Sunday, June 28, 2015

When the Host is the Ghost

Summer is here, despite the unseasonably cool weather and excessive rainfall we have had in the Wolverine State.  Many look forward to planning vacations and road trips, though not everyone, among them the more jaded excursionists, enjoy travel.  There is the vexing disruption of accustomed routines, and an overnight stay in some unfamiliar home or hotel brings with it peculiar noises in the middle of the night, untrustworthy foods and beverages, and slow, unsympathetic service. 

On occasion, at least in horror fiction, the host or proprietor of some out of the way establishment may be a werewolf, maniac or cannibal, causing all kinds of awkwardness and an abrupt change in vacation plans.  ‘Travel is broadening’, but also nerve wracking and frightening.  The anxiety of being away from home and family—such a rich vein of archetypal unease—has been mined extensively in horror literature and film.  This subgenre of horror is briefly discussed in a post from last summer that reviewed Algernon Blackwood’s 1917 classic, The Occupant of the Room, (see Bad Trips).

Nearly all of these tales begin with some version of “it was a dark and stormy night”, for the plot hinges on the irony of seeking shelter from the storm.  Or else the weary traveler is seeking refuge and rest from some trauma, either medical or emotional.  But it is ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’—which is literally true if the landlord is a cannibal, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s well known 1921 story The Picture in the House. (See 3. Comparing PYF in Four Horror Stories, which applies a formula for calculating the “primal yuck factor” in this and several other stories by Lovecraft). 

Solomon Kane encounters subpar accommodations in Robert E. Howard’s 1929 story Rattle of Bones.  Besides the mayhem that ensues from encountering an old and vengeful rival, Kane also has to put up with a maniacal innkeeper and an animate skeleton that is only temporarily restrained by iron chains, (see Cleft Skull Tavern—Not Recommended.)

(I recommend the “express check-out” option for establishments of this type.)

H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy, Jr. collaborated on an example of travel horror, a story published in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales called The Ghost-Eater.  This story is considered one of Lovecraft’s “secondary revisions”.  S.T. Joshi notes that he cannot discern much in the prose that is identifiably Lovecraft’s, since Eddy’s “more choppy, less prose-poetic idiom” predominates.  This is not a bad thing, for the story is devoid of Lovecraft’s lengthy, verbose sentences and endless backstory, and moves right along.

In a letter to Muriel Eddy, the author’s wife, Lovecraft indicates that he only “made two or three minor revisions” to The Ghost-Eater prior to its publication.  However, one of Lovecraft’s favorite words—“eldritch”—appears in both the first and the last paragraphs of the text, and his oft used device of italicizing exclamatory sentences for dramatic effect occurs not once but four times in the story! 

Lovecraft was also a noted teetotaler, and the story contains a veiled admonition about the consequences of drinking:  the narrator falls asleep after drinking a bottle of wine with his lunch, and his ordeal begins not long after he wakes up.  But aside from these influences, the work does seem to be primarily Eddy’s in style and content.  The Ghost-Eater and several other stories by Eddy constitute some of Lovecraft’s earliest revision work. (Muriel Eddy frequently assisted Lovecraft with the typing of his manuscripts.)

In The Ghost-Eater, the narrator recounts a backwoods hike in which he discovers a strange old house and its stranger occupant.  Unable to make it to his destination before nightfall—he had slept away the afternoon midway through his journey—he is allowed to stay the night.  The reader is provided several clues early on that something is not quite right about the house and its owner:

I had expected a shanty or log-cabin, but stopped short in surprise when I beheld a neat and tasteful little house of two stories; some seventy years old by its architecture, yet still in a state of repair betokening the closest and most civilized attention…With startling promptness, my knock was answered by a deep, pleasant voice which uttered the single syllable, “Come!”

…He was strikingly handsome, with thin, clean shaven face, glossy, flaxen hair neatly brushed, long regular eyebrows that met in a slanting angle above the nose, shapely ears set low and well back on the head, and large expressive gray eyes almost luminous in their animation.

The ears and the eyes are suspicious of course, as is the home owner’s eastern European origin.  Too late the narrator discovers that the forest he is in is known locally as “Devil’s Woods”, once populated by Russian immigrants—“they came after one of their nihilist troubles in Russia.”  The Ghost-Eater combines elements of the werewolf story and the ghost story.  Its central image is the reenactment of a brutal murder, replayed as it were for the benefit of the horrified guest. The narrator also learns that the house he had visited was actually burned down by local villagers some sixty years before, causing him some disorientation. 

This is an interesting trope that appears in numerous tales of spectral encounters: not only is there a visitation by some spirit, but associated architecture, technology, even ships, trains and automobiles materialize, as if experiencing a ghost is a variety of time travel.  (H.S. Whitehead’s 1932 story No Eye Witness is an example of this. See Time Travel and a Werewolf.)   

Eddy and Lovecraft’s The Ghost-Eater seems closely related to a better known story published in Weird Tales the year before, Seabury Quinn’s The Phantom Farmhouse, (1923).  The titular farmhouse materializes as part of a tragic encounter with a family of werewolves, in which the protagonist falls in love with the beautiful daughter.  This story was the inspiration for a Night Gallery episode of the same name that aired in October of 1971.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Horror Fiction from a Pre-Schooler

Here is something a bit different from the usual topic of discussion here, though not unrelated.  The inspiration for this post comes from an amusing piece you can read at over at David Dubrow’s blog.  Mr. Dubrow provides an interesting example of a four year old boy’s powers of imagination and his flexible approach to the truth about events in his classroom, (See David Dubrow - Author: From Truth to Fiction to Truth).  For comparison purposes, it will be helpful to enjoy Mr. Dubrow’s offering first, before continuing with the following.

As a speech language pathologist by profession, my university training included the study of early childhood language acquisition.  This is a fascinating process inseparable from the growth of the young child’s cognitive understanding of the world.  Certain key “cognitions” appear to underlie the ability to understand and use words:  that objects continue to exist even when no longer present to the senses, that sounds and gestures can stand for objects and actions, and—around age 3 or 4—that communication need not be about actual events, but can in fact be pretend, or put to other more entertaining uses besides the merely informative, which can become tiresome after a while.

One such use is the capacity to tell or embellish stories, what in adulthood might be called the ability to fictionalize events.  (In some contexts, this is also known as lying, a skill of inestimable value.)  What young children are able to do with “the facts” is amusing but also intriguing; their narratives provide a captivating view of their emerging minds as well as their growing skill as participants in a conversation that accomplishes some purpose or intent. 

My granddaughter, who is the same age as Mr. Dubrow’s son, visited us on Father’s Day.  Instead of bug collecting—our usual joint effort—she asked me to transcribe a story for her.  I supplied her with the following inspirational props:  a couple of tiny toy automobiles, several small wooden figurines of animals, (owl, bear, zebra), and a large plastic, steampunk-inspired mechanical spider.  Here is her story:


The car was driving and then it crashed and then it kept going again.  And then there was a giant spider!  And then the car ran away.  And then the car looked down [from the top of a chair] and they saw a monster!  And the monster was very scary.  And they scared off the huge monster.

And then there was an owl.  And the cars went down to see the owl.  [A second car has joined the first.]   The cars drive around the owl and the giant spider looked all around for the cars and then he found them!

Then he poked them with his leg.  And then the cars crashed.  And then the cars fighted the giant spider and he died and they got a trophy and medals.

[The End]

I admit I am partial to this story, it having been produced by a close relative.  At the risk of over interpreting the data, it does seem that the plot line closely resembles a number of “creature features” from the 1950s and 1960s.  One in particular comes to mind, the 1959 film, The Giant Gila Monster.  In that wonderful old B-movie, teenagers do battle with an enormous poisonous lizard, eventually destroying it by ramming it with a hotrod packed with explosives. 

My granddaughter’s early fictional effort also shows some similarities to another film from that time period, Earth vs. The Spider (1958).  The first victim in that movie wrecks his car when he encounters a giant arachnid along a lonely country road. 

It appears that automobiles colliding with or escaping large mutant creatures is some sort of archetype, perhaps a uniquely American one.  Somehow my granddaughter has learned that this is the typical interaction to expect between an automobile and a giant reptile or arthropod.  But no one has had to teach her this.  Why is this so? 

As in The Giant Gila Monster, young people in Earth vs. The Spider are instrumental in bringing about the demise of the creature and saving the town.  They accomplish this in spite of the disrespect and disbelief of nearly all the surrounding adults.   But the youngsters do not receive any trophy or medals for their efforts, which is a nice touch at the end of my granddaughter’s story.     

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hyborian Sketches

Both fans and scholars of Robert E. Howard will find two documents of interest:  Etchings in Ivory (1928) and The Hyborian Age (1936).  Howard may not originally have intended to publish the first of these; it appeared posthumously in 1968 in the form of a slim booklet, of which only 268 were produced.  The second appeared in Phantagraph as a three part serial, apparently forwarded to that publication by none other than Howard’s epistolary friend, H.P. Lovecraft.  In a letter accompanying the submission, Lovecraft praised Howard, saying

…Howard has the most magnificent sense of the drama of “History” of anyone I know.  He possesses a panoramic vision which takes in the evolution and interaction of races and nations over vast periods of time…

Etchings in Ivory and The Hyborian Age provide fascinating insight into the author’s creation of characters and settings that appeared in his horror fiction and fantasy.  The earlier text is a series of sketches framed as a dream or series of dreams.  There is a single narrator, but he—and she at one point—take different points of view as settings and situations change.  The device strongly implies a kind of reincarnation of heroic individuals throughout history, a theme that occurs in many of Howard’s stories, (see for example A Subterranean Déjà vu and Blood Will Out).  Nearly all of the vignettes involve the experience of death, depicted as a kind of relaxation into a colorful and sensual oblivion.

Etchings in Ivory opens with a disclaimer:

Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned…and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.

Five sections follow, entitled “Flaming Marble”, “Skulls and Orchids”, “Medallions in the Moon”, “The Gods that Men Forget”, and “Bloodstones and Ebony”.  There is a preoccupation in all of these with marble, stone, gemstones and semi-precious stones, as if Howard was constructing a world out of its most valuable natural resources.  Glenn Lord, in his interesting two volume anthology The Book of Robert E. Howard (1976) notes that Etchings in Ivory was written at time in Howard’s career when he was experimenting with different forms of fiction.   

The first two sections contain the germs of two stories.  In “Flaming Marble”, a Conan-like barbarian makes violently passionate love—it amounts to a rape—to his upper class mistress, but then is immediately assassinated. “Skulls and Orchids” depicts a love triangle resulting in two violent deaths, as told by the female victim just before she dies.  The remaining sections more closely resemble prose poems; “The Gods that Men Forget” in particular seems strongly influenced by the early work of Lord Dunsany.

“Skulls and Orchids” is especially interesting, since its content is remarkably transgressive for the time period.  Set in “decadent Athens”, it involves a female narrator named Astaihh, an Athenian noble woman who has given up her citizenship and reputation to become the consort of a Spartan, the treacherous Demetrius, whom she adores.  Pleading for his attention, she criticizes Demetrius and his fellow Spartans:

So the Spartan in his barren land persuades himself that he is exalted above all men in his stupid self-denial, rejoices in his slaying prowess only, and boasts of the slavery he names freedom!  But let him taste the joys of other, brighter, and more cultured lands, and he forswears all the trials of the camp for the silken couch and the wine—and even forswears natural delights.  [Emphasis mine.]

Regrettably, Demetrius adores his young male lover, and kisses him in front of Astaihh.  While Demetrius is out of the room, she stabs him to death.  Enraged, Demetrius kills her—she dies in the arms of the man who really did love her, the Greek comedic dramatist Menander.  I do not know if this vignette eventually appeared in any of the work Howard published in his lifetime—I have not yet read much of his historical fiction—but the content and female point of view seem pretty daring relative to the work of Howard’s contemporaries.

The Hyborian Age is Howard’s working out of the history and geographical settings of his sword-and-sorcery tales.  In his opening remarks he states that developed this piece when he began writing the Conan stories “in order to lend him and his sagas a greater aspect of realness.”  Howard followed the historical text he had developed “as closely as the historical-fiction writer follows the lines of actual history.”  Much of it is tedious inventorying of various barbarian struggles to control land areas, and the progress of numerous nascent civilizations before the beginning of history as we know it:

Five hundred years later the kingdoms of the world are clearly defined.  The kingdoms of the Hyborians—Aquilonia, Nemedia, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Koth, Ophir—dominate the western world…Far to the south sleeps Stygia, untouched by foreign invasion, but the peoples of Shem have exchanged the Stygian yoke for the less galling one of Koth…North of Aquilonia, the westernmost Hyborian kingdom are the Cimmerians, ferocious savages, untamed by the invaders but advancing rapidly…

And so on for several pages.  However, there is an interesting germ of a story about midway through this historical survey.  Arus, a Nemedian priest, attempts to convert the vulgar Picts to the teachings of Mitra, (that is Mithra, an actual historical precursor to Christianity), but with unforeseen consequences.  H.P. Lovecraft was critical of Howard for melding actual ancient history with his fictional creations, an “incurable tendency to devise names too closely resembling actual names of ancient history—names which, for us, have a very different set of associations.” 

However, on occasion Howard was very effective in doing just this, connecting his prehistoric fantasies with our understanding of ancient history.  (See for example “…do not offend the djinn!” )  What is striking about The Hyborian Age is its preoccupation with racial and ethnic differences, and the consequences of intermingling these for the growth of culture and civilization.  In his broad and fatalistic view of human history, Howard seems to see only the likelihood of endless violent struggle, involving the reincarnation of heroic figures in every age.