic of obsessional neurosis.

A Personal Note
In this context I would like to share with readers a personal experience with the uncanny that occurred at my workplace many years ago.  For nearly three decades I have been employed in the field of rehabilitation, where I am certain that weird coincidences involving names, objects and events are quite frequent.  For example, there is an inordinate number of “Dans” among the population we serve.  I do not know why this should be so.

In one program where I was employed, a colleague underwent a prolonged sex-change operation.  I will call him Robert Smith, though this is not his—well, her real name now.  Hormonal treatments and subtle changes in attire culminated in a final series of surgeries that completed the transformation.  One day Robert came to work as Roberta Smith, fashionably attired as a young woman. 

Regrettably, this event occurred at a time when tolerance of such transitions was quite limited, and Roberta was asked to leave.  It was considered too upsetting for the patients and the administration.  Not long afterward, at most a week or so, the position was filled with a new recruit, an energetic young women named…wait for it…Roberta Smith!

It is possible that this writer may exhibit signs and symptoms of obsessional neurosis, but no one will convince me that such a weirdly meaningful coincidence was not meant to happen, was not arranged so to speak by forces we do not understand or control.  (Which “forces” may also have a sense of irony and humor.)

The Uncanny and Society
In his essay, Freud connects individual experiences of the uncanny with their social expression—in religion, in the universal fear of death and desire for immortality, in atavistic beliefs about the supernatural power of thoughts and words. 

It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage in primitive men, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces of it which can be re-activated, and that everything which now strikes us as “uncanny” fulfills the condition of stirring those vestiges of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.

Well educated people who are oriented to their environment, who have thoroughly dispelled animistic thinking from their minds, who are emotionally well adjusted, and who think like…well, Sigmund Freud, for example, are immune to experiences of the uncanny.  “For the whole matter is one of ‘testing reality’, pure and simple, a question of the reality of the phenomena.” 

Earlier in the essay Freud admits to “…a special obtuseness in the matter…” and reports that “it is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression…” (Elsewhere The R’lyeh Tribune has argued that that a sensitivity, even a vulnerability to the uncanny and the supernatural is necessary to appreciate, as well as create horror entertainments.)

With consideration of the societal aspect of the uncanny, Freud refines his explanation:  an uncanny experience occurs when repressed infantile complexes are revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs about the world that were previously discarded are seemingly confirmed by recent events.  He acknowledges it is not always easy to distinguish these two considerations.

For Readers and Writers
In the remainder of The Uncanny, (part 3), Freud anticipates questions or arguments his readers may have about his conclusions, and also makes some distinctions between uncanny experiences as depicted in literature and in the real world.  There are some interesting remarks about why fairy tales do not typically involve uncanny events, despite a preponderance of infantile wish fulfillment and fantasy.  There are also comments about how authors can effectively create and sustain an experience of the uncanny in their fictional work.

What follows is a series of questions derived from some of Freud’s observations in The Uncanny.  For readers, such questions may draw attention to elements of a horror story that make it effective in generating a sense of the uncanny.  For writers, these questions may suggest images or techniques that might be used to create uncanny effects in a work of fiction.

●Is the setting of the story a familiar (heimlich) or an unfamiliar (unheimlich) one?

●Does the plot of the story include either a figurative or literal return to a disturbing situation or event?

●To what degree is there ambiguity or uncertainty about events or objects?  Are there inanimate things that may be capable of movement, or conversely, things that should be able to move, but do not?

●Do numbers, words, images, names and other details recur in the story, contributing to weird or mysterious coincidences?

●Does a principle character experience an earlier traumatic event that colors subsequent episodes in the story?

●Is there a doppelgänger or a double present?  Are there attributes or features of a lead character that are reflected in another, erasing the borders around selfhood or identity?

●Is there imagery that evokes darkness, solitude, silence or confinement, (i.e. either of entombment or a return to “intra-uterine” existence?)

●Are characters subject to involuntary returns to certain situations or locations?   Are they driven to repeat certain actions?

●Does the story contain revivals of primitive, animistic or occult beliefs in a modern setting?


“Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence.”

—from The Outsider (1926) by H.P. Lovecraft