Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Power of Three - 26th Installment

Yep, it's Friday morning and it's coffee break time again. So here are my thoughts on three more of the best horror stories ever written. Once again, I assure you there are no hidden themes or shared subtexts here, even though there does appear to be a 'life after death' thing going on with at least two of them.

As always, these three names came out of the hat entirely by lot. People who read this column regularly are actually stopping believing this, as they say that if I was genuinely picking stories from my 'best ever' list at random, then I would surely have doubled up on several authors by now. It surprises me a little that I haven't, as certain weird wordsmiths figure on my list many times over, but no doubt at some point this discrepancy will be rectified.

For the moment, you'll just have to be patient with these three. Hope they stir some dark memories for you all, and if not, hope they inspire you go out and seek these dark deliberations so that you can find out what all the fuss was about.

The Harrowing Stone by Ben Leech

A selfish academic dreads the forthcoming death of his wife from cancer, as he fears being left alone. Then he hears about a mysterious monolith in a Scottish glen, which has the power to heal. There is one problem – life can only be saved if another life has first been given.

Not just a harrowing stone but a harrowing tale, as we witness a juxtaposition of two nightmarish possibilities. The slow, agonising and all-too-real wasting to death of a loved one in the grip of terminal cancer, or the devil’s bargain of using pagan magic to restore health even though you know a demonic price will be exacted. It almost seems tasteless in some ways, contrasting tragic realism with high-faluting fantasy, but the deed is done with such skill in this tale – the real and the fantastical blended together like two halves of a single, very real whole – that you can’t help but be mesmerised as developments unfold. At no stage does it feel like we’re in a fairy tale here. Okay, we’re dealing with spells, and highland mist, and enigmatic standing stones, but it is all so powerfully portrayed that the dark force of fatal illness is easily given a run for its money by the even darker force of the netherworld. This story also poses some fairly serious questions: how far would you go?; who would you be prepared to sacrifice? And in the time-honoured tradition of great horror fiction, it offers no easy answers.

First published in SCAREMONGERS, 1997.

The Bird by Thomas Burke

Captain Chudder, a brutal seaman, leads a vile existence. Constantly drunk and violent, he is particularly abusive to a young Chinese boy whom he keeps locked in his cabin. The boy escapes and vows revenge. But he hasn’t allowed for Chudder’s pet – a large white parrot possessed of a devilish intellect.

Even disregarding the issue of child-molestation, this was a shocking story when first published. Chudder is utterly odious as a character, not just because he lacks any redeeming features but because he also lacks any of the romance normally associated with villains in Gothic fiction: he is neither handsome nor cunning nor independently wealthy. He is simply a boorish lout of the sort to be found in any real-life dockland slum. Burke often located his tales in London’s depressed Limehouse district, rarely depicting it in a positive light, though often he half-concealed its grime behind a mirage of Oriental mysticism. Not so in this case. Here, Limehouse is a river-side sewer filled with taverns, brothels, opium dens, and human garbage of every sort. It is a picture of Hell on Earth long before the reader even has a chance to absorb the interwoven subtexts of sexual abuse and of course racism (the interracial relationship between Chudder and the Chinese boy caused as much of a scandal as the obvious implication of homosexuality, never mind the under-age abuse). Of course, the story is written with Burke’s usual eloquence, though not to the point where it detracts from the squalor, or the steadily more sinister presence of the story’s main ‘pulp’ element – the bird!

First published in LIMEHOUSE NIGHTS (pictured), 1916.

Watchers At The Strait Gate by Russell Kirk

It is midnight when Father O’Malley, a tired old priest, is disturbed in his isolated presbytery by a hulking tramp who wants to make a confession. The priest is afraid but knows he has a duty to all wretched souls. The tramp then confesses to murdering six men and announces that he will now show O’Malley the way to salvation.

Russell Kirk reveals his strong religious faith in this powerful dissertation on love, hate, fear and redemption. Simply because of who the author is, we’re in no doubt from the outset that there will be a supernatural twist here, but the growing sense of dread as the veteran clergyman marches through the darkened church to the confessional, a gigantic brutish shadow behind him, is literally palpable. Needless to say, there is far more to this story than mystery and suspense. Kirk’s elegant language perfectly enshrines his complex ideas about morality and responsibility and ultimately the price we may all have to pay for a lack thereof, and is filled with classical and theological allusions and references. The hard-edge of reality is never far away of course. We are also immersed in the misery of the underclass, especially as seen from that uniquely American perspective, where life is a void filled with flophouses, prisons and cheap bars, and where ‘the Watchers’, the dark wraiths of human failure, are never far away. All in all an exquisite ghost story, beautifully written and deeply affecting.

First published in NEW TERRORS 2, 1980.

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