"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Nine stories from Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Fear and Trembling (1948)

This Dell paperback collection of old chestnuts contains a few titles I have not read before, salted in among the M.R. James, H.G. Wells, and Ray Bradbury titles.

Cassius • (1931) • by Henry S. Whitehead

Does anyone still read Whitehead? Wildside Press and Wordsworth have published collections this century. John Pelan included "Cassius" in his canonical anthology The Century's Best Horror Fiction 1901-1950 (Cemetary Dance 2012).

"Cassius" tells the story of a servant beset by supernatural torments. (Written in the Jim Crow 1930s, the reader is warned). This tale must rank in the top echelon of ghoulish body horror.

     ....I was perhaps halfway across the house-yard on my way to turn in when my ears were assailed by precisely one of those suppressed combinations of squeals and grunts which John Masefield describes as presaging an animal tragedy under the hedge of an English countryside on a moonlit summer night. Something — a brief, ruthless combat for food or blood, between two small ground animals — was going on somewhere in the vicinity. I paused, listened, my senses the more readily attuned to this bitter duel because of what had happened in Brutus's cabin. As I paused, the squeals of the fighting animals abruptly ceased. One combatant, apparently, had given up the ghost! A grunting noise persisted for a few instants, however, and it made me shudder involuntarily. These sounds were low, essentially bestial, commonplace. Yet there was in them something so savage, albeit on the small scale of our everyday West Indian fauna, as to give me pause. I could feel the beginning of a cold shudder run down my spine under my white drill jacket!
     I turned about, almost reluctantly, drawn somehow, in spite of myself, to the scene of combat. The grunts had ceased now, and to my ears, in the quiet of that perfect night of soft airs and moonlight, there came the even more horrible little sound of the tearing of flesh! It was gruesome, quite horrible, well-nigh unbearable. I paused again, a little shaken, it must be confessed, my nerves a trifle unstrung. I was facing in the direction of the ripping sounds now. Then there was silence — complete, tranquil, absolute!
     Then I stepped toward the scene of this small conflict, my flashlight sweeping that corner of the yard nearest the small alleyway.
     It picked up the victim almost at once, and I thought — I could not be quite sure — that I saw at the very edge of the circle of illumination, the scrambling flight of the victor. The victim was commonplace. It was the body, still slightly palpitating, of a large, well-nourished rat. The dead rat lay well out in the yard, its freshly drawn vital fluid staining a wide smear on the flagstone which supported it — a ghastly-looking affair. I looked down at it curiously. It had, indeed, been a ruthless attack to which this lowly creature had succumbed. Its throat was torn out, it was disemboweled, rived terrifically. I stepped back to Brutus's cabin, went in, and picked up from a pile of them on his bureau a copy of one of our small-sheet local newspapers. With this, nodding smilingly at Brutus I proceeded once more to the scene of carnage. I had an idea. I laid the paper down, kicked the body of the rat upon it with my foot, and, picking up the paper, carried the dead rat into Brutus's cabin. I turned up his lamp and carried it over to the bedside.
     "Do you suppose this was your animal, Brutus?" I asked. "If so, you seem to be pretty well avenged!"
     Brutus grinned and looked closely at the riven animal. Then, "No, sar," he said slowly, "'Twas no rat whut attacked me, sar. See de t'roat, please, sar. Him ahl tore out, mos' effectively! No, sar. But — I surmise — from de appearance of dis t'roat, de mouf which maim me on de laig was de same mouf whut completely ruin dis rat!"
     And, indeed, judging from the appearance of the rat Brutus's judgment might well be sound.
     I wrapped the paper about it, said good night once more to Hellman, carried it out with me, threw it into the metal wastebasket in which the house trash is burned every morning, and went to bed.
     At three minutes past four the next morning I was snatched out of my comfortable bed and a deep sleep by the rattle of successive shots from the wicked little automatic I had left with Brutus....

The Tarn • (1923) • by Hugh Walpole

"The Tarn" is a beautifully executed story of hate and comeuppance in the UK Lake District. Walpole's skill here, his sense of voice and proportion, are magnificently done.

     ....Foster slipped his arm through Fenwick's. "It is jolly to be walking along together like this, arm in arm, friends. I'm a sentimental man. I won't deny it. What I say is that life is short and one must love one's fellow-beings, or where is one? You live too much alone, old man." He squeezed Fenwick's arm. "That's the truth of it."
     It was torture, exquisite, heavenly torture. It was wonderful to feel that thin, bony arm pressing against his. Almost you could hear the beating of that other heart. Wonderful to feel that arm and the temptation to take it in your hands and to bend it and twist it and then to hear the bones crack — crack — crack — Wonderful to feel that temptation rise through one's body like boiling water and yet not to yield to it. For a moment Fenwick's hand touched Foster's. Then he drew himself apart.
     "We're at the village. This is the hotel where they all come in the summer. We turn off at the right here. I'll show you my tarn."
     "Your tarn?" asked Foster. "Forgive my ignorance, but what is a tarn exactly?"
     "A tarn is a miniature lake, a pool of water lying in the lap of the hill. Very quiet, lovely, silent. Some of them are immensely deep."
     "I should like to see that."
     "It is some little distance — up a rough road. Do you mind?"
     "Not a bit. I have long legs."
     "Some of them are immensely deep — unfathomable — nobody touched the bottom — but quiet, like glass, with shadows only —"
     "Do you know, Fenwick, I have always been afraid of water — I've never learned to swim. I'm afraid to go out of my depth. Isn't that ridiculous? But it is all because at my private school, years ago, when I was a small boy, some big fellows took me and held me with my head under the water and nearly drowned me. They did indeed. They went farther than they meant to. I can see their faces."

Little Memento • (1938) • by John Collier

     ....The old man ushered Eric in. They entered a very snug, trim little room, the furniture all well polished and everything meticulously arranged. "This is my little sitting-room," the olda man said. "My dining-room, too, these days. The drawing-room and the little study beyond I have given over entirely to my museum. Here we are."
     He threw open a door. Eric stepped in, looked around, and stared in amazement. He had been expecting the usual sort of thing: a neat cabinet or two with Roman coins, flint implements, a snake in alcohol, perhaps a stuffed bird or some eggs. But this room and the study, seen through the connecting doorway, were piled high with the most broken, battered, frowzy, gimcrack collection of junk he had ever seen in his life. What was oddest of all was that no item in this muddle of rubbish had even the excuse of a decent antiquity. It was as if several cartloads of miscellaneous material had been collected from the village dump and spilled over the tables, sideboards, chairs, and floors of these two rooms.
     The old man observed Eric's astonishment with the greatest good humor. "You are thinking," said he, "that this collection is not the sort of thing one usually finds in a museum. You are right. But let me tell you, Mr. Gaskell, that every object here has a history. These pieces are pebbles rolled and broken by the stream of time as it flows over the villages in our quiet little district. Taken together, they are a — a record. Here is a souvenir from the War: a telegram to the Bristows in Upper Medium, saying their boy was killed. It was years before I could get it from poor Mrs. Bristow. I gave her a pound for it."
     "Very interesting," said Eric.
     "That wheelbarrow," said the old man, pointing out a splintered wreck, "was the cause of two deaths. It rolled down a bank into the lane here just as a car was coming along. It was in all the papers. 'Local Tragedy.'"
     "Extraordinary!" said Eric.
     "It all makes up life," said the old man, "Here is a belt dropped by one of the Irish haymakers when they fought the gypsies. This hat belonged to the man who had Church Farm, near you. He won a prize in the Irish Sweep and drank himself to death, poor fellow! These are bricks from my gardener's cottage. It burned down, you know, and nobody knows how the fire started. This is a snake which somehow got into the church during service last year. Captain Felton killed it. He's a very handsome man, don't you think?"
     "Yes. I suppose so. I hardly know him."

One Summer • (1906)  by Ambrose Bierce

The blackmail and murder of Stevenson's marvellous "The Body Snatcher," but at breakneck tempo. Before the calamitous visit of reanimators, the somnolence of a man buried alive seems worthy of envy:

     The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
     But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid's apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference; the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep, and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.

Telling • (1927) • by Elizabeth Bowen

A young man unequipped for adulthood. 

    The study door panels had always looked solemn; they bulged with solemnity. Terry had to get past to his father; he chose the top left-hand panel to tap on. The patient voice said, "Come in!"
     Here and now, thought Terry. He had a great audience; he looked at the books round the dark walls and thought of all those thinkers. His father jerked up a contracted, strained look at him. Terry felt that hacking with his news into this silence was like hacking into a great, grave chest. The desk was a havoc of papers.
     "What exactly do you want?" said his father, rubbing the edge of the desk.
     Terry stood there silently; everything ebbed. "I want," he said at last, "to talk about my future."
     His father sighed and slid a hand forward, rumpling the papers. "I suppose, Terry," he said as gently as possible, "you really have got a future?" Then he reproached himself. "Well, sit down a minute — I'll just —"
     Terry sat down. The clock on the mantelpiece echoed the ticking in his brain. He waited.
     "Yes?" said his father.
     "Well, there must be some kind of future for me, mustn't there?"
     "Oh, certainly —"
     "Look here, Father, I have something to show you. That African knife —"
     "What about it?"
     "That African knife. It's here. I've got it to show you."
     "What about it?"
     "Wait just a minute." He put a hand into either pocket; his father waited.
     "It was here — I did have it. I brought it to show you. I must have it somewhere — that African knife."

The Bad Lands • (1920) • by John Metcalfe

One of Metcalfe's abstract, deflected, distanced fictions.

     He held forth with peculiar vehemence and with appropriate gestures. He spoke of a new kind of terre mauvaise, of strange regions, connected, indeed, with definite geographical limits upon the earth, yet somehow apart from them and beyond them. "The relation," he said, "is rather one of parallelism and correspondence than of actual connection. I honestly believe that these regions do exist, and are quite as real in their way as the ordinary world we know. We might say they consist in a special and separated set of stimuli to which only certain minds in certain conditions are able to respond. Such a district seems to be superimposed upon the country to the southwest of this place."

Skule Skerry • (1928) • by John Buchan

An open-air uncanny masterpiece.

    "Not Skule Skerry!" he cried. "What would take ye there, man? Ye'll get a' the birds ye want on Halmarsness and a far better bield. Ye'll be blawn away on the skerry, if the wind rises."
    I explained to him my reasons as well as I could, and I answered his fears about a gale by pointing out that the island was sheltered by the cliffs from the prevailing winds, and could be scourged only from the south, southwest, or west, quarters from which the wind rarely blew in May.
    "It'll be cauld," he said, "and wat."
    I pointed out that I had a tent and was accustomed to camping.
    "Ye'll starve."
    I expounded my proposed methods of commissariat.
    "It'll be an ill job getting ye on and off."
    But after cross-examination he admitted that ordinarily the tides were not difficult, and that I could get a rowboat to a beach below the farm I had seen — its name was Sgurravoe. Yet when I had said all this he still raised objections till I asked him flatly what was the matter with Skule Skerry.
    "Naebody gangs there," he said gruffly.
    "Why should they?" I asked. "I'm only going to watch the birds."
    But the fact that it was never visited seemed to stick in his throat and he grumbled out something that surprised me. "It has an ill name," he said.
    But when I pressed him he admitted that there was no record of shipwreck or disaster to account for the ill name. He repeated the words "Skule Skerry" as if they displeased him.
    "Folk dinna gang near it. It has aye had an ill name. My grandfather used to say that the place wasna canny."

The Sack of Emeralds • (1919) • by Lord Dunsany

A charming miniature.

    ....And then they found the emeralds. They were all bigger than hazelnuts, hundreds and hundreds of them. And the old man screamed.
    "Come, come, we're not thieves," said the blacksmith.
    "We're not thieves," said the carpenter.
    "We're not thieves," said the postman's son.
    And with awful fear on his face the wayfarer closed his sack, whimpering over his emeralds and furtively glancing round as though the loss of his secret were an utterly deadly thing. And then they asked him to give them just one each, just one huge emerald each, because they had given him a glass of beer. Then to see the wayfarer shrink against his sack and guard it with clutching fingers one would have said that he was a selfish man, were it not for the terror that was freezing his face. I have seen men look at Death with far less fear.
    And they took their emerald all three, one enormous emerald each, while the old man hopelessly struggled till he saw his three emeralds go, and fell to the floor and wept, a pitiable, sodden heap.
    And about that time I began to hear far off down the windy road, by which that sack had come, faintly at first and slowly louder and louder, the click-clack-clop of a lame horse coming nearer. Click-clack-clop and a loose shoe rattling, the sound of a horse too weary to be out upon such a night, too lame to be out at all.
    Click-clack-clop. And all of a sudden the old wayfarer heard it; heard it above the sound of his own sobbing, and at once went white to the lips. Such sudden fear as blanched him in a moment struck right to the hearts of all there. They muttered to him that it was only their play, they hastily whispered excuses, they asked him what was wrong, but seemed scarcely to hope for an answer. Nor did he speak, but sat with a frozen stare, all at once dry-eyes, a monument to terror.
    Nearer and nearer came the click-clack-clop....

The Night Reveals • novelette by Cornell Woolrich

A masterpiece of urban dread. Absolutely devastating.

     She went in with him without further protest. He left her sitting there out in the reception room, and asked to see one of the staff members. He closed his eyes, could hardly answer when he was asked what they could do for him. "I'd like to have my wife put under observation." He had rehearsed what he was going to say on the way there; he still couldn't bear to tell them the whole truth — not yet anyway. She would be liable to imprisonment if sane, commitment to one of the hideous state institutions if unbalanced, he couldn't let that happen to her. There were always private sanitariums, nursing-homes, he could put her in himself — but he had to find out first. What symptoms, if any, did she show, he was asked.
     "Nothing very alarming," he said, "she — she goes for short walks by herself in the middle of the night, that's all, claims she can't sleep." The fire must stay out of this at all costs; reluctantly he brought out a small bottle of chocolate-colored liquid that he had collected from the pan of the radiator before leaving the flat. "I have reason to believe she tried to give me a sleeping potion, so that I wouldn't worry about her going out. You can tell if you'll analyze this. We have a child; I think for his sake you should set my mind at rest."

14 May 2020

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