Halloween is the quintessential European celebration (now, North American too by extension). Christians in India and the East do not celebrate it – maybe because the origin is from pagan roots. But during my childhood, when the most popular writer was Enid Blyton, almost all children with reading habits were familiar with Halloween. And as a lover of the creepy, I was sad that we did not have it in India and that I could not go trick-or-treating.
Halloween, celebrated today (October 31) in many parts of the world, occurs as the year is slowly dying, autumn fading into winter. It is an in-between time, sort of like what twilight is for the day. The nights are getting longer; the days shorter: the earth is folding in on itself under a white blanket. No wonder primitive man shivered with fear at the thought of the denizens of the twilight world stalking the lonely copses – but I believed that, coupled with dread there was a secret delight. For it is no secret that mankind loves to frighten itself: the lure of delicious nightmare is what sells horror stories.
Stories around the campfire are also another Halloween tradition that must have come into existence during those days when primitive humans huddled around the magic entity that saved them from very real dangers. The stories must have helped them keep their mind off the real denizens of the night who prowled, crawled and lay in wait in search of prey. It would have been natural that the stories talked of fears which could be easily externalised and could be rounded off at the end (though not necessarily neatly). I think the horror story was born around the campfire.
So, as a tribute to the season, let me share three tales which epitomise for me the creeping horror that does not leave you once the story is finished. They will haunt you, and want you to return to the story again and again – even though you are afraid to. It’s the equivalent of a frightening picture in a book which the child wants to avoid, but helplessly keeps on peeking back at.
This here is my virtual campfire. Gather around, friends, and let us begin.
Casting the Runes by M. R. James
Montague Rhodes James is a past master at the art of writing a horror story that is peculiarly English. His language is akin to reportage: there is no build-up of atmosphere, and the ghosts are actually matter-of-fact, and so is the way they attack. Sounds pretty dull when it is described that way – but it’s anything but. And James’ in-depth knowledge of cathedral history allows him to situate the horrors squarely in the English countryside: in the woods, the dales, the churches and the sepulchres. “Ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night” come to you not in isolated Transylvanian graveyards on lonely, stormy nights – but they visit your drawing room during teatime.
“Casting the Runes” is a story which is built on the premise of the evil magic spell. Runes are letters from a Germanic writing system, in existence before Latin came into force, rumoured to possess magical powers. Runes are cast upon a person (by getting him to accept a spell written in the runic alphabet) either to gain their affection or eliminate them. The scholar Edward Dunning invites the latter fate when he angers Karswell, a man of dubious reputation, by rejecting a paper written by him.
In true James style, the story starts off with three letters, written by the secretary of an unnamed association rejecting Karswell’s paper: by the third letter, we know that Karswell is angry, and wants to locate the person responsible. The secretary does not reveal the name, and he does well to do so, because Karswell is not a nice man at all. In evidence, the story of the “treat” he gave to schoolchildren by showing them some magic lantern slides is quoted by one of the secretary’s friends. Karswell, angry with the kids for trespassing on his property, had decided to frighten them out of their wits in lieu of entertainment – and the slideshow, as it progressed, became a genuine horrorfest.
Well the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerised into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.
This incident is mentioned as a part of the conversation during a casual lunch between friends; in the same casual manner, we come to know that John Harrington, a reviewer who trashed one of Karswell’s books on witchcraft, met a freak accidental death by falling off a tree – which he had apparently been chased up, though no dogs or other animals were seen. Thus in a couple of pages, the stage is set, and the reader sees the doom building up for Dunning, should Karswell ever come to know that he was the person who rejected his paper – which he finds out, of course. The remaining part of the story is Dunning’s ordeal, which grows more and more gruelling as the tale moves towards its climax.
The passage quoted above is illustrative of James’ technique. The horror is stated matter-of-factly; however, it grows like the “horrible hopping creature in white” which slowly comes more and more into view… yet never fully. We know that Karswell has set a demon after Dunning – the sequence of activities is clear to the reader while the protagonist is clueless, a sure recipe for Hitchcockian suspense.
I cannot describe further without spoilers – so go ahead and read it. The story is not covered by copyright, I think – anyway, it’s available on the web.
How Love Came to Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens
The second Halloween offering, though as frightening as the first, is totally different in theme and presentation. Here, atmosphere is everything: that, and the curious nature of the boogeyman. For it is love which scares the hell out of us in this story – the cloying, mindless, drooling love of an idiot.
Father Murchison, the naïve pastor with love in his heart for the whole of humanity and Professor Frederic Guildea, the ultimate sceptic with probably no human qualities at all, are the most intimate of friends. One day, Father Murchison makes the statement that the people who don’t want something is usually given a surfeit; and Guildea replies that then he should be smothered with affection, because he simply hates it.
And he gets precisely that – a presence which enters the house, which loves Guildea mindlessly.
It is the professor’s objectivity which provides the story with its strength. He is not impressionable – but he is too much of a man of science to dismiss the evidence of his senses: and he trusts his mental faculties too much to believe that he might be going mad. He objectively experiments, and succeeds in proving the evidence of his incorporeal visitor (at least to Murchison) through the imitative capabilities of his parrot.
…Pulling itself up by the bars it climbed again upon its perch, sidled to the left side of the cage, and began apparently to watch something with profound interest. It bowed its head oddly, paused for a moment, then bowed its head again. Father Murchison found himself conceiving — from this elaborate movement of the head — a distinct idea of a personality. The bird’s proceedings suggested extreme sentimentality combined with that sort of weak determination which is often the most persistent. Such weak determination is a very common attribute of persons who are partially idiotic. Father Murchison was moved to think of these poor creatures who will often, so strangely and unreasonably, attach themselves with persistence to those who love them least…
…The parrot paused, listened, opened his beak, and again said something in the same dove-like, amorous voice, full of sickly suggestion and yet hard, even dangerous, in its intonation. A loathsome voice, the Father thought it. But this time, although he heard the voice more distinctly than before, he could not make up his mind whether it was like a woman’s voice or a man’s — or perhaps a child’s. It seemed to be a human voice, and yet oddly sexless. In order to resolve his doubt he withdrew into the darkness of the curtains, ceased to watch Napoleon and simply listened with keen attention, striving to forget that he was listening to a bird, and to imagine that he was overhearing a human being in conversation. After two or three minutes’ silence the voice spoke again, and at some length, apparently repeating several times an affectionate series of ejaculations with a cooing emphasis that was unutterably mawkish and offensive. The sickliness of the voice, its falling intonations and its strange indelicacy, combined with a die-away softness and meretricious refinement, made the Father’s flesh creep. Yet he could not distinguish any words, nor could he decide on the voice’s sex or age. One thing alone he was certain of as he stood still in the darkness — that such a sound could only proceed from something peculiarly loathsome, could only express a personality unendurably abominable to him, if not to everybody. The voice presently failed, in a sort of husky gasp, and there was a prolonged silence.
Here is love, removed from its lofty perch, and divorced of sex even. A love which distinguishes itself only by its voracity, by its need to totally engulf the loved object. A love which is more frightening than hate ever can be. A love which will ultimately destroy.
This is one of those stories where the horror really begins once you finish the story. A worthy read, to be enjoyed again and again.
The Janissaries of Emilion by Basil Copper
Time and space are distorted in dreams. Sometimes they are compressed – we spend a whole lifetime in a matter of few seconds, or traverse half the world. In other instances, they get stretched; we keep on running but stay in the same place – especially if there is a monster coming after you. The frightening thing is that the monster is always on the verge of catching you – but never does so and put you out of your misery. But thankfully, we wake up.
What if we didn’t? Or we woke up, and returned to the same dream?
This is the premise of this truly weird story by Basil Copper. Farlow, a scientist, is having a weird dream: he is struggling out of the sea on to the beach, somewhere in the orient. Far away, he can see the glittering minarets of a beautiful city – this is Emilion, where he knows his lady love lives. However, as he proceeds towards it, he notices a something like a dust cloud in the distance, between him and his destination. And this scares the hell out of him… even though, in his waking life he does not know what it is.
The dream proceeds in increments: each night adds a bit more. Initially the dreams come infrequently, then the frequency increases, until he is having them every night. And in each dream, the dust cloud gets bigger (so does the sense of dread) – and the wind keeps on whispering in his ear: “The janissaries of Emilion!”
Of the three stories I have selected, this is the most suspenseful. Copper has paced the story beautifully – the reader will be turning the pages in a frenzy, but the tale reveals its secrets in a phased manner (including the origin of the dust cloud) and the end, when it comes, is a real shocker.
This one anticipates A Nightmare on Elm Street by a decade – and is much more terrifying.
So there you are – my Halloween offering. If you are a horror fan and have not read these stories (almost impossible… but still…), rectify the lacuna immediately! Close the curtain, turn down the lights, and get started. I wish you, like Hitchcock, a bad evening and an even worse night.