Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Robert Hichens -- one of three -- The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories

"These occult things can't always be told of, even when they are known." 

Stark House Press, 2023
245 pp


Not too long ago the very good people at Stark House Press sent me an ARC of a forthcoming collection of stories by Robert Hichens (1864-1959) entitled  The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories.  [As a quick sidebar, his name may also be found under the name of Robert Smythe-Hichens, changed to distance himself from the  quartermaster who was at the helm of the ill-fated Titanic.]   I first got a bee in my bonnet about Hichens after reading his "The Face of the Monk" (1897; included in this volume) some time ago, so when I saw that Stark House had published two volumes of this author's short stories, I had to have them, so that ARC is beyond appreciated.    Although he might be a bit purply in the prose department and long in the writing, the man could definitely spin a fine yarn.   He also excels in troubled souls -- this book is riddled with them.  

The title story (and my personal favorite of this bunch) is  "The Black Spaniel" (1905), a novella-length, dark and atmospheric tale that begins as our narrator (Luttrell) introduces two of his friends, Vernon Kersteven and Dr. Peter Deeming,  to each other while on holiday in Italy. Within a short space of time,  the three men become engaged over dinner in a conversation about a particular book written by a woman who also happens to be at the restaurant that evening.  Deeming finds it "wrongheaded and sentimental," noting that the author "appears to wish to elevate the animals above humanity, to take them out of their proper place."  Kersteven, on the other hand, has a great love for animals and cannot abide animal cruelty, saying that he has "known the longing to turn one whom I have been seen being cruel to a pet animal into that animal, and to be his master for a little while."   Deeming reveals that he has a black spaniel; Kersteven reveals that his dog, also a black spaniel,  had been stolen and sold to a place in London that "kept on hand" animals which eventually ended up under the vivisectionist's knife. Later he reveals his belief to Luttrell that intuition tells him that Deeming is cruel, and that he is sure that Deeming's own dog is suffering at the doctor's hands; he wants to actually see the dog for himself.  When he comes to London for that very purpose, things not only make a shift to the strange, but venture completely off into the deep end of weirdness.  I can't divulge too much about this particular story; let me just say that it was well beyond creepy.  Although the ending might be a bit on the foreshadowed side, had this been the only story in this volume, it still would have been worth what I paid for the book.     The second longish tale is  "The Hindu" from 1919.  The opening paragraph reveals that this story was related to the narrator by a London doctor who was a  "famous specialist in nervous diseases," who often tells "stories of the people who consult him," leaving out their real names.  The narrator  has collected some of these "cases" in a book; he is the one who gave the story its title.   After a "great pother about psychical research," a professor "launched an attack" on an investigator for the Psychical Research Society in the paper owned by one of these consultees, the owner, Mr. Latimer, decides to look into "psychic matters" for himself. His wife is a devotee of such things, so without her knowledge, and along with one of his investigators, Latimer attends a sitting with a psychic.  At first the "messages" he received were, as he phrased it, "sheer bunkum," until he got one about his wife.  That's when his troubles begin.  Although he tells the investigator that he didn't believe a word the medium had said, he decides to look into things.  According to what was heard at the sitting via a spirit named Minnie Hartfield, his wife had fallen out of love with him for some time, and she had "come under the influence of an Indian, a Hindu" by the name of Nischaya Varman.  It seems that Minnie had become Varman's mistress, but he'd dumped her when he'd met Mrs. Latimer, but Latimer does not want to bring any of this up with his wife.   It also happens that Varman (known throughout this tale as "The Hindu") had died three months earlier and at the next sitting with the psychic, comes through to speak to him for just a few moments.  Since that time, no matter where he goes or what he does, "The Hindu" is never far behind, but strangely, nobody else can see him.   In the final story in this volume, "Sea Change" (1900),  Sir Graham Hamilton, "a great sea painter," has left London to stay for a bit on a "little isle set lonely in a harsh and dangerous northern sea." It is the home of the Rev. Peter Uniacke, who had come to the island hoping to forget about a certain woman who had "disappeared" from his life.  Inviting Hamilton to stay with him, little by little Uniacke draws out the story of why Hamilton seems so haunted, and why he is "curiously persecuted by remorse." The reverend realizes that Hamilton will find exactly what he seeks on the island, and takes steps to ensure that he doesn't.  This one is an awesome ghost story, more poignant than frightening but still creepy enough to chill the blood.

The shorter stories are also well done, all with more than just a tinge of the supernatural.  As mentioned, "The Face of the Monk" is here, as are "The Silent Guardian" which would have been right at home in Henry Bartholomew's recent (and excellent)  anthology The Living Stone: Stories of Uncanny Sculpture (Handheld Press, 2023),  "Demetriaidi's Dream" from 1929 in which an elderly man dreams of horrible happenings in each and every room of the hotel where he's staying and "The Lighted Candles" from 1919, a dark tale of revenge and of course, ghostly happenings.

 Major applause to Stark House for putting these stories back into print.  I can most certainly recommend it very highly.   At the moment I am just on the edge of finishing a second Stark House volume of Hichens' tales, How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales, which is also fantastic.  The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories is a delight for fans of older darkness (especially the title story),  and while the writing is definitely best left to the most patient readers and true-blue admirers of strange,  the stories themselves are created such that the horror contained within them slowly escalates, drawing the reader in deeper and deeper by the moment. They also delve deeply into the inner realm of the human psyche, which may be just as frightening.    It does take some time to get fully into these stories before the weirdness begins, but I didn't mind at all --  the wait was well worth it.   

I will be posting about How Love Came to Professor Guildea next week -- so far I'm loving it.