The Dunwich Horror was written by H P Lovecraft in August 1928 and is considered one of the core tales in his Cthulhu mythos. There are several significant literary influences on the tale. The central premise – the sexual union of a ‘god’ or monster with a human woman – is taken directly from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan; Lovecraft actually alludes to the story at one point in his narrative. The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are several other celebrated weird tales featuring invisible monsters Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It?; Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla (certain features of which had already been adapted for The Call of Cthulhu); Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing – but they do not appear to have influenced the tale substantially. A less well-known story, Anthony M Rud’s Ooze, also deals with an invisible monster that eventually bursts forth from the house in which it is trapped; Lovecraft expressed great enthusiasm for the tale when he read it in the spring of 1923. The Dunwich Horror also stands out as being one of the few tales Lovecraft wrote wherein the heroes successfully defeat the antagonistic entity or monster of the story.
Here’s a real festive treat. In 2000 the BBC produced a series called Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee in which Lee played M R James reading four of his own stories. Lee, who actually once met James, obviously enjoyed making this series and A Warning to the Curious is a real highlight – enjoy!
Robert Westall (1929-1993) was best known as a writer of books for children and young adults, often involving cats and themes surrounding his experiences growing up during World War II. He was twice honoured with the Carnegie Medal, the foremost British award for children’s literature. He was only the second author ever to win the medal twice, and no one has ever won a third. Westall’s most famous work is probably The Machine Gunners – for which he won the Carnegie Medal in 1975 – but he also produced a substantial body of ‘ghostly’ tales throughout his life, starting with his third novel The Watch House. It was the infinite strangeness of the supernatural that fascinated Robert Westall, not the horror, and in the opinion of some he remains one of the best and most undersung practitioners of the genre, and an obvious successor to that godfather of the English ghost story, M R James. Westall’s 1989 collection of supernatural short fiction Antique Dust was dedicated “To M R James, most economical of writers, who could coax horror out of a ragged blanket.”
I have been haunted by the writings of M R James since childhood but when asked what is my favourite of all his ghostly tales I’ve never fully been able to answer. Lost Hearts, an early tale which apparently James didn’t much care for, and which only appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to fill up the collection at the request of his publisher, does however retain a special corner in my affections. This was my first introduction to James and ever since I have always been surprised at the author’s seeming negative attitude to this particular story, which remains one of the classic short chillers in whatever guise it has assumed, on the page or on the screen. The plot is well known. Abney, an elderly scholar, reclusive and of independent means, invites his young cousin Stephen, recently orphaned, to live with him. His secret intention is to kill the boy in order to obtain his heart, which he believes will give him magical powers and, possibly, immortality. Two murders have already been committed for this purpose, and the young victims’ corpses carefully concealed, but their whereabouts are frighteningly disclosed to the intended next victim, and their intrusion back into the world of the living occurs in a series of disturbing incidents that culminate in the story’s horrifying denouement.
Sir Kingsley Amis first came to prominence when he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for Lucky Jim, one of the great comic creations of the 20th-century. In subsequent works he proved to be a master of invective and comedy, as well as revealing his interest in the supernatural in several short stories and the chilling novel The Green Man (1969), which was described by The Times as “an accomplished ghost story in the M R James style, under appreciated when it first came out, but winning some belated admiration when it became a television serial in 1990.” A clubbable, generous-hearted, though often irascible man, Amis unwittingly created a furore when the novel was first published. It was written in its original form as a radio broadcast intended to make listeners believe it was a factual account. The whole idea backfired, however, when – like H G Wells before him – he found people, including close friends, believing it was true! Indeed, despite the fact that he repeatedly stated it was a “lying narrative, fiction disguised as fact,” this misapprehension – like the theme of another of his short stories Who or What Was It? – haunted Amis for the rest of his life.
For a whole host of children born at the tail end of the 19th century the First World War marked a terrible frontier between innocence and adult worldliness. First-hand experience of the horror of war consigned blissful childhood visions to doubtful memory, and post-war technological and economic changes seemed set finally to dismantle an already crumbling rural culture, leaving much that was good behind. One of England’s most gifted poets, Edmund Blunden, seeing perhaps the cultural and spiritual consequences for the nation of unnaturally accelerated fundamental change, and at the same time trying to make sense of his own terrible war-time experience, sought to bring to mind – to his and ours – what at root really mattered in life. Unsurprisingly, he turned to his pre-war childhood vision of the village of Yalding in the Garden of England, his very own ‘land of lost content’. In his poem Old Homes, it was Yalding that he described: ‘O happiest village! how I turned to you / Beyond estranging years that cloaked my view / With all their heavy fogs of fear and strain; / I turned to you, I never turned in vain…’.
At the Mountains of Madness is a novella by horror writer H P Lovecraft, written in 1931 and first published in Astounding Stories. The story is a summation of Lovecraft’s lifelong fascination with the Antartic, beginning from the time when he had followed with avidity reports of the explorations of Scott, Amundsen and others in the early decades of the 20th century. The early parts of Lovecraft’s tale also clearly show the influence of Admiral Byrd’s expedition of 1928-30. The story details the events of a disastrous expedition to the Antarctic continent in September 1930 and what was found there by a group of explorers led by the narrator, Dr William Dyer of the fictional Miskatonic University. Throughout the story, Dyer details a series of previously untold events in the hope of deterring another group of explorers who wish to return to the continent. The novella’s title is derived from a line in The Hashish Man, a short story by fantasy writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany: “And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness…”.
The Lake District is perhaps England’s most hyped scenic area, and for good reason. Within an area a mere thirty miles across, sixteen major lakes are squeezed between the steeply pitched faces of England’s highest mountains, an almost alpine landscape that is augmented by waterfalls and picturesque stone-built villages packed into the valleys. Two factors spurred the first waves of Lake District tourism: the re-appraisal of the landscape brought about by such painters as Constable and the writings of William Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Wordsworth was not the first writer to praise the Lake District – Thomas Gray wrote appreciatively of his visit in 1769 – but he dominates its literary landscape, not solely through his poetry but also through his still useful Guide to the Lakes (1810). Worsdworth and his fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey formed a clique that become known as the ‘Lake Poets’, a label based more on their fluctuating friendships and their shared passion for the region than on any common subject matter in their literary output. The one subject which did overlap in their writings was the infamous episode of the ‘Maid of Buttermere’, which also inspired Melvyn Bragg’s best-selling novel of the same name in the 1980s.
Here’s a real treat to conclude the series of Christmas ghost stories that I’ve been posting for the last few weeks – the BBC adaptation of The Tractate Middoth from just a couple of years ago. Fingers crossed they do another one this year!
Last week’s ghost story video seemed to go down pretty well, so here’s another M R James classic filmed by the BBC for your delectation: