Collections of short stories can complicate the reader’s fiction experience. In particular, when the pieces are drawn from a range of the writer’s oeuvre — even when especially selected because they share a theme — they may vary in tone, in pace, in quality and in length, and may thus lack the uniformity of style and purpose that a single novel usually supplies. And this may only be the start of possible difficulties for the reader.
One way to bypass such anxieties could be to only consider the stories on a one by one basis. Thus it is that I am spreading out my appreciation of two writers by only reading single pieces interspersed with longer work by other writers. Angela Carter’s Black Venus tales (also published as Saints and Strangers) and a collection of H P Lovecraft’s horror stories entitled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (edited by S T Joshi) are being enjoyed singly in between my tackling other longer works. And two of these pieces I’ve selected as being the last of my 2016 Reading New England choices. (This, you may remember, is one of Lory Hess’ challenges on her Emerald City Book Review blog, due to end on the 31st December.)
Let me introduce you to them.
“The Picture in the House” is one of the early weird tales in Lovecraft’s so-called Cthulhu Mythos, a group of stories linked by references to a cult of ancient extra-terrestrial beings. I consumed most of these tales over a short period in the early 70s as part of a fascination with adult fantasy, though ultimately I outgrew their morbidly introspective attraction. The time now seemed right to revisit them, or at least those selected for this collection provided with detailed notes by the literary critic and editor S T Joshi.
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. […] But the true epicure of the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteem most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.
The anonymous narrator is a researcher who, travelling by bicycle in those very New England backwoods, chances upon an ancient dwelling where he reluctantly seeks shelter during a thunderstorm. Lovecraft builds up an atmosphere of dread with descriptions of the house’s interior, its rare ancient illustrated tomes and its uncanny host. When blood from the floor above begins to drip on a book open at a woodcut of a cannibalistic scene he rather belatedly recognises that his visit has been a mistake. The common pathetic fallacy — that the thunderstorm betokens some kind of angry judgement — is underlined by the climax of the story, leaving the narrator free to inform us and warn us of his terrifying experience.
This tale is the first to mention two key placenames in Lovecraft’s mythos, Arkham and the Miskatonic river, both entirely fictional but representing the author’s own exploration of and familiarity with New England. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, and living there much of his life, Lovecraft used this state and its neighbours (Massachusetts in particular, but also Vermont and New Hampshire) as backdrops to his weird tellings.
In this rereading I found I was more able to appreciate his delight in words and phrases suggesting a growing unease, and how he used his antiquarian and scientific interests to sketch in credible details. The arc of the narrative is much as I remember most of his weird tales to be — an unwary expedition, an increasing anxiety, final realisation of a ‘nameless’ dread, and a plot device to ensure the incident, often told in the first person, is handed on to posterity — so no surprises here. The detailed notes in this edition certainly added to my comprehension of what Lovecraft was trying to achieve and how he went about it.
Horror of a different order was to be had in Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders”, first published in 1981. This treats a well-known Massachusetts case which came about in high summer 1892 when two adults were brutally murdered in their own home. Local lore (quoted by Carter) confirms the belief that “Lizzie Borden with an axe | Gave her father forty whacks | When she saw what she had done | She gave her mother forty one,” but when the case came to trial in 1893 Lizzie was acquitted of murder, and no one else was ever charged.
What Carter does is sketch in all the circumstantial detail but in an allusive, impressionistic way. Largely told from Lizzie’s supposed point of view, the narrative is given an immediacy by being offered to us in the present tense. The close humidity, the tensions within the household, the unspoken frustrations, the locked rooms leading onto other rooms — all give rise to a feeling of brooding suspense mingled with hopeless lethargy. The reader becomes as a fly on the wall in a film documentary, where genuine footage merges seamlessly with dramatic reconstruction so we can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Carter’s metier was often about trying to speak for the female who had no voice, who may or may not have been truly able to articulate her thoughts and feelings but deserved a chance to be heard. What may have been going on in Lizzie Borden’s mind on that day? Her inconsistent testimony and the bungled investigation means we may never know, but Carter attempts to suggest circumstances, motivation, sequence.
Two horror stories then: both involving murder but told with different sensibilities, one male and the other female; both with New England settings but narrated by individuals of different nationalities; both from the 20th century but one entirely imaginary and the other based on true events. However, though indubitably the two are classics of their kind I’m not sure we’d ever see them together in one short story collection.
H P Lovecraft “The Picture in the House” (1920) in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (Penguin Books 1999)
Angela Carter “The Fall River Axe Murders” (1981) in Black Venus (Picador 1986 )
The other works completed in my Reading New England Challenge (unfortunately rather weighted in favour of Massachusetts) were Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket, Phyllis Edgerly Ring’s The Munich Girl, and Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry