Odds and Dead Ends : Precursor to Weird Fiction: William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Derelict’

Any fan of horror fiction has at some point or other, like him or not, read some of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Known for popularising the term ‘weird fiction’, strongly through his association with the magazine Weird Tales, many of his stories revolved around a distinctly un-caring threat, one that dispensed with petty grudges and malevolence. Yet Lovecraft had many who went before him, with famous names such as Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and my fellow Welshman, Arthur Machen, some of the most prominent names in these discussions. One of my favourite stories to come before Lovecraft has to be The Derelict, written in 1912 by William Hope Hodgson, and it is this tale which I wish to introduce.

Framed as a story-within-a-story, it follows a doctor recalling an encounter with a derelict ship, whilst on passage from England to China, presumably sometime in the late 19th century. The derelict is surrounded by a thick, treacle-like scum, and when they finally clamber aboard, they find the whole ship covered in a thick mould, which seems to ripple, pound, and be strangely sentient. It’s an intriguing, simple premise, but one which touches upon the distinctly gothic idea of the origins, and form, of life, combined with a careless, deeply impersonal threat which would characterise much of Lovecraft’s weird and cosmic horror in later years.

Gothic short stories commonly have a little discussion on some point about life, or the human experience, or something similar, before delving into the main narrative. Anyone who’s read some Edgar Allan Poe in their life will know this almost too well; it’s seen in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Premature Burial’, and takes up roughly a third of ‘The Island of the Fay’. Being short blasts of terror, these stories use the device to ground their narratives in a tangible context of theme or premise, that we might treat it as something more serious than just someone rising from the grave, or a shaking silhouette of a tree reminding us of a long-dead wife and scaring us to death. In fact, this scene is so similar (in setup if not theme) to the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, just swapping out ‘I saw things on the Congo’ to ‘I saw things on the high seas’, that it’s hard to imagine Hodgson not being inspires in some way by Conrad’s novel. In ‘The Derelict’, Hodgson uses his introductory discussion between the doctor and the unnamed overall narrator to introduce the doctor as story-within-a-story narrator, but more importantly, to set up the main discussion of the story; the malleability, and distinctly un-divine origins, of life.

The setting out of the stall, of the origins of life, and how it can inhabit anything, ‘“…if given the right conditions, make itself manifest even through so hopeless seeming a medium as a simple block of sawn wood”’, works to present us with the idea of change; of something from inanimate to animate. It’s this idea, of the anthropomorphising (to give human traits to something non-human; literally anthropo – human – and morph – form -; to morph into humanness) of the ship and its fungal mass, which pervades the story, but also the thing which helps build tension and suspense before the inevitable reveal of the mould’s animation. When approaching the ship, it is described that, after propping up an oar against the derelict, ‘The oar had made quite an indentation into the bulging, somewhat slimy side of the old vessel.’ The wooden hull of a ship now has flexibility to it; it is malleable and can be shaped by the pressure of an oar leaning up against its side, with the aid of the mould which covers it, just as life can change something which was rigid and dead to being alive. Remember, it is ‘a simple block of sawn wood’ which is used as an example, and what is an old ship’s hull made from?

And when we finally arrive onboard the derelict, we find the mould has taken on a life of its own, as a sucking, flesh-eating mass. But what is remarkable is that Hodgson doesn’t pose this threat as particularly malevolent, though uncertainly threatening towards our protagonists, as others might do to create a scare. Earlier on in the story we have been told that three pigs in a sty has washed overboard from the ship heading to China, which has gotten washed up in the sucking scum, pigs which are specifically announced as now being dead. And later on, when finding the Cyclone, there are “‘the bones of at least three people, all mixed together in an extraordinary fashion, and quite clean and dry’”.

We have here what seems to be just a natural trade of energy, the mould simply eating what washes into its vicinity in order to survive. There’s nothing which suggests that it actively hunts across the seas, and in the final moments of the doctor’s tale, though it lurches out after their vessel as it tries to row away, once free of the scum it retreats back to the derelict and stays there. There’s no shadow of Cthulhu racing under the waves after them. They’re gone, the fly having escaped the spider’s web, and so it’s happy with whatever it’s managed to catch in the meantime. This is simply nature taking its course.

This lack of specific evil is something Lovecraft tapped into in his mythos. One could never say that Azathoth deliberately went after one soul in any kind of revenge or grudge-match. Nyarlarthotep just treated us as toys. The color out of space is just something which happens. The penguins under the titular mountains of madness just come after what’s stumbled across them. This kind of existential realisation, that we are not as important to those beings greater than us beyond the gulfs of understanding as we think we are, is exactly what lurks behind the spongy threat on the derelict. It’s not specifically out to get us, nor does it harbour some kind of emotive response to the explorers’ presence. They’re just food that must be eaten because it’s there to eat.

And none of this even gets close to touching upon our fear of germs and dirt and grime, which goes without saying. Interestingly, the story is written about sixty years after Darwin, and sixteen years before the discovery of penicillin (and three decades before it was widely used). So we have the conditions here for breeding (in the story, though pardon the pun) a fear of germs taking on a life of their own, under purely scientific circumstances, with no way to kill them. Note also that the main protagonist is a doctor, used to treating infections, and even he can’t kill the mould, and must resort to running away instead. You may read into these ideas what you will, and form your own interpretations of how they would have enhanced the horror to readers at the time, and how it may be similar or different to our own reading today.

If you want to, you might see ‘The Derelict’ as a link between those sea-faring tales such as Moby Dick, or even Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and the cosmic horror of later Lovecraft-inspired fiction. It’s a wonderfully fun, and perhaps even pulpy, tale of oceanic terror, with a threat that one could see as natural, or unnatural, as they see fit, and be sure to find something horrifying about it as a result. A criminally under-appreciated piece of writing, and definitely one to check out on a stormy night in an armchair. You might want to do some spring cleaning before reading it, however, just in case.

Article by Kieran Judge

Twitter: @kjudgemental

FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace is a Creepy Little Treat.

By Kristin Battestella

In all my Vincent Price, Roger Corman, AIP, and Poe celebrations, it’s been quite tough to find The Haunted Palace again.  Though this 1963 tale borrows much more from Lovecraft than it does Poe, all the creepy, freaky moods and twists are here in fine form.

In the 18th century, Arkham townsfolk burn the warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) for using the Necronomicon and local women in sadistic experiments- but Curwen vows to return and curses the village descendants. 100 years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget) inherit Curwen’s mansion and return to the New England ruin. Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell) informs the couple of the town’s twisted history, but the rest of the villagers fear Ward as local strange occurrences and bizarre deaths increase.  They use their deformed children to frighten Anne, and she begins to suspect the spirit of Curwen is indeed trying to take over her husband.  Unfortunately, their caretaker Simon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) knows more than he’s saying…

Writer Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone, Premature Burial, The Masque of the Red Death) teams with director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) for this Lovecraftian adaptation that got unfortunately shoehorned into American International Picture’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. Yes, it’s based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward more than any reaching at Poe titles or poetry- which might automatically put off the Poe faithful or the Lovecraft purists alike. However, the spooky moods and sinister atmosphere are here from the onset, with great traditional jumpy moments and heck, it’s actually scary in some scenes.  Even if you expect the smoke and mirror twists, it’s still dang suspenseful as the sinister past increasingly takes hold.  Indeed, the Necronomicon back story and Cthulhu allusions could be better explained, and the revenge plotlines are similar to later films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  There’s reused fire filmmaking for the finale and the end is somewhat abrupt, too, but overall, this is an entertaining and scary little picture.

Naturally, the resemblance between Curwen and Ward is uncanny! Our Man Vincent differentiates the two men nicely to start, allowing a slow possession to brew. The naughty implications, man handlings, and great outbursts build perfectly as the Victorian gentleman Ward becomes increasing overtaken with the ruthless warlock Curwen.  The tender scenes and inner torment as Ward realizes the takeover is happening are well done, too.  Again, I don’t see any over the top acting. Price’s subtle inner conflict and physical alterations are quite the opposite in fact. The pacing on the possession is good, but I do wish the film were a bit longer, as Debra Paget (The Ten Commandments with Price) as Ward’s wife Anne does become a bit typical. She’s active, suspects, and doesn’t scream too much, but it just seems like they ran out of time in developing her suspicions on Curwen overtaking her husband. Of course, Paget looks wonderful- and looks good scared, that’s not always an easy thing to master.  The Wards also sleep in the same bed, whoa! Anne ends up the good little woman, but their tender relationship and its explosive breakdown are well done, and it adds an extra personal dimension to the twistedness at hand.

Instead of the usual stock company throwaways, the supporting village men in The Haunted Palace lift up the horror here. Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) is perfection as the creepy and most definitely not so innocent caretaker Simon.  Of course, he knows more about Curwen than he lets on to the Wards, and his scary introduction is great. Frank Maxwell (Our Man Higgins) does fine work as the would be voice of reason among the otherwise superstitious townsfolk, but again, I wish there were more of his Dr. Willet and town scaredy cat Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill). Leo Gordon (McLintock!) is also a lot of fun, as are the weird, deformed, and disturbed village descendants. Oh, girls with no eyes or freaky eyeless men and worse shouldn’t be so scary, but when used in full force here, it’s downright frightening.

Although the Cthulhu- like tentacles and dungeon scenery leave something to be desired, the other period styles and designs establish The Haunted Palace wonderfully. The spider web motifs over the credits will be dang freaky for arachnophobes, and the opening colonial mayhem looks on form. The fog and lightning create all the atmosphere needed, and eerie music tops off the titular mansion’s décor, red candles, and sweet candelabras.  Those dungeons, however, are a little too dark to see- even when its daylight. Of course, the video is due some restoration, and the matte paintings supposedly providing scope are fairly poor, but that is to be expected.  Thankfully, the Victorian standards, ornate frocks, and wispy nightgowns more than make up the difference.

Unfortunately, The Haunted Palace is dang tough to find. Netflix is mum and its double bill DVD release with Tower of London is downright elusive. For Price Fans, Corman completists, and old school horror fans, however, The Haunted Palace is well worth the hunt.  Catch it whenever you can or delight again on a spooky late night whenever you need that hint of Lovecraft. Or Poe for that matter, hehe.

Press Release : Gutted

Press Release: Gutted

gutted
Crystal Lake’s first pro-paying anthology, featuring Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Ramsey Campbell, take readers on  a disturbing journey into the beauty that rests inside the very heart of darkness.

From Bram Stoker Award-nominated publisher, Crystal Lake Publishing, and the editing duo who brought you the best-selling and critically acclaimed small-town Lovecraftian horror anthology Shadows Over Main Street, comes Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories—a disturbing journey into the beauty that rests inside the very heart of darkness.

Awe meets ache.

 Terror becomes transcendence.

 Regret gives way to rebirth.

Fifteen short stories and one poem span nearly every twisted corner of the horror and dark fiction genres:

A woman experiences an emotional reckoning inside a haunted house.

A father sees his daughter rescued after a cold case is solved, only to learn the tragic limits of his love.

A man awakens a vengeful spirit and learns the terrible price of settling scores.

A boy comes of age into awareness of a secret universe of Lovecraftian scale.

A young woman confronts the deathly price of existence inside a German concentration camp during the Holocaust.

 

And much, much more…

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories features the most celebrated voices in dark fiction, as well as a number of exciting new talents:

Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Paul Tremblay, John F.D. Taff, Lisa Mannetti, Damien Angelica Walters, Josh Malerman, Christopher Coake, Mercedes M. Yardley, Brian Kirk, Stephanie M. Wytovich, Amanda Gowin, Richard Thomas, Maria Alexander and Kevin Lucia.

With a foreword from Cemetery Dance magazine founder Richard Chizmar.

Cover art by Caitlin Hackett

Interior artwork by Luke Spooner

Edited by Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward

 

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories

An anthology of dark fiction that explores the beauty at the very heart of darkness

Stephanie M. Wytovich — “The Morning After Was Filled with Bone”

Brian Kirk — “Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave”

Lisa Mannetti — “Arbeit Macht Frei”

Neil Gaiman“The Problem of Susan”

Christopher Coake“Dominion”

Mercedes M. Yardley — “Water Thy Bones”

Paul Tremblay“A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken”

Damien Angelica Walters“On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes”

Richard Thomas“Repent”

Clive Barker — “Coming to Grief”

John F.D. Taff“Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare”

Amanda Gowin — “Cellar’s Dog”

Kevin Lucia“When We All Meet at the Ofrenda”

Maria Alexander“Hey, Little Sister”

Josh Malerman“The One You Live With”

Ramsey Campbell — “The Place of Revelation”

 

“It’s a book for readers who love language as much as story, who understand that horror can be beautiful, ecstatic and revelatory as well as down-right scary.”James Everington

“All of the stories in this anthology have a beauty, whether it is in language or tone or in finessing a hard-hitting theme to disarm the reader. It’s worth picking up this collection.”Eden Royce

 

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Dark Regions Press: Encounters with Enoch Coffin

Encounters with Enoch Coffin

A Lovecraftian fiction illustrated by

Santiago Caruso and Clint Leduc

enoch_coffin_front_coverAnnouncing a new collection of Lovecraftian tales following the artist Enoch Coffin co-authored by critically acclaimed authors W.H. Pugmire and Jeffrey Thomas. The book will be offered initially in two signed hardcover formats signed by the authors, artists and bound in premium materials like leather and imported cloth. The book will also be offered in an ebook and trade paperback edition. The book is lavishly illustrated on the front and back cover by renowned artist Santiago Caruso while every story in the book is accompanied by an interior illustration by artist Clint Leduc.

Enoch Coffin is a proud inhabitant of Massachusetts, an artist following in the footsteps of local legend Richard Upton Pickman. Coffin is an artist with a singular quest: to capture in paint, or ink, or clay — however he might — sights that no mortal has ever portrayed in art before…and lived to exhibit. His quest will take him throughout actual New England locations, and that other New England of H. P. Lovecraft, where his models will be doomed souls, ravening ghouls, and entities from beyond the veil.fearlesssymmetry

Individually acclaimed for their weird fiction, in this collection of short stories authors W. H. Pugmire and Jeffrey Thomas collaborate to paint the portrait of a character every bit as fascinating and unique as the subjects of his artistic encounters. With haunting illustrations on the front and back cover by renowned illustrator Santiago Caruso and interior illustrations accompanying every story by illustrator Clint Leduc, Encounters with Enoch Coffin is anticipated to be one of our bestselling titles of 2013.