“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”
A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones. I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.
Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.
There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.”
The 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.
As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.
One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.
Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.
Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.
As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.