It’s time once more to gather round the fireplace or its notional equivalent and listen to a tale or two which will raise a cold shudder in spite of the comforting warmth, and give pause before you peer through the curtains to look out into the night beyond. Resonance fm is playing host for a second year to some Weird Tales for Winter on Johnny Mugwump’s Exotic Pylon show. These combine words and specially tailored sonic atmospheres in a symbiotic partnership which nods to radiophonic programmes of old. William Hope Hodgson seems to be the writer who is the focus of the season this year. The Gateway of the Monster is one of his Carnacki stories, from the Carnacki the Ghost Finder collection. Carnacki is a detective of the supernatural, whom Hodgson was encouraged to create in the wake of the huge success of the series of stories written by Algernon Blackwood featuring the psychic investigator John Silence. Carnacki, a consummate modern rationalist, sometimes discovers non-occult explanations for the cases in which he becomes involved, but rest assured, that is not the case with this story. It is a classic haunted house mystery, and in true MR James style, the manifestations here are far from spectral, and are intent on delivering much more than a mild frisson of fear. Hodgson’s novel The House on the Borderland, published in 1908, is a remarkable blend of genres which could happily inhabit the blurred boundaries of the New Weird today. Beginning as a haunted house story, it expands into a Wellsian scientific romance in which the evolutionary and cosmological perspectives of time unfold, leaving the protagonist in a state of existential shock at his insignificance in the great scheme of things. Scientific romance, about which Brian Stableford has written with lucid clarity in his book Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890 -1950 (currently going for £216.23 on Amazon if you’re interested – why the overly precise sum of 23p, I wonder?), is the fictional stream which originated with HG Wells and fed into the genre of science fiction which developed in the American magazines in the 20s. As with other British scientific romances of the period, Hodgson’s novel is still haunted by the implications of Darwin’s theories, and by the expanded horizons and understanding of the world and the universe opened up by other Victorian scientific discoveries. With its devolved human pig-men, it also perhaps bears the influence of Freud. There are echoes of decadent and symbolist literature and art here, too, the horrors and embodiments of existential fears unconscious manifestations of the underlying uncertainties and gloomy presentiments of the age.
WF (William Fryer) Harvey, whose story The Clock is included here, is best known for his story The Beast With Five Fingers, the classic disembodied but ambulatory hand story, filmed in a much altered form with Peter Lorre in 1946. It’s a story which manages the rare trick of being both unsettling and funny at one and the same time. The scenes in which the protagonist obsessively attempts to corner the scuttling hand in the library, as if it were an invading mouse, are as amusing as the finale is horrific. Harvey was seriously injured in the First World War, as a consequence of going out to rescue a fallen comrade, and never recovered his health. Although possibly too glibly facile, it’s difficult not to find traces of the horrors of the trenches and blasted battlefields in the psychological torments of his haunted characters. The contributors to Weird Tales steer clear of MR James, who is perhaps too much the default choice when it comes to English supernatural fiction. There are still many lesser known tales that have so far eluded adaptation, however, and it might be good to have an unadulterated corrective to the bizarre meddling inflicted on O Whistle and I’ll Come to You on tv over Christmas. MR James is present in the form of his translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Shadow, however (which presumably means he had a working knowledge of Danish). This is a very dark tale, a variation on the theme of the double, and is about as far from Danny Kaye and Thumbelina as it’s possible to get. It’s also a very apposite fable for our unreflective age of surface appearances and world-weary cynicism.
Wilhelm Pedersen's illustration for The ShadowThe music, or soundscapes, are provided by an interesting group of people, most of whom I confess I had not heard of before. The Outer Church look really interesting, and have a splendid blog site, which includes Joseph Stannard’s very personal tribute to Trish Keenan, which, in relating his two meeting with her, manages to encapsulate what made her so special to so many. Misty Roses, who are providing the soundtrack to WF Harvey’s story, have been described in The Wire in terms of The Associates, which is not an oft-made comparison and definitely makes them sound worth hearing. Johnny Trunk is involved, following on from his intriguing collage of 70s BBC sound effects recordings broadcast on radio 3 over Christmas. The Advisory Circle and Moon Wiring Club both provide the atmospheres for the Carnacki story in a collaborative combination which has yet to come together in the Ghost Box Study Series EPs, but which perhaps might now happen in the near future. It all sounds perfectly in tune with these dank and drear days, when we turn inwards and drift down into deeper and darker levels of our inner landscape. So let’s gather round the hum and glow of our screens and listen as the tale inexorably unfolds.