The Sound of His Horn by Sarban

Tartarus Press edition, art by R.B. Russell

Delirious from lack of rest, food and water, Alan Querdillon, escaping from a WWII POW camp through endless German pine forests, sights a small lake and rushes towards it. Crossing a strange beam of pale light, he’s shocked into unconsciousness. He wakes in a private hospital, and when its German doctor invites him to his study for a chat, Querdillon notices an electric calendar-clock displaying the year 102 — “the hundred and second year of the First German Millenium as fixed by our First Fuehrer and Immortal Spirit of Germanism, Adolf Hitler”, as the doctor says, somewhat amused by his patient’s needing to have this explained. Querdillon has slipped into a future where Nazi Germany has won the “War of German Rights”, and reshaped the world to its wildest desires.

He’s being held in the castle of the Reich Master Forester, Count Johann von Hackelnberg, whose grounds are a sort of retreat where the Nazi elite can enjoy a bit of hunting. He soon gets to witness a fat and rather fed-up sportsman indolently shooting at (and missing) a deer or two, then perking up when he’s handed a peculiarly wide-bored gun and a new form of game is driven past the hunting hideout:

A figure had come into sight, running hard over the shock grass: a human figure, but fantastically decked. It came on, running for dear life and the unseen hounds clamoured close behind; there was no mistaking their intention to rend and kill now. The figure held my gaze; it was a tall, long-limbed girl, her head and features concealed by a brilliantly coloured beaked mask, which yet allowed her dark hair to stream out behind. To see her racing up the glade was as astounding as if you had seen one of the bird-headed goddesses of Old Egypt suddenly break from carven stillness into panic flight.

The wide-bore gun fires a weighted net. The hunter misses the first woman, but another follows, and she’s caught, trussed up, and taken away to be presented as the hunter’s prime catch at an end-of-day banquet.

Sphere paperback

Querdillon has already learned this is a harsh future. Slave men from the “Under-Races”, artificially matured, muted and neutered, do the work, while his nurses are all “Pure German maidens”, educated to such a level of discipline they’ll report their own misdemeanours, and suggest their own punishments (“They know better than to propose too little, too!”) rather than have their fellows beat them to it.

But the worst of it waits for the Count’s after-dinner entertainment. The monstrous Count von Hackelnberg takes his guests outside to a pit containing a couple of deer. Querdillon watches as twenty alluring but horrifying creatures file into the pit, a troop of “women transformed by a demonic skill in breeding and training into great, supple, swift and dangerous cats”. At a signal, they tear the deer apart and eat them raw. Then the Count spots Querdillon, and it’s time for some firsthand experience of what it means to be human prey.

Art by Richard Powers

The Sound of His Horn (1952) is the most well-known work by “Sarban” — real name John William Wall — who spent his working life (including during the Second World War) in the British Diplomatic Service, stationed in Beirut, Jedda, Tabriz, Isfahan, Casablanca and Cairo. During his lifetime he published three books (the other two being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales in 1951, and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny in 1953). In a few ways he reminds me of Daphne du Maurier (who I wrote about a little while back), in that his stories didn’t first appear in magazines or anthologies, but only in his own original collections. And, again like du Maurier, he tends to write quite a long short story, starting at an even pace and continuing that way through an often extensive build-up before we get to the meat of the story. His writing’s never dull. It keeps a measured, steady focus, as though every aspect of the build-up is relevant. But, to me, it does feel that at certain moments his writing bursts free and becomes a bit more intense and poetic. Sometimes, as in his long story “The King of the Lake”, this is when describing the underground wonders of the caves where a mysterious people live by a large, hidden, mid-desert lake. But generally Sarban’s poetic flourishes occur when he’s describing something that forms the ultimate core of several of his stories (including the title story of Ringstones, as well as “The King the Lake” and The Sound of His Horn): women being strapped into leather harnesses and being made to act like animals, usually as part of some sporting activity. In The Sound of His Horn, this is the “Jagdstück” or “game-girls” who are the hunting prey; in Ringstones it’s to act as human horses in a chariot race. At the same time, Sarban’s stories are usually focused on his female characters, who are intelligent, practical and capable people, which makes their frustration and humiliation all the more poignant.

Ringstones, cover by Bob Blanchard

It’s impossible to say there isn’t an element of misogyny here, but at the same time, Sarban’s sympathies seem to lie entirely with his female characters. Is he revelling in their humiliation, or identifying with their frustration? I think, as is probably true with most of the best horror fiction, the answer is an anxious mix of both. Sarban’s attitude towards his female characters is a conflicted mix of sympathy, fascination, and identification, rather than mere aggression. All this sports-and-leather-straps stuff at times comes across as a superheated version of John Betjeman’s love of confident, strong young women (“Pam, I adore you, you great big mountainous sportsgirl”), but the darkness at the heart of the stories is unavoidable. Was John William Wall (who, it seems, was somewhat dominated by his stronger wife, in an unhappy marriage), depicting his own sense of humiliation, vulnerability, and frustration — something he perhaps couldn’t express as a stiff-upper-lipped man of the 1950s — or was he inflicting it on others, in a sort of revenge fantasy? Bit of both, no doubt.

The frame story of The Sound of His Horn makes it clear that Querdillon was deeply affected by his experience of a Nazified future (which he escapes from, back to his own time, though of course everyone dismisses it as a hallucination caused by hunger and thirst), leading to his mother wondering why he isn’t marrying his long-standing fiancé:

Alan had lost his spirit; his manhood was lost or sleeping; something had so altered him that the girl’s animation, youth, ardour and beauty daunted him. He was simply afraid of her.

John William Wall, a.k.a. Sarban

His experience seems to have affected his identity as a man. And it’s not his witnessing of the (entirely male) Nazi elite’s inhumanity that has affected him, because man’s inhumanity to man is a long established fact — it’s his glimpse of the “utterly unhuman” cat-women’s bestial viciousness, which seems to have awoken a horror of his fiancé’s love of fox-hunting, as though he suspects that vision of women-as-cats has suggested they might all be cats, somewhere under the skin.

Sarban ceased publishing after 1953, blaming mixed reviews, but he continued writing, as Tartarus Press now include previously-unpublished works in their collections of his fiction. (They also run Sarban.co.uk, which has an interesting biography of the man.)

The Sound of His Horn is a real weird fiction classic, written in the urbane, well-controlled style of a well-read British man of letters, but with moments of genuinely dark strangeness of a sort that you just don’t expect to find coming from that well-read British man of letters.

Lilith by George MacDonald

Cover by Jim Lamb

After Phantastes, published when he was in his early thirties, George MacDonald’s Lilith came out in 1895, when he was 70. Phantastes was a coming-of-age novel, and written by a man who, like its protagonist Anodos, was still finding his way in life — having abandoned his initial career as a minister, and now starting to make his living as a writer. Lilith is still a novel about the quest for the authentic self, but it’s no longer about that initial, coming-of-age moment of self-discovery; it’s about redemption for one’s failings in life, and a reconnection with the innocence of childhood.

It begins with its protagonist, Mr Vane, spending his days reading in his family’s library, where he encounters the mysterious figure of Mr Raven, who appears to have been popping into the lives of Vane’s family for some time. (He knew Vane’s forefather, Sir Upward, whose name makes me think of Anodos from Phantastes, one of the meanings of whose name is “upward path”.) Raven shows Vane how to access another world through a mirror in the attic, a world which is not so much a different physical location as a place that exists alongside, and in the same space, as ours, “In the region of the seven dimensions”:

I was in a world, or call it a state of things, an economy of conditions, an idea of existence, so little correspondent with the ways and modes of this world—which we are apt to think the only world, that the best choice I can make of word or phrase is but an adumbration of what I would convey.

Events there are that much more self-evidently meaningful:

While without a doubt, for instance, that I was actually regarding a scene of activity, I might be, at the same moment, in my consciousness aware that I was perusing a metaphysical argument.

Mr Raven, who seems to mix the roles of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and David Lindsay’s Krag, is full of paradoxical-sounding but vaguely threatening advice, all of which turns out to be literally true in this parallel realm, if only Vane could understand him, and which is ultimately directed at redeeming Vane’s soul. The trouble is, Raven seems to be saying that the only way to truly live is to die, and he even has a place in his cellar among all the other dead people waiting for him:

“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go. But I will not say more, for I find my words only mislead you!—This is the couch that has been waiting for you,” he ended, pointing to one of the three.

Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

Vane decides not to “die” just yet, and instead sets out into this strange new world. He meets a group of parentless forest-dwelling children, who speak in that awful baby-speak so many Victorian children’s writers forced into their young characters’ mouths. Nearby, there’s a race of stupid giants — and as the children also call Vane a giant, it’s obvious these are in fact merely adults. Some of the children occasionally grow into stupid giants, others remain children. Vane wants to help these children grow up properly, without the risk of turning into stupid giants, and so journeys to the city of Bulika, ruled by a princess who doesn’t allow any children in her land, as there’s a prophecy that a child will one day kill her. This princess is in fact the vampire Lilith, Adam’s first wife who left when he said he’d never “obey and worship” her, and who has turned her realm into a waterless desert whose selfish people love only riches. (George MacDonald seems to have regarded wealth as the greatest of sins: “But with God all things are possible: He can save even the rich!”) Vane’s attempts to save the children and overcome Lilith’s evil are closely entwined with his own need to redeem himself and, finally, lie down in Mr Raven’s room and “die” so that he may, mysteriously, live.

Lilith is an odd mix of at times cutesy Victorian fantasy and at others dark, almost existential, psychology. Of the children in the book, J B Pick, in The Great Shadow House (a study of Scottish authors with a metaphysical bent), says:

“The problem is not merely that MacDonald is sentimental about children — that’s common enough in Victorian writers — but that sentimentality is essentially an evasion of reality by wishful-feeling, and its all-pervasiveness casts doubt upon the author’s ability to think straight on other issues.”

He goes on, however, to praise the “intense psychological penetration” of the cornered Lilith’s resistance to being redeemed. Redemption, in this world, requires the renunciation of the self — or, at least, of the willed self — as symbolised by the sleep of death, and Lilith is at first too obsessed with being the person she has made of herself, dark though it is, and not the person she was made (by God) to be. But this self-willed identity is, in the novel, a state of life-in-death:

She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it.

There are moments where Vane himself feels the sort of dread the Existentialists of the 20th century would write about:

Then first I knew what an awful thing it was to be awake in the universe: I was, and could not help it!

And also the sort of idea Hermann Hesse presented in Demian, that a human being is not a finished thing, but an experiment, or a process, always in a state of becoming:

I saw now that a man alone is but a being that may become a man—that he is but a need, and therefore a possibility.

As a result, although MacDonald is clearly writing about a Christian redemption achieved through giving oneself up to God — and returning to the unconvincing, innocent state of his over-cute children — it nevertheless brings in a psychological complexity that means it’s far from presenting it as an easy, simple, or painless thing to do.

Lilith has a mixed feel. On the one hand, there’s the obvious joy Vane takes in the children, which can’t help but make me think of the grandfatherly MacDonald allowing himself to be piled on, and have his beard tugged by, his no-doubt numerous grandchildren (he had, after all, eleven children, so could easily have had a small army of grandkids); on the other, there’s a sense of still, even at the end of life, trying to find a solution to the riddle of oneself, and the burden that being, and willing, bring to the life of a human soul. As Mr Raven says, at one point:

“Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”

As a fantasy, I found it a lot less enjoyable than Phantastes, even though its story was more focused. (It still had its bizarre episodes that did little to help the plot except add wonders and horrors, as in the land where monsters and wild animals burst out of and back into the ground, or the ruined castle where skeletons dance at night.) It seems, to me, that MacDonald never wrote enough of this sort of adult fantasy to really hone the form, but nevertheless had a natural feel for how to make serious use of his imagination.

MacDonald’s two adult fantasies were both early entries in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (Phantastes coming out in April 1969, Lilith in September the same year), their contents perfectly suited to those flower-powerishly innocent Gervasio Gallardo covers, with their mix of childlike wonder and fairy-tale strangeness. But there’s definitely a darker element there, too, and at its most potent in Lilith’s resistant struggle to being redeemed in Mr Raven’s life-in-death House of Bitterness. This comes across as a little too genuine to be merely MacDonald’s invention, but more likely something he felt, to some degree, himself.