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.

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