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

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

Saturday, February 27, 2021

A double-goer: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

  The court was very cool and a little damp, and full of premature twilight, although the sky, high up overhead, was still bright with sunset. The middle one of the three windows was half-way open; and sitting close beside it, taking the air with an infinite sadness of mien, like some disconsolate prisoner, Utterson saw Dr. Jekyll.

     "What! Jekyll!" he cried. "I trust you are better."

     "I am very low, Utterson," replied the doctor drearily, "very low. It will not last long, thank God."

     "You stay too much indoors," said the lawyer. "You should be out, whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me. (This is my cousin—Mr. Enfield—Dr. Jekyll.) Come now; get your hat and take a quick turn with us."

     "You are very good," sighed the other. "I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not. But indeed, Utterson, I am very glad to see you; this is really a great pleasure; I would ask you and Mr. Enfield up, but the place is really not fit."

     "Why, then," said the lawyer, good-naturedly, "the best thing we can do is to stay down here and speak with you from where we are."

     "That is just what I was about to venture to propose," returned the doctor with a smile. But the words were hardly uttered, before the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of such abject terror and despair, as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below. They saw it but for a glimpse for the window was instantly thrust down; but that glimpse had been sufficient, and they turned and left the court without a word. In silence, too, they traversed the by-street; and it was not until they had come into a neighbouring thoroughfare, where even upon a Sunday there were still some stirrings of life, that Mr. Utterson at last turned and looked at his companion. They were both pale; and there was an answering horror in their eyes.

     "God forgive us, God forgive us," said Mr. Utterson.

     But Mr. Enfield only nodded his head very seriously, and walked on once more in silence….

*   *   *

Machen must have read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to tatters. Its confidence, buoyancy, and protean economy produce effects that foreshadow Machen's own.

At the beginning of Stevenson's tale, Enfield is reporting a crowd's reaction (and his own) to the sight and proximity of Mr. Hyde after Hyde has assaulted a girl.

....He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl's own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child's family, which was only natural. But the doctor's case was what struck me. He was the usual cut and dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best. We told the man we could and would make such a scandal out of this as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other....

Dyson has a similar moment in "The Inmost Light."

....after walking about for some time I thought I should like to sit down on a bank and have a smoke. While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable,* but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world — looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and seen hell open before me. When the first shock was over, I thought once or twice that I should have fainted; my face streamed with a cold sweat, and my breath came and went in sobs, as if I had been half drowned. I managed to get up at last, and walked round to the street, and there I saw the name Dr Black on the post by the front gate....

Later in "The Inmost Light" the alien character of Mrs. Black is underscored:

    ' "My dear sir," I said, "you surprise me extremely. You say that it was not the brain of a human being. What was it, then?"

     ' "The brain of a devil." He spoke quite coolly, and never moved a muscle. "The brain of a devil," he repeated, "and I have no doubt that Black put a pillow over her mouth and kept it there for a few minutes. I don't blame him if he did. Whatever Mrs Black was, she was not fit to stay in this world. Will you have anything more? No? Good-night..."

Selby reports his own emotional harrowing to Dyson in "The Red Hand."

     '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!'

     'I brought that with me; that is all,' he said. 'You do not wonder that I did not stay long in a place where those who live are a little higher than the beasts, and where what you have seen is surpassed a thousandfold?'

     'Take this,' said Dyson, 'I brought it with me in case it might be useful'; and he drew out the black tablet, and handed it to the shaking, horrible man....

A "Machenist" reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would probably present the conclusion that Hyde is an example of an everyday evil, not the Evil Ambrose describes to Cotgrave in "The White People":

     'Then, on the other hand, we underrate evil. We attach such an enormous importance to the "sin" of meddling with our pockets (and our wives) that we have quite forgotten the awfulness of real sin.'

     'And what is sin?' said Cotgrave.

     'I think I must reply to your question by another. What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?

Writers as diverse as Conan Doyle, Vladimir Nabokov, Frank O'Connor, and Jorge Luis Borges have praised Stevenson's revolutionary role as a writer, and the role of his novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) Lovecraft gives Stevenson no such acknowledgement (for overall contribution to the weird tale in particular or the short story in general). He does suggest, however:

Robert Louis Stevenson—the latter of whom, despite an atrocious tendency toward jaunty mannerisms, created permanent classics in "Markheim", "The Body-Snatcher", and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, we may say that this school still survives; for to it clearly belong such of our contemporary horror-tales as specialise in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare. 

I would be hard-pressed to find a "stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare" in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Utterson, Lanyon, and Poole try to do right by Jekyll, but their sympathies in the end have little weight. The effort boomerangs: Lanyon dies of shock and Utterson and Poole find they have arrived too late for their attempted rescue.

S. T. Joshi, in his comprehensive Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012), pulls no punches on Stevenson and his novella:

     Kipling never incorporated the supernatural in a novel, but two authors who did do so produced imperishable classics within five years of each other—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). But both The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lippincott's, July 1890; book publication 1891) are seriously flawed, although in almost opposite directions. Both, of course, are classic tales of doppelgängers, and both would appear to have derived some benefit from previous instances of this theme, notably Poe's "William Wilson."

     To write about both these novels now, given how familiar their plots are and how little of a surprise their purportedly cataclysmic revelations engender, is a difficult proposition; but there is every reason to believe that the initial readers of both works found both their fundamental themes titillatingly appalling and their "surprise" endings strikingly effective. Accordingly, our judgment of these works should not be affected by our familiarity with their conclusions, although Stevenson comes close to giving the game away at several points, especially when a document presumably by Hyde is found to be written in a handwriting identical to Jekyll's.

     As it is, Stevenson himself lets the cat out of the bag about two-thirds the way through the novella, presenting a lengthy statement by Jekyll that constitutes the final segment of the text. It is here that whatever moral or aesthetic value exists in the work resides; for up to this point we have been merely reading a cleverly executed suspense narrative in which the apparently separate individuals Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde are becoming increasingly fused. Hyde's nefarious actions—we are introduced to him at the very beginning of the narrative as stepping heedlessly on a child who has gotten in his way, and later he flies into a rage and kills with a cane an elderly man who proves to be no less a figure than the M.P. Sir Danvers Carew—may seem a trifle tame in our day of serial killers and worse, but Stevenson has accomplished his overall mission in portraying the fundamental moral divergence of Jekyll and Hyde.

     What Jekyll states, both in elucidation and, implicitly, in exculpation of his actions, is that, having come to realise "the profound duplicity of life" (56)—that is, that every human being "is not truly one, but two"—he wonders whether these elements or facets of one's personality could be separated by science, specifically by drugs. Jekyll's ostensible purpose in doing so is altruistic: if the "evil" side of a person could somehow be suppressed or eliminated, only the "good" would remain.

     There are a number of problems with this formulation, chief of which is the naïveté of thinking that it is so easy to distinguish what is "good" and what is "evil" in man, especially when it is by no means clear whether moral "good" and "evil" have any genuine meaning aside from what is or is not socially acceptable to a given society at a given moment of its history. But Stevenson does not wrestle with moral conundrums of this kind; indeed, it could be said that his philosophically shallow presentation of human morality is a large part of the reason why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has enjoyed such popularity over the years, since it corresponds exactly with the philosophically shallow views of the average individual.

     There are also problems with Stevenson's execution of the plot. Jekyll manages to manufacture the drug—the chief component of which he refers to as "a particular salt which I knew, from my experiments, to be the last ingredient required" (58)—remarkably easily. If he had come up with this formula with such effortlessness, why had it not been discovered decades or centuries before? Only much later does Jekyll provide a lame qualification, stating that it was the "impurity" (71) of the salt in the first batch of his potion that caused his transformation into Hyde.

     It should be noted that Stevenson, to his credit, is not maintaining that Jekyll is all "good" and Hyde all "evil." The latter may be the case, but the former is not. Indeed, in the earlier part of the narrative we are told that Jekyll had "sinned" (21) in youth; evidently, this is a reference (as Jekyll confesses) to a "certain gaiety of disposition" (56) that conflicted with the scholarly seriousness he wished to present to the world. All this seems to us harmless enough, but to Jekyll it is clearly a matter of concern: "I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in touch with a doctor, Hastie Lanyon, and asks him to bring a fresh supply of drugs to change himself back again. If Hyde, who has been consistently portrayed as entirely "evil," is dominant in the man's personality at this moment, why would he wish to change back to Jekyll? Is it merely to evade the authorities for the murder of the M.P., since a number of individuals had identified Hyde as the murderer and forced him to go into hiding? Whatever the case, the new potion does not work, leading Jekyll/Hyde to come up with the contrived "impurity" argument.

     The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, in truth, a novella that should have been a novel. Stevenson has a potentially rich and complex idea at his disposal, but he has expressed it in a disappointingly conventional and morally unadventurous manner, and the work is so compressed that the full ramifications of the concept fail to appear. Possibly Stevenson—who, quite frankly, occupies no higher than the second rank of literary greatness, his work in general aesthetically crippled by a jaunty glibness of style, an evil facility in plot construction, and a general absence of profundity—was incapable of giving the idea more detailed treatment; and even though the idea is now in the public domain, it is not clear that anyone else has done so either....

Stephen King, in his 1980 book Danse Macabre, is more direct in his outright praise of the Jekyll/Hyde trope, and of Stevenson as stylist:

….Stevenson's brief and cautionary tale is like the quick, mortal stab of an icepick.  

     Like a police-court trial (to which the critic G. K. Chesterton compared it), we get the narrative through a series of different voices, and it is through the testimony of those involved that Dr. Jekyll's unhappy tale unfolds....

....Hyde, Enfield admits to Utterson, "carried it off like Satan." When Enfield demands compensation in the name of the little girl, Hyde disappears through the door under discussion and returns a short time later with a hundred pounds, ten in gold and a check for the balance. Although Enfield won't tell, we find out in due course that the signature on the check was that of Henry Jekyll.

     Enfield closes his account with one of the most telling descriptions of the Werewolf in all of horror fiction. Although it describes very little in the way we usually think of description, it says a great deal—we all know what Stevenson means, and he knew we would, because he knew, apparently, that all of us are old hands at watching for the mutant:

     He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarcely know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn't specify the point. He's an extraordinary looking man, and yet I can really name nothing out of the way. . . . And it's not for want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.

     It was Rudyard Kipling, years later and in another tale, who named what was bothering Enfield about Mr. Hyde. Wolfsbane and potions aside (and Stevenson himself dismissed the device of the smoking potion as "so much hugger-mugger"), it is very simple: somewhere upon Mr. Hyde, Enfield sensed what Kipling called the Mark of the Beast....

[Jekyll] has created Hyde to escape the strictures of propriety, but has discovered that evil has its own strictures.... 

[My emphasis - Jay]

....The difference between Utterson and Jekyll is that Jekyll would only drink gin to mortify a taste for vintages in public. In the privacy of his own library he's the sort of man who might well drink an entire bottle of good port (and probably congratulate himself on not having to share it, or any of his fine Jamaican cigars, either). Perhaps he would not want to be caught dead attending a risqué play in the West End, but he is more than happy to go as Hyde. Jekyll does not want to mortify any of his tastes. He only wants to gratify them in secret.

....A bit of a swerve off the main road here. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published a good three decades before the ideas of Sigmund Freud would begin to surface, but in the first two sections of Stevenson's novella the author gives us a startlingly apt metaphor for Freud's idea of the conscious and subconscious minds—or, to be more specific, the contrast between superego and id. Here is one large block of buildings. On Jekyll's side, the side presented to the public eye, it seems a lovely, graceful building, inhabited by one of London's most respected physicians. On the other side—but still a part of the same building—we find rubbish and squalor, people abroad on questionable errands at three in the morning, and that "blistered and distained door" set in "a blind forehead of discoloured wall." On Jekyll's side, all things are in order and life goes its steady Apollonian round. On the other side, Dionysus prances unfettered. Enter Jekyll here, exit Hyde there. Even if you're an anti-Freudian and won't grant Stevenson's insight into the human psyche, you'll perhaps grant that the building serves as a nice symbol for the duality of human nature.

....Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a masterpiece of concision—the verdict of Henry James, not myself. In that indispensable little handbook by Wilfred Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, the thirteenth rule for good composition reads simply: "Omit needless words." Along with Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Douglas Fairbairn's Shoot, Stevenson's economy-sized horror story could serve as a textbook example for young writers on how Strunk's Rule 13—the three most important words in all of the textbooks ever written on the technique of composition—is best applied. Characterizations are quick but precise; Stevenson's people are sketched but never caricatured. Mood is implied rather than belabored. The narrative is as chopped and lowered as a kid's hot rod....

Utterson eventually traces Hyde to his Soho bolt-hole. 

The lawyer stood awhile when Mr. Hyde had left him, the picture of disquietude. Then he began slowly to mount the street, pausing every step or two and putting his hand to his brow like a man in mental perplexity. The problem he was thus debating as he walked, was one of a class that is rarely solved. Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him.1 "There must be something else," said the perplexed gentleman. "There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr. Fell?k or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last, I think; for, O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend."


....tonight there was a shudder in his blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory; he felt (what was rare with him) a nausea and distaste of life; and in the gloom of his spirits, he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight on the polished cabinets and the uneasy starting of the shadow on the roof....

     And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. "Poor Harry Jekyll," he thought, "my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, pede claudo, l years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault." And the lawyer, scared by the thought, brooded awhile on his own past, groping in all the corners of memory, lest by chance some Jack-in-the-Box of an old iniquity should leap to light there. His past was fairly blameless; few men could read the rolls of their life with less apprehension; yet he was humbled to the dust by the many ill things he had done, and raised up again into a sober and fearful gratitude by the many he had come so near to doing, yet avoided....

The phrase "Jack-in-the-Box of an old iniquity" is pregnant indeed, and not only with the handful of strange stories Stevenson lived to write. "We are the real monsters; and our own deadly enemies" was a central aesthetic (if not also philosophical) insight of the Yellow Nineties, and echoed for a century among practitioners of the horror mode.

The peripeteia of Stevenson's life gave readers dozens of romance and strange-story masterpieces. Having just read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the first time, I gratefully acknowledge its place as first among equals. Jekyll is a very modern character, and not merely for his modern professional trappings. He is the middle class civic saint ultimately undone by an arrogance that permits him to think he could have his cake and eat it, too.

Moral: travel cautiously - if at all - if your fellow traveler (and secret sharer) is a Mr. Hyde.


27 February 2021


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Comedy of terror in The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance by H. G. Wells (1897)

I just read the novel The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (1897) for the first time on Monday. 

Maria Parrino, in The Gothic Encyclopedia, defines the grotesque thusly: "The grotesque deals with distorted or unnatural forms set in an extravagant arrangement aiming at a disturbing comic effect."

Unnatural and extravagant certainly typify the early science fiction stories and novels Wells produced in the Yellow Nineties. And The Invisible Man is first and foremost filled with disturbingly comic instances and scenes.

At first these are at the expense of Iping locals who have to contend with inexplicable chaos after the arrival of a mysterious stranger. This is particularly the case with the Halls, whose Coach and Horses inn becomes the stranger's bolt-hole.

Beyond these comic opening chapters, the reader might expect a growing sympathy for the stranger's predicament. But Griffin, the stranger, is at the mercy of his own limited ingenuity from the moment he decides, before the novel begins, to use his invisibility for personal profit. 

Make no mistake: Griffin is a real villain. (And an albino villain, another "first" for Wells. This is an aspect of the novel I was unaware of and have never seen mooted in film and TV adaptations).

From Matthew Beaumont's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics paperback:

....A physicist and former chemist, Griffin is no more than 'a shabby, poverty-struck, hemmed-in demonstrator, teaching fools in a provincial college' (p. 83) when he first apprehends that it might be possible to make the 'whole fabric' of his body (p. 82), including in the end his blood, completely colourless and transparent. As he himself points out, he is 'almost an albino', 'with a pink and white face and red eyes', and this lack of skin pigmentation makes it easier for him to decolourize his tissues (p. 71): ' "… I could be Invisible," I said, suddenly realising what it meant to be an albino with such knowledge' (p. 82). In addition, his albinism reinforces his embattled sense of being a social outsider. In the nineteenth century, after all, albinos were exhibited at carnivals and fairs, and classed among degenerates. Because of his albinism the Invisible Man is already cut off from his kind.

     Sick of confronting a sense of personal, professional, and social impotence, Griffin is driven, in his dream of making himself invisible, by what Friedrich Nietzsche, exactly a decade before the publication of The Invisible Man, identified as ressentiment  —  the vindictively resentful attitude fostered in the individual as a result of the negation of the self that, as opposed to the 'noble morality' of 'the masters', is characteristic of 'slave morality'.1 In this respect, his psychological condition anticipates that of the eponymous character of Wells's later novel The History of Mr Polly (1910), who hates 'the whole scheme of life', which he regards as 'at once excessive and inadequate of him', and who consequently falls, each day, 'into a violent rage and hatred against the outer world'.2 But Griffin is far more malicious than Mr Polly. He is sociopathic. At one point, in order to fund his research, he steals from his own father, who then kills himself because he is secretly in debt.

     Frustrated in his ambitions, Griffin 'find[s] compensation in an imaginary revenge', to frame it in terms of Nietzsche's formulation — his dream of becoming an invisible Übermensch.3 After discovering 'a general principle of pigments and refraction', Griffin devotes himself to his obsessive scientific labours in the laboratory he has surreptitiously set up in a cheap apartment in central London; and devises an elaborate method that makes it possible, 'without changing any other property of matter', as he puts it in his retrospective narrative, 'to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air — so far as all practical purposes are concerned' (p. 80).4 'Wounded by the world', the Invisible Man thus sets out to dominate it through his command of experimental science, and so to make himself one of the 'masters of the world'.5

     Once he has performed the painful metamorphosis that follows his secretive experiments, Griffin gives full expression to his contempt for 'the common conventions of humanity' and the 'common people' who embody them (p. 104). Inspired by his ressentiment, the Invisible Man's vengeful and destructive actions, which culminate in his announcement that he will initiate a Reign of Terror, ensure that he quickly becomes universally feared. He announces 'the Epoch of the Invisible Man', and rumours of his terroristic campaign fan out across the nation (p. 119). The police, in response to the Invisible Man's attempt to implement this terroristic dream, instate 'a stringent state of siege' across an area of several hundred square miles surrounding the place in the countryside to which he has fled (p. 116). But this is too late for one man 'of inoffensive habits and appearance' whom Griffin beats to death, in 'a murderous frenzy', with an iron rod (p. 116): 'He stopped this quiet man, going quietly home to his midday meal, attacked him, beat down his feeble defences, broke his arm, felled him, and smashed his head to a jelly' (p. 116). This is not the 'judicious slaying' Griffin boasted of making when he insisted on establishing his Reign of Terror; it is a 'wanton killing' (p. 110). If he is sociopathic, he is almost psychopathic too. Even the insane moral code to which this monomaniac had hitherto adhered has collapsed.

     Finally, in fulfilment of the function of an ancient scapegoat, the Invisible Man is hunted down and brutally killed in what amounts to a sacrificial ritual performed by the community. 'As if by irresistible gravitation towards the unpleasant,' explained one of Wells's most appreciative contemporaries, the campaigning journalist W. T. Stead, when he came to recapitulate its remorseless plot, 'the invisible man passes through a series of disastrous experiences, until finally he goes mad and is beaten to death as the only way of putting an end to a homicidal maniac with the abnormal gift of invisibility.'6

On the run, Griffin goes to ground at a house in the village of Port Burdock occupied - coincidentally -  by old schoolmate Kemp.

After all the toing-and-froing forced on Griffin, he thinks this reunion is pure serendipity. An invisible man, driven by a profound sense of ressentiment, who dreams of becoming a secret terrorizer of people on a grand scale, must have a safe house for loot and clothes, a place to hide during days of rain and snow and smog. 

Poor old Kemp, snug in a nice little house with a belvedere, carefully tending his own professional scientific ambitions, loses no time alerting authorities. He keeps Griffin talking until they arrive:

      'What I want, Kemp, is a goal-keeper, a helper, and a hiding-place; an arrangement whereby I can sleep and eat and rest in peace and unsuspected. I must have a confederate. With a confederate, with food and rest, a thousand things are possible.

     'Hitherto I have gone on vague lines. We have to consider all that invisibility means; all that it does not mean. It means little advantage for eavesdropping and so forth — one makes sounds. It's of little help — a little help, perhaps — in housebreaking and so forth. Once you've caught me you could easily imprison me. But on the other hand I am hard to catch. This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases. It's useful in getting away; it's useful in approaching. It's particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like, dodge as I like, escape as I like.'

     Kemp's hand went to his moustache. Was that a movement downstairs?

     'And it is killing we must do, Kemp.'

     'It is killing we must do,' repeated Kemp. 'I'm listening to your plan, Griffin; but I'm not agreeing, mind. Why killing?'

     'Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is: They know there is an Invisible Man — as well as we know there is an Invisible Man — and that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes; no doubt it's startling, but I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town, like your Burdock, and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them.'

     'Humph!' said Kemp, no longer listening to Griffin, but to the sound of his front door opening and closing.

     'It seems to me, Griffin,' he said, to cover his wandering attention, 'that your confederate would be in a difficult position?'

     'No one would know he was a confederate,' said the Invisible Man eagerly….

Griffin is a monster without the pathos of Jekyll; he suffers under no metabolic compulsions, like a vampire. He is not even a mad scientist, his scientific discovery as science is beside the point. Invisibility simply and ironically displays the real Griffin: thief, absconder, megalomaniac.


25 February 2021

Monday, February 22, 2021

Margery Lawrence's strange club stories

Nights of the Round Table: A Book of Strange Tales by Margery Lawrence (1998, Ash-Tree Press)

Margery Lawrence (1889-1969) is having an outstanding 2021. She is included in the canon-making Handheld Press anthology Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940, edited by Melissa Edmundson. The story selected, "The Haunted Saucepan," is one of the book's real jewels, a masterpiece of the uncanny whose unpromising title contributes to reader complacency. It's a complacency Lawrence happily crushes with each turn of her screw.

Nights of the Round Table is a club story collection. Most members, regardless of their middle class profession, are conversant with the supernatural and happy to explore their personal experiences. Most of the tales are modest in scope, though Lawrence handles even small-scale weirdness with Jamesian suggestiveness. 

January: The Occultist's Story: Vlasto's Doll • (1925)

The doll in question is the highlight of Karl Vlasto's stage show. It is a mechanical masterpiece, unsurpassed and uncannily lifelike. 

'"My friends, you will forgive me that I am late. Fraulein Minna here, she was wilful and I could not manage her at all. You know how it is, with the ladies, . . ." His light magnetic eyes roved over the audience nudging each other and tittering, rather impressed but not quite sure whether they were intended to laugh or not. He went on in the same detached tone. "You know me—some of you—and you know I tell the truth when I introduce my Minna to you as the One and Only Living Doll in the World. To those others who see her here for the first time tonight, I say now the same thing . . . look at her well. Come up to me here, gentlemen. . . ." His quick eye had obviously seized upon us and our English clothes in the crowd of Germans. . . . "I say always to my new audiences, come up and see! There are many who say my Minna is no doll at all, but a live woman—but they lie. With my own hands did I make her, from every tiny joint in her wonderful body to the last hair on her head . . . yet she is alive! It is true—the Only Living Doll in the World. Hey, Minna!"

     'I admit, I jumped! The doll rose, stiffly, but quite of her own accord. Vlasto was standing at the left of the stage a good ten feet away from her, and certainly I could see no wires. She advanced, walking mechanically but steadily, and came to the side of the man. . . . She towered above him nearly a foot, and the blank painted face and staring eyes were somehow very unpleasant to see so close—we were right under the lee of the stage. Leaning idly back against the pillar of the proscenium, Vlasto addressed the doll.

     "'Well, Minna—bow to the ladies and gentlemen, and say good evening to them!"

     'His lean hand was caressing his chin, but his lips were firmly shut, and closely as I looked, I could see no muscles working, as is usual in any ventriloquist's cheek. The doll answered, as I stared, in a hard but definitely feminine voice.

     '"Good evening, my friends! I am glad to see you."

     'The wooden mouth opened, the lips parted, the words came forth, yet I could see no perceptible crack in the face!

     'I sat forward, aroused to real interest. This was certainly clever. . . . As I sat up, Vlasto addressed me personally, in fluent but execrable English.

     '"Good efening, mister gentlemans. You come up on der stage and see der iss no lie in what I say—that my Minna she is chust a doll and no woman hidden unter paindt and moch cleferness. I will be pleasst if you kom. Dere are many English gentlemans who say I lie, bot I do not lie. Kom, see der Doll dat lives and iss yet a Doll only!"

     'I found myself and Barrington, my chum, eagerly scrambling up on to the dusty, draughty stage. The wings, I noticed, were crowded with other artistes in various stages of undress, cloaks huddled over their make-up, watching Vlasto with a breathless interest that certainly argued well for the position he held in the Bavarian theatrical world.

     'As we stood each side the figure—awkwardly, as does every Englishman under the fire of a thousand eyes—Vlasto took the Doll, and with a quick touch at her neck, lo, she "fell apart", splitting open down the back, dress and all, like the inside of an immense and complicated watch. Barrington, who is a mechanical engineer by profession, was absorbed in interest; as for me, I understood nothing of the technicalities of what I saw, but I had to abandon my first impression, which was that the Doll was simply a cleverly made-up woman. She was, really, a Doll. . . .

     'Vlasto was watching Barrington's face as he pattered his glib speeches to the audience, watching us as we poked and pried among the mechanism, then, just as Barrington bent to examine closer, he twisted the Doll cleverly to face the audience and bowed to us in dismissal.

     '"Chentlemans, you are fery good. You haf seen my Minna iss a Doll in truth, and no dressed-up womans to deceive. Now, my good friends, you have seen how she works, my wonderful Doll. Now she shall work really to amuse us all. Minna!" 'With a click something shot into place, and the Doll, whole once more, rose to her feet and faced her master. The orchestra struck up, and, opening her mouth, she began to sing!

     'Now, I can assure you I was not in the least a nervy sort of lad, though I had, of course, the very delicate "sixth sense" that all occultists have more developed than most people . . . but that singing made me shiver! How, I really cannot tell you—but it was so—so beastly inhuman! It was a loud, harsh, metallic voice, such as you might well imagine would issue from a doll's throat, if a doll could ever sing, yet there was something quite horribly feminine about it, something like a human streak hiding under the mechanical, if you know what I mean! It was a gay marching song, with a lot about "Deutschland" and "Der Kaiser", and so on . . . and it was applauded to the echo, of course, but somehow I sat and shivered and simply loathed it, as that steely voice rang on through the silent theatre, and that flat, expressionless wooden face stared straight ahead into space over our heads. At the finish, under cover of the crashing applause, I turned to Barrington, and found his brow creased by a faint frown. I hesitated to speak, dreading his laughter, as a sensitive fellow will, and he spoke, to my astonished relief.

     '"Hellier—this is—queer. And rather beastly, somehow. Don't know why—but don't you feel it?"

     'I nodded eagerly. "Of course, it's simply hateful. He's damnably clever . . . but I feel like you, only more so. Have ever since he came on the stage . . . what is it, do you think?"

     'Barrington was frowningly intent upon the stage.

     '"I can't say, but I noticed one very odd thing when we saw that doll's inside. Hush, I'll tell you afterwards. Something else is on."

February: The Poet's Story: Robin's Rath • (1923)

A young American pork packing heiress purchases an estate and decides to make a shortcut from her door to the local golf course. Bourgeois arrogance gets its just desserts, rest assured.

     'Of course I am—I have—it goes with Ghyll Hall! Besides, when I get a path made it will make a perfect short cut to the golf-links.'

     There was a sudden stir and rustle among the group of villagers; with one accord they looked at old Giles—and there was a pointed little silence. Flushing with annoyance, Ellen glanced from one face to another. Her one wish was to get on well with the villagers of this tiny lovely village, Ghyllock, which seemed to live in the shelter of the old manor-house, Ghyll Hall, for centuries the seat of the Ruddocks, and now passing, like so many other many-memoried old houses, into the hands of the stranger. An only child, her father wax in her hands, the pretty spoilt American beauty had passed through Ghyllock only once, on a motor tour, and seeing the wonderful old house set in miles of green woods and meadows and fields, had given her father no peace till he offered to buy it for her—much as he would have endeavoured to buy the moon, had she wanted it! The grounds ran down to a narrow belt of woodland, thick with undergrowth, the tangling green luxuriance that had never known shears or pruning knife—Robin's Rath. Beyond lay the golf links, within easy walking distance of the Hall when the path mentioned should be cut—certainly it seemed a good idea, and there was some reason for Ellen's puzzled annoyance at the sudden silence that greeted her remark. Even the landlord of the picturesque inn, The Goose with the Golden Eggs, lounging in the shadow of his own doorway to listen to the gossip under the great elm tree outside, put down his mug of beer and stared at her curiously. She spoke sharply, addressing old Giles, whose heavy white brows were drawn down over his intent old eyes in a heavy frown.

     'What in the world's the matter? You all look as if I'd threatened to kill somebody!'

     'Ye're cutting a path through the Rath?' Giles's voice was a little raised so that all might hear the enormity proposed. Ellen flushed angrily now, and spoke, settling her pointed chin more decidedly into her vivid blue woollen scarf.

     'Certainly I am—it's the quickest way to the links. Is there any reason why I should not?'

     Everyone was listening intently now, and Giles gave an odd laugh, still studying her under his shaggy brows.

     'No, missy; no real reason. But ye shudna' try—ye shudna' try!'

     'Why on earth?' Ellen was getting both thoroughly ruffled and a little alarmed now. The old man sent a swift glance round at the circle of interested faces.

     'Robin's Rath never bin touched, Missy. If ye'll tek an old man's advice ye'll leave it be—Robin's Rath's better as it is.'

     'Aye—aye, right enough.' 'Leave it be, Miss—better leave it be.'

     A confused chorus of voices from the watching group all gravely eyeing her, emphasised the old man's words, and with a quick angry shrug and laugh Ellen turned away, pushing the ends of the scarf into the front of her grey tweed jacket.

     'Really, you are talking nonsense! I shall do what I choose with the place—sorry if it annoys you, but I really see no sense in what you say against the idea of cutting a path through a piece of wild land! Good day. . . .'

     Her slim figure disappeared round the turn of the lane, and old Giles shrugged his shoulders as he took up his pipe again.

     'No sense?—well, well! Happen she'll see sense before 'tes too late—happen she mayn't; then the Lord help her, for she's a pretty piece enough.'

March: The Hypnotist's Story: The Woozle • (1924)

Does a child's mind have the power to create a closet monster? Margery Lawrence does brilliantly here with the cross-purposes and conflicting loyalties of what today we would euphemise as a blended family.

'Perhaps the sight of his pretty mother as she ran down the stairs in a new and gorgeous frock, too hurried to stop and kiss him good night, had upset him with its reminder of the days not so long vanished when it was Mummy's hand that tucked him up and Mummy's voice that bade him "shut eye-peeps, sonny, and go to sleep". At all events, sleep he would not, and Ethel, more and more impatient to get away for the precious hour with her young man, waxed more and more irritated as the time wore on. Twice she thought the child safely asleep, and, on her tiptoeing to the door the little fretful voice had arisen.

     '"Ethel! Where you goin' to, Ethel? I want a drink!" or a pillow turned, or a toy found, or something done, after the usual manner of a peevish, restless child. When this happened for the fifth time Ethel lost her temper completely, and as she tucked up the rumpled bedclothes she spoke, viciously:

     '"Look here, Master Tony, I've 'ad about enough of your noise for tonight. I'm going to turn the light down, and if you don't lie quiet and go to sleep like a good boy, I'll tell the bogey what lives in the dark cupboard to come out and punish you for being so naughty—there now!"

     The child turned suddenly arrested eyes upon her.

     '"In the toy cupboard—somekin lives in there?" His startled gaze surveyed the girl as, emboldened by what she considered her success, she proceeded to embroider her tale.

     '"Yes—and what'd mother do if she found her little boy gone one fine day? He's after all naughty boys what don't do what they're told, he is—just waits till it's dark and quiet, and then he comes creeping out of his cupboard, creeping and creeping  . . ."

     'The wide eyes turned from her face to the open-gaping mouth of the dark toy cupboard beside the fireplace, then back again; there was a dawning terror in them, but the foolish girl did not see, and when he lay down obediently and let her tuck him up and turn the light low she inwardly congratulated herself upon her astuteness on finding a method of silencing the eternal clatter of the little tongue. To her secret surprise he did not even make his usual protest at the lowering of the light, but lay curled in a little heap deep under the bedclothes. His eyes followed her as she went, unblinking, wide with the first touch of fear, and a hand laid on the tiny tight-curled body would have felt it shaking, shaking. . . .

     'Ethel Alford returned to the nursery ten minutes or so before her master and mistress were due home, in high spirits, and a new bangle from her admirer. She took a peep at her charge, and went to bed contented that all was well. True, the child had fallen asleep at last, but if she had had any knowledge of children, she would have noticed that he had not moved one inch from the bunched-up position in which she left him, deep in the cot under the clothes, and these were ominously dragged over his head and held there in a small clenched hand.

     'He was subdued for the next few days, and played quietly; trotted at her heels in the Park instead of romping with his usual group of small friends, and behaved with exemplary propriety. As a matter of fact, Ethel had forgotten her hasty remark altogether, and was rather startled and none too pleased when one day he asked suddenly:

     '"Ethel! Does he still live there?" A small hand pointed to the toy cupboard, and the blue eyes that turned up to hers were a shade dilated in the firelight. It was nearly seven o'clock, and bedtime drawing near, and the shadows, the deep shadows that were once so warm and friendly, were already beginning to play in the comers of the big nursery.

     'For a moment Ethel was disconcerted. To do her justice, she had not the remotest idea of the harm she was doing, or one might blame her more bitterly; the fact that the child remembered her remark surprised her, and for a moment she hesitated. Then she remembered how well Tony had recently behaved, and was reluctant to admit she had invented the whole thing, lest her authority over him be weakened. . . . Hastily she picked him up and set him on her knee, a belated compunction catching at her heart.

     '"Now that's all right, Master Tony! I told you he only came for naughty boys, and you bin as good as gold these days—he won't come after you as long as you're good and do what Ethel tells you!"

April: The Barrister's Story: Floris and the Soldan's Daughter • (1925)

Narrator Otway's friend Floris is besotted by something the narrator assumes is a worthless curio or trinket. Floris calls it "The Soldan's Daughter." 

     I took Floris down with me for a week to my people in Hampshire. They were charmed with him, his funny little shy manner was disarming, though his clothes were more wildly untidy than ever, and my mother is generally scrupulously particular about that sort of thing; I caught her mending a hole in Floris's flannel coat the second day—my stately mother darning a disreputable grey jacket, with a houseful of maids at her service!—so that shows you the sort of effect he had on women.

     As for my very pretty sister Molly, she fell violently in love with him, and grew exasperated almost to frenzy at his complete unconsciousness and failure to perceive a state of mind that would have sent any other of her many adorers at once into the seventh heaven. We golfed, though he was an execrably bad player, ran about in the car, and, since he didn't play bridge, I generally left him to Molly to amuse after dinner—a task in which she generally succeeded to a heart-breaking extent, since three evenings with her dark eyes were usually enough to send any normal young man into a seriously lovelorn condition. Not so Floris, to her great chagrin—he liked her, liked to sit or, rather, lie, a long, limp figure, hands in the pockets of his dinner-jacket, listening to her as she played or sang, his great eyes staring into the fire. But as she angrily told me later, she soon stopped that, knowing, as a pretty woman instantly knows, that all the joy she gave him with her music might just as well have been provided by a gramophone. He wanted to think, and music was a good accompaniment. As usual with spoilt women, seeing he did not even advance half-way, she did, and received a snub—though again, so gently done, and so unconscious a snub, that even in her feminine chagrin she yet could not be angry with him.

     For the first time Molly failed to make a hit, and it ruffled her considerably! I asked for details, and she replied impatiently, 'Oh, he's not stiff and nervous, there'd be more hope if he were, but he's just always nice and sweet and casually polite, so much so, that it's obvious I might as well have a beard like Great-Aunt Jane! And I've been flirting with him more shamelessly than ever I did . . . you know I have.'

     'I do,' I said, with a suppressed grin—for, indeed, Molly's infatuation had been more than noticeable. She hurried on, punctuating her speech with injured sniffs.

     'Well, he wouldn't rise a scrap, and really I got quite cross. I absolutely determined he should kiss me the day before he left, so I got him here after lunch, and I know I'm looking nice in this new frock—and I just meant to make him. We talked, you know what a funny inconsequent way of talking at random about all sorts of little things he has: and I looked at him.'

     I knew Molly's way of looking, and its usual effect. I nodded to fill the gap, and she went on:

     'And just as I really thought he was going to melt at last, he looked at me very straight, and said in a sort of reflective voice, "Yes. I should rather like to kiss you in some ways—but after all, you're not the Soldan's Daughter!" Now what do you make of that?'

May: The Golfer's Story: The Fifteenth Green • (1926)

They broke ground on the new coastal golf course's expansion; the new fifteenth required removal of an old man and his hut. The old man was vocal in his protests, and in his promises about the misfortunes players would reap. Daily gales on the fifteenth hole were only the start. 

"The Fifteenth Green" is the most successful weird story in Nights of the Round Table. Though there are echoes of the superb Wakefield story "The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster" (1928), the folk-horror background of "lurking millennial horror" (Lovecraft) is not presented as the cause of menace. Nor is the cause a Blackwoodian nature spirit, as in "Robin's Rath."

     "....How dull and gloomy it seemed to be growing, and how the wind whipped the bending seagrass, and howled among the crouching bushes! To Binner's fevered fancy, now, they seemed like hunched figures grouping together in the hollows, on the frowning ridges, peering, nudging, whispering to each other to look as Harry Lansing, all unconscious, strode swiftly onwards towards his fate.

     'Beside Binner the two caddies trotted along together, whispering too, their frightened eyes avoiding his—blind, helpless, they were all caught up together into this great Web that was being woven, and could stir no hand nor foot to avert things . . . in a dream he caught snatches of the boys' muttered talking, scared, incoherent. . . .

     '". . . Seen it again larst night, Alf did . . . crawlin' up from the sea all wet, ugh!—black and shiny in the moonlight . . . like nothin' on earth. Somep'n like a man, but it ain't a man . . . wouldn't come dahn 'ere a' nights for noffink, I wouldn't. And now Lansing had reached the Green!

     'Binner, halting by his own ball, deep buried in a tussock of grass, reached mechanically for a club as his friend turned and shouted to him, striding over the smooth surface of the green towards the drop into the deep bunker beyond. ". . . easy . . . can see it now . . . beat you here! . . ." came faintly back to him on the buffeting wind, and Harry Lansing dropped out of sight over the edge. Binner, with a curiously fatalistic feeling that now—now it was over—what did it matter what he did?—bent over his ball; but at that moment quite suddenly and horribly Lansing's caddie, struggling after him against the wind, began to scream, wildly, dreadfully, and throwing his clubs down, dropped upon the turf, his face in his hands.

     'The humanness of the sound, despite its horror, awoke Binner to action from his curious stupor of acquiescence . . . and he ran, ran like a hare to the crouched boy, cowering and shivering . . . but the lad waved him wildly on, screaming incoherencies.

     '"I saw It! I saw It . . . It's got 'im . . ." The words died away as Binner rushed on to the green, crossed it and stared blankly down into the deep hollow the further side . . . and it was empty! Empty as the blank sea, the sighing air—the idle club lay beside the white gleaming ball, clear against the sandy bottom, but of the fat cheerful player there was no trace—nor, since then, has Harry Lansing ever been heard of more!'


     We drew in our breaths and exchanged glances. Hellier, absorbed, spoke first of all of us. He loved to know the details, to finish off his knowledge as it were.

     'It . . . the Thing the caddie screamed about! What was it?'

     Ponting lifted his shoulders and shook his head.

     'How can I say?' His voice was sober. 'I—that is to say, Binner . . . Binner was too busy running to his friend's help to glance towards the sea and that sinister Boat that lolled up and down in the tide. Besides, he might not have seen whatever the caddie did see. I'm inclined to think the boy was an unconscious psychic . . . anyway, all Binner could get out of him between his crying and shivering was that Something . . . Something wet and dark and trailing that seemed to have been crouched among the nets—or maybe pulled itself into the Boat by the nets, he could never say. . . . But the lad had the definite momentary impression that as Lansing dropped Something trailed itself, sinuously and swiftly, horribly swiftly, out of the Boat and up the sand, and disappeared behind the Green into the fatal bunker behind it . . . and that's all! The Boat worked loose that night and was never seen again—if it ever was a Boat at all. . . . Sometimes I'm inclined to think it was only a sort of Screen for Whatever came out of the sea to wreak vengeance on the old man's behalf. I don't know . . . we shall never know now. But I resigned from the Club—that finished me as far as Rentford was concerned.'

     Amidst our impressed silence Ponting—otherwise Binner—stood up to go. By the door he turned, however, and, surveying the meditative roomful, added the last postscript to his yarn.

     'I heard afterwards, by the way, that the people that cleared out the old man's stuff—he never appeared to claim anything, so it was ultimately sold—found a lot of curious old books on various rather unpleasant sorts of black magic, and some curious instruments, with an ebony wand and some peculiarly nasty dried things—and they said the floor of the hut was all marked with chalk in various funny lines and diagrams. The man that kept the things had awful dreams and his wife got scared, so they burnt them . . . if we'd got them here now I rather think one might have found out things about the old man that would have startled us a bit, eh? Goodnight, Saunderson, and thanks awfully. Goodnight, you fellows.'

June: The Priest's Story: How Pan Came to Little Ingleton • (1926)

This is the mild, charming story of the sermon young stick-in-the-mud 

Reverend Thomas Minchin preached on Midsummer to his parishioners at Little Ingleton. It also details the fantastical encounter that preceded that address.

Before his paeans to Pan, Minchin was on a very different track:

     Had he not instituted fresh services, countless in number and strict in their ordinances? Suppressed dancing in the village hall or on the green? Closed down The George and Crown except for the sale of ginger ale and such innocuous drinks—banished from the chemist's shop poudre de riz, lip rouge, scents and other snares of the devil? Who but he had worked unceasingly for the regeneration of Little Ingleton—sunk as he had found it, in idle happiness, with but one or at most two services 'a Sunday, and used (low be it spoken!) to the lax ways of his predecessor, old Father Fagan, frail, gentle, kindly, who, it was whispered, at times so far forgot his duties as a clergyman as to watch and even take part in dancings and singings and junketings on the village green? Even Miss Rosamond Perkins, who wore pretty summer dresses of pink or blue and yellow patterned with gay little flowers, and had bright eyes and cherry lips—though to be sure, the Reverend Thomas had never noticed whether her lips were red or no—even Miss Perkins was reputed to have danced and laughed and played with these unregenerates before the advent of sterner ways.

July: The Soldier's Story: Death Valley • (1924)

Lawrence does a good job here depicting an encounter with an entity part folklore and part Bierce's "The Damned Thing." The story has that official administrator tone, and the economical guise of being a mere anecdote.

Dennison and Hill, both of the Rhodesian colonial administration (and very Sanders-of-the-River stout-hearted chaps) are on the track of ivory poachers. Hill precedes Dennison into the "death valley," but Dennison eventually catches up. 

     'I tiptoed in and stood beside the table; there was the dark stain of dried coffee still in the cups, the grease-marks and scattered crumbs still on the plates and knives. . . . All alike with the shadow of old dust still over them, grey and menacing. Picking up a plate, I put it down again hastily. In the corner, facing the door, lay the body of my chum, Hill, huddled back against the wall in a half-sitting position, his hands lax, fallen to his sides, and his head on his chest, thrust forward, the open eyes fixed on the blank wall to the right of the door. I choked down a gulp, and kneeling down, felt for his heart; he was dead and cold, and if I know the look in a dead man's eyes—and I should, by God!—he had died of fright.

     'The pale mouth was frozen into a dreadful square of horror, and the eyes were blank and staring. . . . I propped him up, poor old chap, and threw one of the tattered rugs from the bed over his body. Why, I don't quite know, but it seemed more decent somehow.

     "Then a thought struck me, and taking a straight line to the wall, where Hill's eyes were fixed, I found something startling. In a small space as large as the palm of my hand there were five bullet-holes in the wood! Going back to the body, I picked up the dropped revolver, and shook out the spent cartridges—five!

     'Something—or someone—had stood facing Hill against that wall, had stood immovable while he, backing, backing away from the terror that stood there, had fired off his last five shots and dropped in his tracks, slithering down the wall to the floor, the revolver dropping from his nerveless hand, his eyes fixed, glaring! Stooping, I measured the height of the shots from the floor—just the height of a man's heart they were, and all close together. Hill was a fine shot, and these had found their billet—but at what had he shot, in God's name?

     'Not a footprint but his, and now mine, disturbed the deep carpet of dust that spread the floor, and ours were unmistakable, in our thick square-heeled riding boots. Scratching my head, utterly perplexed, I stood staring from the holes in the wall to the white face of the corpse in the corner.

     'What—what had stood there smiling while Hill, mad with fear, pumped shot after shot pell mell into its heart, and sank? . . . I jumped, a cold nasty little feeling at my heart. What on earth had made me think of that particular word "smiling"? . . . Yet it was there, had been there, most distinctly! Pulling myself savagely together I shouted to the shrinking dogs, who still sat outside. Whining, they poked their great heads cautiously into the room one after the other, and promptly retreated.

     'It was only by dint of much swearing that at last they entered, mincing nervously in, nose to tail, their lucent brown eyes peering into every corner. I watched them interestedly. It was not the corpse they feared—Jack and Bella had both known Hill well, and Bella especially nosed piteously round him, moaning at his silence, poor bitch; no, it was something else. Together they trotted silently about the room, sniffing, inspecting, as a dog does—but I noticed that they avoided the bed in particular, and that neither of them went near the corner with the bullet-holes. I went and stood there and called Bella, my pet—she stood pawing the ground gently a little distance off, moaning in her great throat and staring at me and at the wall, but come nearer she would not.

August: The Egyptologist's Story: The Curse of the Stillborn • (1925)

Michael Frith, the archeologist, reports on the fate of an imperious vicar's wife, Mrs. Peter Bond. It's a wonderful acid sketch set amid a strong learns-better-but-too-late tale of colonial Egypt. It's a perfect August story.

     Mrs Bond pursed her lips disapprovingly. Upright and heavily built, in uncompromisingly stiff white piqué, her thick waist well-belted, her weatherbeaten face surmounted by a pith helmet, she looked impregnably solid and British, reflected Frith exasperatedly—three years among these people and no nearer comprehending them. He tried again.

     'You see—Mefren's a child of the desert . . . and her old mother's a pure-bred nomad . . . wild as a hawk. Why can't you let 'em bury their dead in peace?'

     'I am surprised at your attitude, Mr Frith! I'm sorry, but I can't undertake to advise my husband any differently. These people are ignorant, childish, superstitious. . . . I and my husband stand here to try and teach them better. And you actually suggest that I allow Mefren to bury her baby as she likes—presumably in the Desert, with I don't know what awful sort of heathen rites—when my husband is here a minister of the Lord, ready and anxious to give the poor little thing decent Christian burial! I must say I don't think this side of it can have struck you, Mr Frith!'

     Mrs Bond's voice was genuinely shocked. Restlessly little Michael Frith stirred and kicked a booted foot against the whitewashed wall. He frowned—how could he explain? The native point of view . . . and this good-hearted, narrow, stubborn woman!

     Vaguely his mind fled to Mefren, small, slender brown creature, and her mother, Takkari, silent and haggard, with black burning eyes beneath her voluminous haik. Wanderers both, they had appeared at the door of his tent one dawn with a request for food . . . he was encamped on the lip of the Valley of Blue Stones, a deep cleft between two ridges a few miles away from the tiny town of Ikh Nessan, where Peter Bond's little whitewashed church brooded over the tangle of mud huts like a white hen mothering a scattered handful of brown and alien chicks. Always soft-hearted, Frith had fed them both, and seeing the girl's condition and obvious exhaustion, had sent them into Ikh Nessan with a note to Mrs Bond—of whose kind heart, despite her irritating ways, none of the tiny colony had the least doubt. Food and shelter were at once forthcoming, and none too soon, for it came to pass, only a few days after the wanderers' arrival at Ikh Nessan, that the girl's time came upon her, but too soon . . . and a child was born, but dead—stillborn.

     Full of well-meaning sympathy and a genuine desire to help, Mrs Bond had hurried to inform Takkari, grimly silent, crouched in the shadows of the mud hut that sheltered the weeping girl, that despite the fact that the child, poor little soul, had died too early for baptism, her husband was ready at once to conduct the burial service. She was met by blank silence and a vigorous shake of the head. Dashed, and considerably annoyed, the Englishwoman demanded her reasons. Glowering silence again, but repeated attacks elicited the brusque information, in halting English, that 'Kistian bury no good. Come night, her bury self—come night, her go aways.'

     Naturally Mrs Bond was outraged, and withdrew to consult her husband. I fear, had it not been for Nature, whose heavy hand on the young mother forbade anything in the way of flight, Takkari and her daughter would have been away, lost in the heart of the Desert they came from, before that night. But the evening brought little Peter Bond, full of anxious sympathy for this frail member of the flock he genuinely loved, though shocked beyond measure at his wife's report of Takkari's refusal, and the sullen, stubborn silence with which she faced him. It was while awaiting the result of this, Mrs Bond felt, most momentous interview, standing at the rickety gate of the little walled garden, the evening sun warm on the tamarisks that sprawled, green and lusty, across the whitewashed wall, that Michael Frith, dusty and hot, trudged by and paused with a cheery word. Full of her story, she had poured it forth, and her surprise and indignation were great to meet his gaze at the end—a look in which politeness warred with frank disapproval. His sympathies were entirely with Mefren and her dour, free-striding old nomad mother; why should they who were, at best, mere birds of passage, be obliged to conform to the hidebound ideas of this stupid Englishwoman? Left to himself 'Peterkin', as the little chaplain was affectionately known, would have been a sympathetic, understanding father to these wayward children of his—it was the insistent domination of this well-meaning, sincerely religious, but supremely narrow-minded wife of his that drove him into insisting on the 'Church's rights'. The phrase was on Mrs Bond's lips as Frith aroused himself from his reverie; she was still talking, her square, hard-featured face stern with strong disapproval as she eyed him.

     'Towards a member of his flock—I told my husband he must not admit argument on the subject. As a Father, he must be Firm. . . .'

     'But surely, it's not as if Mefren was a Christian,' objected Frith drily; 'if it was a member of your husband's congregation . . .'

     'Oh, but she is!' Mrs Bond was eagerly assertive. 'They are both Christians . . . I took care to inquire about that when they came first, and Takkari assured me that both she and Mefren had been baptised!'

September: My Own Story: The Fields of Jean-Jacques • (1926)

"The Fields of Jean-Jacques" is a splendidly macabre story of rustic ritual blessing of blighted land to renew its fecundity. The instrument of this propitiation is the learning-disabled younger brother of a desperate farmer. Rural France is lovingly evoked.

     The Professor was talking, and Réné Baudin, young and eager student, listened reverentially as the great man expounded, waving one hairy hand in the air to emphasise his points as he chewed at his well-worn pipe-stem. Réné lay prone, half-buried in the deep sweet-smelling clover—his thin brown face propped on his hands. The fields were thick with waving young crops, and the gruff talk and laughter of the peasants working amongst them rang out clear in the warm stillness. The wide valley swept up each side to the majestic hills, vine-clad almost to their summits, and the little village in the hollow lay as if cradled in the lush greenness, red roofs and pointed gables emerging from the clustering orchards like rocks from a swirling tide—the Professor paused in his peroration, and flourished a great hand towards the gracious scene.

     'Fertility! The chief end and aim of Nature, argue how we will! The fertility of the soil-linked up, always and eternally, in the primitive mind, with the fertility of Man! And after all, fundamentally, the untutored mind may have come nearer to some eternal truth than we know. . . .'

     'You mean?' questioned Réné, his eyes fixed on his master with the passionate devotion of a neophyte.

     'Zut! You know the old ceremonies of fertilizing the land—that rite so old and twisted now that one has no hope of even ferreting out its original form . . . yet the essentials remain. The solemn ceremony of laying, as it were, the spell of fertility upon the waiting earth, so that the crops might germinate, the fruit set in the bud, the root form in the earth, what time the fruit of man formed within the womb of woman! In the very ancient days, no husband knew his wife while his crops were being sown; the women kept to themselves awaiting the great day, the day on which, all crops being sown, all preparations made and man and woman purified by fasting, the High Priest and Priestess led the people to the sacred fields, strewing flowers, singing and dancing, and there in the light of the moon enacted in sacred ceremony the Marriage of All Things! That night man met woman again, mating as mate the clean-living beasts of the field—and thus, they thought, the spell of fertility was laid upon the waiting earth, and fine crops, rich and plentiful, assured them. Well . . . it degenerated, as things will, from a fine and free conception, to a mere excuse for wild orgies such as the Saturnalia in Rome. . . . Even, in these days, it survives faintly yet in the procession of the Blessing of the Crops, the village curé with his book and his candle, treading the ploughlands to sprinkle them with holy water. . . .'

     'How annoyed he would be, the good Père Danou, if you told him he but kept alive the last memory of an antique superstition!' murmured Réné, his eyes crinkled with laughter.

     The Professor nodded.

     'H'm. Yes. Yet the whole world believed it once—that before the land can hope to bear good crops, to be fruitful, that it must be "christened" as it were, by the mating of man with woman in those same fields. A simple idea—a great idea—like many of the ideas that spring from the simple minds of the world—before it became complicated with theories and too-wise fools like me! Eh, my son?'

     'The Professor's large hand clapped his pupil affectionately on the shoulder as he rose heavily to his feet. Screwing his eyes up, he looked at his watch....'

October: The Host's Story: Morag-of-the-Cave • (1925)

"Morag-of-the-Cave" is an ambitious and poignant story of coastal Irish folkways and legends that contain within them more than a hint of species interbreeding. 

     'Is that the end?' I asked the question low.

     Silis shook her head.

     ''Twould have been kinder to her had it all ended so, poor soul. No, Ian came down to the village a dour, silent man, that had gone up the headland a lighthearted lad. Come the morning, the storm was past, and over the blue sea he rowed to find his love—or her body, as he thought. But lo, on the ledge Morag lay asleep and smiling! She stepped down into the boat with him, and when they got to shore, Ian McAlpine took her straight to the priest and bade him marry them. Aye—a great love had Ian McAlpine for Morag-of-the-Cave, for witless she was, more or less, now, and even her own folk, with the exception of her mother, turned against her. Not that Ian said aught of what he had seen—no, no—but they held that she had held converse with those that are Nameless, and so they shunned her, either in scorn or fear. . . .

     'Ian bought a fine boat of his own, and all went well till her time was near, and then . . . Mother o' God, pity and forgive us all our sins! One dark night Ian knocked at my cabin door, and I opened it—and there he stood with a bundle in his arms, and the eyes of him like a man who had stood face to face with naked Terror, and remains a man and sane. . . . He walked in, and I stood quaking because of I knew not what.

     '"Silis," says he, "lend me a spade."

     'Oh, the stroke of that on my heart, like the clod falling on a coffin-lid!

     '"A spade—Mary help you in your sorrow, Ian McAlpine," says I. "Is it your first-born son you'll be burying so soon, and that without prayer or priest to help him over the Threshold?"

     'With that Ian McAlpine laughed a dreadful laugh that was like the fall of yet another and heavier clod upon the coffin of my heart, and putting his wrapped burden on the table, turned away.

     '"Look, Silis Hagan—an' tell me if you can that I do wrong!"

     'It was shaking my hand were as I parted the folds and looked on the little body that lay there—and it was shaking my knees were, and dry and choking my throat as I looked upon it, and looked, and looked. All the Saints protect you from such a sight, for it'd haunt you to your dying day, as it does me—as it does me! All the colour of a toad's belly it was, the dreadful pallid white of the slime-born creatures that live in the deep waters—white and blind—and the face of it with a wide gaping mouth like a bull-frog, and heavy creased lids over staring eyes that had no colour but a pin-point of green where the pupils should be. But that was all small to the crowning horror, the thick body like a square log of pallid flesh with, at each corner, it seemed, a thing like a fin of the same dreadful pale flesh, fringed with flickering tentacles that even now seemed to twitch and move in the shuddering candle-flame. I staggered and reached out blindly, sick and heaving, and in a flash Ian was at my side putting me in a chair.

     '"Whist now—don't look at it again. Silis, Silis! Now you know . . . pray for me this night, pray for me, an' for the poor lost soul I left screaming on the bed. . . . Ah, Morag, mo-rùn, mo-rùn. A graidh-mo-Chridhe!'

     'Snatching up the spade that was standing beside the hearth, he went to the door, hiding the muffled bundle under his coat, and the darkness swallowed him up. Only then did I remember, in the dazed horror of the moment, that round the dreadful crinkled throat of—It—I had seen the livid marks of strangling fingers. . . .'

     Silis looked soberly at me.

     'That's the story of Morag-of-the-Cave. A month later Ian was drowned at sea, and she left a widow. All I know is that before he went to sea again—he was fey of the sea after that, poor lad, and told me it would have him soon—he went over the island to old Father Mahoney. Old and wise he is, wiser than those clever young priests that laugh at the Powers that dwell outside Mother Church—blessings be to her—but Ian brought something back with him to bar Morag-of-the-Cave away from Those that we know of! Sure, she'll still wander all her days beside the sea, the creature, but never again has she gone a step towards the cave . . . and it's to be hoped she's working out her purgatory here, poor soul, for sure enough she paid for her sin.'

November: The Superintendent's Story: The White Cat • (1924)

A kitchen-sink look at London slum life.

     'The old man's voice had dropped a shade, and there was a curiously unctuous, unpleasant quality in it as his eyes studied the child's downcast face. She flashed a glance up suddenly, stubborn for a second, and they eyed each other, the man's expression hidden from the watching woman by his heavy brows, but the child's for an instant sullen, heavy with hate. Barely a second, but the child's gaze wavered, failed and shrank into itself, and taking up the broom again, she moved wearily away.

     'Glancing up, old Lidgett met Mrs Tillett's eyes—his own for the moment brightly hard, triumphant. . . . Then in a flash, the veil dropped over them, blank and expressionless as usual. Mrs Tillett, an oddly uncomfortable feeling that she had surprised something she was not meant to see, and that, moreover, old Lidgett was not pleased she had seen, moved hastily away with a hurried goodbye. Lidgett laughed grimly as he watched her go. Shuffling into his accustomed chair, he shouted a gruff order to the small figure behind.

     '"Hey, you! No talking to that fat woman at the pub, d'ye hear? Nor not to anyone, abaht . . . anything, see? Else—well, you know abaht Lilly and the others . . . well, that ain't nothin' to what you'll get, so now. . . . You'll wish you was dead 'f I ever catch you squealin'! Get on with yer work and remember . . . blarsted white mouse wiv pink eyes, yeh! Ger-ron wiv it!"

     'Slink's Alley grew accustomed very quickly to Bina. At first her appearance was the signal for roars of mirth, and the local wags vied with each other in devising fresh names for the shrinking, white-haired creature.

     'Mrs Tillett came on a group one day round her, Joe Higginson and his pal, Swell Sam, holding her head back between their great hands, pointing out to the crowd those strange dreadful pink eyes.

     'Mrs Tillett had good, strong arms, and the cuffs she administered were singularly adequate. The publican's wife being something of a power in the land, Bina was left, after this little adventure, severely alone from the bullying point of view. Mrs Tillett, warm with fury, had marched off with the child, presented her with a plate of broken meats behind the bar, and after this had been devoured with a pathetic swiftness that spoke of more than poor fare at Lidgett's board, taken her back to her master and administered a criticism of his manner of life and character that would have withered anyone less hardened than old Mat Lidgett.

     'He retorted with remarks more pointed still, and there was a royal row, in consequence of which Bina was in future sent to The Carriers' Arms in Luck Lane, some way off, to fetch her master's supper beer, and even fewer and farther between became the small, occasional kindnesses shown her by the publican's fat wife. She struck up a curious friendship with the lean, forlorn white cat that belonged to Ma Tonks, an unpleasant old woman who divided her time between one "drunk", getting over that, and preparing for the next "drunk".

     'Children obey the herd instinct that avoids the odd and uncanny even more ruthlessly than their elders, and after the first excitement of curiosity had died down, they left the white-haired child severely alone. Very rarely in the day did Bina appear, but she became a familiar sight at night as she wandered, the cat at her heels, down by the darkly lapping water below the piers, or sat crouched, knees to chin, staring across the glimmering tide towards the farther shore, its packed warehouses, tenements, factories black against the star-strewn sky, its riverside lights reflected in broken yellow gleams that made a path to where she sat.

December: The Engineer's Story: The Haunted Saucepan • (1922)

"The Haunted Saucepan" is a fine thriller about murder afterward coming to light. Lawrence's skill as a writer carries the day.

 ....The open door made me jump for a second, but of course I said 'draughts' and thought so – I paused a second to light a cigarette – and the match dropped from my fingers and sputtered out upon the carpet. I held the unlighted cigarette between my fingers as I stared. As I am a living man, this is what I saw – or thought I saw. The saucepan – the little one on the stove, nearest the door – seemed to lift its lid a shade – it seemed to tilt, ever so slightly, cautiously, and from beneath its tilted lid, it looked at me! Yes, I suppose it doesn't sound as horrible as I want it to, but I swear to you that was the most eerie thing I ever saw, or want to see ... For a second I stood cold and dumb, my mouth sticky with fright – somehow the utter banality of the thing made it more terrifying – then I swore at myself, strode into the kitchen and seized the saucepan, holding it to the light.

     It was, of course, a mere trick of light – I remember noticing the previous night how brilliantly the moonlight streamed into the kitchen – but good heavens, it had shaken me for a minute, positively! That attack last night must have upset my nerves more than I knew – Lord, what a fool! I put the saucepan back, laughing heartily, and going into the hall, picked up my letters again, still grinning at my own folly. I glanced back at the kitchen as I went along to my room – I could still see the stove and the silent row of pans upon it. The lid of the little saucepan was still askew – it still had the absurd air of watching me stealthily from beneath it! There almost seemed a menace in its very stillness ...


22 February 2021