The Devil’s Mistress ~ J. W. Brodie-Innes (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 11 (Sphere, 1974))

“Horse and hattock, horse and go,
‘Horse and pellatis, ho! ho!”

Isobel Gowdie ~ Flying Incantation

Volume 11 of The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult offers us this tale of 17th Century witchcraft set in the Scottish Highlands. Originally published in 1915, this is a fictionalised tale of the true account of the testimonials of Isobel Gowdie, of course these testimonials may indeed have been fictionalised by Gowdie herself in the first place; so we have multiple layers of fiction and truth to pick through.


To tell the tale of Isobel Gowdie and how this novel came about I’m going to have to peel back some of the drier layers so that we can feast on the juicier bits at the end. So, here we go… let’s introduce J. W Brodie-Innes first of all.

J. W. Brodie Innes (1848 -1923)

Brodie-Innes was a well-known occultist in his day, being a member of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and, later, a high-ranking member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. A lawyer by profession; he also wrote a handful of novels (all historical romances with folklore/occult themes) and various articles on the occult which appeared in journals such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘The Occult Review’.

As I mentioned, The Devil’s Mistress was first published in 1915, but let us first go back a couple of decades. Along with being a member of the occult societies already mentioned, Brodie-Innes was also a member of a rather eccentric society of bibliophiles called The Sette of Odd Volumes. The members of this peculiar group published their own limited print volumes on a variety of subjects from collecting Blue and White China to the work of the 16th Century physician, Gilbert of Colchester. Amongst these volumes we can find one by our J. W. Brodie-Innes which has the title of ‘Scottish Witchcraft Trials’.

This small volume was published in 1890 (25 years before The Devil’s Mistress) and is a brief discourse on, as the title suggests, the various witch trials which occurred in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this book, Brodie-Innes gives us a brief mention of the remarkable confessions of Isobel Gowdie. Should you be interested, you can read the whole of Brodie-Innes’ volume here:

So, where did Brodie-Innes get all this information about the Scottish witch trials? Well, we’ll have to go back a little further in time for that and meet Robert Pitcairn.

Robert Pitcairn (1793-1855)

Pitcairn was a Scottish antiquary. Like Brodie-Innes, he was a lawyer by profession and, like Brodie-Innes, he was a member of a literary society; whereas Brodie-Innes was a member of The Sette of Odd Volumes, Pitcairn was a member of a society led by Sir Walter Scott called The Bannatyne Club. In 1833 Pitcairn published a three volume set for The Bannatyne Club with the title of ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’. In this publication Pitcairn diligently compiled the transcriptions of a number of Scottish trials from the 16th and 17th centuries; amongst these trials were, of course, a number of trials for witchcraft. If we flick through the pages of ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ and get towards the end of the third volume, in the appendices, on page 602, we will find the first of four confessions of Isobel Gowdie.

Gowdie’s confessions are considered to be one of the most remarkable confessions to arise from a witch-trial and, perhaps more remarkable, they are said to have been offered without torture. You can read the whole of the four testimonials beginning on page 602 here:

Although Pitcairn was the first to publish the testimonials he wasn’t the first to mention Isobel Gowdie in print. This honour goes to none other than Sir Walter Scott himself, this was in his 1830 publication with the title of ‘Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft’. In this volume Scott references the Gowdie trial a number of times and we can imagine that Pitcairn perhaps helped him with this.

So, what of Isobel Gowdie herself?

Much has been written about Isobel Gowdie over the last 200 years; her story has spawned a handful of novels, various musical interpretations and inspired countless books on witchcraft; yet we know very little about her. All the details we know of her come solely from her trial. We know she was a woman of indeterminate age who lived at Lochloy with her husband John Gilbert, a farm worker.

However, we also know that she gave such an extraordinary and detailed testimonial that she, perhaps inadvertently, changed the occult landscape of the 20th century. As one small example, we all know that a group of witches is called a coven and, in most traditions, a coven consists of thirteen members… this information comes directly from Gowdie’s trial, it just doesn’t seem to exist prior to that. How did this information spread so quickly? Well we’ve have to introduce Margaret Murray for this.

Margaret Murray (1863-1963)

As you probably know, Margaret Murray was a folklorist and archaeologist and in 1921 published her influential book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. This book was an expansion of her earlier article published in The Folklore Society journal in 1917. In this, Murray suggested that ‘witches’ were followers of an organised, pre-Christian religion which survived until the 17th century. Within this religion the practitioners were divided into covens, each coven having thirteen members, and they worshipped a pre-Christian horned god which, in a Christianised world, became the devil. Much of Murray’s research for this theory seems to have been derived from Pitcairn’s publication and she pays particular attention to the Isobel Gowdie case.

Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe can be read here:

Perhaps we should return to the novel in question for a bit now.

The Devil’s Mistress

I believe Brodie-Innes was the first to fictionalise the accounts of Isobel Gowdie. As we would perhaps expect from a Victorian occultist, Brodie-Innes presents the novel as though Gowdie’s testimonials were a true account of her activities. The story picks up on most of the details of Gowdie’s claims, beginning with her first meeting with the ‘Dark Master’, her induction into the coven and subsequent magical acts. Of course, as the original transcript has so little detail about Gowdie’s life outside of her magical acts, Brodie-Innes fleshes it out for us. Isobel Gowdie is not just a poor farmer’s wife, she becomes the well-educated daughter of a country lawyer who was sold into a marriage to the dour and gloomy farmer to pay off a debt. And in true romantic heroine style she is a flame-haired beauty too:

“she was strangely unlike the women of the farmer class in the province of Moray, being tall and slight, with a mass of flaming red hair, deep brown eyes that seemed as though brooding over hidden fires, dark eyebrows almost straight in a face that seemed unnaturally pale, a slightly arched nose, and full red lips.”

Brodie-Innes has a tendency to slip into these awful, sentimental, romantic-fiction stylings on occasion but, thankfully, they do tend to peter out a bit as the book progresses. As we would expect, the novel explores Gowdie’s relationship with ‘The Dark Master’ and the rest of the coven, with characters taken directly from the testimonials; it also takes other real life characters from the locality and the period and fits them in with the narrative. One of these characters is Sir Robert Gordon, or The Wizard of Gordonstoun, who was reputed to be an alchemist/occultist who had sold his soul to the devil. Although Brodie-Innes has got his time-lines a little awry with the inclusion Gordon as a friend to Gowdie, I’m happy to forgive him this as it makes for an exciting storyline.

Although this novel is a much romanticised version of events, I think it is an important work of occult fiction. Brodie-Innes deals with the various magical acts in a sensitive and subtle way, leaving a little ambiguity about them; often, Gowdie herself is not sure whether she was actually away performing magical rites with the coven or whether she was safely in her bed and dreaming that she was doing this. Yet still the results of those magical rites come about. This is perhaps exemplified best when Isobel asks her fellow coven member, Margaret Brodie, about whether she is dreaming these things or whether they are real, and she answers:

‘I’ve often wondered,’ Margaret answered after a pause while she seemed to be thinking what to say. ‘We do queer things sometimes. For instance, ye know Maggie Wilson in Aulderne. Well, she has her old man to consider. But she comes with us when we are out for revelling. She just puts a besom in the bed, and the old man thinks it is herself, and never misses her. But whether it is her that’s at home, or her that’s with us, none knows, or whether she is two women on that night. And she doesn’t know. She swears she is with us, and the old man says she is at home. Well, ye ken whiles I have thought it may be the same with the Dark Master. Perhaps he is just a man who has learned many things, and makes us think he is the Devil, as Maggie makes her man think that the besom is her. Or he may indeed be the Devil and makes us think whiles that he is just a man. Or perhaps he isn’t there at all, but we just fancy he is. But there, dearie, it’s no good wondering. Life is fine, and we are the queens of the country; while he helps us we can do what we will, and the country doesn’t know it. So we’ve only got to hold our tongues, lest they burn us some day, and just enjoy our time while we have it.’

In the novel, as in the original testimonials, Isobel Gowdie’s coven has thirteen members and is led by ‘The Dark Master’. Hers is just one coven amongst many and they often convene with each other, the covens not separate entities but they appear to be part of a larger whole. Which brings us back to Margaret Murray and her Witch-Cult ideas.

The Witch-Cult Hypothesis

Two years after the publication of The Devil’s Mistress, Brodie Innes had an article on witchcraft published in the May 1917 edition of The Occult Review. In this article he references Isobel Gowdie several times and, as we can see in the excerpt below, he includes the term ‘cult of the witch’.

“If we will but for a moment lay aside prejudice, and look at the subject dispassionately, we shall become convinced that the cult of the witch is as old as humanity, it is as old as the world, and as flourishing today as it was in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, and as firmly believed.”

Interestingly, Margaret Murray’s article ‘Organisation of Witches in Great Britain’ appeared in the April 1917 edition of the Folklore Society Journal, this is the article in which she first formulates her Witch Cult theory.

“Witch cult and ritual have not, as far as I am aware, been subject to a searching and scientific investigation from the anthropological side. The whole thing has generally been put down to hypnotism, hysteria and hallucination on the part of the witches, to prejudice and cruelty on the part of the judges. I shall try to prove that the hysteria-cum-prejudice theory, including that “blessed word” auto-suggestion is untenable, and that among the witches we have the remains of a fully organised religious cult, which at one time spread over Central and Western Europe, and of which traces are found in the present day.”

It seems that the ‘Witch-Cult’ hypothesis was really gathering pace at this time and would soon give rise to the resurgence of the pagan based occult traditions of the 20th century. It is a rather beautiful, though now widely considered flawed, theory and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it became the basis of a large part of mid to late 20th century occult thought and the resurgence of Pagan based practices. Gowdie’s reach really was quite far reaching!.

Isobel Gowdie

We know nothing about Isobel Gowdie’s life before the confessions and we know nothing of her life after the confessions. We do not know whether she was burnt following her confessions or whether she was freed.

We do not know whether she was a witch or not, but I will say this – if spells are words spoken with intent which are intended to cause a magical change or effect, then these words spoken by Isobel Gowdie during the Spring of 1662 wove a very complex pattern, the threads of which some people are still following to this day, 360 years after they were first uttered.

Let’s leave the final words to Isobel herself:

“And the Witches yet that are untaken, have their own powers and our powers which we had before we were taken. But now I have no power at all.”

Isobel Gowdie

Echoes of Terror, 1980, Chartwell Books (ed. Mike Jarvis & John Spencer)

We’re putting the paperbacks aside for a moment and delving in to the ‘oversize’ shelf. Those big old hardbacks, the non-fiction ones on the history of horror films and suchlike, the ones with the tattered and torn dust jackets from being man-handled and pored over for the last 40 years or so. The book we’re looking at today, although tattered and torn, is not one of the non-fiction ones; no, we’re on the safe ground of a horror anthology. But, this is an anthology with a difference!

My parents bought me this for, I think, my tenth birthday… and that cover terrified me. I mean, really, I couldn’t look at that cover. If I wanted to read the book I had to close my eyes until it was safely open and that girl’s blind gaze was firmly flat on the table. I’ve no idea why I had that reaction to it, it all seems rather innocuous now, but there you have it. Before we go any further, let’s have a little talk about fear.

What scares you? What gives you that cold tingle that creeps up the back of your neck? It’s always fascinated me, the concept of fear. It may be because, with certain exceptions, I’ve never been the type to feel fear. It may be why I’ve always been interested in the horror genre since I was a young child. I hear about people being scared by certain novels or being terrified by films, but I very rarely experience that. This is not a boast, don’t get me wrong, I think fear is healthy; it’s an instinctive, self-preservation mechanism. There’s only a handful of times I’ve felt what I think is fear:

  1. The cover of Echoes of Terror, just could not look at it!
  2. The window scene in Salem’s Lot, couldn’t have the curtains open at night for a long time.
  3. Walking home alone at night after watching a David Cronenberg film (Rabid) at the local youth club. I walked past a house and saw a black dog-like ‘thing’ with glowing white eyes down a dark pathway, it was hunched over and ready to pounce. I ran the rest of the way home, convinced I’d seen a Hound of Tindalos. I plucked up the courage to go back and investigate the following morning and it turned out to be a black bin bag full of rubbish, the eyes were two small pools of rainwater which had collected in the creases and caught the streetlight.

These three events all happened when I was around 10 or 11 years old, but they are rarities. I was always that boy who would accept the dare to walk through the graveyard alone at night. I was the boy who dared to lay down on Matilda’s Grave while another boy walked around it three times widdershins to see if I really would be pulled down by the icy hands of Matilda’s corpse (a local legend where I grew up). I was the boy who, had he been a character in a horror film, would most certainly have been the one to die first!

So, where does this courage stupidity come from? Who knows? Is it due to being desensitised to horror as a child? I did watch a lot of horror films at a very young age, everything from the early Universals, through the Hammers, right up to the modern horrors of the Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most of Cronenberg’s output (and talking of Cronenberg, why did our local youth club think it was a good idea to show a bunch of 10 year old children films like Rabid, Dawn of the Dead and Shogun Assassin? Never really understood that, but I’m not complaining!). Or is it due to me being raised in a strictly atheist household, which is something that never really felt quite right to me, but perhaps the constant reminder of there being no such thing as the ‘other’ instilled some sort of logical mindset which overwrote any impulsive settings?

Just to be clear, when I am talking about fear I am talking about the sharp, electric shock sensation of fear, that bright blue flash of terror which makes us want to run away; or that sense of stomach-churning revulsion we get when we’re exposed to gore; or that cold chill that sends a creeping feeling up our backs and makes the hairs on our necks stand on end. Those are the things I classify as fear. I’m not talking about dread, that deep, black sense of existential despair when we realise that everything in life is completely pointless (I’m no stranger to that one, unfortunately).

Anyway, excuse my ramblings, on with the book.

As I said, this is an anthology with a difference. True, it does have rather a classy contents list but, as good as they may be, it’s not the stories that make the difference:

  • A Madman’s Manuscript by Charles Dickens
  • Three in a Bed by Lord Halifax
  • Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Dracula (an extract) by Bram Stoker
  • The Furnished Room by O Henry
  • The Forsaken of God by William Mudford
  • The Werewolf by Frederick Marryat
  • The Midnight Embrace by Matthew Lewis
  • The Devil’s Wager by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
  • The Seventh Pullet by Saki

No, what makes this volume special is the illustrations; it’s really a vehicle to showcase those wonderful British horror and fantasy artists of the 1970s. And not just small poorly reproduced pictures; we’re talking glossy, full page plates. The bulk of the work is given to the great Les Edwards but we also have work by Jim Burns, Gordon Crabb, Bob Fowke, Peter Goodfellow, Stuart Hughes, Terry Oakes and George Smith.

All of these artists were represented by the Young Artists Agency, an organisation setup in 1970 by the musician and author, John B. Spencer. Spencer was involved in the pub-rock/folk-rock scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s and had a few novels of his own published; he was also the co-editor of this very volume, Echoes of Terror.

If you’d like to know more about the various artists then here are some links to their websites (where available):

Les Edwards

Jim Burns

Gordon Crabb

Bob Fowke

Peter Goodfellow

Stuart Hughes

Terry Oakes

George Smith

Anyone with a passing interest in the genre will no doubt recognise at least a few of the magnificent pieces in this book, many of them were widely used in books and magazines at the time. Just imagine the sheer delight of my youthful mind when I flicked through the pages and realised that I already knew some of these pictures from the covers of paperbacks in my very own burgeoning collection!

Obviously, I wish I had taken better care of it and that the dust jacket wasn’t in such a mess; but that’s life, isn’t it? This book followed me through my childhood; through my teenage years; through a few disreputable bedsits… often not even leaving the gradually disintegrating cardboard boxes my possessions were kept in. The oversized hardbacks just weren’t as easy to look after as the neat and compact paperbacks. But, the important thing is that I still have it after all these years, safely stored on my grown-up shelves. Let’s call it “well loved”… despite that picture on the front cover (by Gordon Crabb, by the way).

And here’s a big thank you to all those artists who took those childhood fears from the dark ginnels of our minds and dragged them out into the light so we could see them all the better. Actually…

…was that such a good thing???

The Unspeakable People, 1975, Everest Books (ed. Peter Haining)

Shall we treat ourselves to another Peter Haining anthology? Why not, there are plenty to get through after all!

I think there are many of us out there, of a certain age, who grew up on Peter Haining anthologies. They served, along with the BBC2 Friday night horror double bills, as a childhood introduction to the horror genre (at least, here in the UK they did). If anyone has a favourite Haining anthology, then do feel free to leave a comment below.

So, we’ve already discussed Haining’s ‘The Evil People’ (click HERE if you missed it) and, if the evilness of that wasn’t enough, just imagine what horrors lurk behind The Unspeakable People! Let’s find out shall we?

the unspeakable people - peter haining


As we can see, this book boasts “20 of the most horrible horror stories”. As well as a preface by Peter Haining we have also a brief forward by none other than August Derleth! This collection was first published in 1969 (mine is the later 1975 edition from Everest), just two years before Derleth’s death in 1971… but if we look at the sign off on Derleth’s foreword… is that a typo, or…

the unspeakable people - august derleth - peter haining

First things first, let’s have a look at the contents and then we’ll look at each story in closer detail.


  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis
  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Bird Woman by Henry Spicer
  • My Own Tale by R H Benson
  • Williamson by Henry S Whitehead
  • A Thing of Beauty by Wallace West
  • The Outsider by H P Lovecraft
  • The Loved Dead by C M Eddy
  • The Copper Bowl by Captain George Eliot
  • The Feast in the Abbey by Robert Bloch
  • The Cathedral Crypt by John Wyndham
  • The Graveyard Rats by Henry Kuttner
  • Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Head and the Feet by C S Forester
  • The Idol of the Flies by Jane Rice
  • A Night at a Cottage by Richard Hughes
  • The Shape of Things by Ray Bradbury
  • Desire and the Black Masseur by Tennessee Williams
  • The Coffin by Dennis Wheatley
  • Mercy by Laurence James

The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

I find it a strange (and slightly annoying) quirk of some of these old anthologies that, along with the short stories, they include an extract from a novel. I mean, to me, that’s just a spoiler. Of course, this is what Haining has done here with the classic Gothic tale. As we will be dealing with the whole novel at some point, it’s included in the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, we’ll forego it here.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I wondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – “

Now there’s an opening couplet to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. We all know Poe’s classic poem of loss; with its hypnotic metre, internal rhyme and refrain; all with that black symbol of despair hovering above it. It was first put into print in 1845 under a pseudonym but was published the following year in a New York newspaper under Poe’s own name. If, by some chance, you’re not familiar with it then I’ve included the whole poem here: THE RAVEN

The Bird Woman by Henry Spicer

Here’s an author we don’t see anthologised very much. This comes from Spicer’s 1864 collection, ‘Strange Things Among Us’. I say ‘collection’ but Spicer’s book is more a series of anecdotal tales written in a journalistic style, rather than short stories as we know them today. This brief story, only a couple of pages long, concerns a young woman, a “girl of the servant class, but of rather superior education and manners”, who arrives at a deserted looking mansion to be employed as a charge for an “invalid, infirm or lunatic person”. Of course, we get a hint of who… or what!… she finds from the title. This is a peculiar little tale, but one that gets under your skin.

My Own Tale by R. H. Benson

Next we have R. H. Benson… yes, one of those Bensons. You remember the Bensons, of course? Charming family, a little peculiar perhaps, but charming nonetheless. We spoke about them here: E F BENSON

This tale gives us Benson reluctantly offering an after dinner story to a table of churchmen. Pleasing enough, but perhaps strangely placed in this anthology; being a jauntily written haunted house story without a ghost there’s nothing in the way of ‘unspeakable horror’ about it.

Williamson by Henry S. Whitehead

There’s something delightful about this one. Written in 1910, this story gives us a narrator over-wintering at his holiday home in The Virgin Islands who goes on to invite an old school friend to stay with him; this friend is the Williamson of the title. It seems that this Williamson was a hugely popular fellow amongst his school friends, being a supreme athlete and the best-dressed amongst his contemporaries… but there was something strange about him. The narrator takes us through his thoughts as he tries to put his finger on just what it is that some people find odd about his friend. But I won’t spoil it for you.

Yes, the story is ridiculous. Yes, you can see the denouement coming from a mile off. But, like I said, there is something delightful about it and I’m sure Whitehead wrote it with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

A Thing of Beauty by Wallace West

As Haining tells us in his introduction to this piece, it was originally excluded from publication by Weird Tales as it was considered too strong for their readership! Yes, the Weird Tales, publisher of all manner of horrors, thought this was a little too much. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it? Written in 1920, it remained unpublished until Robert A. W. Lowndes picked it up for his Magazine of Horror in 1963; Haining then anthologised it for the first time here in The Unspeakable People.

It concerns an old hunchbacked chap who works at the local Medical College; he has two jobs there, he maintains the boiler and he looks after the corpses which are kept fresh by floating them in an enormous tank of brine. West gives us some pleasingly grotesque imagery in this tale of, shall we say, forbidden love… but it is probably considered quite tame by today’s standards, unfortunately.

The Outsider by H. P. Lovecraft

Perhaps a bit of an obvious choice for inclusion, we do tend to see this particular tale of Lovecraft’s anthologised, don’t we? But, why not? It is one of his best. Written in 1921, it’s one of Lovecraft’s earlier works, so it’s stripped back from the immensities of the cosmic horror he became known for. This simple Poe-esque tale has us following the thought processes of someone who lives a strange and solitary existence as they escape into the outside world. It’s been analysed to death in numerous articles over the last 100 years but, you know, just read it and enjoy it as a beautifully told Gothic story.

The Loved Dead by C. M. Eddy

This notorious tale was first published in Weird Tales during the Spring of 1924. The magazine was struggling financially at the time and this story caused such a furore, with the shocked public calling for it to be withdrawn from publication, that it actually increased sales and saved the magazine. However, it’s generally thought today that this train of thought originated from Eddy himself and is complete nonsense; yes, the magazine was struggling under the editorship of Edwin Baird, so the publishers fired Baird and replaced him with Farnsworth Wright… this story just happened to be there at the time of change.

So, what of the story itself, this is the second visit to necrophilia in this volume. This time we have a young man who gains employment in a mortuary so that he can have his way with the bodies; he soon takes to murdering those who take his fancy so that he can have his choice of bodies! It really is a tawdry and juvenile piece. The writing style is poor… think Lovecraft on a very bad day… bloated out with adjectives and an over-reliance on alliteration, so it’s all:

“sepulchral sentinels… morbid moroseness… abhorrent abnormality…”

…and that’s just on the first page, it does continue like this. He really goes to town on the next page with:

“…that funeral scene, silently strengthening its grip with subtle insidiousness”

Short story or an exercise in tongue-twisters? You decide.

The Copper Bowl by Captain George Eliot

This one’s quite a well known tale, perhaps all the more-so because our Captain George Fielding Eliot wasn’t exactly a prolific author in the genre, as a professional soldier he wrote mainly on military and political matters. The Copper Bowl was first published in Weird Tales in 1928 and also holds the honour of being included in the very first Pan Book of Horror Stories.

Set in French Indo-China, it concerns a French Legionnaire who has been captured by a rebel group led by the Mandarin, Yuan Li. As the tale unfolds, we’re presented with a brief episode of torture porn with colonial racist overtones. You know the sort of thing – brave and noble white chap with tousled blond hair doing battle with inscrutable oriental types. Not the sort of thing to go down well with a modern audience, I imagine.

The Feast in the Abbey by Robert Bloch

I think this was Bloch’s first story to appear in Weird Tales, published when he’d just left high school at the age of seventeen. The young Bloch was a huge fan of Lovecraft and the pair famously corresponded with each other, with Lovecraft becoming a mentor to the burgeoning author. We can see that this tale of a traveller stumbling upon a strange abbey in the woods is certainly a juvenile piece, mimicking that archaic style of Lovecraft mimicking Poe, but unlike some authors (I’m looking at you C. M. Eddy!), there is something quite charming about it.

The Cathedral Crypt by John Wyndham

I’ve always been a fan of John Wyndham. I remember we had his novel The Chrysalids on the school curriculum when I was a child and it made a big impression on me. There’s something about his clean, sparse style of prose that really appeals; there’s never a word wasted with Wyndham. Better known for his science fiction work, Wyndham’s horror tales are few and far between, so it’s a delight to find one in this anthology. This is a tale of a young married couple holidaying in an unnamed city where they visit a cathedral; after accidentally getting locked in for the night they witness a strangely medieval ceremony.

The Graveyard Rats by Henry Kuttner

Kuttner was another member of the Weird Tales set in the 30s and 40s and one of the younger members of the “Lovecraft Circle”. Incredibly influential, he is cited as an inspiration to many later greats, including Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson (Matheson even dedicated I Am Legend to him).

The Graveyard Rats was his first published story, I believe, appearing in Weird Tales in 1936. Quite a brilliantly gruesome tale concerning the caretaker of a neglected cemetery in Salem, this disreputable chap has a profitable side-line in graverobbing; the only problem is… the rats! And these particular rodents are huge and have burrowed all across the cemetery. As the caretaker, Old Masson, digs down and breaks into a coffin he’s just in time to see the corpse disappearing through a gnawed hole in the wood; the rats have beaten him to the corpse again! This time he’s going down after it. We follow Old Masson on his subterranean journey, all the way to the macabre denouement.

Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon

This is one of two stories in this collection which stand head and shoulders above the rest. Although enjoyable in their ways, the others just cannot compete… which sort of goes to prove Sturgeon’s Law which states that 90% of everything is crap.

If you’re not familiar with Sturgeon’s Law, he came up with it in defence of the science fiction genre. Literary critics were wont to deride science fiction by citing examples from poor quality works and coming to the conclusion that 90% of science fiction literature was crap. Sturgeon hit back by saying that everything contains poor quality examples and “90% of everything is crap”, therefore science fiction was just as valid as ‘serious’ literature.

Anyway, Bianca’s Hands. It’s a remarkable story which, once read, is difficult to forget. Sturgeon is known for going to some dark places in his work, and this is no different. It concerns a young man, large, handsome, not too bright who falls in love with the hands of a young “imbecile” girl.

According to Haining, Sturgeon wrote this when he was quite young and just could not get it published; apparently, some editors rejected it outright, saying that it was so unpleasant that they would not publish it or anything else written by an author who could come up with such a thing. It was published much later, in 1947, in the British magazine Argosy winning him a huge cash prize and the honour of beating none other than Graham Greene to the top spot!

This piece goes a long way to prove Sturgeon’s Law, I think it stands its ground against some of the finest short stories ever written.

The Head and the Feet by C. S. Forester

Forester was most famous for his ‘Hornblower’ novels, set during the Napoleonic War. This tale comes from his 1954 collection, ‘The Nightmare’, which is a series of stories based in Nazi Germany during WW2. The Head and the Feet concentrates on an aging medical officer who works at a concentration camp and the brutality he experiences there. There are shades of Poe’s Tell Tale Heart as the officer, an unwilling participant trapped by the SS, slowly unravels as the horrors haunt him.

The Idol of the Flies by Jane Rice

Now this is a remarkable tale. It’s about an obnoxious small boy named Pruitt who lives with his Aunt, a pleasant but very naïve woman. We also have Pruitt’s partially deaf teacher living in the house, Miss Bittner; and then there’s the cook and her hunchbacked husband. It all starts off a bit Roald Dahl, with the unpleasant child playing nasty tricks on the adults, pulling the wings off of flies and killing small animals. Then, mid-way through, it all gets a lot darker when we find that young Pruitt has made a fly effigy from coal tar soap which he uses as a focus to cast curses on those around him. And after the ritual, Pruitt has his ‘not-thinking time’ in which:

“…queer, half-formed dream things would float through his mind. Like dark polliwogs, propelling themselves along with their tales, hinting at secrets that nobody knew, not even grown-ups. Some day he would be able to catch one, quickly, before it wriggled off into the inner hidden chamber where They had a nest and, then, he would know. He would catch it in a net of thought, like Harry’s net caught fishes, and no matter how it squirmed and threshed about he would pin it flat against his skull until he knew.”

Isn’t that a lovely bit of oddness? And to top it off Rice gives us a wonderfully ambiguous ending to ignite the reader’s imagination.

A Night at a Cottage by Richard Hughes

A very simple and short two-paged ghost story, this one; yet, very effective. It’s the story of a vagrant who breaks into an abandoned cottage for a night’s rest and finds he’s not alone. Very well written, Hughes builds a tremendous atmosphere over such a short space.

The Shape of Things by Ray Bradbury

In the introduction to this piece Haining tells us that, even in an anthology of horror stories, he draws the line upon tales of deformed children. He goes on to say that it’s a subject which should “never be treated lightly or carelessly”, and this is why he chose to include this one from Ray Bradbury. It’s a strange tale of a young couple who after the birth of their first child are faced with, rather than the expected human baby, a small blue pyramid. The doctor explains to the parents that there was some sort of dimensional cross-over during the birth and that their baby is in fact a completely normal and healthy human baby, it’s just that no one can see it in it’s true form and can only see it as a small, blue pyramid.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, perception. How we perceive things due to our own circumstances and conditioning. The baby is a perfectly healthy human child but how do we treat it if it looks different.

Interestingly, Haining dedicated this volume to his autistic son, Sean:

the unspeakable people dedication - peter haining

Desire and the Black Masseur by Tennessee Williams

Now then, we’ve arrived at the stand out piece in this anthology. The extraordinary story which makes all the other extraordinary stories herein seem a little run-of-the-mill. This is what Haining, in his introduction, has to say about it:

“I have read and reread this story and the effect is always the same – it leaves me shaking. Perhaps a psychiatrist might have something to say about that – and maybe you might like to see him after me?”

I’m not going to say any more about this. If you haven’t read it before then find a copy and read it. Deep, dark, disturbing and rich in symbolism. I think I know how I interpret it but you might interpret it differently to me, I don’t know. Do give it a go though, it’ll be a long time before you read anything else quite like it.

The Coffin by Dennis Wheatley

This is an extract from the Wheatley novel, The Ka of Gifford Hillary. It’s Wheatley, so we know we’re going to be in for a lot of old tosh, don’t we? It’s a sequence where the titular character has been buried alive, but Wheatley completely fails to instil any sense of fear, desperation or panic into the character… he’s been buried alive but Wheatley tells it with no more horror than if the character had accidentally locked himself in the toilet. Why Haining included it in this anthology I have no idea, it rather lets the whole thing down. According to his introduction, it was recommended to him by Laurence James… and talking of Laurence James, we move on to the final story…

Mercy by Laurence James

Here we have a very short piece concerning a very badly injured man trapped in the wreckage of his car after crashing into a tree on a very lonely road. He’s slowly bleeding to death. Like the previous Wheatley tale, we have a man who is trapped, in pain and destined to die if he does not escape very soon; the difference is that James deals with the subject in a far more visceral way.

I have a sneaky suspicion that James recommended the Wheatley story to Haining because he knew it would make his own story look good in comparison!


And there we have it, The Unspeakable People – “20 of the most horrible horror stories”. All in all, quite a strong anthology with a few surprise entries and a minimum of filler. I know which ones are my favourites, how about you?