Artist: Lou Rogers

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Who can tell the difference? The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's 1957 story "The Missing Girl" is a perfectly modulated horror comedy of manners.

Martha Alexander walks off into the night from the Phillips Education Camp for Girls Twelve to Sixteen. She is never seen again. And by the end of the story, no one at the camp is sure they ever really saw her to begin with.

Local police chief Captain Hook does the interviewing:

....A careful checkup of Recreational Activity lists showed that while she was listed for dramatics and nature study and swimming, her attendance at any of them was dubious; most of the counselors kept slipshod attendance records, and none of them could remember whether any such girl could have come on any given day.

“I’m almost sure I remember her, though,” Little John, an ardent girl of twenty-seven who wore horn-rimmed glasses and tossed her hair back from her face with a pretty gesture that somehow indicated that winters she wore it decently pinned up, told Chief Hook. “I have an awfully good memory for faces, and I think I remember her as one of Rabbit’s friends and relations. Yes, I’m sure I remember her, I have a good memory for faces.”

“Ah,” said the librarian, who was called Miss Mills when she was secretary to Old Jane, and the Snark when she was in the library, “one girl is much like another, at this age. Their unformed minds, their unformed bodies, their little mistakes; we, too, were young once, Captain Hook.”

“Hell,” said the muscular young woman who was known as Tarzan because she taught swimming, “did you ever look at fifty girls all in white bathing caps?”

“Elm?” said the nature study counselor, whose name was Bluebird. “I mean, wasn’t she an elm girl? Did a nice paper on blight? Or was it the other girl, Michaels? Anyway, whichever one it might have been, it was a nice job. Out of the ordinary for us, you know; remember it particularly. Hadn’t noticed either of the girls to speak of—but if she’s really gone, she might be up on Smoky Trail looking for fern; want the girls to make a special topic of fern and mushroom.” She stopped and blinked, presumably taking in a new supply of chlorophyll. “Fern,” she said. “Pays to know plenty about fern.”

“Few of them have any talent, anyway,” the painting counselor said. “In any of the progressive schools this sort of thing—” She gestured tiredly at the canvases propped up against tree stumps or stacked upon a rock, and moved her shoulders nervously under her brand-new blue and yellow checked shirt. “Interested psychologically, of course,” she added quickly. “If I remember this girl, she did sort of vague stuff, almost unwilling. Rejection, almost—if I can find a picture you’ll see right away what I mean.” She poked unenthusiastically among the canvases stacked on the rock, pulled her hand back and said, “Why did I ever—” wiping wet paint off on her blue jeans. “Funny,” she said, “I could have taken an oath she had a canvas around here somewhere. Sort of vague stuff, though—no sense of design, no eye.”

The story is available in the collection Just an Ordinary Day: Stories

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Whatever cries there...."

A Neighbor’s Landmark by M.R. James

....‘I asked her if she never thought she saw anything to account for the sounds she heard. She told me, no more than once, on the darkest evening she ever came through the Wood; and then she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with the two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast, and at that she ran for the stile, and tore her gown all to flinders getting over it.’

Full story here:

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Late magic: The Children of the Pool and Other Stories by Arthur Machen

....There was one circumstance which I failed to mention, when I consulted the friend who wrote me the letter of advice. I am not sure why I left it out of my story; possibly from a whimsical dislike of making the case too complete, possibly from a feeling, equally whimsical, that it was as well to keep one card at least safe and secret in my own hand.

"Out of Picture"


The Children of the Pool and Other Stories by Arthur Machen

1936: Hutchinson

Tartarus Press edition

This collection of Machen's late career short stories does not stint. Each is richly imagined, complicated, and deftly presented. Like his late novel The Green Round, sniffily dismissed by some, Children of the Pool contains stories as powerful as any he wrote. The fact that most are presented in a collagist's rhetorical format, back-to-front, replete with sideways interjections, makes them all the more arresting. Machen's authorial voice reassures us, and we are always confident the big picture will snap into focus in the end.

"The Exalted Omega" was the hardest story to really grip and hold. Machen lives to employ the high-wire art of coincidence, but here coincidence seems powerless to cement two hemispheres of a tale into a really satisfying unity. 

Still, the portrait of J.F. Mansel, occupant of rooms in London's Gray's Inn, is a compelling depiction of human self-isolation. After his death, Mansel's profound misanthropy still haunts his apartment, and this is succinctly conveyed. The journalist narrator's attempts to rationalize earlier manifestations of the supernatural at a seance underscores the absurdities most armchair skeptics go to (speaking as one myself).

"Children of the Pool" is in a long line of sylvan vacation horror stories that UK writers have always excelled at. It features a compelling evocation of setting. 'There is such a thing as a “sad” landscape, even when we who look at it are feeling jovial; and if we think it is “sad” only because we attribute to it something derived from our own past associations with sadness, Professor Koffka gives us good reason to regard the view as superficial. That is not imputing human attributes to what are described as “demand characters” in the environment, but giving proper recognition to the other end of a nexus, of which only one end is organised in our own mind.'

The success of the story rests on how convincing Machen is at a rational explanation for the uncanny visitations experienced by Mr. Roberts.

"The Bright Boy" is to me a stunning display of Machen's skills as a writer. Who would dream of writing, in the modern world, about a corrupt and criminal man who is what used to be called a "midget"? Yet Machen accomplishes this, and the final revelation fits snugly into place.

Machen's reputation today rests on horror stories, whose titles are too familiar to rehearse here. But the Machen stories which mean the most to me are his works of un-horror, of uncanny human or supernatural goodness. "The Tree of Life" is one of my favorites of this style; I have read it several times in the last few weeks. Machen builds up an unbearably suspenseful atmosphere in both halves of the story, and we are convinced (this is Machen, after all) that the final revelation will be grimly heartbreaking. I won't spoil the actual climax, but encourage you to read the story today.

"Out of the Picture" will please readers who prize Machen's weird horror stories.

Avant-garde painting and psychopathology are here braided perfectly together. "M’Calmont had depicted open spaces in the midst of mysterious woods, narrow valleys edged with grim rocks, paths that wound in and out by lonely lands to shattered walls on a far height, trees of strange growth hanging over a well, glades glooming with twilight and the coming storm. There was an enchantment; but the incantation was of oppression and terror. There were three things that I noticed as curious: the first was that in every picture M’Calmont had introduced fire: logs burning under a broken wall, flames breaking out of yellowish smoke in the forest clearing, a fire by the well, a fire on the far hill-side. Water, also, was represented in each canvas; well, or brook, or pool in the woods; and in every one of them there was the figure of a man, the same man, so far as I could judge. The figure was roughly dressed in the costume of an eighteenth-century countryman, in ragged clothes, with a scarlet cap on his head. He was depicted as tending the invariable fire, perhaps, or leaning on his staff, or half-hidden behind the trunk of a tree, or crouching among thorns on the border of a broken road. As I passed slowly from picture to picture, I noticed that the figure became more prominent. At first, it was barely seen in the background. Then it came forward into the middle distance, and at the end of the tour, the recently painted pictures, as M’Calmont told me, it was prominent in the foreground. In one picture he led a procession of torch-bearers into a wood as the night came on; but mostly he was alone in these desolate places that M’Calmont had made."

"Change" is another vacation horror story, the superb tale of a changeling. Of course with Machen such a bald statement of plot is pointless. The magic is all in his presentation.



12 October 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Mountain Adventure: The curious epilogue to The Green Round by Arthur Machen

The Green Round by Arthur Machen 1933

The Green Round is an unconventional novel. But that is night to dismiss it. I finished it for the first time a week ago, then immediately scrolled back and started from the beginning. I've never done that with a book or a writer before.

At first The Green Round seems to be a supernatural thriller: Mr. Hillyer goes to the Welsh coast for his health. He takes a liking to a spot traditionally referred to as the Green Round. There, to the horror of fellow hotel guests, he picks up a vile companion, which others can see and Hillyer cannot.

So I settled back for what I thought would be a series of Job-like horrors visited upon Mr. Hillyer, who goes fleeing back to London. But this is where Machen begins turning the tables on the reader, not unpleasantly thwarting our preconceived notions about what makes a horror novel. For instance, there is a psychohistorical digression of great interest about a book by a Reverend Hampole called A London Walk: Meditations in the Streets of the Metropolis.

In the end, Mr. Hillyer"s torments could be written off as delusions accompanied by a series of banal and accidental experiences inflicted on his fellow boarding house renters and their landlady, Mrs. Jolly. And a man whose green house now has a hole in it's roof.

Mr. Hillyer, who has lived alone in a room for thirty years in near-complete isolation from humanity, goes into the sponge trade in Aleppo. A far healthier choice than studying "the relation between the legends of the Seven Sleepers class and those that tell of mortals who have dwelt for a while with the Queen of the Fairies; to query the identity of the Fairy Queen with Tannhauser’s Venus, to determine the exact shade of guilt imputed to personages like Thomas of Ercildoune and the British King in the Mapp story."

Even when Hillyer's adventures are over, Machen gives us an essay as his epilogue, detailing what he calls the "lacunae of theory." He defines it as being "our entire ignorance both of the nature and of the laws of the power that for a time at least had its centre in [the Green Round]. We cannot pretend to determine, for instance, why one man was subject to the influence, while another was immune."

Machen gives several other examples of this type of experience: the human encounter with seemingly supernatural events of ultimately banal character, which pitch their experiencers into a carnival of confusion, horror, and disorientation while happening.

Here is the example Machen ends on, and it is fine tale in and of itself:

....the following experience, which appeared in Light — issue of May 23rd, 1931 — which is quoted here, in extenso, by the kind permission of my friend, Mr. David Gow, Advisory Editor of Light. It is entitled “A Mountain Adventure”. “J.C.P.”, the author, is stated to be a woman in a responsible and dignified position. Her story, like the story of the ladies of Versailles, gives me the impression of absolute and scrupulous veracity.

“About the twentieth of July, 1929, while climbing the mountain, Nephin, in the weft of Ireland above Lough Conn, we had the following curious experience.

“The six, who climbed the mountain on one of the clearest of July days, consisted of three women and three men; one of the party — a girl — had an injured knee, and so did not go further than the place at which we stopped for lunch.

“The ascent was started about eleven o’clock. After climbing for an hour, through very heavy heather, we stopped beside a burn for lunch. After lunch we continued up the mountain, the girl with the injured knee going back to the cottage at which we had left the car, to wait for our return. We reached the top of the mountain about a quarter to three, and sat for a while looking at the surrounding country.

“We started down at about three, or a little after, in groups and singly, my husband by himself, F.H., James and myself together, and the other man quite a bit ahead of us. Suddenly F.H. turned away, and vanished over the shoulder of the mountain. Little was said, for she often took her own way down the various mountains we climbed during the summer. James and I continued our way for a while, then turned to each other and said: ‘Something has happened to F.H.!’ We felt so sure of this that we called to the other two men, who returned. We agreed that they should go back to the mountain to where she was last seen, and search for her, while I should continue down and meet them at the cottage.

“Now this I did not know till afterwards, but F.H. does not know, cannot possibly imagine, what happened to her. She can only say that it was as though she had lapsed into complete unconsciousness, and all the while thought she was walking beside us. She was in reality walking straight away from us. She does not know what it was that ‘took’ her suddenly; she said it was as though there were no Time for a moment, and some strange force were pulling her away. Then she realised that we were not there, and heard the crying of voices. She went in the direction of the sound, thinking she would find someone; on crossing a ravine the voices were still audible, and she heard someone blowing a horn, but no one was in sight. Then she thought she saw a small person beyond and below her, possibly a child; she went down towards it, but on crossing another ravine, found no one, though the voices still continued. After this she realised she was lost, and headed for the white roadway below her, and walked about eight miles to a police-barracks, where we later found her.

“Now, when I left the men I went down the mountain. When I was half-way down I decided to look for F.H. on my lower level. I walked along, falling twice up to my waist into caves that were hidden beneath the heather. Presently I sat down and had no sooner done that than I heard crying behind me — a funny kind of crying, like a child that was lost — very distinctly. Looking around I saw, a long distance above me, someone I took to be James, waving. I waved back, got up, crossed a couple of hillocks, and looked for James again. No one was there. I sat down again, and was admiring the view when, directly behind me, someone laughed. Looking around I saw no one for a moment; then above me in almost the same place, I thought I saw James again.

“Getting up once more, I went straight up the mountain in his direction. In crossing a small burn I lost sight of him, and when I came out of the stream-bed I found no one. After this I went down the mountain to the cottage, expecting to find the girl with the injured knee there, but the cottage people told me she had not been there all the afternoon. Presently she came in, very angry, saying that early in the afternoon I had come down the mountain and waved to her, but had not waited for her to come up. (She had not gone up very far as she stumbled into a bog, and found the walking too hard.) Obviously I had not done any such thing.

“By 7.30 p in the men came back, exhausted, and without F.H. James had a curious story.. Twice he had seen, out of the tail of his eye, a club coming down on him. So strong had been the impression that he had jumped considerable distances down the mountain on each occasion. We were very worried by this time about F.H.’s disappearance. I asked the man of the cottage what there was to fall into on the mountain.

“‘Quarries?’ I suggested.

“‘Nothing,’ he said.

“‘Children on the mountain?’ I asked.

“‘No, they’re in school,’ he said.

“‘What about the Little People?’

“He became very severe, and turned to go out, saying:

“‘We do not talk about that.’

“We now took the car to search along the roads at the foot of the mountain, and so came upon F.H. at the police station.”



10 October 2017

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Bridegroom and the Bride: Change by Arthur Machen

There was one thing called “The Lesson”—heaven pity me, that I ever saw it! Listen—can you fancy a squatting circle of nameless dog-like things in a churchyard teaching a small child how to feed like themselves? The price of a changeling, I suppose—you know the old myth about how the weird people leave their spawn in cradles in exchange for the human babes they steal. Pickman was shewing what happens to those stolen babes—how they grow up—and then I began to see a hideous relationship in the faces of the human and non-human figures. He was, in all his gradations of morbidity between the frankly non-human and the degradedly human, establishing a sardonic linkage and evolution. The dog-things were developed from mortals!

     And no sooner had I wondered what he made of their own young as left with mankind in the form of changelings, than my eye caught a picture embodying that very thought. It was that of an ancient Puritan interior—a heavily beamed room with lattice windows, a settle, and clumsy seventeenth-century furniture, with the family sitting about while the father read from the Scriptures. Every face but one shewed nobility and reverence, but that one reflected the mockery of the pit. It was that of a young man in years, and no doubt belonged to a supposed son of that pious father, but in essence it was the kin of the unclean things. It was their changeling—and in a spirit of supreme irony Pickman had given the features a very perceptible resemblance to his own.

"Pickman's Model" by H.P. Lovecraft


An excerpt from Arthur Machen's 1936 short story "Change," included in the collection I am currently reading: The Children of the Pool and Other Stories (1936).

"Change" is a strange story indeed, and takes place in Western Wales.


....It all came to a dreadful end. One morning when I had come out on my usual morning stroll from Porth, and had got to the camping ground of the party at the edge of the dunes, I found somewhat to my surprise that there was nobody there. I was afraid that Brown had been in part justified in his dread of concealed epidemics, and that some of the children had “caught something” in the village. So I walked up in the direction of Govan Terrace, and found Brown standing at the bottom of his flight of steps, and looking very much upset.

I hailed him.

“I say,” I began, “I hope you weren’t right, after all. None of the children down with measles, or anything of that sort?”

“It’s something worse than measles. We none of us know what has happened. The doctor can make nothing of it. Come in, and we can talk it over.”

Just then a procession came down the steps leading from a house a few doors further on. First of all there was the porter from the station, with a pile of luggage on his truck. Then came the two elder Smith children, Jack and Millicent, and finally, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith was carrying something wrapped in a bundle in his arms.

“Where’s Bob?” He was the youngest; a brave, rosy little man of five or six.

“Smith’s carrying him,” murmured Brown.

“What’s happened? Has he hurt himself on the rocks? I hope it’s nothing serious.”

I was going forward to make my enquiries, but Brown put a hand on my arm and checked me. Then I looked at the Smith party more closely, and I saw at once that there was something very much amiss. The two elder children had been crying, though the boy was doing his best to put up a brave face against disaster—whatever it was. Mrs. Smith had drawn her veil over her face, and stumbled as she walked, and on Smith’s face there was a horror as of ill dreams.

“Look,” said Brown in his low voice.

Smith had half-turned, as he set out with his burden to walk down the hill to the station. I don’t think he knew we were there; I don’t think any of the party had noticed us as we stood on the bottom step, half-hidden by a blossoming shrub. But as he turned uncertainly, like a man in the dark, the wrappings fell away a little from what he carried, and I saw a little wizened, yellow face peering out; malignant, deplorable.

I turned helplessly to Brown, as that most wretched procession went on its way and vanished out of sight.

“What on earth has happened? That’s not Bobby. Who is it?”

“Come into the house,” said Brown, and he went before me up the long flight of steps that led to the terrace....

....“Yesterday at lunch they were talking about some caves at a place called the Darren, about two miles away. My children seemed very anxious to see them, and Mrs. Probert, our landlady, said they were quite safe, so the Smiths and Robinsons were called in, and they were enthusiastic, too; and the whole party set off with their tea-baskets, and candles and matches, in Miss Hayes’s charge. Somehow they made a later start than usual, and from what I can make out they enjoyed themselves so much in the cool dark cave, first of all exploring, and then looking for treasure, and winding up with tea by candlelight, that they didn’t notice how the time was going—nobody had a watch—and by the time they’d packed up their traps and come out from underground, it was quite dark. They had a little trouble making out the way at first, but not very much, and came along in high spirits, tumbling over molehills and each other, and finding it all quite an adventure.

“They had got down in the road there, and were sorting themselves out into the three parties, when somebody called out: ‘Where’s Bobby Smith?’ Well, he wasn’t there. The usual story; everybody thought he was with somebody else. They were all mixed up in the dark, talking and laughing and shrieking at the top of their voices, and taking everything for granted—I suppose it was like that. But poor little Bob was missing. You can guess what a scene there was. Everybody was much too frightened to scold Miss Hayes, who had no doubt been extremely careless, to say the least of it—not like her. Robinson pulled us together. He told Mrs. Smith that the little chap would be perfectly all right: there were no precipices to fall over and no water to fall into, the way they’d been, that it was a warm night, and the child had had a good stuffing tea, and he would be as right as rain when they found him. So we got a man from the farm, with a lantern, and Miss Hayes to show us exactly where they’d been, and Smith and Robinson and I went off to find poor Bobby, feeling a good deal better than at first. I noticed that the farm man seemed a good deal put out when we told him what had happened and where we were going. ‘Got lost in the Darren,’ he said, ‘indeed, that is a pity.’ That set Smith off at once; and he asked Williams what he meant; what was the matter with the place? Williams said there was nothing the matter with it at all whatever but it was ‘a tiresome place to be in after dark.’ That reminded me of what you were saying a couple of weeks ago about the people here. ‘Some damned superstitious nonsense,’ I said to myself, and thanked God it was nothing worse. I thought the fellow might be going to tell us of a masked bog or something like that. I gave Smith a hint in a whisper as to where the land lay; and we went on, hoping to come on little Bob any minute. Nearly all the way we were going through open fields without any cover or bracken or anything of that sort, and Williams kept twirling his lantern, and Miss Hayes and the rest of us called out the child’s name; there didn’t seem much chance of missing him.

“However, we saw nothing of him—till we got to the Darren. It’s an odd sort of place, I should think. You’re in an ordinary field, with a gentle upward slope, and you come to a gate, and down you go into a deep, narrow valley; a regular nest of valleys as far as I could make out in the dark, one leading into another, and the sides covered with trees. The famous caves were on one of these steep slopes, and, of course, we all went in. They didn’t stretch far; nobody could have got lost in them, even if the candles gave out. We searched the place thoroughly, and saw where the children had had their tea: no signs of Bobby. So we went on down the valley between the woods, till we came to where it opens out into a wide space, with one tree growing all alone in the middle. And then we heard a miserable whining noise, like some little creature that’s got hurt. And there under the tree was—what you saw poor Smith carrying in his arms this morning.

“It fought like a wild cat when Smith tried to pick it up, and jabbered some unearthly sort of gibberish. Then Miss Hayes came along and seemed to soothe it; and it’s been quiet ever since. The man with the lantern was shaking with terror; the sweat was pouring down his face.”

I stared hard at Brown. “And,” I thought to myself, “you are very much in the same condition as Williams.”

Brown was obviously overcome with dread. We sat there in silence.

“Why do you say ‘it’?” I asked. “Why don’t you say ‘him’?”

“You saw.”

“Do you mean to tell me seriously that you don’t believe that child you helped to bring home was Bobby? What does Mrs. Smith say?”

“She says the clothes are the same. I suppose it must be Bobby. The doctor from Porth says the child must have had a severe shock. I don’t think he knows anything about it.”

He stuttered over his words, and said at last: “I was thinking of what you said about the lighted windows. I hoped you might be able to help. Can you do anything? We are leaving this afternoon; all of us. Is there nothing to be done?”

“I am afraid not.”

I had nothing else to say. We shook hands and parted without more words.

The next day I walked over to the Darren. There was something fearful about the place, even in the haze of a golden afternoon. As Brown had said, the entrance and the disclosure of it were sudden and abrupt. The fields of the approach held no hint of what was to come. Then, past the gate, the ground fell violently away on every side, grey rocks of an ill shape pierced through it, and the ash trees on the steep slopes overshadowed all. The descent was into silence, without the singing of a bird, into a wizard shade. At the farther end, where the wooded heights retreated somewhat, there was the open space, or circus, of turf; and in the middle of it a very ancient, twisted thorn tree, beneath which the party in the dark had found the little creature that whined and cried out in unknown speech. I turned about, and on my way back I entered the caves, and lit the carriage candle I had brought with me. There was nothing much to see—I never think there is much to see in caves. There was the place where the children and others before them had taken their tea, with a ring of blackened stones within which many fires and twigs had been kindled. In caves or out of caves, townsfolk in the country are always alike in leaving untidy and unseemly litter behind; and here were the usual scraps of greasy paper, daubed with smears of jam and butter, the half-eaten sandwich, and the gnawed crust. Amidst all this nastiness I saw a piece of folded notepaper, and in sheer idleness picked it up and opened it. You have just seen it. When I asked you if you saw anything peculiar about the writing, you said that the letters were rather big and clumsy. The reason of that is that they were written by a child. I don’t think you examined the back of the second leaf. Look: “Rosamund”—Rosamund Brown, that is. And beneath; there, in the corner.

Reynolds looked, and read, and gaped aghast.

“That was—her other name; her name in the dark.”

“Name in the dark?”

“In the dark night of the Sabbath. That pretty girl had caught them all. They were in her hands, those wretched children, like the clay images she made. I found one of those things, hidden in a cleft of the rocks, near the place where they had made their fire. I ground it into dust beneath my feet.”

“And I wonder what her name was?”

“They called her, I think, the Bridegroom and the Bride.”....


The full story can be read here:

Friday, October 6, 2017

The net of language: Notes on Holy Terrors by Arthur Machen

Holy Terrors by Arthur Machen


The Bright Boy (1936)

"The Bright Boy" is a strange crime/mystery story, though the protagonist only realizes it late in life, long after the events. 

At first we assume we are reading a tale about a valiant tutor (a bright boy himself) preparing to rescue a gifted child from dangerous and morally corrupted parents. But then the tutor deserts his post, like Bertie Wooster running for the pre-dawn milk train after Bobbie Wickham has made things too hot for him at a country house.

This double-axis of the "The Bright Boy," the prospect-retrospect framing, strongly underscore Machen's profound strength as plotter and organizer of what could be, in other hands, only a pot-boiler in bad taste.

The Tree of Life (1936)

As with "The Bright Boy," "The Tree of Life" gives us the illusionist's trick, then reveals the secret. Both portions of the story are perfectly pitched. "The Tree of Life" is a powerful story of goodness, much as "The Bright Boy" is a mystery revealed as abominable crime.

Opening the Door (1931)

Here we are back in the world of Machen's reporter narrator in the 1916 novel The Terror: a man with a curiosity for out-of-the-way enigmas. He relates a few minor ones before the main course: the tale of a Celt scholar timeslipped and retuned out of synch with our mundane world after using the door in his garden wall. (Today we would call such a man an "experiencer.")

The Marriage of Panurge (1922)

Pantagruel's factotum Panurge weds, and weds badly. His new spouse forces upon him chastity and sobriety. Can he break free?

Machen might have been a High Church hater of everything that came after Luther's 95 Theses, but he was no teetotal schoolmarm, and Panurge is a wonderful rascal.

The Holy Things (1924)

Cacophony of a city street in broad daylight is transformed, each bit of noise joining in unity to form a song of praise. A morose artist's changed perceptions alter his mood and his day.

Psychology (1897)

"....we lead two lives, and the half of our soul is madness, and half heaven is lit by a black sun. I say I am a man, but who is the other that hides in me?"

The Turanians (1924)

A brief, but not a slight, anecdote. A teenage girl stalks the forrest camp of a band of itinerant tinkers. "They were people of curious aspect, short and squat, high-cheek-boned, with dingy yellow skin and long almond eyes; only in one or two of the younger men there was a suggestion of a wild, almost faun-like grace, as of creatures who always moved between the red fire and the green leaf."

The Rose Garden (1908)

Another young woman liberated by her intersection with sylvan ecstasy. "Herself was annihilated; at his bidding she had destroyed all her old feelings, and emotions, her likes and dislikes, all the inherited loves and hates that her father and mother had given her; the old life had been thrown utterly away."

The Ceremony (1897)

A young woman performs "the immemorial rite" at a stone in the forrest.

The Soldiers' Rest (1914)

One of Machen's war fantasies. It achieves greater emotional resonance than "The Bowmen." very moving, and skilfully told in sharp, telegraphed style.

The Happy Children (1920)

A too-too-much contribution to Hun war atrocity stories interwoven with Machen's evocation of Whitby's topography.

The Cosy Room (1929)

A killer suffers the torments of the damned trying to outwit the law.

Munitions of War (1926)

A naval companion piece to "The Bow-Men."

The Great Return (1915)

"The Great Return" is an incredibly ambitious story. It is un-horror, and no less moving for that.

The action is presented in a "reporter's notebook" format. The narrator is piecing together disparate events in a localized portion of the Welsh coast. Considered individually, each event is startling and uncanny; when pieced together and placed within the region's history, they are life-altering.

Along with A Fragment of Life,  I would place "The Great Return" at the top of any list of Machen story recommendations.


6 October 2017

A note on The Tugging by Ramsey Campbell

A few underlinings made a year ago while reading Ramsey Campbell's "The Tugging" in The Disciples of Cthulhu.


The Tugging by Ramsey Campbell

“I used to dream a lot when I was young,” he said. “Not your average childhood dream, if there is such a thing. There was one I remember, about these enormous clouds of matter floating in outer space, forming very slowly into something. I mean very slowly … I woke up long before they got there, yet while I was dreaming I knew whatever it was would have a face, and that made me very anxious to wake up....

....some people are sensitive to the full moon, that’s well enough documented. And I always used to begin by dreaming I could see the full moon over the sea, way out in the middle of the ocean. I could see the reflection resting on the water, and after a while I’d always find myself thinking it wasn’t the moon at all but a great pale face peering up out of the ocean....

....The next moment an island rose out of the ocean with a roaring like a waterfall, louder than that, louder than anything I’ve ever heard while trembling. The next moment an island rose out of the ocean with a roaring like a waterfall, louder than that, louder than anything I’ve ever heard while awake; I could actually feel my ears bursting. There was a city on the island, all huge greenish blocks with sea and seaweed pouring off them. And the mud was boiling with stranded creatures, panting and bursting. Right in front of me and above me and below me there was a door. Mud was trickling down from it, and I knew that the great pale face I was terrified of was behind the door, getting ready to come out, opening its eyes in the dark. I woke up then, and that was the end of the dreams....

....He sagged on the bed and was asleep at once.

The darkness drew him out, coaxing him forward, swimming softly through his eyes. A great silent darkness surrounded him....

....He found that part of his mind had fastened telescopically on details of the worlds he’d passed: cities of globes acrawl with black winged insects; mountains carved or otherwise formed into heads within whose hollow sockets worshippers squirmed; a sea from whose depths rose a jointed arm, reaching miles inland with a filmy web of skin to net itself food. One tiny world in particular seemed to teem with life that was aware of him.

Deep in one of its seas a city slept, and he shared the dreams of its sleepers: of an infancy spent in a vast almost lightless cave, tended by a thin rustling shape so tall its head was lost to sight; of flight to this minute but fecund planet; of dancing hugely and clumsily beneath the light of a fragment they’d torn free of this world and flung into space; of dormancy in the submarine basalt tombs. Dormant, they waited and shared the lives of other similar beings active on the surface; for a moment he was the inhabitant of a black city deserted by its builders, coming alert and groping lazily forth as a pale grub fled along a path between the buildings.

....LSD CAUSES ATTEMPTED SUICIDE, said the cutting. American student claims that in LSD “vision” he was told that the planet now passing through our solar system heralded the rising of Atlantis. Threw himself from second-storey window. Insists that the rising of Atlantis means the end of humanity....

Monday, October 2, 2017

Really very quiet: Crouch End by Stephen King

'Crouch End — I think that's an ugly name.'

....It's like a nightmare you want to forget .as soon as you wake up, but it won't fade away like most dreams do; it just stays and stays and stays.'

....‘Well, this fellow Lovecraft was always writing about Dimensions,’ Vetter said, producing his box of railway matches. ‘Dimensions close to ours. Full of these immortal monsters that would drive a man mad at one look. Frightful rubbish, of course. Except, whenever one of these people straggles in, I wonder if all of it was rubbish. I think to myself then – when it’s quiet and late at night, like now – that our whole world, everything we think of as nice and normal and sane, might be like a big leather ball filled with air. Only in some places, the leather’s scuffed almost down to nothing. Places where the barriers are thinner. Do you get me?’

....And when she looked at them, it was a child's look — simple, exhausted, appealing . . . and at bay, somehow. It was as if whatever had happened had somehow shocked her young....

....He seemed unaware. He walked out on the other side — she saw him for just one moment silhouetted, tall and lanky, against the bloody, furious colors of the sunset, and then he was gone.

....The stars were out, but they were not her stars, the ones she had wished on as a girl or courted under as a young woman, these were crazed stars in lunatic constellations, and her hands went to her ears and her hands did not shut out the sounds and finally she screamed at them: 'Where's my husband? Where's Lonnie? What have you done to him?'

....And in Crouch End, which is really a quiet suburb of London, strange things still happen from time to time, and people have been known to lose their way. Some of them lose it forever.

Friday, September 29, 2017

A double disaster: The Double Return by Arthur Machen

"The Double Return" by Arthur Machen 1890

Machen's use of ellipses and his contravention of the Jamesian unities of point of view make this story really starting and exciting. It starts out suggesting stalking, then doppleganger, then...?

A few excerpts:

....Halswell looked at his watch again and drummed his heels against the floor, wondering impatiently when they would be at Paddington, when, with a sudden whirl, a down train swept by them and the western express once more moved on. Halswell rubbed his eyes; he had looked up as the down train passed, and in one of the carriages he thought he had seen his own face. It was only for a second, and he could not be sure. “It must have been a reflection,” he kept on saying, “from the glass of one window to the other. Still, I fancied I saw a black coat, and mine is light. But of course it was a reflection.”

....Frank (he was a very popular artist in those days—a rising man, indeed) had been on a sketching tour in Devon and Cornwall: he had wandered along the deep sheltered lanes from hill to hill, by the orchards already red and gold, by moorland and lowland, by the rocky coast and combes sinking down to the wondrous sea. 

On the Cornish roads he had seen those many ancient crosses, with their weird interlacing carving, which sometimes stand upon a mound and mark where two ways meet; and as he put his portfolio beside him he could not help feeling a glow of pride at its contents. “I fancy I shall make a pretty good show by next spring,” he thought, Poor fellow! He was never to paint another picture; but he did not know it. Then, as the hansom verged westward, gliding with its ringing bells past the great mansions facing the park, Halswell’s thoughts went back to the hotel at Plymouth and the acquaintance he had made there. “Yes; Kerr was an amusing fellow,” he thought; “glad I gave him my card. Louie is sure to get on with him. Curious thing, too, he was wonderfully like me, if he had been only clean shaven and not ‘bearded like the pard,’ Dare say we shall see him before long; he said he was going to pay a short visit to London. I fancy he must be an actor; I never saw such a fellow to imitate a man’s voice and gestures. I wonder what made him go off in such a hurry yesterday. Hullo! Here we are; hi, cabman! There’s 153.”

Full story here:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The matter is of little consequence, the manner is everything: The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen

The Three Impostors by Arthur Machen (1895)

Arthur Machen's 1895 novel The Three Imposters is a stunning accomplishment for a thirty-two year old writer. It is subtitled "The Transformations," and the serpentine and effortlessly folded plot certainly demands transformations in the reader's attention. 

Characters encountered by Mr. Dyson and Mr. Phillipps move through a variety to disguises and masks to conceal their goal: reclaiming a valuable Roman coin. They tell our protagonists strange and often terrifying stories, one of the richest subterfuges in any work of modern fiction I can recall.

The Three Imposters is a hymn to the changing landscape of London and it's suburbs.  Dyson and Phillipps walk the city and outlying districts obsessively, changing course like dowsers.

It is also a celebration of coincidence. Indeed, the first and last chapters hang upon Machen's commanding use of absurd synchronicity.

The three imposters tell five magical and nightmarish stories:

Novel of the Dark Valley
Novel of the Black Seal
Novel of the Iron Maid
Novel of the White Powder
History of the Young Man with Spectacles

These self-contained bijou novels are false confections, but they are also great works of fiction. None are supernatural, but all contribute to building up an uncanny atmosphere.

The Three Imposters is not a detective story. There is no detecting beyond leveraging coincidence. It all succeeds on Machen's sublime skill as a writer:

....Dyson had persuaded the ingenious Mr. Phillipps to accompany him on one of those aimless walks to which he was himself so addicted. Starting from the very heart of London, they had made their way westward through the stony avenues, and were now just emerging from the red lines of an extreme suburb, and presently the half-finished road ended, a quiet lane began, and they were beneath the shade of elm-trees. The yellow autumn sunlight that had lit up the bare distance of the suburban street now filtered down through the boughs of the trees and shone on the glowing carpet of fallen leaves, and the pools of rain glittered and shot back the gleam of light. Over all the broad pastures there was peace and the happy rest of autumn before the great winds begin, and afar off, London lay all vague and immense amidst the veiling mist; here and there a distant window catching the sun and kindling with fire, and a spire gleaming high, and below the streets in shadow, and the turmoil of life. Dyson and Phillipps walked on in silence beneath the high hedges, till at a turn of the lane they saw a mouldering and ancient gate standing open, and the prospect of a house at the end of a moss-grown carriage drive.

“There is a survival for you,” said Dyson; “it has come to its last days, I imagine. Look how the laurels have grown gaunt, and weedy, and black, and bare, beneath; look at the house, covered with yellow wash and patched with green damp. Why, the very notice-board which informs all and singular that the place is to be let has cracked and half fallen.”

“Suppose we go in and see it,” said Phillipps. “I don’t think there is anybody about.”

They turned up the drive, and walked slowly, towards this remnant of old days. It was a large straggling house, with curved wings at either end, and behind a series of irregular roofs and projections, showing that the place had been added to at divers dates; the two wings were roofed in cupola fashion, and at one side, as they came nearer, they could see a stable-yard, and a clock turret with a bell, and the dark masses of gloomy cedars. Amidst all the lineaments of dissolution, there was but one note of contrast: the sun was setting beyond the elm-trees, and all the west and the south were in flames, and on the upper windows of the house the glow shone reflected, and it seemed as if blood and fire were mingled. Before the yellow front of the mansion, stained, as Dyson had remarked, with gangrenous patches, green and blackening, stretched what once had been, no doubt, a well-kept lawn, but it was now rough and ragged, and nettles and great docks, and all manner of coarse weeds, struggled in the places of the flower-beds. The urns had fallen from their pillars beside the walk, and lay broken in shards upon the ground, and everywhere from grass-plot and path a fungoid growth had sprung up and multiplied, and lay dank and slimy like a festering sore upon the earth. In the middle of the rank grass of the lawn was a desolate fountain; the rim of the basin was crumbling and pulverized with decay, and within, the water stood stagnant, with green scum for the lilies that had once bloomed there; and rust had eaten into the bronze flesh of the Triton that stood in the middle, and the conch-shell he held was broken.

“Here,” said Dyson, “one might moralize over decay and death. Here all the stage is decked out with the symbols of dissolution; the cedarn gloom and twilight hangs heavy around us, and everywhere within the pale dankness has found a harbor, and the very air is changed and brought to accord with the scene. To me, I confess, this deserted house is as moral as a graveyard, and I find something sublime in that lonely Triton, deserted in the midst of his water-pool. He is the last of the gods; they have left him and he remembers the sound of water falling on water, and the days that were sweet.”

“I like your reflections extremely,” said Phillipps, “but I may mention that the door of the house is open.”.

“Let us go in then.”

The door was just ajar, and they passed into the mouldy hall, and looked in at a room on one side. It was a large room, going far back, and the rich old red flock paper was peeling from the walls in long strips, and blackened with vague patches of rising damp; the ancient clay, the dank reeking earth rising up again, and subduing all the work of men’s hands after the conquest of many years. And the floor was thick with the dust of decay, and the painted ceiling fading from all gay colors and light fancies of cupids in a career, and disfigured with sores of dampness, seemed transmuted into other work. No longer the amorini chased one another pleasantly, with limbs that sought not to advance, and hands that merely simulated the act of grasping at the wreathed flowers, but it appeared some savage burlesque of the old careless world and of its cherished conventions, and the dance of the loves had become a dance of Death; black pustules and festering sores swelled and clustered on fair limbs, and smiling faces showed corruption, and the fairy blood had boiled with the germs of foul disease; it was a parable of the leaven working, and worms devouring for a banquet the heart of the rose.

Strangely, under the painted ceiling, against the decaying walls, two old chairs still stood alone, the sole furniture of the empty place. High-backed, with curving arms and twisted legs, covered with faded gold leaf, and upholstered in tattered damask, they too were a part of the symbolism, and struck Dyson with surprise. “What have we here?” he said. “Who has sat in these chairs? Who, clad in peach-bloom satin, with lace ruffles and diamond buckles, all golden, a conté fleurettes to his companion? Phillipps, we are in another age. I wish I had some snuff to offer you, but failing that, I beg to offer you a seat, and we will sit and smoke tobacco. A horrid practice, but I am no pedant.”

They sat down on the queer old chairs, and looked out of the dim and grimy panes to the ruined lawn, and the fallen urns, and the deserted Triton.

Presently Dyson ceased his imitation of eighteenth century airs; he no longer pulled forward imaginary ruffles, or tapped a ghostly snuff-box.

“It’s a foolish fancy,” he said at last, “but I keep thinking I hear a noise like some one groaning. Listen; no, I can’t hear it now. There it is again! Did you notice it, Phillipps?

“No, I can’t say I heard anything. But I believe that old places like this are like shells from the shore, ever echoing with noises. The old beams, mouldering piecemeal, yield a little and groan, and such a house as this I can fancy all resonant at night with voices, the voices of matter so slowly and so surely transformed into other shapes; the voice of the worm that gnaws at last the very heart of the oak; the voice of stone grinding on stone, and the voice of the conquest of time.”

They sat still in the old armchairs and grew graver in the musty ancient air — the air of a hundred years ago.

“I don’t like the place,” said Phillipps, after a long pause. “To me it seems, as if there were a sickly, unwholesome smell about it, a smell of something burning.”

“You are right; there is an evil odor here. I wonder what it is! Hark! Did you hear that?”

A hollow sound, a noise of infinite sadness and infinite pain broke in upon the silence; and the two men looked fearfully at one another, horror and the sense of unknown things glimmering in their eyes.

“Come,” said Dyson, “we must see into this,” and they went into the hall and listened in the silence....


28 September 2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The lonesome death of Charlie Rhodes: Salem's Lot by Stephen King

A favorite scene from Stephen King's 1975 novel Salem's Lot. The demise of smalltown Maine school bus driver Charlie Rhodes.


   In the Lot the dark held hard.

    At ten minutes to twelve, Charlie Rhodes was awakened by a long, steady honking. He came awake in his bed and sat bolt upright.

    His bus!

    And on the heels of that:

    The little bastards! The children had tried things like this before. He knew them, the miserable little sneaks. They had let the air out of his tires with matchsticks once. He hadn’t seen who did it, but he had a damned good idea. He had gone to that damned wet-ass principal and reported Mike Philbrook and Audie James. He had known it was them-who had to see?

    Are you sure it was them, Rhodes?

    I told you, didn’t I?

    And there was nothing that fucking Mollycoddle could do; he had to suspend them. Then the bastard had called him to the office a week later.

    Rhodes, we suspended Andy Garvey today.

    Yeah? Not surprised. What was he up to?

    Bob Thomas caught him letting the air out of his bus tires. And he had given Charlie Rhodes a long, cold, measuring look.

    Well, so what if it had been Garvey instead of Philbrook and James? They all hung around together, they were all creeps, they all deserved to have their nuts in the grinder.

    Now, from outside, the maddening sound of his horn, running down the battery, really laying on it:


    ‘You sons of whores,’ he whispered, and slid out of bed. He dragged his pants on without using the light. The light would scare the little scumbags away, and he didn’t want that.

    Another time, someone had left a cow pie on his driver’s seat, and he had a pretty good idea of who had done that, too. You could read it in their eyes. He had learned that standing guard at the repple depple in the war. He had taken care of the cow-pie business in his own way. Kicked the little son of a whore off the bus three days’ running, four miles from home. The kid finally came to him crying.

    I ain’t done nothin’, Mr Rhodes. Why you keep kickin’ me off.?

    You call puttin’ a cow flop on my seat nothin’?

    No, that wasn’t me. Honest to God it wasn’t.

    Well, you had to hand it to them. They could lie to their own mothers with a clear and smiling face, and they probably did it, too. He had kicked the kid off two more nights and then he had confessed, by the Jesus. Charlie kicked him off once more-one to grow on, you might say-and then Dave Felsen down at the motor pool told him he better cool it for a while.


    He grabbed his shirt and then got the old tennis racket standing in the corner. By Christ, he was going to whip some ass tonight!

    He went out the back door and around the house to where he kept the big yellow bus parked. He felt tough and coldly competent. This was infiltration, just like the Army.

    He paused behind the oleander bush and looked at the bus. Yes, he could see them, a whole bunch of them, darker shapes behind the night-darkened glass. He felt the old red rage, the hate of them like hot ice, and his grip on the tennis racket tightened until it trembled in his hand like a tuning fork. They had busted out-six, seven, eight-eight windows on his bus!

    He slipped behind it and then crept up the long yellow side to the passenger door. It was folded open. He tensed, and suddenly sprang up the steps.

    ‘All right! Stay where you are! Kid, lay off that goddamn horn or I’ll-’

    The kid sitting in the driver’s seat with both hands plastered on the horn ring turned to him and smiled crazily. Charlie felt a sickening drop in his gut. It was Richie Boddin. He was white-just as white as a sheet-except for the black chips of coal that were his eyes, and his lips, which were ruby red.

    And his teeth -

    Charlie Rhodes looked down the aisle.

    Was that Mike Philbrook? Audie James? God Almighty, the Griffen boys were down there! Hal and Jack, sitting near the back with hay in their hair. But they don’t ride on my bus! Mary Kate Greigson and Brent Tenney, sitting side by side. She was in a nightgown, he in blue jeans and a flannel shirt that was on backward and inside out, as if he had forgotten how to dress himself.

    And Danny Glick. But-oh, Christ-he was dead; dead for weeks!

    ‘You,’ he said through numb lips. ‘You kids-’

    The tennis racket slid from his hand. There was a wheeze and a thump as Richie Boddin, still smiling that crazy smile, worked the chrome lever that shut the folding door. They were getting out of their seats now, all of them.

    ‘No,’ he said, trying to smile. ‘You kids… you don’t understand. It’s me. It’s Charlie Rhodes. You… you…’ He grinned at them without meaning, shook his head, held out his hands to show them they were just ole Charlie Rhodes’s hands, blameless, and backed up until his back was jammed against the wide tinted glass of the windshield.

    ‘Don’t,’ he whispered.

    They came on, grinning. ‘Please don’t.’

    And fell on him.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Two lines converging: The Red Hand by Arthur Machen

Machen wrote "The Red Hand" in 1895. It features Dyson and Phillipps, whom Machen features as pseudo-detectives in several stories.

In "The Red Hand" they unravel the murder (or sacrifice, as Dyson prefers to call it) of eminent medico Sir Thomas Vivian. Dyson uncovers the truth and finds his man with patience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the byways of London.

The plot itself, if organized chronologically, bears the hallmarks of an uncanny ritual. Even coincidence appears lawful.

"The Red Hand" also recalls stories by Stevenson and Conan Doyle about men conspiring together to find a lost treasure hoard.

This being Machen, the modern world rests upon an older one thought extinct, but actually just unnoticed, and in that world lies the treasure.

The man Dyson seeks, Mr. Selby, comes to tell his story:

‘Your conclusions are admirable,’ said Mr. Selby. ‘I may tell you that I had my stroll down Oxford Street the night Sir Thomas Vivian died. And I think that is all I have to say.’

‘Scarcely,’ said Dyson. ‘How about the treasure?’

‘I had rather we did not speak of that,’ said Mr. Selby, with a whitening of the skin about the temples.

‘Oh, nonsense, sir, we are not blackmailers. Besides, you know you are in our power.’

‘Then, as you put it like that, Mr. Dyson, I must tell you I returned to the place. I went on a little farther than before.’

The man stopped short; his mouth began to twitch, his lips moved apart, and he drew in quick breaths, sobbing.

‘Well, well,’ said Dyson, ‘I dare say you have done comfortably.’

‘Comfortably,’ Selby went on, constraining himself with an effort, ‘yes, so comfortably that hell burns hot within me for ever. I only brought one thing away from that awful house within the hills; it was lying just beyond the spot where I found the flint knife.’

‘Why did you not bring more?’

The whole bodily frame of the wretched man visibly shrank and wasted; his face grew yellow as tallow, and the sweat dropped from his brows. The spectacle was both revolting and terrible, and when the voice came it sounded like the hissing of a snake.

‘Because the keepers are still there, and I saw them, and because of this,’ and he pulled out a small piece of curious gold-work and held it up.

‘There,’ he said, ‘that is the Pain of the Goat.’

Phillipps and Dyson cried out together in horror at the revolting obscenity of the thing.

‘Put it away, man; hide it, for Heaven’s sake, hide it!’....

A light touch: The Stoneground Ghost Tales by E.G. Swain

A marvellous moment from E.G. Swain's collection:

....he heard the clocks strike the hour of midnight, and having now lost all hope of falling asleep, he rose from his bed, got into a large dressing gown which hung in readiness for such occasions, and passed into the library, with the intention of reading himself sleepy, if he could.

The moon, by this time, had passed out of the south, and the library seemed all the darker by contrast with the moonlit chamber he had left. He could see nothing but two blue-grey rectangles formed by the windows against the sky, the furniture of the room being altogether invisible. Groping along to where the table stood, Mr Batchel felt over its surface for the matches which usually lay there; he found, however, that the table was cleared of everything. He raised his right hand, therefore, in order to feel his way to a shelf where the matches were sometimes mislaid, and at that moment, whilst his hand was in mid-air, the matchbox was gently put into it!

The full collection is here:

Spain, fascism, political atavism: The Croquet Player by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells and his croquet player Georgie confront the social reality of 1936.

The novella begins well, and there are some genuinely uncanny moments. But Wells cannot overcome his bourgeois liberalism, which sees wrong-headed values, and not class relations, as driving the historic crisis of imperialism in the 1930s.

....I made my break-away from Norbert's flooding eloquence that morning with some considerable difficulty. I stood up. "I must be going," I said. "I have to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve."

"But what does croquet matter," he cried in that intolerable voice of his, "if your world is falling in ruins about you?"

He made a move almost as though he would impede my retreat. He just wanted to go on being apocalyptic. But I had had enough of this apocalyptic stuff.

I looked him in the face, firmly but politely. I said, "I don't care. The world MAY be going to pieces. The Stone Age may be returning. This may, as you say, be the sunset of civilization. I'm sorry, but I can't help it this morning. I have other engagements. All the same—laws of the Medes and Persians—I am going to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve today."

The Croquet Player

Monday, September 25, 2017

And all the world to wonder turns: A Fragment of Life By Arthur Machen

A Fragment of Life / Arthur Machen

Machen ends his sublime 1904 novel A Fragment of Life with this note of striking omniscience:

It would be impossible to carry on the history of Edward Darnell and of Mary his wife to a greater length, since from this point their legend is full of impossible events, and seems to put on the semblance of the stories of the Graal. It is certain, indeed, that in this world they changed their lives....

A Fragment of Life begins with Edward and Mary living in London. Edward is from "the west," and treasures memories of a strange and idyllic childhood. But now he is a clerk. Money is always tight, and the couple discuss every expenditure at length. A windfall from Mary's family pulls them into disagreement: Edward wants to furnish their second bedroom, Mary wants a new range for the kitchen.

The humor of these scenes, and the ease of telling, is masterful, as when Darnell goes to consult his friend Wilson on the matter:

....‘I wanted to consult you about some furniture,’ Darnell said at last. ‘You know we’ve got a spare room, and I’m thinking of putting a few things into it. I haven’t exactly made up my mind, but I thought you might advise me.’

‘Come into my den,’ said Wilson. ‘No; this way, by the back’; and he showed Darnell another ingenious arrangement at the side door whereby a violent high-toned bell was set pealing in the house if one did but touch the latch. Indeed, Wilson handled it so briskly that the bell rang a wild alarm, and the servant, who was trying on her mistress’s things in the bedroom, jumped madly to the window and then danced a hysteric dance. There was plaster found on the drawing-room table on Sunday afternoon, and Wilson wrote a letter to the ‘Fulham Chronicle,’ ascribing the phenomenon ‘to some disturbance of a seismic nature.’

For the moment he knew nothing of the great results of his contrivance, and solemnly led the way towards the back of the house. Here there was a patch of turf, beginning to look a little brown, with a background of shrubs. In the middle of the turf, a boy of nine or ten was standing all alone, with something of an air.

‘The eldest,’ said Wilson. ‘Havelock. Well, Lockie, what are ye doing now? And where are your brother and sister?’

The boy was not at all shy. Indeed, he seemed eager to explain the course of events.

‘I’m playing at being Gawd,’ he said, with an engaging frankness. ‘And I’ve sent Fergus and Janet to the bad place. That’s in the shrubbery. And they’re never to come out any more. And they’re burning for ever and ever.’

‘What d’you think of that?’ said Wilson admiringly. ‘Not bad for a youngster of nine, is it? They think a lot of him at the Sunday-school...."

In another humorous passage, reminiscent of the aspirations of Mr. Pooter, Edward recalls his spendthrift younger days in London:

....Over the breakfast they discussed the question of the spare room all over again. Mrs. Darnell still admitted that the plan of furnishing it attracted her, but she could not see how it could be done for the ten pounds, and as they were prudent people they did not care to encroach on their savings. Edward was highly paid, having (with allowances for extra work in busy weeks) a hundred and forty pounds a year, and Mary had inherited from an old uncle, her godfather, three hundred pounds, which had been judiciously laid out in mortgage at 4–1/2 per cent. Their total income, then, counting in Aunt Marian’s present, was a hundred and fifty-eight pounds a year, and they were clear of debt, since Darnell had bought the furniture for the house out of money which he had saved for five or six years before.

In the first few years of his life in the City his income had, of course, been smaller, and at first he had lived very freely, without a thought of laying by. The theatres and music-halls had attracted him, and scarcely a week passed without his going (in the pit) to one or the other; and he had occasionally bought photographs of actresses who pleased him. These he had solemnly burnt when he became engaged to Mary; he remembered the evening well; his heart had been so full of joy and wonder, and the landlady had complained bitterly of the mess in the grate when he came home from the City the next night. Still, the money was lost, as far as he could recollect, ten or twelve shillings; and it annoyed him all the more to reflect that if he had put it by, it would have gone far towards the purchase of an ‘Orient’ carpet in brilliant colours. Then there had been other expenses of his youth: he had purchased threepenny and even fourpenny cigars, the latter rarely, but the former frequently, sometimes singly, and sometimes in bundles of twelve for half-a-crown.

Once a meerschaum pipe had haunted him for six weeks; the tobacconist had drawn it out of a drawer with some air of secrecy as he was buying a packet of ‘Lone Star.’ Here was another useless expense, these American-manufactured tobaccos; his ‘Lone Star,’ ‘Long Judge,’ ‘Old Hank,’ ‘Sultry Clime,’ and the rest of them cost from a shilling to one and six the two-ounce packet; whereas now he got excellent loose honeydew for threepence halfpenny an ounce. But the crafty tradesman, who had marked him down as a buyer of expensive fancy goods, nodded with his air of mystery, and, snapping open the case, displayed the meerschaum before the dazzled eyes of Darnell. The bowl was carved in the likeness of a female figure, showing the head and torso, and the mouthpiece was of the very best amber — only twelve and six, the man said, and the amber alone, he declared, was worth more than that. He explained that he felt some delicacy about showing the pipe to any but a regular customer, and was willing to take a little under cost price and ‘cut the loss.’ Darnell resisted for the time, but the pipe troubled him, and at last he bought it. He was pleased to show it to the younger men in the office for a while, but it never smoked very well, and he gave it away just before his marriage, as from the nature of the carving it would have been impossible to use it in his wife’s presence. Once, while he was taking his holidays at Hastings, he had purchased a malacca cane — a useless thing that had cost seven shillings — and he reflected with sorrow on the innumerable evenings on which he had rejected his landlady’s plain fried chop, and had gone out to flaner among the Italian restaurants in Upper Street, Islington (he lodged in Holloway), pampering himself with expensive delicacies: cutlets and green peas, braised beef with tomato sauce, fillet steak and chipped potatoes, ending the banquet very often with a small wedge of Gruyère, which cost twopence.

One night, after receiving a rise in his salary, he had actually drunk a quarter-flask of Chianti and had added the enormities of Benedictine, coffee, and cigarettes to an expenditure already disgraceful, and sixpence to the waiter made the bill amount to four shillings instead of the shilling that would have provided him with a wholesome and sufficient repast at home. Oh, there were many other items in this account of extravagance, and Darnell had often regretted his way of life, thinking that if he had been more careful, five or six pounds a year might have been added to their income.

Edward and Mary decide they cannot afford to furnish the bedroom. Then a crisis seems imminent: that they might have to take in Mary's aunt. But the aunt is committed to an asylum before this can happen. he was free to consider his life without reference to the grotesque intrusion that he had feared. He sighed for joy, and as he paced to and fro he savoured the scent of the night, which, though it came faintly to him in that brick-bound suburb, summoned to his mind across many years the odour of the world at night as he had known it in that short sojourn of his boyhood; the odour that rose from the earth when the flame of the sun had gone down beyond the mountain, and the afterglow had paled in the sky and on the fields. And as he recovered as best he could these lost dreams of an enchanted land, there came to him other images of his childhood, forgotten and yet not forgotten, dwelling unheeded in dark places of the memory, but ready to be summoned forth. He remembered one fantasy that had long haunted him. As he lay half asleep in the forest on one hot afternoon of that memorable visit to the country, he had ‘made believe’ that a little companion had come to him out of the blue mists and the green light beneath the leaves — a white girl with long black hair, who had played with him and whispered her secrets in his ear, as his father lay sleeping under a tree; and from that summer afternoon, day by day, she had been beside him; she had visited him in the wilderness of London, and even in recent years there had come to him now and again the sense of her presence, in the midst of the heat and turmoil of the City. The last visit he remembered well; it was a few weeks before he married, and from the depths of some futile task he had looked up with puzzled eyes, wondering why the close air suddenly grew scented with green leaves, why the murmur of the trees and the wash of the river on the reeds came to his ears; and then that sudden rapture to which he had given a name and an individuality possessed him utterly. He knew then how the dull flesh of man can be like fire; and now, looking back from a new standpoint on this and other experiences, he realized how all that was real in his life had been unwelcomed, uncherished by him, had come to him, perhaps, in virtue of merely negative qualities on his part. And yet, as he reflected, he saw that there had been a chain of witnesses all through his life: again and again voices had whispered in his ear words in a strange language that he now recognized as his native tongue; the common street had not been lacking in visions of the true land of his birth; and in all the passing and repassing of the world he saw that there had been emissaries ready to guide his feet on the way of the great journey.

Mary noticed that every evening he spent at least an hour in the box-room; she was rather sorry at the waste of time involved in reading old papers about dead people. And one afternoon, as they were out together on a somewhat dreary walk towards Acton, Darnell stopped at a hopeless second-hand bookshop, and after scanning the rows of shabby books in the window, went in and purchased two volumes. They proved to be a Latin dictionary and grammar, and she was surprised to hear her husband declare his intention of acquiring the Latin language.

Edward pores over old family papers after work each night, and the heightened "ancestral" consciousness of his youth unfolds into life again. Mary, far from being alienated, is reassured that there will be more to their lives than endless kibitzing over the household budget.

....all his conduct impressed her as indefinably altered; and she began to be a little alarmed, though she could scarcely have formed her fears in words. But she knew that in some way that was all indefined and beyond the grasp of her thought their lives had altered since the summer, and no single thing wore quite the same aspect as before. If she looked out into the dull street with its rare loiterers, it was the same and yet it had altered, and if she opened the window in the early morning the wind that entered came with a changed breath that spoke some message that she could not understand. And day by day passed by in the old course, and not even the four walls were altogether familiar, and the voices of men and women sounded with strange notes, with the echo, rather, of a music that came over unknown hills. And day by day as she went about her household work, passing from shop to shop in those dull streets that were a network, a fatal labyrinth of grey desolation on every side, there came to her sense half-seen images of some other world, as if she walked in a dream, and every moment must bring her to light and to awakening, when the grey should fade, and regions long desired should appear in glory. Again and again it seemed as if that which was hidden would be shown even to the sluggish testimony of sense; and as she went to and fro from street to street of that dim and weary suburb, and looked on those grey material walls, they seemed as if a light glowed behind them, and again and again the mystic fragrance of incense was blown to her nostrils from across the verge of that world which is not so much impenetrable as ineffable, and to her ears came the dream of a chant that spoke of hidden choirs about all her ways. She struggled against these impressions, refusing her assent to the testimony of them, since all the pressure of credited opinion for three hundred years has been directed towards stamping out real knowledge, and so effectually has this been accomplished that we can only recover the truth through much anguish. And so Mary passed the days in a strange perturbation, clinging to common things and common thoughts, as if she feared that one morning she would wake up in an unknown world to a changed life. And Edward Darnell went day by day to his labour and returned in the evening, always with that shining of light within his eyes and upon his face, with the gaze of wonder that was greater day by day, as if for him the veil grew thin and soon would disappear.

From these great matters both in herself and in her husband Mary shrank back, afraid, perhaps, that if she began the question the answer might be too wonderful. She rather taught herself to be troubled over little things; she asked herself what attraction there could be in the old records over which she supposed Edward to be poring night after night in the cold room upstairs. She had glanced over the papers at Darnell’s invitation, and could see but little interest in them; there were one or two sketches, roughly done in pen and ink, of the old house in the west: it looked a shapeless and fantastic place, furnished with strange pillars and stranger ornaments on the projecting porch; and on one side a roof dipped down almost to the earth, and in the centre there was something that might almost be a tower rising above the rest of the building. Then there were documents that seemed all names and dates, with here and there a coat of arms done in the margin, and she came upon a string of uncouth Welsh names linked together by the word ‘ap’ in a chain that looked endless. There was a paper covered with signs and figures that meant nothing to her, and then there were the pocket-books, full of old-fashioned writing, and much of it in Latin, as her husband told her — it was a collection as void of significance as a treatise on conic sections, so far as Mary was concerned. But night after night Darnell shut himself up with the musty rolls, and more than ever when he rejoined her he bore upon his face the blazonry of some great adventure. And one night she asked him what interested him so much in the papers he had shown her.
He was delighted with the question. Somehow they had not talked much together for the last few weeks, and he began to tell her of the records of the old race from which he came, of the old strange house of grey stone between the forest and the river. The family went back and back, he said, far into the dim past, beyond the Normans, beyond the Saxons, far into the Roman days, and for many hundred years they had been petty kings, with a strong fortress high up on the hill, in the heart of the forest; and even now the great mounds remained, whence one could look through the trees towards the mountain on one side and across the yellow sea on the other. The real name of the family was not Darnell; that was assumed by one Iolo ap Taliesin ap Iorwerth in the sixteenth century — why, Darnell did not seem to understand. And then he told her how the race had dwindled in prosperity, century by century, till at last there was nothing left but the grey house and a few acres of land bordering the river.

‘And do you know, Mary,’ he said, ‘I suppose we shall go and live there some day or other. My great-uncle, who has the place now, made money in business when he was a young man, and I believe he will leave it all to me. I know I am the only relation he has. How strange it would be. What a change from the life here.’
‘You never told me that. Don’t you think your great-uncle might leave his house and his money to somebody he knows really well? You haven’t seen him since you were a little boy, have you?’

‘No; but we write once a year. And from what I have heard my father say, I am sure the old man would never leave the house out of the family. Do you think you would like it?’

‘I don’t know. Isn’t it very lonely?’

‘I suppose it is. I forget whether there are any other houses in sight, but I don’t think there are any at all near. But what a change! No City, no streets, no people passing to and fro; only the sound of the wind and the sight of the green leaves and the green hills, and the song of the voices of the earth.’ . . . He checked himself suddenly, as if he feared that he was about to tell some secret that must not yet be uttered; and indeed, as he spoke of the change from the little street in Shepherd’s Bush to that ancient house in the woods of the far west, a change seemed already to possess himself, and his voice put on the modulation of an antique chant. Mary looked at him steadily and touched his arm, and he drew a long breath before he spoke again.

‘It is the old blood calling to the old land,’ he said. ‘I was forgetting that I am a clerk in the City.’

It was, doubtless, the old blood that had suddenly stirred in him; the resurrection of the old spirit that for many centuries had been faithful to secrets that are now disregarded by most of us, that now day by day was quickened more and more in his heart, and grew so strong that it was hard to conceal. He was indeed almost in the position of the man in the tale, who, by a sudden electric shock, lost the vision of the things about him in the London streets, and gazed instead upon the sea and shore of an island in the Antipodes; for Darnell only clung with an effort to the interests and the atmosphere which, till lately, had seemed all the world to him; and the grey house and the wood and the river, symbols of the other sphere, intruded as it were into the landscape of the London suburb.

On the last page of a book of poems, Edward writes:

‘So I awoke from a dream of a London suburb, of daily labour, of weary, useless little things; and as my eyes were opened I saw that I was in an ancient wood, where a clear well rose into grey film and vapour beneath a misty, glimmering heat. And a form came towards me from the hidden places of the wood, and my love and I were united by the well.’


25 September 2017