Artist: Lou Rogers

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The adventure of the gray vapour: The Haunting of Low Fennel by Sax Rohmer

I've been sifting through the contents pages of old horror anthologies on the ISFDB lately. "The Haunting of Low Fennel" by Sax Rohmer (1920) caught my eye. Readers who have not read it can skip the story.  It is the "adventure" of a psychic detective named Addison, trying to find the source of some grusome "emanations."

We are given the usual psychic detective story rhetorical sawdust maquerading as science:

My experience of so-called supernatural appearances had strengthened my faith in the theory set forth in the paper “Chemistry of Psychic Phenomena”—which[29] had attracted unexpected attention a year before. Therein I classified hauntings under several heads, basing my conclusions upon the fact that such apparitions are invariably localised; often being confined, not merely to a particular room, for instance, but to a certain wall, door, or window. I had been privileged to visit most of the famous haunted homes of Great Britain, and this paper was the result; but in the case of Low Fennel I found myself nonplussed, largely owing to lack of data. I hoped on the morrow to make certain inquiries along lines suggested by oddities in the structure of the house itself and by the nature of the little valley in which it stood.

It turns out Low Fennel experiences "gray vapour" in unseasonably hot weather. Said vapour brings on deadly hallucinations. I think. Addison's scientistic explanation is frequently interrupted by expostulations from Low Fennel's current owner, Major Dale:

“To what extent the mania so produced is homicidal remains to be proved; the gas is rare and difficult to procure, so that hitherto analysis[59] has not been attempted. My own theory is that the subject remains harmless provided that, whilst under the mysterious influence, he does not encounter any person distasteful to him. Thus, Seager may have met his death at the hands of some tramp who had been turned away from the house.

“As to the symptoms: they seem to be quite unvarying. The subject strips, contorts his face out of all semblance to humanity (and always in a particular fashion) and crawls, lizard-like upon the ground, with the head held low, in an attitude of listening. That it is possible so to contort the face as to render it unrecognizable is seen in some cases of angina pectoris, of course.

“The subject apparently returns to the spot from whence he started and sinks into profound sleep, as is seen in some cases of somnambulism; and—like the somnambulist, again—he acquires incredible agility. How you yourself came, twice, under the influence of the vapour, is easily explained. The first time—when the housekeeper saw you—you had actually been in bed; and the second time, as you have told me, you had gone upstairs, undressed, and then slipped on your dressing-gown in order to complete some work in the study. Instead of completing the[60] work, you dozed in your chair—and we know what followed! In the case of—Mrs. Dale....”

“God! Addison,” said the Major huskily, and stood up, clutching the chair-arms—“Addison! You are trying to tell me that—what I saw was ... Marjorie!...”

I nodded gravely.

The Major has built a new addition on to Low Fennel, and the ground underneath, an ancient barrow, is the source of the gray vapour.

Again

the Major became speechless, but finally:

“What d’you mean, Addison?” he whispered; “for God’s sake, tell me. What is it?—what is it?”

“It is what some students have labelled an ‘elemental’ and some a ‘control,’” I replied; “it is something older than the house, older, perhaps, than the very hills, something which may never be classified, something as old as the root of all evil, and it dwells in the Ancient British tumulus.”

Rohmer gives us forty pages of 1920-era psychic detective claptrap, in the process ruining  material that could have been shaped into an uncanny ten page shocker.

Jay


22 June 2017

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