Tag Archives: horrible

5 Days of Lovecraft – 1: The Beast in the Cave

Let’s have five days of Lovecraft! Starting now, Examining the Odd will feature a Lovecraft story each day for five days.

The Beast in the Cave
By H. P. Lovecraft
The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty. I was lost, completely, hopelessly lost in the vast and labyrinthine recesses of the Mammoth Cave. Turn as I might, in no direction could my straining vision seize on any object capable of serving as a guidepost to set me on the outward path. That nevermore should I behold the blessed light of day, or scan the pleasant hills and dales of the beautiful world outside, my reason could no longer entertain the slightest unbelief. Hope had departed. Yet, indoctrinated as I was by a life of philosophical study, I derived no small measure of satisfaction from my unimpassioned demeanour; for although I had frequently read of the wild frenzies into which were thrown the victims of similar situations, I experienced none of these, but stood quiet as soon as I clearly realised the loss of my bearings.
     Nor did the thought that I had probably wandered beyond the utmost limits of an ordinary search cause me to abandon my composure even for a moment. If I must die, I reflected, then was this terrible yet majestic cavern as welcome a sepulchre as that which any churchyard might afford; a conception which carried with it more of tranquility than of despair.
     Starving would prove my ultimate fate; of this I was certain. Some, I knew, had gone mad under circumstances such as these, but I felt that this end would not be mine. My disaster was the result of no fault save my own, since unbeknown to the guide I had separated myself from the regular party of sightseers; and, wandering for over an hour in forbidden avenues of the cave, had found myself unable to retrace the devious windings which I had pursued since forsaking my companions.
     Already my torch had begun to expire; soon I would be enveloped by the total and almost palpable blackness of the bowels of the earth. As I stood in the waning, unsteady light, I idly wondered over the exact circumstances of my coming end. I remembered the accounts which I had heard of the colony of consumptives, who, taking their residence in this gigantic grotto to find health from the apparently salubrious air of the underground world, with its steady, uniform temperature, pure air, and peaceful quiet, had found, instead, death in strange and ghastly form. I had seen the sad remains of their ill-made cottages as I passed them by with the party, and had wondered what unnatural influence a long sojourn in this immense and silent cavern would exert upon one as healthy and as vigorous as I. Now, I grimly told myself, my opportunity for settling this point had arrived, provided that want of food should not bring me too speedy a departure from this life.
     As the last fitful rays of my torch faded into obscurity, I resolved to leave no stone unturned, no possible means of escape neglected; so summoning all the powers possessed by my lungs, I set up a series of loud shoutings, in the vain hope of attracting the attention of the guide by my clamour. Yet, as I called, I believed in my heart that my cries were to no purpose, and that my voice, magnified and reflected by the numberless ramparts of the black maze about me, fell upon no ears save my own. All at once, however, my attention was fixed with a start as I fancied that I heard the sound of soft approaching steps on the rocky floor of the cavern. Was my deliverance about to be accomplished so soon? Had, then, all my horrible apprehensions been for naught, and was the guide, having marked my unwarranted absence from the party, following my course and seeking me out in this limestone labyrinth? Whilst these joyful queries arose in my brain, I was on the point of renewing my cries, in order that my discovery might come the sooner, when in an instant my delight was turned to horror as I listened; for my ever acute ear, now sharpened in even greater degree by the complete silence of the cave, bore to my benumbed understanding the unexpected and dreadful knowledge that these footfalls were not like those of any mortal man. In the unearthly stillness of this subterranean region, the tread of the booted guide would have sounded like a series of sharp and incisive blows. These impacts were soft, and stealthy, as of the padded paws of some feline. Besides, at times, when I listened carefully, I seemed to trace the falls of four instead of two feet.
     I was now convinced that I had by my cries aroused and attracted some wild beast, perhaps a mountain lion which had accidentally strayed within the cave. Perhaps, I considered, the Almighty had chosen for me a swifter and more merciful death than that of hunger. Yet the instinct of self-preservation, never wholly dormant, was stirred in my breast, and though escape from the oncoming peril might but spare me for a sterner and more lingering end, I determined nevertheless to part with my life at as high a price as I could command. Strange as it may seem, my mind conceived of no intent on the part of the visitor save that of hostility. Accordingly, I became very quiet, in the hope that the unknown beast would, in the absence of a guiding sound, lose its direction as had I, and thus pass me by. But this hope was not destined for realisation, for the strange footfalls steadily advanced, the animal evidently having obtained my scent, which in an atmosphere so absolutely free from all distracting influences as is that of the cave, could doubtless be followed at great distance.
     Seeing therefore that I must be armed for defence against an uncanny and unseen attack in the dark, I grouped about me the largest of the fragments of rock which were strown upon all parts of the floor of the cavern in the vicinity, and, grasping one in each hand for immediate use, awaited with resignation the inevitable result. Meanwhile the hideous pattering of the paws drew near. Certainly, the conduct of the creature was exceedingly strange. Most of the time, the tread seemed to be that of a quadruped, walking with a singular lack of unison betwixt hind and fore feet, yet at brief and infrequent intervals I fancied that but two feet were engaged in the process of locomotion. I wondered what species of animal was to confront me; it must, I thought, be some unfortunate beast who had paid for its curiosity to investigate one of the entrances of the fearful grotto with a lifelong confinement in its interminable recesses. It doubtless obtained as food the eyeless fish, bats, and rats of the cave, as well as some of the ordinary fish that are wafted in at every freshet of Green River, which communicates in some occult manner with the waters of the cave. I occupied my terrible vigil with grotesque conjectures of what alterations cave life might have wrought in the physical structure of the beast, remembering the awful appearances ascribed by local tradition to the consumptives who had died after long residence in the cavern. Then I remembered with a start that, even should I succeed in killing my antagonist, I should never behold its form, as my torch had long since been extinct, and I was entirely unprovided with matches. The tension on my brain now became frightful. My disordered fancy conjured up hideous and fearsome shapes from the sinister darkness that surrounded me, and that actually seemed to press upon my body. Nearer, nearer, the dreadful footfalls approached. It seemed that I must give vent to a piercing scream, yet had I been sufficiently irresolute to attempt such a thing, my voice could scarce have responded. I was petrified, rooted to the spot. I doubted if my right arm would allow me to hurl its missile at the oncoming thing when the crucial moment should arrive. Now the steady pat, pat, of the steps was close at hand; now, very close. I could hear the laboured breathing of the animal, and terror-struck as I was, I realised that it must have come from a considerable distance, and was correspondingly fatigued. Suddenly the spell broke. My right hand, guided by my ever trustworthy sense of hearing, threw with full force the sharp-angled bit of limestone which it contained, toward that point in the darkness from which emanated the breathing and pattering, and, wonderful to relate, it nearly reached its goal, for I heard the thing jump, landing at a distance away, where it seemed to pause.
     Having readjusted my aim, I discharged my second missile, this time most effectively, for with a flood of joy I listened as the creature fell in what sounded like a complete collapse, and evidently remained prone and unmoving. Almost overpowered by the great relief which rushed over me, I reeled back against the wall. The breathing continued, in heavy, gasping inhalations and expirations, whence I realised that I had no more than wounded the creature. And now all desire to examine thething ceased. At last something allied to groundless, superstitious, fear had entered my brain, and I did not approach the body, nor did I continue to cast stones at it in order to complete the extinction of its life. Instead, I ran at full speed in what was, as nearly as I could estimate in my frenzied condition, the direction from which I had come. Suddenly I heard a sound, or rather, a regular succession of sounds. In another instant they had resolved themselves into a series of sharp, metallic clicks. This time there was no doubt. It was the guide. And then I shouted, yelled, screamed, even shrieked with joy as I beheld in the vaulted arches above the faint and glimmering effulgence which I knew to be the reflected light of an approaching torch. I ran to meet the flare, and before I could completely understand what had occurred, was lying upon the ground at the feet of the guide, embracing his boots, and gibbering, despite my boasted reserve, in a most meaningless and idiotic manner, pouring out my terrible story, and at the same time overwhelming my auditor with protestations of gratitude. At length I awoke to something like my normal consciousness. The guide had noted my absence upon the arrival of the party at the entrance of the cave, and had, from his own intuitive sense of direction, proceeded to make a thorough canvass of the by-passages just ahead of where he had last spoken to me, locating my whereabouts after a quest of about four hours.
     By the time he had related this to me, I, emboldened by his torch and his company, began to reflect upon the strange beast which I had wounded but a short distance back in the darkness, and suggested that we ascertain, by the rushlight’s aid, what manner of creature was my victim. Accordingly I retraced my steps, this time with a courage born of companionship, to the scene of my terrible experience. Soon we descried a white object upon the floor, an object whiter even than the gleaming limestone itself. Cautiously advancing, we gave vent to a simultaneous ejaculation of wonderment, for of all the unnatural monsters either of us had in our lifetimes beheld, this was in surpassing degree the strangest. It appeared to be an anthropoid ape of large proportions, escaped, perhaps, from some itinerant menagerie. Its hair was snow-white, a thing due no doubt to the bleaching action of a long existence within the inky confines of the cave, but it was also surprisingly thin, being indeed largely absent save on the head, where it was of such length and abundance that it fell over the shoulders in considerable profusion. The face was turned away from us, as the creature lay almost directly upon it. The inclination of the limbs was very singular, explaining, however, the alternation in their use which I had before noted, whereby the beast used sometimes all four, and on other occasions but two for its progress. From the tips of the fingers or toes long nail-like claws extended. The hands or feet were not prehensile, a fact that I ascribed to that long residence in the cave which, as I before mentioned, seemed evident from the all-pervading and almost unearthlywhiteness so characteristic of the whole anatomy. No tail seemed to be present.
     The respiration had now grown very feeble, and the guide had drawn his pistol with the evident intent of despatching the creature, when a sudden sound emitted by the latter caused the weapon to fall unused. The sound was of a nature difficult to describe. It was not like the normal note of any known species of simian, and I wondered if this unnatural quality were not the result of a long-continued and complete silence, broken by the sensations produced by the advent of the light, a thing which the beast could not have seen since its first entrance into the cave. The sound, which I might feebly attempt to classify as a kind of deep-toned chattering, was faintly continued. All at once a fleeting spasm of energy seemed to pass through the frame of the beast. The paws went through a convulsive motion, and the limbs contracted. With a jerk, the white body rolled over so that its face was turned in our direction. For a moment I was so struck with horror at the eyes thus revealed that I noted nothing else. They were black, those eyes, deep, jetty black, in hideous contrast to the snow-white hair and flesh. Like those of other cave denizens, they were deeply sunken in their orbits, and were entirely destitute of iris. As I looked more closely, I saw that they were set in a face less prognathous than that of the average ape, and infinitely more hairy. The nose was quite distinct.
     As we gazed upon the uncanny sight presented to our vision, the thick lips opened, and severalsounds issued from them, after which the thing relaxed in death.
     The guide clutched my coat-sleeve and trembled so violently that the light shook fitfully, casting weird, moving shadows on the walls about us.
     I made no motion, but stood rigidly still, my horrified eyes fixed upon the floor ahead.
     Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for thesounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a MAN!!!

Montague Rhodes James

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary with More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Two Volumes in One.

Montague Rhodes James by Sir Gerald Kelly oil on canvas, circa 1936

M.R. James (b. 1862) is perhaps one of the most understated writers of odd ghost stories of all time. Many of his stories take place at Oxbridge and other places with a very English feel, reflecting the life of the author himself. James also catalogued medieval manuscripts (see below), for which he was well-respected during his lifetime.

I’ve collected some excellent articles and put them together here – I hope you enjoy them!

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 in Goodnestone Parsonage, Kent, where his father was the curate, and died in 1936. He developed a taste for old books from a precocious age and was fonder of reading dusty volumes in the library than playing with the other children. He studied at Eton and then at King’s College, Cambridge, where he became assistant in Classical archaeology at the Fitzwilliam museumHe was elected a Fellow of King’s after writing his dissertation The Apocalypse of St. Peter, and after that, he lectured in divinity, eventually becoming dean of the college in 1889. He was a distinguished medievalist and wrote a large amount of reviews, translations, monographs, articles and works on bibliography, palaeography, antiquarian issues, and often edited volumes for specialized bibliographical and historical societies. He was a brilliant linguist and biblical scholar, and he was exceptionally gifted, which, along with his unusually keen memory and hard work, enabled him to write many pioneering studies. – Walk Awhile 

mrj-books

James’s incredible detail finds a balance in those ambiguous ghouls to which the reader is invited to apply their own dreadful colour. Many of M.R. James’s ghost stories were written to be read aloud as Christmas Eve entertainment to select gatherings of friends at Cambridge. They were subsequently published as: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others, and A Warning to the CuriousA Thin Ghost

Sacha Dhawan plays Garrett in Gatiss's adaptation of The Tractate Middoth

Sacha Dhawan plays Garrett in Gatiss’s adaptation of The Tractate Middoth

Earlier this year, I published a post about one of my favourite James stories, The Mezzotint; a classic story of a picture of a house which has within it the souls of the once living! It reminds me of the story of the girl who gets trapped in a painting, grows old and dies in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. That’s always been my favourite part of the book (and wonderful film).

Spooky: an illustration for MR James's 'O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' by Jonathan Barry Photo: Bridgeman Art

Spooky: an illustration for MR James’s ‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ by Jonathan Barry Photo: Bridgeman Art

It is no coincidence that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol features more ghosts than carols, or that the 1963 Andy Williams song It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year promises “scary ghost stories”. Christmas was once the time for sharing tales of the spooks we now usually associate with Halloween. Our traditional festive celebrations owe much to the Victorians’ plundering of pagan symbolism – whether the still-fertile appearance of evergreens and holly, the bearded god Odin’s habit of climbing down chimneys, or spectres at the fireside. As the Winter Solstice approached and daylight died away, the ancients thought that the barrier between the living and the dead became slender, so supernatural tales abounded. (James) became a noted medieval scholar before returning to Eton to serve as Provost. He was a devout Anglican, and a profoundly conservative individual, much as one might expect of a man who went from parsonage to school, university then back to school. BBC Arts

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Something feels right about pushing things off kilter, beside a warm fire, for the safe thrill of having your flesh creep. James wanted his creatures to be ghastly. I think he’d have had no truck with sad, longing ghosts yet to be released to heaven. There is something implacably horrible about his monsters, with their black matted hair, teeth and nails. The recent trend for more human vampires is an interesting one, but for me it’s exciting enough that they just want to drink your blood and watch you die for the fun of it. – Mark Gatiss

Montague Rhodes James. 1862-1936

Montague Rhodes James. 1862-1936

Every year I’m drawn back to Montague Rhodes James – his quietly creepy prose hints so effectively at what lurks just beyond the light of the hearth. A fellow whom I have never met but whose work continues to exert a heavy influence upon me. The Guardian

Every reader of M R James’s peerlessly unpleasant ghost stories will have his or her favourite moment of that paradoxical, delighted, wriggling horror that their author sought to instil. For some, it is the scene in “O Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904), in which a sceptical don on a golfing holiday is stalked through his dreams by a blind, shuffling figure in white that eventually rises from the spare bed in his room and thrusts into his face “a horrible, an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”. For others, it is the episode in “The Diary of Mr Poynter” (1919), where the protagonist rests his hand absently on what he takes to be the head of his pet spaniel and finds that “what he had been touching” — not the dog, but a man-shaped figure on all fours covered with hair — “rose to meet him”. And perhaps the most intimate of these shivers comes in “Casting the Runes” (1911), in which the unlucky protagonist, woken in the night, reaches under his pillow for his watch, only for his questing hand to encounter “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being”. That readers in the iPad age should still be so horrified by these tales of haunted Edwardian bibliophiles, antebellum Oxbridge dons and ghoulish local revenants would doubtless have come as a surprise to their author… His ghost stories were designed as pleasant trifles, and mostly composed at lightning speed on Christmas evenings between 1892 and 1935 for a coterie of colleagues, friends and choirboys at King’s. Their author quoted with approval the comment of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, who ghoulishly advertised that “I wants to make your flesh creep.” Although they share densely imagined roots in local and national history and geography, the stories did not, as James wrote in the introduction to his first collection, “make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable while walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.” The Telegraph

I hope you have a supernatural festive period, full of shrieks of laughter and terror!

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