Tuesday 10 November 2009

Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr. W. HOPE HODGSON's "Carnacki" stories are producing a widespread epidemic of Nervous Prostration! So far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that "The Whistling Room", which we publish this month, is worse than ever. Our advertising manager had to go to bed for two days after reading the advance sheets; a proof reader has sent in his resignation; and, worst of all, our smartest office boy --- But this is no place to bewail or seek for sympathy. Yet another of those stories will appear in April!

It's hard for us, accustomed as we are to the far more visceral scares of cinematic horror, to relate to the plight of the nervous readers mentioned by the editor of The Idler in this notice included with that magazine's March 1910 issue.

Reading the story in question, however, might make their complaints easier to commiserate with. A premise that seems far from menacing at first - a room that whistles - is turned into a vector for some very weird and horrific images and one of the more gruesome backstories in these stories.

Other highlights of the series are THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE, a story inspired by Hodgson's own stay, with his mother, in a supposedly haunted house, THE HAUNTED JARVEE, a most chilling tale of horror at sea, and the mini-epic of porcine terror, THE HOG.

Carnacki is a mix of detective and industrial-age shaman, cracking quite a few cases of fake hauntings - sometimes alongside very real hauntings as in THE HORSE OF THE INVISIBLE - and at least one case with no supernatural elements, THE FIND, is given a very clever solution, one that Holmes or Dupin would have been proud of. In most of the other stories, he draws on the ancient lore contained in the 'Sigsand manuscript' to construct such cyberpunkish devices to fight supernatural forces as the electric pentacle and a strange device that uses coloured lights to both draw and repel spirits. His devices, and the fiendishness of the horrors he faces were growing from story to story. Had Hodgson's career not been untimely curtailed (he died in the first world war) one senses that this series that would have grown to greater strengths.

Which is not to say they're easy stories to read; Hodgson's prose is passable at best, frequently dense and hard to follow, marred with intrusive conversational turns of phrase (Carnacki is narrating these stories to a group of friends, a framing device that counts for little purpose, it seems, other than to give Carnacki anudiene to whom he can expound a bit on his supernatural theories in the last few stories). His esoteric nomenclature is risible at times ('Saaitii', for instance) and the cod-archaic quotations from the Sigsand manuscript can grate as well.

Despite all this, Hodgson's imagination is truly original and macabre, and if you take the time to read these stories - as I did after an initial discomfort with Hodgson's prose - they have many dark delights to offer the horror fan. Here as a sample is some very effective imagery from THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE:

"From then, until two o'clock, nothing happened; but a little after two, as I found by holding my watch near to the faint glow of the closed lanterns, I had a time of quite extraordinary nervousness; and I bent towards the landlord, and whispered to him that I had a queer feeling that something was about to happen, and to be ready with his lantern; at the same time I reached out towards mine. In the very instant I made this movement, the darkness which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, as if a light had been shone; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour. And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked Child, running. In an extraordinary way, the Child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night, came from the child. It seems impossible to make clear to you; but try to understand it.
"The Child went past me, running, with the natural movement of the legs of a chubby human child, but in an absolute and inconceivable silence. It was a very small Child, and must have passed under the table; but I saw the Child through the table, as if it had been only a slightly darker shadow than the coloured gloom. In the same instant, I saw that a fluctuating shimmer of violet light outlined the metal of the gun-barrels and the blade of the sword-bayonet, making them seem like faint shapes of glimmering light, floating unsupported where the table-top should have shown solid.

This site contains the texts of the stories, with the illustrations that accompanied them in the pages of The Idler.

1 comment:

K said...

Wow. This is good stuff. These Wordsworth publishers are very good people.