Ripping Ghost Stories for a Blacked-Out Halloween

Carnacki, the Ghost FinderIt’s beginning to look like Halloween will be a “dark and stormy night” for much of the East Coast this year, with a paucity of mini-ghouls and goblins knocking at the door. In fact, some of our BVC authors and many BVC friends may be reading by candlelight that night.

For them, and for anyone who would like a lights-out reading thrill, I highly recommend getting acquainted (or re-acquainted) with William Hope Hodgson, who’s unlikely to come knocking at your door, seeing that his career as a writer of supernatural horror—and his life—ended in the mundane horror of the Great War. In the preceding eleven years he had produced an oeuvre about which H. P. Lovecraft commented, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature :

“Of rather uneven stylistic quality, but vast occasional power in its suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life, is the work of William Hope Hodgson, known today far less than it deserves to be. Despite a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal in connection with regions or buildings.”

There, quite concisely, is a clue to what you’ll encounter if you dip into Hodgson’s books—although it’s best to be careful what you start with, especially if you’re not enamored of Edwardian prose. I recommend Carnacki, the Ghost Finder, a collection originally serialized in The Idler. You could also call it “Ripping Ghost Stories” for the enthusiasm and purple-tinged prose. It’s a quick read. But I guarantee that, with Carnacki, you will encounter things that you will never forget. When Hodgson is good, he’s unbeatable.

The world in which Carnacki plies his trade as a ghost hunter and debunker (for some of the hauntings are hoaxes, for profit or revenge) shares with Lovecraft’s the “suggestion of lurking worlds and beings behind the ordinary surface of life.” But Lovecraft’s horror is that of the completely other, so alien that it is virtually impossible for matter to mediate it in any way a human being can comprehend. Hodgson’s other, alien as it is, manifests in more comprehensible ways; in the case of The Whistling Room, as a kind of “spiritual fungus” rotting a human soul, of which nothing remains but the desire for revenge. Or, in The Hog, another story in the collection, as the grunting of pigs, which Hodgson transforms into an unforgettable evocation of bestial malevolence that recalls, in its mindlessness, the horrid emptiness of the possessed physicist Weston in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.

For me, at least, that the horror is less alien in no way diminishes its power. More problematic for many readers, I suspect, is the cumulative nature of the narrative. The horror manifests itself less in a pounding pulse than in the persistent and growing strength of the images after you lay the story down. In this sense, Hodgson brings to mind the gourmet Brillat-Savarin’s distinction between eating and enjoying one’s dinner. I first  read Carnacki in my thirties, and didn’t return to it for another 20 years, yet enjoyed it again and again during that period when something would evoke a vivid image from one of the stories.

As I said, his prose may not be to your taste. Here’s a sample, from The Whistling Room. Carnacki is investigating a haunting that manifests as a whistling, and is relating to his friend what happened when he first entered the room that is the focus of the manifestation.

“When I reached the door, and put my hand into my pocket for the key, I had a sudden feeling of sickening funk. But I was not going to back out, if I could help it. I unlocked the door and turned the handle. Then I gave the door a sharp push with my foot, as Tassoc had done, and drew my revolver, though I did not expect to have any use for it, really.

“I shone the searchlight all round the room, and then stepped inside, with a disgustingly horrible feeling of walking slap into a waiting Danger. I stood a few seconds, waiting, and nothing happened, and the empty room showed bare from corner to corner. And then, you know, I realised that the room was full of an abominable silence; can you understand that? A sort of purposeful silence, just as sickening as any of the filthy noises the Things have power to make. Do you remember what I told you about that ‘SilentGarden’ business? Well, this room had just that same malevolent silence—the beastly quietness of a thing that is looking at you and not seeable itself, and thinks that it has got you. Oh, I recognised it instantly, and I whipped the top off my lantern, so as to have light over the whole room.

“Then I set-to, working like fury, and keeping my glance all about me. I sealed the two windows with lengths of human hair, right across, and sealed them at every frame. As I worked, a queer, scarcely perceptible tenseness stole into the air of the place, and the silence seemed, if you can understand me, to grow more solid. I knew then that I had no business there without ‘full protection’; for I was practically certain that this was no mere Aeiirii development; but one of the worst forms, as the Saiitii; like that ‘Grunting Man’ case—you know.

“I finished the window, and hurried over to the great fireplace. This is a huge affair, and has a queer gallows-iron, I think they are called, projecting from the back of the arch. I sealed the opening with seven human hairs—the seventh crossing the six others.

“Then, just as I was making an end, a low, mocking whistle grew in the room. A cold, nervous pricking went up my spine, and round my forehead from the back. The hideous sound filled all the room with an extraordinary, grotesque parody of human whistling, too gigantic to be human—as if something gargantuan and monstrous made the sounds softly. As I stood there a last moment, pressing down the final seal, I had no doubt but that I had come across one of those rare and horrible cases of the Inanimate reproducing the functions of the Animate. I made a grab for my lamp, and went quickly to the door, looking over my shoulder, and listening for the thing that I expected. It came, just as I got my hand upon the handle—a squeal of incredible, malevolent anger, piercing through the low hooning of the whistling. I dashed out, slamming the door and locking it. I leant a little against the opposite wall of the corridor, feeling rather funny; for it had been a narrow squeak. . . .”

If you give Carnacki the Ghost Finder a try and like it, you may be ready for The House on the Borderland, or even the very difficult The Night Land. Of the former, Lovecraft commented:

“…perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works – [it] tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous otherworld forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the Narrator’s spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and Kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system’s final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.”

And of The Night Land, which he regarded as seriously flawed (as it is, and in ways that make it almost unreadable today), Lovecraft had this to say.

“Allowing for all its faults, it is yet one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written. The picture of a night-black, dead planet, with the remains of the human race concentrated in a stupendously vast metal pyramid and besieged by monstrous, hybrid, and altogether unknown forces of the darkness, is something that no reader can ever forget: Shapes and entities of an altogether non-human and inconceivable sort—the prowlers of the black, man-forsaken, and unexplored world outside the pyramid—are suggested and partly described with ineffable potency; while the night-land landscape with its chasms and slopes and dying volcanism takes on an almost sentient terror beneath the author’s touch. Midway in the book the central figure ventures outside the pyramid on a quest through death-haunted realms untrod by man for millions of years—and in his slow, minutely described, day-by-day progress over unthinkable leagues of immemorial blackness there is a sense of cosmic alienage, breathless mystery, and terrified expectancy unrivalled in the whole range of literature.”

But in any case, give Carnacki a chance. Turn out all the lights but the one you’ll read by—assuming you have power—and let the shadows creep in on you—I’ll guarantee you a quality frisson.

(Cover image from the 1947 edition.)


About Dave Trowbridge

Dave Trowbridge has been writing high-tech marketing copy for almost thirty years. This has made him an expert in what he calls “pulling stuff out of the cave of the flying monkeys,” so science fiction comes naturally. He abandoned corporate life in 2007 — actually, it abandoned him — but not before attaining the rank of Dark Lord of Documentation, a title which still appears on his business card and serves to identify clients he’d rather not work with (the ones who don’t laugh). He much prefers the godlike powers of a science fiction author (hah!) to troglodyte status in dark corporate mills, and the universe is slowly coming around to his point of view. Dave is currently laboring over the second edition of the space-opera series Exordium with his co-author Sherwood Smith, and looking forward to writing more stories in that universe. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his writer wife and fellow BVC member, Deborah J. Ross, and a tri-lingual German Shepherd Dog responsible for three cats. When not writing, Dave may be found wrangling vegetables—both domesticated and feral — in the garden.


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