Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Horror Diary - Day 3: Things and the Horror of Things

10/5/17 – 10/11/17

In the annals of both the haunted house story and the horror fiction boom of the 70s and 80s, one of the key (Stephen King writes about it at length in Danse Macabre) yet somehow now mostly forgotten modern novels is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, from 1978. Siddons is a best-selling writer of “non-genre” (whatever that means) novels set in the South and dealing with, as far as I can tell, realistic, or maybe somewhat amped up, human drama. The House Next Door, her second novel, is her only work of horror, but in Danse Macabre, King quotes her stating that she’s a fan, particularly of ghost stories, as written by Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, M.F.K. Fisher, and so on. And I have to tell you, for her one crack at it, Siddons came up with a truly ingenious idea. As the novel opens, the house which will be the novel’s focus, and from which all evil and tragedy flows, hasn’t even been built yet. Our narrator is Colquitt Kennedy, married to Walter Kennedy. They’re happy, comfortable Southern suburbanites (though not as comfortable as most of their neighbors; on the other hand, once Siddons makes this point, it ceases immediately to matter) who live next to a lot empty of any sort of dwelling but full of lush flora and whatnot. So when the lot is bought and plans are made by the new owner to build a house on it, the Kennedys are disappointed. Eventually, they meet their soon-to-be new neighbors, Pie(!) and Buddy Harralson, as well as, more importantly, Kim Dougherty, their architect. The Kennedys become fast friends with Dougherty who, one night, shows them his plans for the house:
Just before they left, Pie darted out to the Mercedes and brought back the house plans…The house to be lay in a pool of radiance, as if spotlit. I drew in my breath at it. It was magnificent…It commanded you somehow, yet soothed you. It grew out of the penciled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless deeps of time, waiting to be released…I thought of something that had started with a seed, put down deep roots, grown in the sun and rains of many years into the upper air. In the sketches, at least, the woods pressed untouched around it like companions. The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots. It looked – inevitable.

This, I think we can all agree, sure sounds like some house, all right. Eventually, the place is built, the Harralsons move in, Pie gets pregnant, and their lives go to hell. Following a tumble by Pie down the basement stairs which results in a grotesque miscarriage, their personal catastrophe culminates at a party in the house where, famously or infamously (in any case, this bit is pretty much always mentioned when Siddons’s novel comes up), Buddy Harralson and his handsome, married co-worker Lucas Abbott are discovered having sex in the downstairs guest room by Pie and her father, who drops dead of a heart attack. Soon after, the Harralsons split up and sell the house. This is about a third into the book, which should maybe clue you in to the second part of Siddons’s ingenious idea. The House Next Door is comprised of three sections, each telling the story of a married couple or family who moves into the house following the horrified departure of the previous owners.
Colquitt and Walter are there to witness it all, which is part of the problem. Given the way things play out, which involve various neighbors and friends of the Kennedys, as well as the Kennedys themselves, becoming entwined on some level with these poor families, and given that some of these neighbors and friends see much more of the tragedies than the Kennedys do, writing this in the first person, thereby making Colquitt and Walter our only point of view, means that several big events in the plot are told to the reader second-hand by someone else telling them to Colquitt and Walter. Also, Colquitt?? Anyway, it’s not even the “Did you hear what happened to the Sheehans?” conversations that wearied me the most. Worse than those scenes are the ones when, say, Claire Swanson, Colquitt’s best friend, has just spent the day with these new, doomed neighbors, and then goes over to the Kennedys house and says “Would you like to know the entire story of their lives, both together and separately?” This happens more than once, and these sections are the book are, let’s say, inelegant.
Also a problem, though this is one that you either have to accept or not, it’s up to you, is that this is not a horror story that features tangible ghosts or demons, so that when some characters begin to theorize that something supernatural is causing all these horrible things to happen, and for these people to behave like this, it is very difficult to accept that any sane or intelligent person would come to that conclusion. Having the Kennedys say things like “I know this sounds nuts, but…” before dumping all this nonsense on some unsuspecting listener only goes so far.
Furthermore, towards the end, a surprising and really off-putting vein of snobbery on the part of Siddons begins to stand out. At one point, the Kennedys are forced to shop for groceries at Safeway, which is the sort of thing you’d think probably could go with not being mentioned at all, but Siddons does:
The store had that damp, dingy, white Sunday look to it, and the people who were shopping were not the same people I ran into during the week. There were no tanned, hard-legged matrons in tennis clothes, no harried young mothers with small children in tow, no shoals of drifting blue-haired old ladies, no grave-faced chauffeurs with lists. The people were young, and many of the men were bearded, and all had the same damp, dingy white look the store wore. 

 “It’s a whole different subculture,” said Walter, looking around.

I caught sight of us in the mirror over the meat counter, two tall, slender, graceful people in well-cut slacks and heavy sweaters. I thought we looked like attractive strangers, people you see on the streets and in restaurants or passing cars whom you do not know but know instinctively are of you, one of your own.
Is it snobbery if the only people who are described in positive terms are our two heroes? If it’s not, then it’s something worse.

Later, the Kennedys story hits People magazine, as does their warning that no one should buy this house. This media attention brings a lot of outsiders into their neighborhood, to gawk and take pictures.
“They’re awful people, Walter. The ones who come and gawk, I mean. They’re taking pictures.” 

“Well, they aren’t the kind who buy,” he said practically, “and that’s what counts…”
Walter then wonders out loud to Colquitt if they may have accidentally lured someone there who would buy the house they otherwise never would have known about:

My heart froze; I had not thought of that. But then I thought of those sly, faded people, and I said, “Not one of those people could begin to afford that house. The people who could won’t come near it after this.”

In other words, the people who aren’t awful are the ones who could afford the house. The awful ones who can’t shop at Safeway.
This is all pretty ugly, and nearly killed the experience of reading The House Next Door for me, which already was an experience of highs and lows. When I say that the novel ends very well, eliding a pitfall I was certain Siddons was running heedlessly towards, I say it with a tone both complimentary and disappointed, because by that time what normally might have been a thrilling boost in my feelings about The House Next Door had already been soured. Anyway, I hope Siddons has been able to keep her ghastly shopping experiences to a minimum.
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I watched a movie, sort of horror, more of a thriller I guess, a new one which people are talking about. It’s called Super Dark Times, which is a shit title. It’s about Teens, two of whom are best friends and who talk about sex in the kind of gross way teens tend to do. They’re nerds, and they both like this one girl. They also have other friends, and one day they accidentally kill one of them with a samurai sword. They bury the body, sort of, and throw the sword into a hole. This experience breaks the mind of one of the Teens, and by the end there’s more blood and much guilt.
It seemed to me that director Kevin Phillips and his writers, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, had really landed on something here, some sort of insight into the minds of young adult males, and early on, before the film becomes an uninspired genre exercise, maybe they were, or were on the way to landing on something. The title of the film appears over blurred, squiggly cable porn, which seemed to indicate that the films was heading somewhere sleazy, or more optimistically, to some sort of blunt examination of sleaze as it is regarded by certain types. But ultimately this choice doesn’t mean anything in particular, nor does the decision to set the film in the 1990s. This last bit came about because that’s when the filmmaker was a teenager and is therefore significant, and also I’m pretty sure so that they wouldn’t have to worry about how cell phones would affect their story. This seems to be the driving force behind a lot cinematic decisions these days. I thought Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, the two main actors, were good.
*      *      *      *
I also watched The Mad Magician, John Brahm’s 1954 thriller starring Vincent Price as a designer of magic tricks for other people who longs to take the stage himself. This is significantly more my speed than Super Dark Times, though let’s not go nuts. Brahm was an entirely capable director of such effective 40s genre pictures as The Undying Monster and, probably most famously, Hangover Square, which features Laird Cregar disposing of a body in a celebratory bonfire, something Brahm has Price do in The Mad Magician.
Prior to seeing it, I’d seen this film described as being about a magician who exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve wronged him via murder methods drawn from his own magic tricks. This is not strictly true. The bloody revenge is there, but only the first murder has anything to do with one of his tricks. After that his stage skills relate to the plot mainly in his use of a new kind of mask he developed, and which disguises him at first as a magician he worked for and then killed. In the story of the film, this is state of the art makeup work; I don’t know my special effects and movie makeup history the way I probably should, but I have to say, it did look pretty dang good for 1954. Also Price is wonderful, playing his patented merciless killer who is somehow also heartbreaking. Still, these sorts of folks should probably be stopped.
I liked The Mad Magician. Calling it “efficient” probably sounds like damning with faint praise, and it would be if such efficiency weren’t for all intents and purposes now long dead.
*      *      *      *
When I was a kid, there was a Catholic church in the general area where I lived (St. Mary’s?), not the one my family went to, and not close enough for me to have ever been inside that I can remember, but that had attached to it an urban legend, the source of which I do not know, the reach of which I also do not know, but that I have never forgotten. This church was notable for having inside it a spiral staircase, and supposedly what would happen is, if someone walked up that spiral staircase backwards while reciting the “Hail Mary,” (backwards or regular, I can’t recall), when you reached the top you would be greeted by Satan in the form of a pig. What happened then was strangely unclear. Nothing, as far as I know, though if this actually happened I have a feeling meeting a pig who was Satan would only be the beginning of quite an adventure. Anyway, I remember this story being told to me once by someone who acted as though they believed it, but I’m sure now they didn’t. They were a bit too casual about it. If I believed something like that could happen I doubt I’d ever get out of bed. But it chilled my blood all the same, and remains the source of one of the most vivid horror images I’ve ever encountered, and image that popped unbidden into my brain when I heard this story. And ever since, the idea of pigs as a symbol of demonic evil has been especially unsettling to me, even though pigs in real life, I’m basically okay with.
I’ve often wondered where the whole pig-as-Satan idea came from. It’s probably from Milton or, you know, the Bible, but it could I suppose also be from “The Hog,” William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre, final story about his occult detective Carnacki, the Ghost Finder. Published posthumously in 1947 (Hodgson was killed at Ypres in 1918), “The Hog” is one of Hodgson’s most famous stories, and though this thing was, for me, damn frustrating, it’s not hard to see why. (Real quick, I also read “The Thing Invisible,” a kind of false horror story, a locked room mystery in which Carnacki finds nary a ghost. I mention it here, and here only, merely to keep this diary complete.)
The structure of these stories is odd. A narrator, Dodgson, is a friend of Carnacki. Every so often, Carnacki will summon Dodgson and three other friends – Jessop, Arknight, and Taylor – to come over to his home, have dinner, watch him smoke, and listen to his latest occult adventure. So it’s a first person story, though the narrator has no personality or anything at all apart from a name, because the other first person story, the one that matters, is buried within. The amount of the story that isn’t told by Carnacki, that is on either side of Carnacki’s adventure, at the beginning and end, is meager, thin, and kind of pointless, although I of course like the idea of a bunch of British guys getting together in someone’s study to smoke pipes and talk about ghosts. Hodgson’s way of going about it is needlessly convoluted, but only if you bother to think about it, and there’s no rule saying you have to.
My other problem with “The Hog” is that, like other horror, fantasy, and weird story authors of the early 20th century, Hodgson’s interest in the occult, both of the light and dark varieties, seems to have been sincere, which means, unfortunately in his case, that there’s a lot of explanatory mumbo jumbo and nonsense about the kind of equipment Carnacki uses, and what it does, and even more bullshit about physical and psychical states, consciousness, dimensions, the magic power of colors, and the like. “The Hog” ends with pages of this, after the story Carnacki was telling his friends is over, after all the suspense has dissipated. I hope this sort of thing brought Hodgson comfort, or anyway interested him, which I guess it must have, but it’s a slog.
However, when Hodgson is writing about the actual horror of his story, “The Hog” is pretty strong stuff. The story itself is simple: Carnacki hears about a strange medical problem being suffered by a man named Bains. In essence, it’s a terrible sleep disorder involving horrifying nightmares, although Bains insists they’re not dreams. Giving Bains the benefit of the doubt, Carnacki assembles a complex “defence” apparatus, gets Bains in position, and such and such things happen, and eventually what looks like a giant black pit opens under the table to which Bains has been strapped. From this pit, Carnacki hears a sound:

“I put the ear-pieces to my ears, and instantly knew that I had succeeded in actually recording what Bains had heard in his sleep. In fact, I was even then hearing ‘mentally’ by means of his effort of memory. I was listening to what appeared to be the faint, far-off squealing and grunting of countless swine. It was extraordinary, and at the same time exquisitely horrible and vile. It frightened me, with a sense of my having come suddenly and unexpectedly too near to something foul and almost abominably dangerous.”
This sort of thing continues, and Bains somehow falls asleep, and to also sometimes emit unmistakably pig-like grunts, which Carnacki assures his friend is a very dangerous thing to have happened. Soon, some sort of hog shape begins to appear, or anyway its head, in the blackness, and it and the “infinitely remote murmur of countless swine” begins to overwhelm Carnacki:
“High up in the moving wall of the barrier, I saw a fluffing out of the black tufted clouds, and pig’s hoof and leg, as far as the knuckle, came through and pawed a moment. This was about nine or ten feet above the floor. As it gradually disappeared I heard a low grunting from the other side of the veil of clouds which broke out suddenly into a diafaeon of brute sound, grunting, squealing and swine-howling; all formed into a sound that was the essential melody of the brute – a grunting, squealing howling roar that rose, roar by roar, howl by howl and squeal by squeal to a crescendo of horrors --  the bestial growths, longings, zests and acts of some grotto of hell…It is no use, I can’t give it to you. I get dumb with the failure of my command over speech to tell you what that grunting, howling, roaring melody conveyed to me. It had in it something so inexplicable below the horizons of the soul in its monstrousness and fearfulness that the ordinary simple fear of death itself, with all its attendant agonies and terrors and sorrows, seemed like a thought of something peaceful and infinitely holy compared with the fear of those unknown elements in that dreadful roaring melody. And the sound was with me inside the room – there right in the room with me.

I quote so extensively, because this is pretty great as far as I’m concerned. It brings to mind the essence of horror as expressed by Poe, specifically in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “Premature Burial.” Hodgson may use “squeal” and “squealing” one or two times too many, but who cares. And that moment when Carnacki stops and says “It is no use, I can’t give it to you” isn’t a cop out – it’s essential. It’s as eerily descriptive, more so, than a list of sonic details could ever be.
A weird detail of the story is how Carnacki repeatedly asks his listeners (rhetorically, one senses) if he’s making any sense, or if they understand him. At one point, he insists that it’s very important that they do. There’s a kind of reserved longing about Carnacki here, who otherwise is just a name and a vehicle for Hodgson’s ideas and images. If dwelt upon, this aspect of the story might seem curiously moving. Maybe it’s Hodgson, dead almost one hundred years, forever forty years old, asking if any of this turned out to be true.


lrobhubbard said...

There was an adaptation - on Lifetime Movie Network, of all places.

John Linwood Grant said...

Nice piece. I write on Carnacki and Hope Hodgson regularly. You might find this of interest: