Category Archives: Horror

Perceval Landon, “Thurnley Abbey”

Perceval Landon is one of those writers remembered for a single story, the ghost story “Thurnley Abbey.” He was a journalist, a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, and travelled the world as a special correspondent for the Daily Mail and The Times. He accompanied Britain’s 1904 invasion of Tibet and wrote a book called The Opening of Tibet. Otto Penzler in his brief bio of Landon for The Big Book of Ghost Stories calls him “powerfully British in his attitudes and judgments,” which is probably a diplomatic way of calling him an enthusiastic imperialist. If so, his attitudes aren’t obvious in “Thurnley Abbey” beyond the assumption that a stint in India is a normal thing for a gentleman to have in his background.

Landon’s fiction was pretty much limited to a 1908 collection called Raw Edges. Apart from reprints of his one famous story it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

Generally I think criticism ought to minimize the time it spends summarizing plots. But sometimes working through a summary is the simplest way to pick apart what a story is doing, so that’s how I’ll organize this post. I’ll try to keep the description-to-analysis ratio within reason.

Like a lot of Jamesian ghost stories “Thurnley Abbey” has a framing narrative. The narrator is on his way to India, waiting for his ship to sail, and the prologue captures the feel of a tedious journey: “We slept after luncheon; we dawdled the afternoon away with yellow-backed novels; sometimes we exchanged platitudes in the smoking-room, and it was there that I met Alastair Colvin.”

Colvin is an obvious gentleman–later he gives his club as a reference–and makes “the usual remarks in the right way” but seems preoccupied. After dinner he makes a strange request: he asks to sleep in the narrator’s cabin on the ship. “And he coloured a little as he said it,” says the narrator. That flash of deeper feeling seems out of place in Landon’s polite, orderly prose. Gentlemen exchange pleasantries and platitudes. This puncturing of reserve–admitting weakness to a stranger–just isn’t done.

Colvin explains. His story begins as leisurely as the narrator’s; it’s not slow, it just doesn’t feel hurried. In India Colvin made a friend named John Broughton, who inherited a large estate and returned to England. Eventually Broughton decides to move into his manor, Thurnley Abbey. It’s rumored to be haunted; supposedly the ghost is an “immured nun.” Further details are thin on the ground.

Broughton thinks a former tenant spread the rumors to scare trespassers; certainly, he was known to enhance them by playing tricks with lights. He and Colvin agree that if one ever did see a ghost, one ought to talk to it. Broughton has workers in, laughing at their nervousness, and fixes the roof and installs electric lighting. He gets married, and Colvin goes back East. When Colvin returns to England Broughton asks him to visit, and do him a favor.

Colvin arrives to find a standard country house party of the sort Hercule Poirot detects murders in. A couple of guests trot out the standard lines about how they wouldn’t live in the Abbey for any amount of money. A woman at dinner goes on for a while about how wit is vulgar and all truly great art is melancholy and tragic.[1] Broughton can’t bring himself to tell Colvin what the favor is–he keeps putting it off until morning. He seems “somehow ashamed of himself,” trying to bring the conversation around to ghosts but changing the subject when Colvin asks directly. The most Broughton can manage is an odd joke as he drifts off to bed: “‘Mind, if you see a ghost, do talk to it; you said you would.’ He stood irresolutely a moment and then turned away.”

Colvin tells the first half of his story lightly but with emotional reserve. The prose maintains a polite distance from the reader. Colvin calls Broughton “a light-hearted soul” but “steady and capable” and steady is high praise. Gentlemen keep their upper lips stiff. They talk in bright pleasantries and banter (“‘Good old nun!’ said Broughton”). They’re undemonstrative, uncomfortable with and embarrassed by strong emotion. Broughton avoids asking Colvin for a favor because the favor is bound up with a shock. Talking about it would break the rules.

So it’s a big moment when Colvin wakes in the night and feels something: “I know that my heart stopped dead, and my throat shut automatically.” And the feeling comes before we learn what the feeling is about. That Colvin feels anything this strongly is more shocking than the shock that caused it. After 4,000 words of calm Englishness, this is the story’s first moment of heightened emotion.

Then another unusual thing happens: just for a moment, we return to the frame story. Everyone else is in bed and the narrator and Colvin stare out over the water into the night. The story decelerates to a moment of absolute stillness. Colvin continues his story, and because Landon wrote this bit extraordinarily well I’ll quote the next paragraph in full:

Leaning over the foot of my bed, looking at me, was a figure swathed in a rotten and tattered veiling. This shroud passed over the head, but left both eyes and the right side of the face bare. It then followed the line of the arm down to where the hand grasped the bed-end. The face was not entirely that of a skull, though the eyes and the flesh of the face were totally gone. There was a thin, dry skin drawn tightly over the features, and there was some skin left on the hand. One wisp of hair crossed the forehead. It was perfectly still. I looked at it, and it looked at me, and my brains turned dry and hot in my head. I had still got the pear of the electric lamp in my hand, and I played idly with it; only I dared not turn the light out again. I shut my eyes, only to open them in a hideous terror the same second. The thing had not moved. My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated. Another cinder tinkled in the grate, and a panel creaked in the wall.

I’ve rarely come across a fantasy or horror story that better depicts a certain kind of fear or shock, the kind where time seems to stop for a moment while your brain processes what’s happening. “Thurnley Abbey” has been anthologized a lot, and some editors call it one of the most frightening ghost stories in the English language. If so, it’s not because the events of the story are particularly frightening (the same plot could just as easily be turned to comedy). It’s just particularly good at convincing us its narrator is afraid.

This paragraph is, again, very still. Colvin’s description is precise and clinical, and the slow cataloguing of detail reads like one of those moments when absolute shock slows time to a crawl. His playing with the dangling lamp-switch is perfect, the kind of thing people do when their minds haven’t caught up to their situation. And again there’s a new intensity to his reactions, a previously unsuspected emotional range: “my brains turned dry and hot in my head,” “My heart was thumping, and the sweat cooled me as it evaporated.” These are palpably physical states the reader might have been in, or can at least imagine, and they’re more vivid for the contrast between this scene and the story’s earlier reserve. The emotional contrast and Landon’s masterful control of pacing make Colvin’s awakening feel like a night terror or fever dream on paper.

Then, from a dead stop, “Thurnley Abbey” floors the gas pedal. Colvin decides the figure is a dummy set up as a practical joke. Like a switch his utter terror flips to white-hot rage. He leaps forward and punches it in the face. When it doesn’t resist he pulverizes it, pulling it apart, stomping the skeleton, leaving not a single bone in one piece. It’s sheer mindless frenzy.

Colvin grabs a skull fragment and bursts into Broughton’s bedroom, screaming something-or-other, but Broughton doesn’t react as Colvin expects. Broughton is too terrified to speak, only shrieking when he sees the bone. He grabs it, makes for the door, but trips and drops it. Everyone hears shuffling footsteps coming down the hall.

Here the story takes another unexpected emotional turn. Broughton and his wife hide their faces in the bedclothes and after a moment Colvin joins them. This is awe, in the old-fashioned sense. What you’d feel if a god descended from the sky. It’s not just that no one wants to see the Nun, it’s like they’re not even worthy to gaze upon her. She comes softly into the room and gently picks up her bone. Then she just leaves. “At the end of the corridor I thought I saw something that moved away. A moment later the passage was empty. I stood with my forehead against the jamb of the door almost physically sick.”

These emotions feel vivid partly because of the contrast with the story’s first half. Another reason is that “Thurnley Abbey” pays attention to the fallout. A common ghost story strategy is to stage the climax, then get out while the reader is still reeling, but “Thurnley Abbey” covers the next few hours of Colvin’s life. He and the Broughtons are explicitly traumatized–in modern terms, they may have actual PTSD. They sit up together until dawn, barely speaking; “we all three knew that our reason had gone very near to ruin that night.” They have to negotiate what to do in the morning because no one can stand to be alone. Eventually Mrs. Broughton thinks she might be all right alone for five minutes, with the windows open, while Broughton and Colvin check Colvin’s room. They do, and apart from some blood where Colvin cut his hand there’s no sign of the mess. Broughton only says “half as a question, half as a reproach, ‘You didn’t speak to her.’”

It’s an intense story. On my first reading it didn’t even occur to me to wonder: why has Broughton never spoken to her? Living with her as he does, he must have noticed the Nun is benign. At no point does she do anything but watch and endure. There’s no sign that she’s even offended at being torn apart, which, given the speed at which she reassembles herself, has got to be a minor inconvenience. She’s quiet, curious, and patient, and Broughton and Colvin’s reactions seem to have almost nothing to do with her. She seems to unconsciously carry an aura of terror, harmless in herself but a catalyst for loss of emotional control in the living.

I’m not a strict death-of-the-author adherent, but writers often really do write more than they intend. I don’t know Landon’s intentions; probably he just wanted to write a scary story. But it feels like something deeper is going on here. People don’t run from the Nun, they hide their faces. “Thurnley Abbey” feels suffused with shame.

Maybe it has to do with those “powerfully British” attitudes. Remember, Broughton came back from soldiering in India to accept his inheritance. Colvin still travels back and forth and reads himself to sleep with a volume of Kipling.[2] So maybe it’s significant that Broughton has taken possession of the Abbey, become its master, and rebuilt it to his liking… but the place has a prior inhabitant. One he can’t subordinate, kill, or move along. No matter what, she endures, an undeniable fact he has to confront. Is it any wonder he can’t bear to speak to her?

Then again, maybe it’s about the destruction of Colvin’s self-image. Colvin thinks of himself as a gentleman. He belongs to the right club, knows the right things to say and to do. He’s cool and steady; his honor and dignity are unimpeachable. He’s above everything. Until he encounters something he thinks is mocking him, at which point he discovers his reserve and honorable deportment are a thin veneer masking his chaotic, animalistic, rage-filled true self. In the Nun’s presence, he’s no gentleman. What’s worse, his tantrum doesn’t even accomplish anything. His rage is impotent. The victim of his violence can’t actually be harmed, and won’t go away; she pieces herself together and reproachfully continues to exist.

Either way, the Nun is a mirror. Colvin and Broughton can’t look at her because she shows them things they’re ashamed to recognize in themselves—most importantly that the world, and their own lives and selves, aren’t as much under their control as they like to think.

“Of course I am much better now,” says Colvin, “but it is a kindness of you to let me sleep in your cabin.” Now that Colvin knows himself, it’s hard to sleep soundly.


  1. This is a common attitude even today; a lot of people think only morbidly grim stories are truly Serious.  ↩

  2. An advocate of empire whose stories are still reprinted mostly because they seem so uneasy about their own imperialism.  ↩

W. F. Harvey, The Double Eye

M. R. James was unusual among ghost-story writers in that every story he wrote was at least mildly interesting; most weird writers of his vintage aren’t as consistent. But many have a handful of good stories and sometimes I even find one that hasn’t been reprinted to death.

W. F. Harvey is one of those writers. The Double Eye collects most if not all of his weird stories and it’s a mixed bag. Some of his stories are brilliant, the rest you’ll forget as soon as you read them. They’re all very short–my two favorites are both under 2000 words. Harvey is jocular without writing outright comedy. He’s sometimes ironic but only mildly so; for instance, a potential murderer might be reported to a psychiatrist by the accomplices he’d tried to recruit. Harvey usually avoids outright ghosts and it’s often unclear whether something supernatural is going on or his characters are having mental breakdowns. (He wrote at least two stories about a man thinking he’d been cursed by a woman who might merely be upset with him.) The worst story in the collection is mildly racist, has a mild racial slur for a title, and would have been better buried and forgotten. At the other end of the quality scale are the two stories most people will have heard of, “August Heat” and “The Beast With Five Fingers.”

“The Beast With Five Fingers” is the ur-story of the disembodied hand subgenre. “August Heat” is weirder. (And takes hardly any time to read, so you might as well do so.)

One hot morning, James Withencroft, an artist, draws a picture of a prisoner on trial. He has no idea why–it just popped into his head. Withencroft has never seen the man before in his life but he’s distinctively large, so when Withencroft goes for a walk and passes that exact man Withencroft spots him at once. Mr. Atkinson and Withencroft are immediate friends. Atkinson is a monument-carver, carving a sample tombstone for an exhibition. Withencroft’s name is on it, and today’s date. Atkinson has no idea why–it just popped into his head. The coincidence creeps Withencroft out, so Atkinson invites Withencroft to stick around until midnight, just to make sure nothing happens to him. As the story closes, Atkinson is sharpening a chisel while Withencroft reflects with an odd detachment that the heat “is enough to send a man mad.”

“And it was only the day before yesterday,” he said, “that I told Maria there were no such things as ghosts!”

Neither of us had seen a ghost, but I knew what he meant.

“August Heat” has been reprinted in a lot of ghost story anthologies–not just weird stories, ghost anthologies specifically. Which is interesting because it doesn’t have a ghost, or anything supernatural beyond two extraordinary coincidences and the implication, putting them side by side, that something is about to follow from them. But why? It’s the obscurity of the story that’s disturbing. There’s no Twilight Zone irony, the characters haven’t brought them on themselves through character flaws. There’s no suggestion that Atkinson is a hidden psychopath, or anything other than the genial man he appears to be. Withencroft and Atkinson have had premonitions of a murder which is about to happen only because they had premonitions of that murder. The event has no beginning; the effect is its own cause. The story feels haunted not by an apparition but by a strangely meaningless future.

My favorite W. F. Harvey story is “The Clock.” It’s one of his less anthologized stories, but googling turned up the text online. It is, again, short but effective.

“The Clock” is an excerpt from a letter to an old school friend. The unnamed writer is asked by a friend of her aunt to go to her shut-up house and retrieve a travelling-clock. She agrees. The story vividly conveys the uncomfortable feeling of being the only person in a dark, silent, deserted house where she’d normally have no legitimate reason to be: “I did in fact feel rather like a burglar, and I thought that if anyone did happen to see the front door open, I might have difficulty in explaining things.”

The writer heads upstairs and finally finds the clock in a back bedroom. It’s still ticking. Which is weird, because no one has been in the house, so who’s been winding it? “Then, without quite knowing why, I shut the door on to the landing, locked myself in, and again looked round the room.” Then she hears something coming up the stairs. Not walking, but “hopping up the stairs, like a very big bird would hop.” Then it pauses, and starts scratching at each of the doors in turn. The writer flees out the window, and as she looks back she sees the window has shut behind her.

Another book I read recently was Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie. I found Fisher’s ideas an interesting lens through which to look at Harvey’s work. Fisher identifies “Weird” and “Eerie” as modes often used by weird fiction.[1] The Weird is easy to describe: it’s something alien and out of place that intrudes on the mundane world, like the crawling hand in “The Beast With Five Fingers.” The Eerie is trickier. It’s an impression of meaning, intelligence, or agency out of place–either present where it shouldn’t be, or absent where it should. Fisher gives the example of an “eerie cry” for the first type, as in the cry of an animal which seems to carry some unusual intelligence or meaning. An example of the second is a mysterious ruin which once had a context and purpose that’s now entirely forgotten. Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is.

W. F. Harvey’s main interest is the eerie. He does tell weird stories–“The Beast With Five Fingers” is a good one. Another is one of his rare outright ghost stories, “Account Rendered.” But Harvey is less fond of ghosts and monsters than most weird writers–he likes coincidences that might not be coincidences, delusions that might not be delusions, and people or animals who might be more than they seem. “August Heat” is both his most famous story and the one that best represents his work; its paradoxical tangle of precognition and predestination is thoroughly eerie.

In that light, “The Clock” is an interesting case. It’s certainly weird. But unlike the Beast With Five Fingers, the whatever-it-was in “The Clock” is never seen and has no hint of backstory, and the purpose of its behavior is obscure. The complete lack of context makes the story feel as eerie as it is weird.

That sense of the eerie doesn’t have anything to do with Harvey’s prose–not all his stories are alike, but like I said earlier, most are breezy and jocular, specializing in a sort of light detective-novel style. He only occasionally dips into stream of conciousness[2] or varies his tone or pacing much. When Harvey’s on form his plots are inherently disquieting even when baldly and simply described, and the lightness of tone contrasts ironically. Contrasting horror and wit is a common strategy in weird stories of Harvey’s era, especially in stories by British authors. It’s often very effective.

Look, for instance, at “Account Rendered.” A Mr. Tolson hires a doctor to put him under anesthesia for half an hour around midnight. While Tolson is under an old man like “a timid but inquisitive tortoise” opens the door, sticks his head in, and observes that Tolson is busy but there’s no hurry and he’ll come back another time. Later the doctor investigates and discovers Tolson hires a different doctor every year on the same night, and no matter where in the world he is, at midnight the old man puts his head into the room. The premise of this story is memorable in itself–I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and among the less inspired ones ideas repeat, but this is new. And there’s something disconcerting in the mundanity of the ghost and its polite relentlessness.

“The Follower” is one of Harvey’s less successful stories. A writer, like Harvey himself, lives near a couple of academics named Canon Rathbone and Dr. Curtius who are researching ancient manuscripts they brought back from overseas. One night while gazing at their house he gets an idea for a story based on them. The next day the academics happen to drop in. The protagonist’s sister suggests he could write about Canon Rathbone’s work and the Canon gets flustered, stammering out that he’s really not into fiction–it’s too sensationalistic. As the academics leave, the writer feels obscurely that he’s been warned off.

The outline of this story has a lot of eerie potential, but in Harvey’s style it doesn’t work. It’s too ambiguous. If “The Follower” had been written by (for example) Robert Aickman it would have been suffused with odd details suggesting something weighty moving under the surface of things. In Harvey’s story Dr. Curtius makes a few odd gestures–nodding at odd moments, stirring his tea in a way the writer thinks is strange–but nothing he or Canon Rathbone do seems all that unusual, and they aren’t in any way menacing. Rathbone seems more embarassed than anything. It feels like the writer is getting worked up over a mundane coincidence.

W. F. Harvey’s weird tales are at their best when the overt events are undeniably strange. When they could be just funny coincidences… well, then, they probably are just funny coincidences. The voice he uses in most of his stories encourages me to assume the least extraordinary explanation for everything. It’s reliable, sincerely friendly; I compared it to a detective-story voice, and it feels like, as in a fair play detective story, it’s not palming any cards. When Harvey’s working, though, he really works. The Double Eye feels padded, but Harvey wrote enough great stories that you could fill at least one volume of more modest size.

(Other stories not mentioned above that I’d include in a notional Best of W. F. Harvey include “Midnight House,” “Across the Moors,” “The Tortoise,” “The Ankardyne Pew,” “The Tool,” “The Dabblers,” and “The Flying Out of Mrs. Barnard Hollis.” “The Star” and “The Man Who Hated Aspidistras” are also good, but are comic stories with no weird content and would be an odd fit.)


  1. Fisher doesn’t claim these are the only two modes or effects weird fiction has; they’re just the ones he’s concerned with.  ↩

  2. There are exceptions; for instance, “The Sleeping Major.”  ↩

In Which I Notice a Subgenre

When I wrote my post on Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible I’d intended to make an observation that would have taken the post on too long a detour. The Invincible belongs to a branch of science fiction I’ve never seen acknowledged as its own subgenre. (Although it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had already defined it somewhere.[1] I don’t have that many original ideas.) It’s a blend of space opera and horror and for the purposes of these notes–this post is too much a working-out-of-ideas to call it an essay–I’ll call it Spaceship Gothic.

I use the word “gothic” advisedly. Spaceship Gothic isn’t just any horror/science fiction mashup, but a kind with characteristics analogous to Gothic novels’ obsession with architecture and air of doomful cursedness:

  1. A small group of people confined to a spaceship, space station, or enclosed, uninhabited planetary environment.
  2. A dangerous and incomprehensible discovery. A natural phenomenon, transcendent force, or alien life form we can’t understand or communicate with.

Combine #1 with #2, assume nothing good will come of it, and you’ve got Spaceship Gothic. The best-known example is the movie Alien; I’d also cite Forbidden Planet, The Black Hole, and Event Horizon.[2] Novels include Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible and Solaris, James Smythe’s The Explorer, Peter Watts’s Blindsight, and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages. On television we have any number of Doctor Who stories and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Q Who” (though I’d argue that later Borg episodes don’t qualify, as the Borg became more communicative and more comprehensible).

The Spaceship of Otranto

The Gothic novel is a genre centered on environment. The hallmark of a Gothic, the thing it absolutely has to have to be Gothic, is a mansion or a castle, isolated and sparsely populated. It’s a genre named after architecture.

The horror genre borrows from the Gothic novel the tendency to strand characters in enclosed locations. Get everyone into an abandoned hospital, a cabin in the woods, or an old dark house. Isolate them with a freak storm, bleak moorlands, a confusing forest, even just a flat tire miles from anywhere. Then you pick them off one by one.

Spaceship Gothic takes this to its logical conclusion. A Gothic needs a house; Spaceship Gothic needs a spaceship. A spaceship is the ultimate closed environment. You might think your Old Dark House is in the middle of nowhere but most of the time a spaceship is surrounded by literally nothing. From the time it leaves its home planet until it reaches its destination, a ship is its crew’s entire world.

Some Spaceship Gothic stories, like Planet of the Vampires or Prometheus, take their crew to a planet. If so, it’s uninhabited aside from an alien ruin, archaeological site, crashed ship, or sparsely crewed or abandoned base. Most space opera treats planets as small spaces, metaphorical islands.[3] Whatever the crew finds planetside, it feels paradoxically claustrophobic: yeah, technically the crew has an entire planet to roam, but where would they go?

Other spaceships are the same deal: abandoned, wrecked, drifting. Few or no survivors. Except for a Curse.

The Curse

Like the heroes of happier space operas, the ones with their eyes peeled for New Worlds and New Civilizations, Spaceship Gothic crews are explorers and solvers of mysteries. They just have less fun solving them. The crew of the Nostromo is reluctantly diverted to an alien crash site. Prometheus is about an archaeological dig. Stanislaw Lem’s novels star scientists encountering unusual life forms on alien planets. The crews in Event Horizon and The Black Hole discover what happened to earlier, vanished space missions.

All of which is standard for space opera. As I implied, you could probably find a Star Trek episode with the same setup as any Spaceship Gothic story. The difference is in where the stories end up. Space opera is optimistic. The characters find a new life form, a strange gadget, a new scientific phenomenon, or a tricky engineering problem and it’s awesome, in the old sense of “inspiring awe” as well as the new. It’s a mystery to solve. Not all space opera characters succeed, but they could. Theoretically. We can talk to the aliens, we can figure out how the MacGuffin works. The universe is understandable! Human potential is limitless! Spaceship Gothic is what happens when it’s not.

In a Spaceship Gothic story the characters set out to solve a mystery but discover a curse. It’s bigger than whatever they thought they were looking for, if they were looking for anything specific at all. It’s transcendent, inherently incomprehensible. Something beyond. The characters throw themselves against it, and break.

If the Curse is an alien it won’t communicate or cooperate. It might be hostile, like the Borg, the eponymous Alien, or any number of Doctor Who villains, but it could be indifferent, or even trying to help. Solaris is, as far as we can tell, benign, but that doesn’t stop it from confusing and disturbing everyone who visits.

Often the Curse isn’t even a life form, just a force like the time warp from James Smythe’s The Explorer, or an impossibly advanced artifact like the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet.

The Curse doesn’t need to hurt anyone itself. Spaceship Gothic being horror, it sometimes leaves most of the cast dead, perhaps with one or two escaping, Ishmael-like, to tell the story. (This is much more common in Spaceship Gothic movies, which tend towards the exploitative.) But the Curse doesn’t necessarily kill them directly. It’s often just a catalyst, the actual villain being some initially-sympathetic character whose character flaws have turned operatic. If there even is a villain. Sometimes the crew just can’t deal with this incomprehensible thing they found and self-destruct like the cast of a Coen Brothers movie.

So What is this Genre Doing?

I nominated two of Stanislaw Lem’s novels, The Invincible and Solaris, as Spaceship Gothics. I’d also add Fiasco and Eden, and maybe the novel that inspired the movie First Spaceship on Venus, though I’ve never read that one (I’m not sure it’s ever even been translated). Lem was interested in randomness, and how people look for order in randomness. He was also interested in the limits of human knowledge, and how people cope when they discover the answers to some questions (what’s Solaris up to? What’s happening on planet Eden?) are beyond their reach. Those themes, and Lem’s specifically pessimistic take on them, led him to write Spaceship Gothics.

Spaceship Gothic is a genre of incomprehensible forces that roll into people’s lives and leave them reeling. Remember how I mentioned the way planets in space opera work like islands? In SF, subjects and settings often stand in metaphorically for things on different scales. When SF talks about the universe it’s often, on another level, dealing with the world, or just our little part of it. Like the characters in SF stories, we’re surrounded by complex forces and systems–economic, legal, physical, ecological. They run our world. In a human lifetime we can only comprehend a fraction of what there is to know about them. But that doesn’t stop them from affecting our lives. No amount of Heinleinian competence can guarantee we won’t get knocked down by a natural disaster, a recession, a chronic disease, or the side effects of climate change.

(To a certain extent, this could be not only a working-out of anxieties, but also a corrective to traditional space opera, which, at its worst, can have a colonialist streak–its admiration for humanity’s potential has sometimes led to the assumption that space opera heroes have the right to control anything they find.)

The good news is that the universe is vast and there is an infinite amount to learn. This is also the bad news.

Traditional space opera looks into infinity and feels a sense of wonder. Spaceship Gothic is what you get when space opera looks into infinity, feels anxious and creeped out, and decides to hide under some blankets until it goes away.


  1. TV Tropes has a page for “Raygun Gothic,” but they’re talking about something completely different and using the word “gothic” with no reference to what it actually means, the same way geek culture uses the word “punk.”  ↩

  2. For movies aimed at such different audiences, The Black Hole and Event Horizon have weirdly similar gimmicks. How many stories are there where a Spaceship crew find a lost ship near a black hole that turns out to be a gateway to hell?  ↩

  3. A lot of Star Trek and Doctor Who becomes easier to understand when you realize they’re distant cousins to the middle part of The Odyssey; it explains, for instance, why most planets seem to have one major city and why most aliens have a single culture.  ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.

Uh-oh.

A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.


  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

The Uninvited Face

Cover Art

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.

The Premise

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. Continue reading The Uninvited Face

Widdershins, Black Spirits and White

Widdershins by Oliver Onions and Black Spirits and White by Ralph Adams Cram are collections of ghost stories available from Project Gutenberg.


Oliver Onions’s most famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Oliver Onions’s only famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Now that I’ve read Widdershins I think I know why. All writers have wells they go back to but in Widdershins Onions found one he couldn’t leave alone. He gives us “The Beckoning Fair One,” and then every second story is “The Beckoning Fair One” again, only less good.

Onions’s favorite subjects are writers and artists. He likes stories about artists driven to madness by dubious muses. “The Beckoning Fair One” is of course the best of these. The narrator of “Benlian” falls under the spell of a sculptor who is literally putting himself into the creation of an inept statue. The most fearsome side effect of Benlian’s domination is the narrator’s loss of his sense of aesthetics: the longer Benlian controls him, the better the crappy statue looks. In “Io,” to vary things a little, Onions writes about a young non-artist woman driven to madness by the Greek Gods. Her brother seems to have wandered in from the Drones Club. It reads like P. G. Wodehouse wrote a story confusing Keats’s “Endymion” with the Necronomicon.

Onions keeps returning to conflicts between popularity and greatness, which in his mind are incompatible. Genius is abrasive. Artists create popular crap, or see their good work go unrewarded. In “The Beckoning Fair One,” Oleron’s frustration with the latter situation may make him particularly vulnerable to the ghost. In “Hic Jacet” an Arthur Conan Doylishly self-loathing detective novelist struggles with the spirit of a deceased avant-garde colleague, and loses. I wonder whether Onions had nightmares about waking up to find his name in the bestseller list?


Ralph Adams Cram wrote exactly six ghost stories, collected in Black Spirits and White. They range in quality from treacly to terrifying. “Sister Maddalena” is the romantic treacle. “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” and “The Dead Valley” are classics, and “In Kropfsberg Keep” and “The White Villa” are decent. Four out of six isn’t a bad record.

Cram was an architect and looks at everything with an architect’s eye. In one story the narrator solves a mystery by deducing, with his architectural knowledge, that a window should exist in a wall where there is none. Most of Cram’s stories are named after their settings, almost all of which are buildings–“No. 252 Rue M. le Prince,” “The White Villa.” “The Dead Valley” is set in the wilderness, but it’s still about a vividly detailed place. Every one is meticulously imagined–just the decor of No. 252 is enough to keep you up at night.

The people who inhabit these places are sketches. The real central characters are buildings. What’s important to Cram isn’t so much what’s haunting these places–we never learn exactly what’s going on at No. 252, or in the Dead Valley–as the places themselves.