William Hope Hodgson is possibly best known for the disturbing-on-so-many-levels novel The House on the Borderland (1908). He was a prolific writer of early weird fantasy and horror, and admired by many of his contemporaries, including H.P. Lovecraft.
What I know him best for, in addition to The House on the Borderland, are his short stories about the occult detective Thomas Carnacki. The Carnacki stories are notable among occult detective series, in that the alleged haunting that Carnacki is investigating will sometimes have a non-supernatural cause. It’s a bit like Scooby Doo meets Dr. Hesselius.
And like Dr. Hesselius, Carnacki takes a scientific approach to occult investigation. I like the Carnacki series, but I must confess that I’m not a big fan of Hodgson’s pseudo-scientific jargon. Carnacki’s chief reference is the fictional Sigsand Manuscript, which he quotes from in faux-Early English. There are numerous obscure references to the Saaamaaa Ritual, and passing, unexplained mentions Saiitii-type manifestations, and Aeiirii-type ones… rereading a few of the stories recently, I came across a scene where Carnacki recognizes an utterance of the “Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual” (but, but — how can he recognize it if it’s unknown??). I had to laugh.
The story I’ve picked for tonight’s winter tale is “The Searcher of the End House”, which takes place early in Carnacki’s career and is low on the technical jargon, but rich in good old-fashioned investigation. The Carnacki stories are narrated after the fact by Carnacki to a group of his friends, as they sit in Carnacki’s library after dinner. The “ghost story in the library” device is a classic format for the traditional winter tale (though of course, it needn’t be a library).
And then that night again my mother’s door was slammed once more just after midnight. I caught up the lamp, and when I reached her door, I found it shut. I opened it quickly, and went in, to find my mother lying with her eyes open, and rather nervous; having been waked by the bang of the door. But what upset me more than anything, was the fact that there was a disgusting smell in the passage and in her room.
The 1913 edition of Hodgson’s collection Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder is available on Project Gutenberg. The 1947 edition included three additional stories.
The painting above is Moonlight, the Old House (1906), by Childe Hassam. Sourced from WikiPaintings.
It’s that time of the year again! Winter tale season is here!
There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories– Ghost Stories, or more shame for us–round the Christmas fire; and we have never stirred, except to draw a little nearer to it.
Winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. Every year, I try to share a few good winter tales, and other Christmas-related stories, to celebrate the season.
This year, I’ll start with a story from W. J. Wintle’s Ghost Gleams (1921), which I’ve posted about previously. The stories in this collection were originally tales told ’round a campfire to the boys who attended the school at Caldey Abbey, in Wales. Not all of the stories are creepy, but of the ones that were, my favorite was “The House on The Cliff”.
Cyril stood there as the sun sank down in a bed of opal grey flushed with purple sapphire; and long flashing feathers of ruby played across the drowsy waves. A passing boatman saw him from the distance outlined against the sky, and wondered who it could be: and that was the last time that any human eye saw him alive.
Poor Cyril. All he wanted was some peace and quiet. Normally, a week at a quiet cottage by the sea with nothing but my books would be my ideal getaway — which just added to the creepiness of this story, for me. To be honest, I think that Wintle could have dropped the last paragraph, but overall, this one is pleasantly shivery, especially when read alone in bed late at night.
You can read more about the Ghost Gleams collection (including where to download it) in this previous post.
You can find all the winter tales that I’ve shared on my Winter Tales page.
The image above is from the cover of The Cottage on the Cliff (1834) by Catherine G. Ward. Courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.
Civilization ended this past summer.
The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.
“2012,” he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times….”
In Jack London’s post-apocalyptic novella, The Scarlet Plague (1912), humankind is almost completely wiped out by a virulent, ebola-like disease in the summer of 2013. James Howard Smith, an English literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the last man alive who still remembers that summer. The story is told in flashback, to Smith’s grandsons.
This is based on a story told by New Mexico storyteller Paulette Atencio, in the bilingual collection Cuentos From My Childhood: Legends and Folktales of Northern New Mexico. The story of dueling sorcerers reminds me of anecdotes I’ve read about Cebuano sorcery (both benign and malign) in Richard Lieban’s book Cebuano Sorcery, and in other sources as well.
In the village of El Nido, in northern New Mexico, there lived a woman they called Mana Márgara. She was a lone, surly woman, and her face and body were covered with warts. She wore nothing but black, and people often saw her gathering herbs along remote paths, out in the hills beyond the village. The villagers suspected her of being a witch; they feared and avoided her.
In this same village lived Mano Lencho, with his wife Corina and their beautiful daughter Sonia. I don’t know why Mano Lencho and Mana Márgara disliked each other, but evidently they did. One day, Mana Márgara awoke to discover that her beloved cat was dead. She accused Mano Lencho of having killed her pet. Mano Lencho denied it, but wisely avoided Mana Márgara, and his family did the same.
The next day, Mana Márgara brought Mano Lencho and his family some fresh-baked bread. Mano Lencho didn’t trust Márgara, and fed the bread to his dog. The poor animal fell ill and died the next day. But when Lencho confronted Márgara, she denied the whole thing.
This is a story from the days of the Manila-Acapulco trade route — a story of a beautiful Japanese urn brought by a Manila trade galleon from Japan to Mexico by way of the Philippines.
No one knows how the urn ended up on the galleon. Perhaps it was stolen from a temple or cemetery and sold to a Spanish sailor as a souvenir. All we know is that when the galleon arrived in Acapulco, one of its crewmen, short of funds, sold the urn to a local shopkeeper.
The urn was lovely, white with painted cherry blossoms. The shopkeeper showed it to a friend of his, a sailor on shore leave.
“It’s heavy,” the sailor said. “Let’s open it and see what’s inside.”
And so they opened it and discovered that it was full of ashes, and bits of human bone. It was a funerary urn.
I found Ghost Gleams (1921) thanks to a post by Tim Prasil, the hunter of occult detectives. It’s a collection of fifteen stories written by William James Wintle, an Oblate (lay brother) at the Abbey of Caldey Island, off the coast of Wales. Presumably he was a teacher there as well; the stories were originally composed as campfire entertainment for the boys who attended the Abbey school.
The stories are delightful. Many of them have an M.R. James-ish feel to them, with their scholarly bachelor protagonists who are sometimes a little too curious or a little too skeptical for their own good… .
Truth be told, Wintle (in these stories) has some of the shortcomings that James is also accused of. The stories are “merely” ghost stories: not too deep, a bit short on explanation. More than once, I got to the end of a story and thought “that’s it? But why? How? Tell me more!” James’s stories have additional layers, thanks to James’ antiquarian and church history background, not to mention his love and appreciation for folklore, and for its “rules”. I come away from a James story wanting to hunt things down, look things up — what was he referring to in this story? What did it mean? Wintle’s stories, unfortunately, don’t have that extra layer.
But they’re still cracking good stories, and lots of fun. They come in a variety of scariness levels, from creepy to not scary at all; though as Wintle writes in the preface, “the gruesome ones met with the best reception. Boys like highly flavoured dishes.” I don’t need my ghost stories to be scary, and I liked the sweet “Father Thornton’s Visitor”. I also got a chuckle out of “The Ghost at the ‘Blue Dragon’”, a comedic cross between James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad” and “The Seventh Voyage” chapter of Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries. I won’t tell you which was my favorite creepy story, because I’m saving it for Winter Tale season… .
So if you are looking for some pleasantly shiversome bedtime reading, or for fun old-school ghost stories, check this one out. You can find free ebook versions in three formats at the Mystery and Imagination blog (which is a cool blog, so thanks to Tim for that pointer, too!).
I meant to put up a Halloween post this year, continuing the book-scrying theme that I started last year. Alas, the last couple of weeks have been ridiculously busy, and I missed the date. But today is All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, also known as Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos — a time to remember and honor those who have gone before us. So I can still put up a book-scrying post, as a way of honoring writers from the past and the wisdom of the words that they’ve left to us.
Besides, it’s fun.
Here’s the procedure: write down the question, close my eyes, open the book at random, and point. Read the sentence or paragraph at my fingertip.
This year I chose The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. It was a glorious mistake, this choice, because I really have just barely the time to squeeze out this post, but I haven’t read the book in a long time, and now I want to…
So here we go.