Saturday, February 3, 2024

Robert Hichens -- two of three -- How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales


Stark House Press, 2023
241 pp


Back again with the second entry in my three volumes of tales by Robert Hichens published by Stark House.  This time, as S.T. Joshi notes in his introduction, these stories seem to hinge on a "crucial, life-altering decision" made by certain characters and the responses of the people in their immediate orbits.   As was the case in the first volume, The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories , this book is filled with a number of very troubled psyches, more than a couple of supernatural happenings and several people in crisis. 

Beginning with the longer, novella-sized tales, once again it's the title story that pops in this volume.  Professor Frederic Guildea is a "hardworking, eminently successful man of big brain and bold heart," but he has "neither time nor inclination for sentimentality" and a "poor opinion of most things, but especially of women."  His friend Father Murchison is the opposite, with a "special sentiment for all, whether he knew them or not."  In conversation with Guildea, Murchison points out that "those who do not want things often get them, while those who seek them vehemently are disappointed in their search,"  to which the professor answers that he "ought to have affection poured upon me," because he hates it.  And that's exactly what happens, but with a catch: he can't see who it is that has invaded his home and loves him so desperately, or perhaps what it is.   To offer more about this story would just be wrong, except to say that given certain clues offered throughout the narrative, I have to disagree with ST Joshi's interpretation in his introduction that it is "the ghost of a woman" whose love so irritates and haunts the Professor.   "A Tribute of Souls"  plays on the Faustian theme, appearing as a narrative written by the young Laird of Carlounie and  "found among his papers," an account written by a young man living under a "brooding darkness that fell latterly upon his mind."  The villagers thought one thing about the "flaming deed that he consummated" and "its appalling outcome," but perhaps the truth is actually stranger than anyone could have even begun to surmise.  The   Laird of Carlounie felt he had been "pursued by a malady of incompetence," "bruised and beaten by Providence," and hated everyone around him.  One day, while "engrossed" in Goethe's Faust by the burn on his estate, a voice came out of the water saying "If it was so then, it might be so now," followed later by the appearance of a mysterious "grey traveller" who tells that he must pay a "tribute of souls to the Caesar of Hell" -- three to be exact.  In return, he will reap the reward he seeks, in short, to become a very different, stronger man.   A fine story, for sure; if it actually happened as he recorded it, well, that's for the reader to discern.    The third longish story which comes at the end is "The Lost Faith," which I'm sorry to say I didn't care for all that much.  Had the reward been greater, I might possibly excuse how long it took to get to that point, but it was a bit on the anti-climatic side when all is said and done; I suppose all of the years I've spent reading crime helped me to figure things out well before the end came.  A young woman by the name of Olivia Traill realizes early on that she has some sort of strange power without being able to define it until the age of seventeen, when she is able to cure a classmate, Lily, of her affliction.  If Lily would just believe that Olivia can cure her, putting her faith in Olivia's abilities, then it will be so.  And it was, resulting in a lot of attention for Olivia and her "peculiar gift."   As she often said to those who came to her,
"I believe that I can cure you, and you must believe it too. Then we shall work together, and all must go well,"

implying a sort of "reciprocal faith" between the two parties.  She moved into the big time with her cure of a young man by the name of Fernol West, "the only child of one of the greatest financiers in America," whose horse had bolted, leaving him with a head wound. His physical injuries had healed, but he was left with no "zest for life," living in utter misery.  As this story opens, Olivia has come to England, followed by West, her greatest supporter.   She faces her truest test, however, after healing a certain Miss Burnington, who is plagued by horrific headaches, when Miss Burnington's brother, Sir Hector, is stricken with a mysterious illness.  Faith vs. science is one aspect of this tale,  but suffice it to say there is a very real psychic disturbance at play here.   

The young Laird of Carlounie from Internet Archive

The shorter stories in this volume were actually quite good, with only one venturing into the realm of the supernatural, "The Lady and the Beggar." The story opens on a note of complete bafflement as to why the extremely heartless and uncharitable Mrs. Errington, who had an extreme "hatred of the poor," has suddenly bequeathed her substantial fortune to "the destitute of London."   Her son is the only one who knows and it's highly likely he will never tell.   Two of the remaining three, "The Collaborators" and  "The Man Who Intervened" capture troubled souls at their most raw,  while "The Spinster" seems a bit mismatched with the other tales in this book, but is still edgy and intruiging.  

Once again, the stories in this volume may read on the long-winded side and can be bit overblown on the prose, which, given the time in which they were written should not be surprising, but as I said to someone just yesterday, the reward is in honing in on the story itself.  I happen to enjoy these older tales so very much that doing that is not too difficult, although I must admit that of the two of these volumes I've read so far, my preference is still The Black Spaniel and Other Strange Stories.  Not to worry though;  How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales is close on its tail, and I can certainly recommend it to like-minded readers of the weird and the strange.   My many thanks to Stark House for reviving these tales and putting them into book form.  Now on to book three, The Folly of Eustace and Other Satires and Stories.  

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