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?
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…
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:
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?