|The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult|
UNCANNY TALES 3
selected by Dennis Wheatley
Here we have another collection of little masterpieces. The longest is by Tennyson Jesse and records the chilling events of a séance. It is arranged by Mademoiselle Solange, a French detective associated with the Paris Sûreté. She is on a visit to London and, having lived there as a girl, pays a visit to her old apartment-house keeper in Earls Court. The house is in turmoil, for one of the tenants has just died and his young wife is suspected of murdering him. Solange takes a hand, and, in an attempt to get at the truth, arranges a fake séance. But the medium really becomes possessed with results that are terrifying. And what happens to the canary?
That great master storyteller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though towards the latter part of his life a leading figure in the spiritualist world, wrote very little occult fiction. But here is a tale by him and it is another about a séance that had terrifying results. Well is it entitled ‘Playing with Fire’.
I have always been a great admirer of Theodore Drieser’s work and on one of his visits to London he came to my house and signed my copies of first editions of his books. In ‘The Hand’ he tells a grisly story of a man who became haunted by the spirit of a blackmailer.
I also knew Louis Golding who was a near neighbour of mine when I lived in St. John’s Wood during the thirties. By a curious coincidence his story in this collection is also about a hand – ‘The Call of the Hand’. Its characters are woodcutters in Serbia, and its theme is most original.
Hugh Walpole is another name to conjure with. His story, ‘The Snow,’ tells us of a haunting in a cathedral town. It is by a jealous wife, and how sorry we feel for the once gay young woman who is haunted.
H.R. Wakefield’s ‘Lucky’s Grove’ is a very different kind of story to any of the others. It is of no haunting or of spiritual entity invoked by a medium. The tale concerns the power of the old gods to continue to protect their ancient shrines and inflict woe on those who desecrate them. It is all the more telling in that it centres round a Christmas tree and what should have been a jolly children’s party.
‘Afterward’ is a long story by Edith Wharton. She was a wealthy American who spent much of her time in Europe and won great distinction from her fine novels. In this story a couple from the States buy an old house in a lonely part of Dorset. Delighted with its dignity and complete difference from the modem industrial city where the husband made his money, they settle happily into their new house. The only thing lacking is the traditional ghost usually associated with ancient mansions. But the English friend who found the house for them has said that, although they will never see a ghost there, in due course they will learn that one has paid them a visit. And so it proves.
W.W. Jacobs was celebrated for his stories of seafaring men, such as ‘The Skipper’s Wooing’; and most of his writings are spiced with a delightful sense of humour. But ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ has nothing the least funny about it. Whoever owns the shrivelled paw can make three wishes that will come true. However, fulfilled wishes can, at times, have results very different from those expected. This is, perhaps, the most celebrated of all occult stories.
My own contribution, ‘The Snake’, is an interesting example of how the mind can register things unconsciously observed. The story concerns in African witchdoctor who could make a snake rigid and carry it like a walking stick. This was my first story and fortune favoured me greatly in that it was published both by Nash’s Magazine here and The Cosmopolitan in the States, the same month as my first novel was published by Hutchinson. A few weeks later I went down to stay with an old friend, Colonel Sir Rowland Lawrence. To my amazement he produced and gave me a walking stick that had been carved in the form of a wavy snake. Quite unconsciously, I must have noticed it on a previous visit and it had inspired my story.
Frank Harris is now best known for his erotic four-volume work, My Life and Loves; but he also wrote two collections of really excellent short stories, ‘Undream’d of Shores’, and ‘Unpath’d Waters’. As a journalist he reached the top of his profession and became a close friend of King Edward VII. His story, ‘The Stigmata’, touches only the fringe of the occult; but in the old days, before hanging resulted in a broken neck, many a man who had been hanged was cut down by his friends, after the officers of the law had gone, and revived. I include it because it is the most thought-provoking story I have ever read.
It might well be claimed that Algernon Blackwood was the finest teller of stories about the occult in his generation. Here, in ‘The Trod’, he tells us of a young man who was invited to a shooting party at Sir Hiram Digby’s country house at the request of Sir Hiram’s niece, because she and the young man had found themselves drawn together by an unusual type of sympathy. They were both ‘fey’ and the girl was in great danger of being drawn into a mysterious other life by fairies. Perhaps you do not believe in fairies. Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who won for us the Battle of Britain, did. He told me so in all seriousness.