Casting around for ideas to get myself blogging again, I thought I might bow to October’s zeitgeist and devote the month to the horror genre–or at least to the part of the genre I like: the part that’s uncanny, not gruesome, and sometimes a little old-timey. I plan to cover ten underappreciated stories or movies. (Or more, if I can swing it. I briefly thought of going for 31, but in my current state of distraction that’s just a little overambitious.) Most will probably not be as long as this essay.
I’ll start with “The Uninvited Face,” a short story by Michael Asquith, because, damn, this one really is obscure. I had no idea how obscure until I tried researching it: as far as I can tell (from, admittedly, just Google and Google Books) Michael Asquith never wrote anything but “The Uninvited Face,” and “The Uninvited Face” never appeared anywhere after it first saw print in The Third Ghost Book edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1955). And what with the double Asquith, I’m guessing that was nepotism.
Despite that, it’s very good. (And not the only obscure but stunning one-off story in this volume. Marghanita Laski had a long writing career, but “The Tower”–briefly reviewed in The Third Ghost Book’s entry in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books–is apparently her only ghost story.)
To save time, I’ll use a set format for these reviews–first the premise, then where to find the story, then some analysis.
Dr. Graham, an elderly physician, recounts the story of Julian Ferris, a government scientist plagued by the knowledge that, in the Cold War 1950s, his work will be turned to no good end… and by the apparition of a friendly, but not quite human, face, which seems to be offering something Julian begins to think he should accept.
Where to Find It
As stated above, you’ll pretty much have to find a copy of Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book.
Analysis (With Spoilers)
This might be the only story ever published by Michael Asquith, but this can’t be the only thing he ever wrote; the writing is too assured. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Asquith sometimes summarizes things that might have been played out in dialogue–Julian’s first description of the Face, for instance. Asquith’s style reads smoothly and he knows when and how to change it: he shifts to a fast-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness present tense for the chaotic climax.
One of the few slips in tone comes when Dr. Graham tells us Julian’s father, a painter, was “a portrayer, that is, if I may speak bluntly, of the diseased, the blasphemous and the obscene.” That’s right: Mr. Ferris was (gasp) a surrealist. I bet he also listened to jazz music and hung out with beatniks! It’s not clear just how reliable a narrator Dr. Graham was intended to be. On an Occam’s-razor basis, I’d assume “perfectly.” But Dr. Graham’s inadvertently hilarious get-off-my-lawn moments affect how much I want to trust him, which affects how I read the story. More on this later.
The striking thing about “The Uninvited Face” is its monster. (Or maybe I need scare quotes around “monster.” More later, etc.) I’ve read more ghost stories than I can count, and most of everything is mediocre, and after a while the mediocre ghosts and monsters blur together. Asquith’s “Face” stands off to the side of the pack: a “solicitous,” “para-human” face, “too big for the head,” belonging to a small man in a long black overcoat, who on closer inspection is seen to have extra fingers standing in for thumbs. He’s a weird little guy, unsettling because of his oddness, and Asquith brings him onstage at the right pace: first his face appears to Julian between sleeping and waking, then he shows up on an almost-empty bus, then other people start getting glimpses of him, though never clearly. This is all reported by Julian. Dr. Graham never sees the Face himself, except in drawings made by Julian’s father, who died in a mental hospital and apparently, at the end of his life, had a little friend.
Wisely, Asquith doesn’t show us Julian’s ultimate confrontation, either. It happens behind the scenes, at a costume party attended by Dr. Graham’s grandkids, which Julian’s agreed to help with. A party which seems to have one or two extra guests. The local reverend mawkishly remarks that the hostess might easily “entertain an angel unawares.” Which is one of those lines that someday, when our descendants are all reading multimedia iPad books because they’re too half-literate to catch the subtleties from plain text, will be attached to a big blinking neon IRONY! tag. Because the other striking thing about the Face is that, as far as we can tell at second hand, he’s here to help.
Julian’s under pressure. He’s come to believe that “his discoveries, perverted for destructive ends, would serve to contribute to that total human catastrophe towards which, he was now convinced, we were inevitably drifting.” At one point Julian just up and disappears for a few days, but he only gets as far as Edinburgh before getting picked up, and now the press has pegged him as an unreliable left-wing egghead bound at any moment to go over to the Reds. So when the Face shows up at the party Julian’s ready to take whatever it is the weird little guy is offering. They slip away and are last seen waiting for a train.
Later Julian is found dead on the tracks. Dr. Graham thinks Julian was saved from a fate worse than death, and I’d guess that was Asquith’s intention: there was something just plain Wrong about that weird little man, and he must have had no good plans for Julian, but mercifully before Julian was irrevocably damned he came to his senses and leapt from the train.
But then, after that remark about depraved surrealists, I’m not sure I trust Dr. Graham’s judgement. And on this read-through, I started thinking about portal fantasies.
“Portal fantasy” is the kind of fantasy about an imaginary world with a connection–usually some kind of portal, natch–to the real world, through which the protagonist travels. Think Alice in Wonderland, or The Fionavar Tapestry. Sometimes the transported heroes just want to get home, but often their adventures are journeys of self-discovery leading to the kind of personal growth you only get from hacking at orcs with a big freaking sword.
Most portal fantasies don’t encourage us to think about what’s happening back home… but, barring one of those time-slips in which weeks of adventure pass in a single real-world night, you have to assume the heroes’ friends and loved ones are worrying over what the hell happened to them. And filing missing persons reports. And maybe wondering why the heroes were last seen in the company of some Rasputin-bearded guy in an astrologically embroidered bathrobe.
Which brings us back to Michael Asquith’s story, and the last sight of Julian at the train station. Julian’s new friend came to offer him something, and it’s pretty clear the offer was to take him somewhere presumably further away than Edinburgh.
Where? Maybe something like Middle Earth. Maybe the Uninvited Face is nothing more than his universe’s equivalent of a Hobbit, come to take Julian to a world where only he can save the Kingdom from the Dark Lord. If so, Dr. Graham might seem a bit of a fuddy-duddy for objecting… but portal fantasies’ other worlds descend from Fairyland, and, back when people believed in that kind of thing, getting carried off by the fairies was something you didn’t want to happen to anyone you cared about.
Maybe “The Uninvited Face” is what the portal fantasies look like from the outside. The people the heroes leave behind are living in a different genre: for them, it’s a horror story.