I shall sit shuddering and weeping in my chair, or continue, with the most strained and fearstruck ecstasy of listening, to pace up and down this room and give ear to every sound of menace…
From the haunting ballads of the borderlands to the urban gothic of Victorian fiction, Scottish literature has long demonstrated a fascination with the macabre. So for those amongst us who want to hide out in darkened rooms, reading by the light of a single candle and callously ignoring the three little goblins excitedly ringing the doorbell, here’s a short taster of some chilling Scottish horror.
A Beleaguered City and Other Tales of the Seen and the Unseen
The darkness was great, yet through the gloom of the night I could see the division of of the road from the broken ground on either side; there was nothing there… There was in the air, in the night, a sensation the most strange I have never experienced. I have felt the same thing indeed at other times, in face of a great crowd, when thousands of people were moving, rustling, struggling, breathing around me, thronging all the vacant space, filling up every spot. This was the sensation that overwhelmed me here – a crowd: yet nothing to be seen but the darkness, the indistinct line of the road. What say I? Did not! I could not! They pressed around us so. Ah! You would think I must be mad to use such words, for there was nobody near me – not a shadow even upon the road…
Admired by Henry James and described as ‘one of the greatest writers of ghost stories this country has ever produced’ (Dalby, 1988), Margaret Oliphant was a speculative Christian, intrigued by the great advances of Victorian science whilst convinced that the spirits of the dead resided among us. In A Beleaguered City, a small provincial French town is beset first by darkness, and then by the spirits themselves. A deliciously gothic tale of creeping oppression, Oliphant’s breathless prose pulses with a sense of terror and asphyxiation. Those who loved Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black will find much to admire – and chill – here.
‘I never in my life saw any being…whom I thought so like a fiend. If a demon could inherit flesh and blood, that youth is precisely such a being as I could conceive that demon to be. The depth and malignity of his eye is hideous. His breath is like the airs from a charnel house, and his flesh seems fading from his bones, as if the worm that never dies were gnawing it away already.’
A psychological thriller about the power of evil, with the Devil himself at the heart of the narrative. Dark deeds and the lingering question of the fate of the human soul make Hogg’s 1824 novel feel almost like a dialogue between the reader and their own conflicted psyche. What happens to the soul after death? Does a just life lead to salvation? Am I condemned?
These are the questions posed with horrifying literary violence in this novel about a young man who believes he is one of the Elect. Cajoled into murder and violence by the devilish apparition Gil-Martin, the novel playfully forces the reader to ponder whether the Devil truly is manifest, or whether Robert Wringhim is simply mad. Think American Psycho set against the dark backdrop of eighteenth-century Edinburgh, add a simmering undercurrent of malevolent religious doctrine, and you have Hogg’s Memoirs.
The Unquiet Grave
The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
“I’ll do as much for my true love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.”
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?”
“‘Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek.”
“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips;
But the call of death is strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.
“Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
“The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away.”
The ballad The Unquiet Grave appears in Volume II of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads ed. Francis James Child.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson
Right in the midst there lay the body of a man sorely contorted and still twitching. They drew near on tiptoe… He was dressed in clothes far too large for him, clothes of the doctor’s bigness; the cords of his face still moved with a semblance of life, but life was quite gone; and by the crushed phial in the hand and the strong smell of kernels that hung upon the air, Utterson knew that he was looking on the body of a self-destroyer…
The classic you think you know, but Jekyll and Hyde remains a thrillingly tense read in spite of its ubiquity as a pop culture reference. Inspired by one of Stevenson’s nightmares, this novella is a feast of hellish imagery. A masterful exploration of humankind’s capacity to sin and its compulsion to hide such dark desires, Jekyll and Hyde is less about confronting the monster under your bed and all about confronting the monster inside you. Don’t underestimate this novel’s power to disturb.
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
‘They’ll molder away and be like other loam.’
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers’ land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
Muir – an Orcadian – had moved to industrial Glasgow and was appalled by what he saw as the uncontrollable march of a second dark age upon humanity. Not supernatural horror, but for my money, one of the most chilling poems in Scottish literature.
Enjoy Halloween, dear readers.