Some of the best tales of horror and terror have been produced by writers whose names do not conjure up the isolated castles, decaying mansions and sheeted forms of the gothic inheritance. These authors bring fresh perspectives to well-worn tropes and often use the form to explore themes found elsewhere in their works. Such stories are valuable to scholars of the supernatural in fiction, demonstrating the potential of the genre, and to those interested in individual authors, as they provide neat examples of overarching themes in a writer’s oeuvre. Most importantly, they give the reader a tale well-told.
“The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1883)
In 1880 a young Doyle took time out from his medical studies to work as a surgeon aboard an Arctic whaling ship. Spending seven months at sea in dangerous conditions and fascinated by the superstitions of the sailors, Doyle returned to the land with the inspiration for a tale of fear and fate in the polar wastes. As with many stories in the gothic tradition, this takes the form of a “found narrative”, an extract from the journal of John McAlister Ray, medical student and surgeon on board the eponymous Scottish whaler. Stuck among the icefields with rations running low and winter approaching, Ray chronicles not only the “puerile superstition” of the crew and the increasingly alarming behaviour of the captain but also the strange figure that flits across the ice.
Featuring typewriters, bicycles, “new women” and early examples of forensics, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are important documents of their time. The same could be said of “Pole-Star”. Just as Holmes deploys scientific methods in the fight against crime, Ray uses reason and science in the fight against the supernatural. When he is not rationalising the sailors’ beliefs he is dosing them with all kinds of medicine to “cure” them of their superstition. However, as the story progresses, Ray comes to realise that there are some things that his sceptical approach cannot account for:
I have gone through a very strange experience, and am beginning to doubt whether I was justified in branding every one on board as madmen because they professed to have seen things which did not seem reasonable to my understanding.
This is a short but incredibly rich work. It touches on religion, superstition, mental illness, class, the struggle between belief and reason, gender and economics. What is more, it is an atmospheric tale written by a man who had experienced first-hand the terrible silence of the pack ice.
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“The Wind in the Rose-Bush” by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1903)
H.P. Lovecraft described Freeman’s tales as “material of authentic force” in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. However, in her lifetime Freeman was known chiefly as a naturalistic observer of daily life in late-19th and early-20th century New England. Practice in this form allowed her to write character-driven ghost stories in which the supernatural emerges from behind the backdrop of the daily grind as experienced by lower-middle class families and single women.
In the titular story of Freeman’s 1903 collection, Rebecca Flint travels to a distant village to collect her niece, Agnes. Now orphaned, Agnes is under the care of her stepmother, Mrs. Dent. From the start we are in familiar gothic territory; a stranger on a mission, an isolated community, locals who eye our protagonist with “furtive curiosity”. However, Freeman’s unique approach to the form gives the reader sharp insight into the gender politics of the time. Rebecca is “the type of a spinster, yet with rudimentary lines and expressions of matronhood”. For Victorian onlookers, she is neither one thing nor the other. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” Freeman’s contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the gothic form to lay bare the oppression of women by the male establishment. Freeman however shows us how Victorian women could oppress each other through subtle social power-play. This is highlighted by material possessions, such as Mrs. Dent’s “voluminous ruffles of starched embroidery” and her well-kept house, with its “Brussels carpets, lace curtains, and plenty of brilliant upholstery and polished wood.” It is also made clear through such barely-veiled judgements hinted at in a local woman’s conversation with Rebecca:
“It’s a long ways to come and leave a family,” she remarked with painful slyness.
“I ain’t got any family to leave,” returned Rebecca shortly.
“Then you ain’t – ”
“No, I ain’t.”
“Oh!” said the woman.
Freeman created stories in which, just as the supernatural peeps out from behind the natural, the cosy world of domestic routine is shown to balance precariously above a much darker world of abuse, poverty and loneliness. Despite this, she receives less attention for her ghost stories than do her more celebrated (and wealthier) contemporaries, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
“The End of the Flight” by W. Somerset Maugham (1926)
One of the most successful authors of the 20th century, Maugham takes his readers through the back streets of Spain in the early 1900s, across the tense borders of Switzerland during World War One, among the smart-set of the interwar Riviera and from beach to beach in the South Seas. However, he is at his most acute when focussing on characters whose lives were given over to running an empire on which the sun was just beginning to set.
“The End of the Flight” uses that familiar genre device, the framing narrative. Our narrator arrives at a distant outpost in Borneo. Intending to stop only briefly, he is all but begged to stay by the British District Officer, who is clearly in dire need of company. Maugham’s unnamed District Officer is one of the most memorable comic characters in supernatural fiction, though his alcohol intake is truly horrific by modern standards:
“We had three or four whiskies in the afternoon and a lot of gin pahits later on, so that when dinner came along we were by way of being rather hilarious […] Of course we had a lot of whisky at dinner and I happened to have a bottle of Benedictine, so we had some liqueurs afterwards. I can’t help thinking we both got very tight.”
The District Officer then asks the narrator if he would like “to hear a funny story”. What follows is the tale of a Dutchman who came to the outpost, fleeing what lovers of the ghost story will recognise with familiarity as a terrible and implacable vengeance.
In this story, Maugham carries on the tradition, exemplified by Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson, of the “colonial gothic”. The Dutchman’s escape even mirrors that of Conrad’s eponymous hero Lord Jim, as he desperately searches for a place of isolated safety in a shrinking world. The well-travelled Maugham brought his talent for impressionistic writing to this story, conveying a sense of veracity through the use of the chance encounter, a recognisable part of travel, and a sense of the loneliness of colonial administrators, living in self-imposed isolation from the “natives”, and waiting for death to come, out of the jungle, or out of the bottle.
“The End of the Flight” is available in Maugham’s Collected Short Stories Volume 4, published by Vintage.
“A Little Place off the Edgware Road” by Graham Greene (1939)
Graham Greene is best known for his portrayal of life in seedy underworlds, such as in Brighton Rock or The Third Man, and for his Catholic beliefs, the inspiration behind The Power and the Glory. “A Little Place off the Edgware Road” blends both of these themes and adds the tension of its times to create a unique contribution to the genre. The story follows Craven through the seamy underbelly of London, with its prostitutes in doorways, indecent acts in public parks, grimy cinemas and men in dirty raincoats. Green’s attention to detail is reminiscent of the work of that keen observer of interwar London, Patrick Hamilton. Even the strolling soldiers, whose physiques Craven jealously admires, are reminiscent of “worms”, the agents of decay. Though disenchanted with this world, Craven has an intense horror of bodily resurrection, a central tenet of Christian belief. Furthering the religious theme, it is implied that the self-loathing Craven has abused the body that God gave him. Craven’s questionable approach to belief is also made plain. Rather than comforting him, his beliefs are “lodged in his breast like a worm in a nut”.
The setting of this story, explicitly 1939, brings the tensions of the time to the fore. Considering the dreary prospects then before and behind humanity, it is understandable why “the globe was honeycombed for the sake of the dead”. Despite the clear religious dimension, this tale also works as a straightforward ghost story, blending terror and outright horror. The tactile elements are reminiscent of M.R. James, while the more extreme images fit neatly into the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and the bloody excesses of the Grand Guignol.
“A Little Place off the Edgware Road” is available in Twenty-One Stories, published by Vintage.
“Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates
Oates is primarily known for her dark subject matter rather than supernatural fiction. She is no stranger to the genre, though, having written on H.P. Lovecraft for the New York Review of Books and edited the collection American Gothic Tales. “Night-Side” blends the legacy of M.R. James, with its overreaching academics, the legacy of Lovecraft, with its gulf of chaos over which we paint our reassuring reality, and the accounts of 19th-century psychical researchers to create a story equally life-affirming and troubling. Like the first work in this list, it takes the form of journal entries. Two well-respected Victorian academics, Jarvis Williams and Dr Perry Moore, part of the intellectual establishment of Boston, investigate the alleged medium Mrs A–. Unlike James and Lovecraft, whose characters are often measured in their display of any emotion other than fear, Oates hints tantalisingly at the complex inner lives of these starched patriarchal figures, and we see how emotion can become the gateway to belief. “Night-Side” is steeped in the philosophy of its time, and even features a cameo from William James, philosopher of belief and brother to Henry, of The Turn of the Screw fame. Set in 1887, only five years after Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead”, the story presents a view of ghosts, and the afterlife, which will disturb believers and sceptics alike.
“Night-Side” is available in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard.
Lewis Hurst blogs on horror and supernatural fiction at The Uncanny Man.