Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

In 1859, George Eliot — not yet known to the world at large as Mary Anne Evans — wrote her most uncharacteristic work, “The Lifted Veil”. She had recently had her first major success with Adam Bede, and took a break from her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, to write this supernaturally-tinged tale in March. It was a difficult time for Eliot, as she was torn between revealing her identity (which would mean having her two-year ménage with George Henry Lewes exposed to the Victorian public) and having other people take credit for her work (a man called Joseph Liggins had been suggested by some as the mysterious “George Eliot”, and Liggins was busy doing nothing to deny it). On top of these obvious reasons, there was, perhaps, a sensitive person’s natural need for privacy. In the light of this, “The Lifted Veil”, a story about a young man who, after an illness, finds himself burdened with a constant telepathic awareness of other people’s thoughts, as well as the occasional doom-laden prevision of his own future, feels like a nightmarish unloading of anxieties on Eliot’s part.

For a story about telepathy, “The Lifted Veil” is remarkably unconcerned with exploring the possibilities of being able to read other peoples’ minds. In fact, to Latimer, already a sensitive and slightly “morbid” young man, this gift feels like a curse, revealing to him as it does nothing but the petty selfishness of other minds, even those closest to him. Here’s a sampling of how he describes the sort of thing his gift reveals:

“…vagrant, frivolous ideas and emotions… the trivial experience of indifferent people… all the intermediate frivolities, all the suppressed egoism, all the struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts… worldly ignorant trivialities… their narrow thoughts, their feeble regard, their half-wearied pity…”

And as he can’t shut it off, it becomes “like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect”, a constant background drone of dreary, wearying banality.

The one exception to this is Bertha Grant, his older brother’s fiancé. Latimer can’t hear her thoughts, and so is free to relate to (and idealise) her as any young man might a pretty woman. He falls in love with her, despite her evident cynicism:

“What! your wisdom thinks I must love the man I’m going to marry? The most unpleasant thing in the world. I should quarrel with him; I should be jealous of him; our ménage would be conducted in a very ill-bred manner. A little quiet contempt contributes greatly to the elegance of life.”

Although the “veil” of the title brings to mind images of the gauzy barrier Victorian Spiritualists saw as standing between the worlds of the living and the dead, in this story it refers to the block Latimer has against reading Bertha’s thoughts. Despite knowing she’s engaged to his “florid, broad-chested, and self-complacent” brother, Latimer has a bittersweet vision of his own future, in which he is married to his beloved Bertha — bittersweet because, in this future, she evidently hates him.

And, when this vision comes true and they do marry, the veil lifts:

“The terrible moment of complete illumination had come to me, and I saw that the darkness had hidden no landscape from me, but only a blank prosaic wall: from that evening forth, through the sickening years which followed, I saw all round the narrow room of this woman’s soul…”

It’s a very dim vision of human relationships, though one that recurs in the only novel of Eliot’s I really know, Middlemarch, in its desolate mismatches of Dorothea Brooke with the emotionally dead scholar Casaubon, and of the ambitious Lydgate with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In both cases in that novel, marriage seems to clang down like a portcullis, preventing escape until all the illusions of pre-marital love have been stripped away.

To Latimer, the “sweet illusions” we live with are, in the end, essential to life, as is all mystery:

“So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between…”

There’s even a note of cosmic or religious horror, as Latimer, in the latter stages of his condition, experiences more generalised visions of the world at large:

“…of strange cities, of sandy plains, of gigantic ruins, of midnight skies with strange bright constellations, of mountain-passes, of grassy nooks flecked with the afternoon sunshine through the boughs: I was in the midst of such scenes, and in all of them one presence seemed to weigh on me in all these mighty shapes—the presence of something unknown and pitiless.”

That “presence” remains unexplained, though the next thing Latimer says, “For continual suffering had annihilated religious faith within me”, implies that the “something unknown and pitiless” is his feeling of what the God of this world must be like. (Eliot herself had long struggled against her own religious upbringing. At one stage, her father threatened to throw her out of the house because of her rejection of it.)

Read as horror fiction (and coming nearly thirty years before the boom in Victorian classics that saw the publication of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw), “The Lifted Veil” is more about the horror of other people, and the weariness of the “incessant insight and foresight” of a sensitive soul. Nevertheless, it ramps up the Gothic at the end, for a post-deathbed confession scene, in which Bertha’s maid, freshly expired from peritonitis, is revived long enough by an experimental blood transfusion to issue a dreadful confession and accusation.

(Given that Latimer has visions and can read minds, this ending, with its Gothic appurtenances of blood, death, illness, fringe science, and a dramatic revelation, seems hardly needed, and, indeed, Eliot’s publisher Blackwood tried to persuade her to remove it.)

In the end, “The Lifted Veil” was printed anonymously in the July 1859 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (a periodical which had an established reputation for tales of Gothic horror, to the extent of having been satirised even by Poe, in his essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article”).

A muted horror tale, but one that fits very much into George Eliot’s work as a whole, full as it is of moments of extreme sensitivity to the subtleties of her characters’ emotional lives, “The Lifted Veil” is a significant piece of Victorian fantasy.

The text is freely available online, and I have a downloadable version on my free ebooks page.

Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

When his previous two collections, Demons by Daylight (1973) and The Height of the Scream (1976), came out, those books were the definitive statements of who Campbell was, as a writer, at that time. But with Dark Companions (published in 1982), things are slightly different. Campbell is now publishing novels, having four out under his own name (including The Doll Who Ate His Mother, and The Nameless, which I’ve reviewed here on Mewsings), and three novelisations of Universal horror films under the pen-name Carl Dreadstone. All but one of the stories in Dark Companions were written after Campbell became a full-time writer. Three won awards (two World Fantasy, one British Fantasy), and one (“The Companion”) was praised by Stephen King (“one of the three finest horror stories I have ever read”) in his 1981 book about horror, Danse Macabre. It feels Campbell has come a long way from the author of Demons by Daylight who was grateful for T E D Klein’s review that proved that one person out there, at least, got what he was trying to do.

Looking at his development as a writer, it’s obvious that by this point Campbell has found his voice and is comfortable enough with it to, for instance, branch out in directions he perhaps wouldn’t have tried in those earlier two collections. For example, he groups six of the tales collected in Dark Companions as “a kind of tribute to the old EC horror comics” — very short stories, often told in the second person, these are macabre twist tales, often using traditional horror elements such as vampires, witches and the creations of mad scientists, with part of the point of each tale being for the reader to work out exactly who the “you” being addressed in the narrative is. They’re not exactly jokes, but they certainly employ a sort of dark humour and a lightness of intent you don’t find in those earlier two collections.

Cover to Demons by Daylight (Arkham House)

Eddie Jones art to Arkham House edition of Demons by Daylight

The stories in Demons by Daylight and The Height of the Scream often felt like almost raw slices of the author’s own experience (in his introduction to Dark Companions, Campbell says his second collection was “sometimes so personal as to be wilfully incomprehensible”), redolent of the times they were written in — the years following the 1960s social revolutions — and the stage of life Campbell presumably was in at the time, with most of the protagonists being in the early stages of adulthood, often students, forming their first adult relationships, starting new jobs, discovering themselves (and often, this being Campbell, losing their sense of self in the process). With most of the stories in Dark Companions, the experience feels less raw. And while it means that something of that feeling of immediacy is lost, the stories gain, often, by feeling they are rooted a bit deeper in a more considered, or digested, experience.

One example of this is that a lot more of the stories in this collection are about childhood fears, or children’s encounters with horrors, as though Campbell could now take the time to trace the roots of fear to a deeper level. (Though my favourite story from Demons by Daylight, “The Guy”, from 1968, also fits this description, which goes to show how perilous it is to make sweeping generalisations about an artist’s development.) “The Companion”, for instance, is about a grown man, closer to retirement than childhood, who thinks himself well past the fears that kept him awake when he was young. Something of a tourist of childhood nostalgia, he spends his holidays visiting old fairgrounds. A trip on a ghost train he keeps trying to persuade himself is disappointing rather than redolent of his own, very personal, childhood fears, of course ends with him discovering that there’s no way of running from fears if they’re intent on coming after you. “In the Bag”, about a hypocrite headmaster, is another tale along similar lines. “The Chimney” — which Campbell calls, in the introduction to a “best of” collection, Dark Feasts, “disguised autobiography — disguised from me at the time of writing, that is” — is another tale about childhood fears and its protagonist’s attempts to overcome them. Like “The Guy”, it’s focused on a particular holiday (something that’s true of another tale of childhood horror, here, “The Trick”), and, like “In the Bag”, it’s a horror that’s only fully realised when the young boy narrator is grown up, though in a poignant, rather than simply horrific, way.

Mark Watts cover

As well as these tales of childhood horrors catching up with adults, there are stories that take place entirely during childhood/young adolescence. “Mackintosh Willy” is perhaps my favourite example of the latter, being centred around a shelter in a park where a particularly scary tramp was to be found, until he died there. But although the narrator of the tale is the one who finds the body and reports it to the police, someone else, in the meantime, has snuck in and put a pair of Coca-Cola bottle caps on his eyes — an act of mocking the dead that will have consequences. “The Man in the Underpass” (a story I always want to rename “The Man Without Underpants”) is narrated in a sort of what-we-did-in-our-holidays way by 11-year-old Lynn. When she and her friends see a pagan-looking figure scrawled on the wall in an underpass, they find it worthy of a snigger or two, but one girl, the religious-minded Tonia, is more deeply affected. The thing that doesn’t quite work for me, in this tale, is how Tonia identifies this figure with an Aztec deity, one she calls Popocatepetl, having found the name in a library book. It’s never explained what an Aztec figure should be doing in an underpass in England, or why Tonia should insist it have this particular name, even when she’s told it’s of a volcano rather than a god. Perhaps Tonia has just got it wrong, or perhaps there’s an aspect of Aztec mythology I can’t find out about, but it seems to me the figure is more like the home-grown Cerne Abbas Giant, who would at least have more of an excuse for being there.

Every so often (as with “Cold Print” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs”, which I spoke about in a review of Campbell’s Visions from Brichester), it feels that Campbell writes a story that is as much about horror as it is a tale of horror, and in Dark Companions there’s “The Depths” which, though not my favourite tale in the book, feels like it’s perhaps the most important, in terms of Campbell trying to say something about his particular field of endeavour. The protagonist, Miles, is a crime writer who has decided to spend some time in a house where a particularly horrific murder occurred, so as to better write about it. But when he finds his head being flooded by visions of other crimes, full of details even he finds horrific, he leaves. He soon discovers, though, that the crimes he imagined have subsequently occurred, and that only by writing these visions down can he stop more from occurring. Like The Nameless, this is a story about the most horrific crimes being inspired by some extra-human force outside their perpetrators. Or, perhaps, something deep inside:

“No wonder they were so terrible, or that they were growing worse. If material repressed into the unconscious was bound to erupt in some less manageable form, how much more powerful that must be when the unconscious was collective! Precisely because people were unable to come to terms with the crimes, repudiated them as utterly inhuman or simply unimaginable, the horrors would reappear in a worse form and possess whoever they pleased…”

Miles sees images of horror all around him, and notices the way people are simultaneously fascinated and disgusted, prurient one minute, disowning them the next. He even feels disgust at some of his own stories, published in one of the more lurid magazines under a pseudonym. Finally, though, he comes to understand something of his role as a writer about horror: freighted with so many violent images, he starts to realise he’s something of a scapegoat, loaded with humanity’s darker impulses. And you know what happens to scapegoats…