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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

[Short Story] "The Hint of an Explanation" by Graham Greene

For forty years I have been a determined purchaser and borrower of works by Graham Greene (1904-1991). I have even managed to read a few: the memoirs A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980) and the superbly strange and unnerving short novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980). Mostly, I was an avid and repeated watcher of films made of The Third Man (1949), The Honorary Consul (1973), and The Human Factor (1978).

Des Lewis's blog notes about Greene's story "The Hint of an Explanation" sent me again to Philip Hensher's The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: II: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith (2015). Lewis previously sent me there for "The Point of Thirty Miles" by T. H. White, which I wrote about here.

"The Hint of an Explanation" (1948) depicts a cold, uncomfortable night train journey. Two strangers share a compartment. Greene deftly paints the scene.

     I had soon realized I was speaking to a Roman Catholic – to someone who believed – how do they put it? – in an omnipotent and omniscient Deity, while I am what is loosely called an agnostic. I have a certain intuition (which I do not trust, founded as it may well be on childish experiences and needs) that a God exists, and I am surprised occasionally into belief by the extraordinary coincidences that beset our path like the traps set for leopards in the jungle, but intellectually I am revolted at the whole notion of such a God who can so abandon his creatures to the enormities of Free Will.

The narrator quickly poses the old theological chestnut: 'When you think what God – if there is a God – allows. It's not merely the physical agonies, but think of the corruption, even of children …'

     He said, 'Our view is so limited,' and I was disappointed at the conventionality of his reply. He must have been aware of my disappointment (it was as though our thoughts were huddled as closely as ourselves for warmth), for he went on, 'Of course there is no answer here. We catch hints …' and then the train roared into another tunnel and the lights again went out. It was the longest tunnel yet; we went rocking down it and the cold seemed to become more intense with the darkness, like an icy fog (when one sense – of sight – is robbed, the others grow more acute). When we emerged into the mere grey of night and the globe lit up once more, I could see that my companion was leaning back on his seat.

     I repeated his last word as a question, 'Hints?'

     'Oh, they mean very little in cold print – or cold speech,' he said, shivering in his overcoat. 'And they mean nothing at all to another human being than the man who catches them. They are not scientific evidence – or evidence at all for that matter. Events that don't, somehow, turn out as they were intended – by the human actors, I mean, or by the thing behind the human actors.'

     'The thing?'

     'The word Satan is so anthropomorphic.' I had to lean forward now: I wanted to hear what he had to say. I am – I really am, God knows – open to conviction. He said, 'One's words are so crude, but I sometimes feel pity for that thing. It is so continually finding the right weapon to use against its Enemy and the weapon breaks in its own breast. It sometimes seems to me so – powerless. You said something just now about the corruption of children. It reminded me of something in my own childhood. You are the first person – except for one – that I have thought of telling it to, perhaps because you are anonymous. It's not a very long story, and in a way it's relevant.'

     I said, 'I'd like to hear it.'

     'You mustn't expect too much meaning. But to me there seems to be a hint. That's all. A hint.'

The remainder of "The Hint of an Explanation" is the narrator's fellow traveller recounting a strange and menacing experience from his childhood. The story's end seems at first to be an example of inconclusiveness, but rereading dispels that conclusion.

*   *   *

"The Hint of an Explanation" features some of Greene's sharpest writing.

The travellers, for instance, can barely see one-another in the poorly lit compartment. Of the night time world outside, "an occasional signal lamp, a light in a window, a small country station torn backwards by our rush...."

The phrase "torn backwards by our rush" is admirably arresting, perfectly conveying the experience of train travel through a dark landscape.

I feel similar subjective enthusiasm for a phrase later in the story: "the weapon had been turned against its own breast."

Like the best strange stories of Machen, Bowen, and Aickman, "The Hint of an Explanation" rewards careful and patient reading.


30 May 2022

[Book Review] Children of the Night by John Blackburn

My 2014 edition of Children of the Night by John Blackburn (originally from Jonathan Cape in 1966) was published by Valancourt Books. Valancourt has reissued seventeen of Blackburn's thrillers over the last decade. This helps bring back into focus the actual outlines of UK literary horror production and reception: between 1940 and 1970, horror readers were not simply biding their time waiting for the Ramsey Campbells and James Herberts to hatch. 

*   *   *

Children of the Night is a heady and highly concentrated mix of cursed village, taboo moorland, sudden murderous madness, secret cults, and forsaken tin mines in a charming postage stamp of land in the northeast UK called Dunstonholme.

Blackburn's heroes (of the professional medical-military-colonial petty bourgeois meritocracy type) must butt heads literally with occult (hidden) forces in the area. Ultimately, they will also have to take on local potentates of church and state power: only the local doctor Tom Allen and professional adventurer Moldon Mott are smart enough to solve the mystery and try saving the day.

Shocked by early, sudden, and inexplicable violence and death in his locality, Dr. Allen learns the best source of facts about Dunstonholme lore is vicar David Ainger.

[....]It was pretty late. [Tom Allen] had arranged to meet Mary at seven-fifteen, and the church clock showed almost that now, though the sun was still high in the sky. Only a few more days to midsummer. The heather wasn't out, of course, but some trick of light gave the near-by hills a deep purple tinge which contrasted beautifully with the pale green of the sea. Tom glanced through the railings as he passed the church. There were some interesting monuments in the churchyard, all of them somehow connected with the sea, which often brought visitors to the village at week-ends. A shattered spar in a stone shrine: TO THE CREW OF THE BRIG, THREE BROTHERS, WHO PERISHED DURING THE GREAT GALE, DECEMBER 1843 . . . A cross with an anchor chain twined around it: IN MEMORY OF LIEUTENANT JOHN SPRAGGE, WHO DIED OF WOUNDS OFF CAPE SAINT VINCENT . . . A very old cross with the Latin inscription worn away, but he had been told that it once read: TO THE MURDERED VILLAGERS OF DUNSTONHOLME, JUNE 1300 – GOD WILL REPAY. He was almost at the end of the railings, when a tall gaunt figure wearing a clerical collar came out of the lych-gate and blocked his way.

     'Ah, there you are, Dr. Allen. I was hoping to catch you. I rather wanted to have a word with you about poor Joe Bates.'

     'Of course, Padre, but wouldn't tomorrow do? I am in a bit of a hurry.' About half the village called the Reverend David Ainger 'father', and the rest 'vicar', but Tom used the military compromise. 'I'm meeting Mary at the Crown, you see and . . .' Behind them the clock struck the quarter.

     'Oh, I'll not keep you long, my boy, and I'm sure the clientele of the Crown won't let your pretty wife be lonely. It really is important to me that we have a chat.'

     'All right, Padre, if you promise it won't be long.' Ainger had a long sallow face which looked as though it had been roughly modelled out of plasticine, but one of the most appealing smiles Tom had ever known. Added to that was an aura which he could only describe as 'goodness'. An impersonal charm that made one want to fit in with his wishes, however irksome they might be. He nodded and followed him across to the vicarage, and into the little gloomy library he called his den.

     'Do sit down, Doctor. Oh, excuse me.' The room was littered with books and papers and Ainger removed two heavy volumes from a chair.

     'That's better.' He leaned against the fire-place and pulled out his pipe, not lighting it, but fiddling with the bowl.

     'I've been to the police station, but they wouldn't let me see Bates, though I did have a few words with Constable Rutter. What I want to ask you is this: do you personally consider that Joe is a lunatic, a cunning murderer, or a person who really did have some sort of supernatural experience?'

     'Isn't that a bit of an unfair question, Padre?' Tom tried to settle himself more comfortably in his chair. A loose spring was digging sharply into his thigh. 'After all, I'm just a country G.P., not a detective, a psychiatrist, or a priest. All I can say is what I told the sergeant they sent over from Welcott.'

     'And could you repeat that to me, Dr. Allen?' As though suddenly remembering his duties as host, Ainger crossed to a cupboard and poured out two glasses of thick brown liquid. 'I really have a good reason for wanting to know.'

     'Of course, I can. There was very little to it. Thank you.' The sherry was sweet and cloying, but Tom sipped at it and told Ainger exactly what he had said to Fenwick. Bates suffered from a weakness of the aorta which could have caused a black-out under severe strain; he had a feeble mentality which, coupled with guilt, might have attributed an act of anger to some divine intervention. Ainger obviously knew all about the way that Bates had been treated over the years by his employer.

     As he talked, Tom studied the room. Ainger had been a celebrated mountaineer in his time, and the walls were covered by photographs of roped figures balanced on precipices, or crawling up arêtes and dank gullies. A tough old boy, and apparently quite a scholar too. Though he was no theologian himself, he could see that these books were the real thing. Most of the major Greeks bound in leather, Aquinas, Augustine in the Bretain edition, Von Hugel wedged against Spinoza, and not a trace of the popular works which usually take pride of place in Anglican libraries.

     The next case appeared to be devoted to a wide range of subjects, and some of them disturbed him slightly. Among The Golden Bough, Patterns of Culture, and other standard books on anthropology were dotted: Marshall's Cult of the Werewolf, Weber's Devil in Western Europe, and a number of medical books. In the top shelf he could see Winter & Reynard's Teratology . . . A Study of Monstrous Birth. Its coloured illustrations had given him several sleepless nights when he was a student.

     'Thank you, Doctor.' Ainger put down his glass with a sharp click as he finished speaking. 'You preserve a completely open mind, in fact. Colonel Keith provoked Joe Bates just once too often and in the wrong place. He died because Joe was either mentally or physically ill, and that's all there is to it. You haven't thought that his death might be connected with certain other events which have happened in this village?'

     'Sorry, but I'm not with you, Padre.' The grandfather clock in the corner showed the half hour. As a doctor's wife, Mary was used to waiting, but this was their day off. 'What other events do you mean?'

     'With the salvage ship, perhaps. No, please bear with me a little longer, my boy.' Ainger took a newspaper from his table. 'By all accounts, her master was a most reliable man, yet he suddenly appeared to go mad and charged out to sea through thick fog, destroying himself, his crew, and the crew of that unfortunate tanker which happened to be in his way.

     'And today, Joe Bates goes mad too. He'd worked for Keith for years and he must have taken him up Boxer's Hill a hundred times. Why should he suddenly have this stroke or black-out, or whatever it was, and tell a story about feeling that he was being buried alive?

     'You've known Joe for some time, Dr. Allen. Do you think he is capable of making it all up?'

     'No, and I said so to Sergeant Fenwick.' Tom frowned. 'At the same time, the mind plays queer tricks on one now and again, and he might have imagined it.

     'But I can't see any possible connection between him and the Dalecrest. Nobody can even guess what happened to her till there has been a full inquiry, and even then . . .' He broke off and shrugged his shoulders.

     'Quite right. I don't think we'll know even after the inquiry. Not unless they find survivors, and that appears unlikely now.' Ainger crossed to the window and stared out at the bay, with the sunlight glinting on his spectacles.

     'But there have been a lot of unexplained tragedies in this district over the centuries, haven't there? What really happened to the Children of Paul? Why should a group of normally peaceful people suddenly turn into vicious murderers?'

     'I haven't the slightest idea, Padre. After all, it happened several hundred years ago.' Tom struggled to conceal his irritation. He was fond of Ainger, but the old boy really did appear to be getting very strange.

     The Children of Paul were members of a religious cult led by a monk named Paul of Ely. Like many other medieval sects, they believed themselves to be contaminated by the rest of humanity, and decided to withdraw from the world. The story went that they arrived in Dunstonholme in 1300 on their way to one of the Feyne Islands where they hoped to found their community. Being refused transport by the Franklin, they killed the villagers and the small garrison of the castle, and set out in stolen boats which promptly capsized and drowned all of them. There was some factual evidence, Tom supposed, but most of it was just legend, like Arthur, and Robin Hood, and Gog-Magog.

     'Yes, six hundred and sixty-six years ago, almost to a day, but there have been more recent events as well.' Ainger's voice droned on against the tick of the clock. 'Do you know why we have no railway here? They started a line from Welcott, but it was never finished. When they got as far as the moors, the navvies refused to work on the cutting.

     'Then there was the lead mine up near Salter's Gate. Lord Mayne financed it to ease local unemployment in 1880, but it closed down after only a few weeks, because nobody would work there. They said there was a curse on the place.'

     'I thought the shaft was supposed to be unsafe because of loose rock.' How old was Ainger, Tom wondered? At least seventy-five, and his mind appeared to be running down fast. There were no relatives either. They'd have to see about finding him a living-in housekeeper if he got any worse.

     'Yes, that was the official reason they gave for the closure, but no local people believed it. There are more things though; so many more.' Ainger turned from the window and stared at a tarnished silver crucifix on the far wall. Behind his glasses, the eyes didn't look as though they were focusing correctly.

     'The night the American ship was bombed, for instance. That terrible business at Pounder's Hole. You probably think I'm mad, Doctor, and in a way I hope you are right. But, I honestly believe that all these events are connected, and there is something hellish surrounding this village. A dreadful danger which is going to break out very soon.'

*   *   *

In leanness and tone Children of the Night has much in common with early post-WW2 thrillers by Maclean and Bagley. Blackburn's strength in Children of the Night is dramatizing thriller crises in wild and dangerous landscapes whose history of ancient menace coexists with the modern world.


28 May 2022

Friday, May 20, 2022

[Book Rreview] Blue Octavo (1963) by John Blackburn

    The memory of Mr Reade's voice on the phone ran through his head like a gramophone record – 'Oh, we know that those sort of things happen in the public or free libraries, Mr Cain, but not in the Metropolitan. All our members are so carefully screened, you see; three references, a degree from a reputable university, and proof of financial status, before one is even allowed to join. As I said to my assistant, "these things may take place in the British Museum Reading Room or even the London Library, but never in the Metro­politan."

     'And it was the way the book had been treated that was so horrible, Mr Cain. This wasn't just the work of a thief removing plates to make up an imperfect copy of his own. It had been slashed and torn as though a maniac had done it, as though somebody bore the book a personal grudge.'

     'A maniac!' John whispered the word aloud, for that was the most probable explanation, it seemed. Somebody who felt he had a secret hidden in the book would merely have removed the incriminating pages. A hard-working maniac too. An old dealer had been killed for the book, a millionaire had been robbed of it, and a very swagger library had had its copy mutilated. He was beginning to picture the kind of mind that was at work. Somebody who hoarded the books, but didn't want anybody else to have them; an efficient somebody, though. The Metropolitan was a reference, not a lending, library, and no one was allowed to take a book from the premises. It would have been very hard to steal that copy, but quite simple to deface it. He began to feel a deep dread at the thought of that crazed but efficient mind.

Blue Octavo (1963) by John Blackburn

(Valancourt Books, 2013)

Blue Octavo is an intensely focused thriller, dry and British, the kind of novel Hitchcock might have optioned when he was at a loose end.

*   *   *

Blackburn was beautifully suited to write thrillers: his characters come alive and action finds its target despite all aesthetic economies. Blue Octavo has a clear who-done-it plot with a trio of winning and oddball amateurs out to crack the case.

A bookseller, a library staffer, and a dodgy vicar are among the killer's victims. Book dealer John Cain, adventurer J. Moldon Mott, and debutante industrial heiress Julia Lent unite to unravel the killer's apparent motivation: collecting every known copy of a rare 1909 mountaineering book: The Grey Boulders – An account of British Mountaineering between the years 1840 and 1910.

....They sat in the office behind his [Cain's] shop, hedged in on every side with piles of unsorted books and unframed prints. Though officially the shop itself was closed, through the glass partition he could see one industrious browser still browsing. He was an old, though not very valued customer, and could be trusted to let himself out.

     'Yes, I suppose one could call it neat, in an unpleasant, crazy way.' Mott had obviously noticed Julia's smile and was put out by it.

     'We've got a very rum bird on our hands, it seems. When he can buy or steal he does so, when that's impossible he destroys. An efficient blighter, too; he must have got hold of most of the edition by now. But the way, did you know that there were only seventy-six in existence – not a hundred as originally advertised?

     'No, well, don't let me teach you your business, but it's a fact. Twenty-four were destroyed in a fire just after binding. Allowing for a normal loss through time, what Roach bought, and what we know to have been destroyed, there can't be many copies about now. My guess is that if we don't get our hands on one of them, we're sunk. Only that book can tell us the kind of man we're up against, and we've got to get hold of a copy – we've got to. I suppose you've had no luck at all, old boy?'

     'No, not a smell of the damned book.' John remembered his fruitless hours on the telephone, and the replies which had always been the same. There just didn't seem to be a copy anywhere. 'No, sorry, Cain, but I haven't seen one for years. Why don't you try Francis Edwards?' 'Can't help, old boy. Think I sold a copy some time back, but I can't remember who to. James Thin in Edinburgh might have one.' 'No, sir, we haven't one in stock at the moment. Perhaps the Museum Bookshop in Kendal might help. They carry a very large stock on sporting subjects.'

     Yes, always the same: 'Sorry', and advice to try somebody else. 'Try Quaritch, and Maggs, and Commin in Bournemouth, and Hill in Newcastle, and Kerr in Lancashire.' Try anybody you damn well liked, but it didn't do any good. John dreaded the thought of his next phone bill.

     'I see. Then we'll just have to hope that our friend panics and shows his hand by attacking you, old boy. Ah, but you've got business to attend to, it seems.' Mott broke off as a knock sounded on the door and the browser came into the office.

     'Ah, good evening, Mr Cain.' The man came slowly towards John and he wheezed and creaked like an old gate. He weighed about twenty stone with a great sagging paunch slung in front of him, and grey, mutton-chop whiskers gave him a marked resemblance to the late Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. There was a book in his hand, and he held it out as though it were a rather nasty object and probably laden with germs.

     'Sorry to bother you so late, but I found this, and wondered if it is your price-marking. Seems terribly high, you know; thirty shillings!'

     'Let me see, Major Allan.' John glanced forward at the book.

     'Yes, Ford Madox Ford's Queen who flew. I don't think thirty bob is too much. It's a first edition and quite scarce.'

     'Yes, yes, but the condition it's in, Mr Cain.' Franz Josef's face looked slightly injured, as though John were an old friend who had let him down badly.

     'The spine and covers are rubbed, and there's quite a lot of foxing on the endpapers. Foyle's had one the other day in much better condition for only twenty-five.'

     'All right, twenty-five it is then, Major.' Normally John would have used the obvious retort, 'Why didn't you buy Foyle's copy?' and held out for the full amount, but now he just wanted to get rid of the man. He watched him lay the money on the desk and wheeze away, well satisfied with a bargain.

     'Humph, big business indeed, old man!' Mott stared scornfully at the money, and then grinned across at Julia. 'Do you manage to make a living out of this dump?'

     'Yes, thank you, I make a living.' John suddenly realized that he had rarely disliked a human being as much as he disliked Mott.

*   *   *

My interest in Blackburn's fiction has focused on titles that braid elements of thriller and horror. Bury Him Darkly (1969) is probably the finest Blackburn novel I have read along these lines. The Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958), reissued by Valancourt Books in 2013, is an excellent techno-thriller with bows to affect and body horror. Blow This House Down (1970) is a more topical thriller, and also looks forward to the 1970s urban disaster trend in publishing and film.

Blue Octavo is free of blood and gore. Its puzzle premise owes more to Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen than to Grand Guignol or Ian Fleming. Indeed, it's almost cozy.

Scholar Mike Ripley, who wrote Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2017), nicely sums up Blackburn's strengths in his introduction to the Valancourt edition:

    Most of Blackburn's novels were short – Blue Octavo clocks in at little more than 50,000 words, which is a refreshing change from many of today's overblown thrillers – and all characterised by short scenes, pithy dialogue and rapid action to enhance the pace of the storytelling. The characters in them are described in stark outlines, yet cleverly enough to make them all believable and though Blue Octavo may have only 50,000 words, you would be hard pressed to find a wasted one.


19 May 2022

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

[Reading Notes] What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy by Matt Cardin (2022)

A few reading notes from a very accessible and jargon-free book of essays: What the Daemon Said: Essays on Horror Fiction, Film, and Philosophy by Matt Cardin (2022)

Readers interested in Ligotti will find this a very useful book to have around. I have been an intermittent Ligotti reader, but Cardin's notes and enthusiasm are contagious, and make me think it would be worthwhile to grab The Nightmare Factory off the shelf.

....I also think it's completely appropriate and legitimate to explore horror in the context of religion and spirituality. Within the Christian tradition and the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone, you can see horror breaking out all over the place and playing a central role. What in the world is up with that awful darkness and dread that come over Abraham in Genesis he's visited by Yahweh and informed of the future enslavement of his people in Egypt? Why does the New Testament author of Hebrews assert that "it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God"? Why does Yahweh sometimes come across in the Book of Isaiah as a chaos monster who is even more terrible in his character, intentions, and ultimate nature than the primeval chaos dragons Leviathan and Rahab, against whom he is supposedly working to save the cosmos? Why does the original ending of the Gospel of Mark—not the longer ending, which appears in many New Testament translations, and which is now known to have been tacked on at a later when date, but the original ending, which comes several verses before that—why does this original ending show the two Marys and Salome discovering Jesus' tomb standing empty after the resurrection, tell of their encounter with the angel inside, and then conclude the account simply by saying that they ran away from the tomb in extreme fear, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them—and that's it? Why are people seized with fear and awe in the New Testament whenever Jesus calms a storm or performs an exorcism or raises a person from the dead? Why is the Book of Revelation full of intense horrific imagery? In short, why does it so often happen, and not only with Judaism and Christianity, but in many other religious traditions as well—think, for example, of Arjuna's horror when Krishna reveals his true appearance in the Bhagavad Gita—that the unveiling of God, Ultimate Reality, the Ground of Being, whatever, is portrayed as an occasion for intense horror?

• • •

[....] As Lovecraft made starkly and resonantly clear in his personal correspondence, and also in his "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction," he wrote horror fiction as a means of capturing and crystallizing his lifelong impressions of an infinite, transcendent reality that seemed to peer through the cracks of the world. These cracks, for him, included skyscapes and vistas of architectural beauty. And his response to these transcendent intimations was deliciously paradoxical. He was both enchanted and terrified by them. He passionately longed for an experience of boundlessness, of freedom from the restraints of physical reality, which he of course knew all too well, both materially, due to his increasing monetary poverty over time, and intellectually, with his vast knowledge of natural science as underwritten by a nineteenth-century mechanistic-materialistic viewpoint. He said over and over that his most powerful emotional experiences were eruptions of infinite longing whenever he observed sunsets or contemplated scenic New England streets and buildings. But as everybody knows, he also experienced those same perceived gaps and that same perceived reality as horrifying, something he probably said most directly and powerfully in the introduction to "Supernatural Horror in Literature." So his career as a horror writer wasn't motivated just by fear of the unknown but by a two-sided emotional coin that was fear on one side and exhilarated longing on the other.

• • •

Friday, May 13, 2022

The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck (1907)

"You are still under his spell," she cried, anxiously.

A little shaken in his confidence, Ernest resumed: "Reginald is utterly incapable of such an action, even granting that he possessed the terrible power of which you speak. A man of his splendid resources, a literary Midas at whose very touch every word turns into gold, is under no necessity to prey on the thoughts of others. Circumstances, I admit, are suspicious. But in the light of common day this fanciful theory shrivels into nothing. Any court of law would reject our evidence as madness. It is too utterly fantastic, utterly alien to any human experience."

"Is it though?" Ethel replied with peculiar intonation.

"Why, what do you mean?"

"Surely," she answered, "you must know that in the legends of every nation we read of men and women who were called vampires. They are beings, not always wholly evil, whom every night some mysterious impulse leads to steal into unguarded bedchambers, to suck the blood of the sleepers and then, having waxed strong on the life of their victims, cautiously to retreat. Thence comes it that their lips are very red. It is even said that they can find no rest in the grave, but return to their former haunts long after they are believed to be dead. Those whom they visit, however, pine away for no apparent reason. The physicians shake their wise heads and speak of consumption. But sometimes, ancient chronicles assure us, the people's suspicions were aroused, and under the leadership of a good priest they went in solemn procession to the graves of the persons suspected. And on opening the tombs it was found that their coffins had rotted away and the flowers in their hair were black. But their bodies were white and whole; through no empty sockets crept the vermin, and their sucking lips were still moist with a little blood."

Ernest was carried away in spite of himself by her account, which vividly resembled his own experience. Still he would not give in.

Reginald Clarke sups on the artistic powers found in talented young men and women. He absorbs their skills and leaves them raped and gibbering ruins.

The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck (1907) is a story about Reginald facing the consequences of this course, and the animus of two victims.

In tone it begins as a decadent novel detailing nonchalant "healthy young animals bred in the atmosphere of an American college," and what results when they meet an adult world red in tooth and claw.

From Chapter 5:

"Do you mean, then, that a subtle psychologist ought to be able to read beneath and between our lines, not only what we express, but also what we leave unexpressed?"


"Even if, while we are writing, we are unconscious of our state of mind? That would open a new field to psychology."

"Only to those that have the key, that can read the hidden symbols. It is to me a matter-of-course that every mind-movement below or above the threshold of consciousness must, of a necessity, leave its imprint faintly or clearly, as the case may be, upon our activities."

"This may explain why books that seem intolerably dull to the majority, delight the hearts of the few," Ernest interjected.

"Yes, to the few that possess the key. I distinctly remember how an uncle of mine once laid down a discussion on higher mathematics and blushed fearfully when his innocent wife looked over his shoulder. The man who had written it was a roué."

"Then the seemingly most harmless books may secretly possess the power of scattering in young minds the seed of corruption," Walkham remarked.

"If they happen to understand," Clarke observed thoughtfully. "I can very well conceive of a lecherous text-book of the calculus, or of a reporter's story of a picnic in which burnt, under the surface, undiscoverable, save to the initiate, the tragic passion of Tristram and Iseult."

Gifted young poet Ernest Fielding falls under the influence of Reginald Clarke. This  seduction and subordination alarms an older woman who loves Fielding. Painter Ethel Brandenbourg knows the costs of life with Reginald because she is Reginald's drained and discarded ex-wife.

From Chapters 20 and 21:


They were sitting in a little Italian restaurant where they had often, in the old days, lingered late into the night over a glass of Lacrimæ Christi. But no pale ghost of the past rose from the wine. Only a wriggling something, with serpent eyes, that sent cold shivers down her spine and held her speechless and entranced.

When their order had been filled and the waiter had posted himself at a respectful distance, Reginald began—at first leisurely, a man of the world. But as he proceeded a strange exultation seemed to possess him and from his eyes leaped the flame of the mystic.

"You must pardon me," he commenced, "if I monopolise the conversation, but the revelations I have to make are of such a nature that I may well claim your attention. I will start with my earliest childhood. You remember the picture of me that was taken when I was five?"

She remembered, indeed. Each detail of his life was deeply engraven on her mind.

"At that time," he continued, "I was not held to be particularly bright. The reason was that my mind, being pre-eminently and extraordinarily receptive, needed a stimulus from without. The moment I was sent to school, however, a curious metamorphosis took place in me. I may say that I became at once the most brilliant boy in my class. You know that to this day I have always been the most striking figure in any circle in which I have ever moved."

Ethel nodded assent. Silently watching the speaker, she saw a gleam of the truth from afar, but still very distant and very dim.

Reginald lifted the glass against the light and gulped its contents. Then in a lower voice he recommenced: "Like the chameleon, I have the power of absorbing the colour of my environment."

"Do you mean that you have the power of absorbing the special virtues of other people?" she interjected.

"That is exactly what I mean."

"Oh!" she cried, for in a heart-beat many things had become clear to her. For the first time she realised, still vaguely but with increasing vividness, the hidden causes of her ruin and, still more plainly, the horrible danger of Ernest Fielding.

He noticed her agitation, and a look of psychological curiosity came into his eyes.

"Ah, but that is not all," he observed, smilingly. "That is nothing. We all possess that faculty in a degree. The secret of my strength is my ability to reject every element that is harmful or inessential to the completion of my self. This did not come to me easily, nor without a struggle. But now, looking back upon my life, many things become transparent that were obscure even to me at the time. I can now follow the fine-spun threads in the intricate web of my fate, and discover in the wilderness of meshes a design, awful and grandly planned."

His voice shook with conviction, as he uttered these words. There was something strangely gruesome in this man. It was thus that she had pictured to herself the high-priest of some terrible and mysterious religion, demanding a human sacrifice to appease the hunger of his god. She was fascinated by the spell of his personality, and listened with a feeling not far removed from awe. But Reginald suddenly changed his tone and proceeded in a more conversational manner.

"The first friend I ever cared for was a boy marvellously endowed for the study of mathematics. At the time of our first meeting at school, I was unable to solve even the simplest algebraical problem. But we had been together only for half a month, when we exchanged parts. It was I who was the mathematical genius now, whereas he became hopelessly dull and stuttered through his recitations only with a struggle that brought the tears to his eyes. Then I discarded him. Heartless, you say? I have come to know better. Have you ever tasted a bottle of wine that had been uncorked for a long time? If you have, you have probably found it flat—the essence was gone, evaporated. Thus it is when we care for people. Probably—no, assuredly—there is some principle prisoned in their souls, or in the windings of their brains, which, when escaped, leaves them insipid, unprofitable and devoid of interest to us. Sometimes this essence—not necessarily the finest element in a man's or a woman's nature, but soul-stuff that we lack—disappears. In fact, it invariably disappears. It may be that it has been transformed in the processes of their growth; it may also be that it has utterly vanished by some inadvertence, or that we ourselves have absorbed it."

"Then we throw them away?" Ethel asked, pale, but dry-eyed. A shudder passed through her body and she clinched her glass nervously. At that moment Reginald resembled a veritable Prince of Darkness, sinister and beautiful, painted by the hand of a modern master. Then, for a space, he again became the man of the world. Smiling and self-possessed, he filled the glasses, took a long sip of the wine and resumed his narrative.

"That boy was followed by others. I absorbed many useless things and some that were evil. I realised that I must direct my absorptive propensities. This I did. I selected, selected well. And all the time the terrible power of which I was only half conscious grew within me."

"It is indeed a terrible power," she cried; "all the more terrible for its subtlety. Had I not myself been its victim, I should not now find it possible to believe in it."

"The invisible hand that smites in the dark is certainly more fearful than a visible foe. It is also more merciful. Think how much you would have suffered had you been conscious of your loss."

"Still it seems even now to me that it cannot have been an utter, irreparable loss. There is no action without reaction. Even I—even we—must have received from you some compensation for what you have taken away."

"In the ordinary processes of life the law of action and reaction is indeed potent. But no law is without exception. Think of radium, for instance, with its constant and seemingly inexhaustible outflow of energy. It is a difficult thing to imagine, but our scientific men have accepted it as a fact. Why should we find it more difficult to conceive of a tremendous and infinite absorptive element? I feel sure that it must somewhere exist. But every phenomenon in the physical world finds its counterpart in the psychical universe. There are radium-souls that radiate without loss of energy, but also without increase. And there are souls, the reverse of radium, with unlimited absorptive capacities."

"Vampire-souls," she observed, with a shudder, and her face blanched.

"No," he said, "don't say that." And then he suddenly seemed to grow in stature. His face was ablaze, like the face of a god.

"In every age," he replied, with solemnity, "there are giants who attain to a greatness which by natural growth no men could ever have reached. But in their youth a vision came to them, which they set out to seek. They take the stones of fancy to build them a palace in the kingdom of truth, projecting into reality dreams, monstrous and impossible. Often they fail and, tumbling from their airy heights, end a quixotic career. Some succeed. They are the chosen. Carpenter's sons they are, who have laid down the Law of a World for milleniums to come; or simple Corsicans, before whose eagle eye have quaked the kingdoms of the earth. But to accomplish their mission they need a will of iron and the wit of a hundred men. And from the iron they take the strength, and from a hundred men's brains they absorb their wisdom. Divine missionaries, they appear in all departments of life. In their hand is gathered to-day the gold of the world. Mighty potentates of peace and war, they unlock new seas and from distant continents lift the bars. Single-handed, they accomplish what nations dared not hope; with Titan strides they scale the stars and succeed where millions fail. In art they live, the makers of new periods, the dreamers of new styles. They make themselves the vocal sun-glasses of God. Homer and Shakespeare, Hugo and Balzac—they concentrate the dispersed rays of a thousand lesser luminaries in one singing flame that, like a giant torch, lights up humanity's path."

She gazed at him, open-mouthed. The light had gone from his visage. He paused, exhausted, but even then he looked the incarnation of a force no less terrible, no less grand. She grasped the immensity of his conception, but her woman's soul rebelled at the horrible injustice to those whose light is extinguished, as hers had been, to feed an alien flame. And then, for a moment, she saw the pale face of Ernest staring at her out of the wine.

"Cruel," she sobbed, "how cruel!"

"What matter?" he asked. "Their strength is taken from them, but the spirit of humanity, as embodied in us, triumphantly marches on."


Reginald's revelations were followed by a long silence, interrupted only by the officiousness of the waiter. The spell once broken, they exchanged a number of more or less irrelevant observations. Ethel's mind returned, again and again, to the word he had not spoken. He had said nothing of the immediate bearing of his monstrous power upon her own life and that of Ernest Fielding.

At last, somewhat timidly, she approached the subject.

"You said you loved me," she remarked.

"I did."

"But why, then—"

"I could not help it."

"Did you ever make the slightest attempt?"

"In the horrible night hours I struggled against it. I even implored you to leave me."

"Ah, but I loved you!"

"You would not be warned, you would not listen. You stayed with me, and slowly, surely, the creative urge went out of your life."

"But what on earth could you find in my poor art to attract you? What were my pictures to you?"

"I needed them, I needed you. It was a certain something, a rich colour effect, perhaps. And then, under your very eyes, the colour that vanished from your canvases reappeared in my prose. My style became more luxurious than it had been, while you tortured your soul in the vain attempt of calling back to your brush what was irretrievably lost."

"Why did you not tell me?"

"You would have laughed in my face, and I could not have endured your laugh. Besides, I always hoped, until it was too late, that I might yet check the mysterious power within me. Soon, however, I became aware that it was beyond my control. The unknown god, whose instrument I am, had wisely made it stronger than me."

"But why," retorted Ethel, "was it necessary to discard me, like a cast-off garment, like a wanton who has lost the power to please?"

Her frame shook with the remembered emotion of that moment, when years ago he had politely told her that she was nothing to him.

"The law of being," Reginald replied, almost sadly, "the law of my being. I should have pitied you, but the eternal reproach of your suffering only provoked my anger. I cared less for you every day, and when I had absorbed all of you that my growth required, you were to me as one dead, as a stranger you were. There was between us no further community of interest; henceforth, I knew, our lives must move in totally different spheres. You remember that day when we said good-bye?"

Ernest Fielding is convinced by Ethel's arguments. At night he feels Reginald pawing through his mind for aesthetic treasures. He vows to stand up to Reginald, at terrible risk, in hopes of saving himself.

*   *   *

The House of the Vampire deals with both psychic (emotional) vampirism as metaphor, and as actual physical practice. Author George Sylvester Viereck handles his material deftly. This is a story of real emotional power.


16 April 2022

George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962)