Some months ago, I wrote a post about the thin line between horror and comedy; and on how one can so often lead into the other. It can be so difficult to get the balance right. After all, at times even the masters of terror, like Stephen King and Bram Stocker, can mistakenly stray over into the ludicrous.
That is one comfort about writing spoof Gothic. Here, the relationship between the two is out in the open. If the reader laughs a bit where the writer is aiming for pure terror, or is appalled by a bit which on the contrary is intended as one of the comic episodes, then it really doesn’t matter.
I mentioned in that post, how I let out a hoot of laughter when reading one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, which unluckily, was not meant to be comic at all.
In it, a monster, born of an unnatural mating between a creature from outer space and a woman, was trying to obtain a copy of ‘The Necromican’, apparently so that the other members of the race to which his father belonged could come to earth. Well, it’s nice that he was a fond son, anyway…
There being no Internet and no Amazon in those days, and seemingly no public libraries willing to loan a copy of this book of magical rites (even if he had to read it in the reading room, as in the British Library), he broke into a private library to steal a copy.
Here, a watchdog attacked him, tearing his trousers and revealing that his body below the waist was ‘the stuff of fantasy’ (and certainly not of the sort found in the ‘Romance/Erotia’ section in Amazon, either).
The unlucky miscreant soon began to melt into a pool of goo. I was worried that the dog might have been poisoned by tearing at his flesh, but we didn’t hear that it suffered any ill effects.
There was another, which involved a man whose body had been stolen by these same aliens, and who came back to life in the coffin of one of their dead human accomplices (I forget why). He somehow got out, and made a series of warning phone calls, but as his vocal cords had begun to disintegrate, the recipients only heard, ‘Obscene gurgling noises’. Again, I collapsed into laughter.
It’s decades since I read those short stories, and I can’t, unfortunately, remember the names, though I do remember I read them as part of an anthology of possibly, ‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ or ‘Tales of Terror’ or some such thing. When I’ve mentioned them, people have been eager to read them too, so that’s a shame (that’s the annoying thing about short stories, they are so hard to track down).
Recently, however, I read the most absurd ghost story I have yet read, and I am sorry to say that it was chosen for ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’. I do remember the title of this. ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by one Margery Lawrence.
This choice is the more extraordinary, as I gather that this largely forgotten writer was fully capable of writing genuine tales of terror. I can’t imagine what made the editor choose this, apart from the fact that it does stray repeatedly over into the ludicrous, and this, seemingly, by accident.
I did wonder if it is meant as a spoof, though this is not mentioned in the write up. Rather, I think, the combination of the dated, class-based assumptions of the characters, and their strangely cardboard nature, combine with a not sufficiently alarming ghostly presence to make for an unintentional comic effect.
By contrast, ‘Juggarnaut’ in the same volume, by D K Broster, a tale about a haunted ‘bath chair’, written about the same time (1926) with the same dated assumptions, is clearly meant to be ludicrous as well as horrific, and is highly entertaining.
The Haunted Saucepan’ comes from a book of collected stories by the author called ‘Nights of the Round Table’. In it, the hero, Conner, is an engineer come back to the UK along with his devoted manservant who is positively grovelling in his subservience towards the hero – and called the incongruous name of Strutt ; Conner is looking for affordable accommodation in Mayfair, near St James Park.
Unable to find any, he fears – horrors – that he would be reduced to living in a hotel, or else, his club (it isn’t clear where he would have placed Strutt; presumably in the attics) . This is hardship indeed, as he says he needs to live near his business interests. Then he comes on a fully furnished flat to let at a startlingly low rent. The agent tells Connor that the owner is abroad, having left abruptly for unspecified reasons.
The devoted Strutt has even been approached by a cook, an elderly woman who turns up, offering her services. He says to his master, ‘I took the liberty of exercising my own judgement…I hope I did right, Sir?’
The woman is an excellent cook. After his first dinner, Connor concedes; ‘Tell her I’m pleased.’ (What, no tip? Well, you mustn’t indulge staff too much; they’re bound to take advantage.)
Naturally, we have guessed at once that the flat is haunted. The mystery is in what form this haunting is going to take. The object of terror is in fact, a saucepan, which bubbles in a sinister way when the stove isn’t alight. Not only that, but if anyone eats anything cooked in it, he or she suffers from terrible agonies. This happens to Connor, after the delightful meal, for Strutt heated him some coffee in that saucepan.
Connor, reading late on that first night, finds that Strutt has failed to supply him with fresh soda for the siphon, and he has to go along to the kitchen to get it. Here on the stove:
‘One, a little saucepan, had it’s lid not quite on – not fitted on levelly, I mean –and it had the oddest look for a moment, just as if it had cocked its lid up to take a sly look at me!’
Later in the night, Connor awakes: ‘Shaking and gasping, my hands alternately grasping my throat and stomach as most awful griping agonies seized me, throwing me into convulsive writhings…’
Strutt to the rescue: ‘My God, Sir, what’s the matter? You waked me coughing! Wait a second, Sir, I’ll get you a drop of brandy…If you’ll take my advice you’ll change those damp things and let me rub you down…’
The next day Connor feels fine, and his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him.
But then, Connor is dismayed when he and his friend Trevanion, who’s come to dine, hear an odd bubbling noise coming from the kitchen, but a visit their reveals nothing:
‘Trevanion’s cheery laugh died away down the street…The kitchen door stood ajar…craning forward, I peeped round the door…The little saucepan stood where I had put it, on the stove, still cold and unlit – but it was boiling! The lid was rakishly aslant, and tilted a shade every second or so as the liquid, whatever it was, bubbled inside, and gusts of steam came out as I gasped, dumbfounded –somehow as I listened, the noise of the bubbling shaped itself into a devilish little song, almost as if the thing was singing to itself, secretly and abominably, chortling to itself in a disgusting sort of hidden way….’
This was the point at which I began to chortle to myself in a disgusting sort of hidden way at Connor and Strutt’s terrors, and the general Boys’ Own way in which the hero and his friend Trevanian set out to resolve the mystery.
The servile Strutt taken ill, too, after boiling himself an egg in the murderous saucepan (Connor is so astonished that his man is late wth his early morning tea that he goes to investigate). Now, Trevanian callously decides to engage in some animal experiments. He borrows a dog, boils up some bones in the pan, and gives them to the unfortunate animal, which is seized by the symptoms of poison also:
‘Poor old brute! Never mind; he’ll be all right in a jiff.”
Then, the two friends decide to wait in the kitchen –along with the unlucky dog – in an attempt, it seems, to see the ghost:
‘We had brought cushions and rugs with us, and threw them in a corner, the furthest away from the stove…from where we could watch both door – and stove – and saucepan…Settling ourselves down, I rummaged in my pocket for my pipe.’
I’ve read a number of descriptions of such night vigils in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Conan Doyle can make the situation full of alarming suspense rather than absurdity. He achieves this in ‘The Speckled Band’, for all the baboon which runs across the garden, and the cheetah that snuffles at the window.
With this story, by contrast, I began to snigger heartlessly again. Then I came to the climax of the vigil: –
‘A faint movement in the passage at the further end – on tiptoe for greater stealth, something stole towards the kitchen door…the Thing in the passage trailed nearer and nearer…a faint footstep accompanied by a soft rustle like a trailing skirt. At this moment, I became aware of another phenomenon –there grew a heavy scent on the air, like patchouli, I think…our throats dry with fright, we shrank closer to each other, staring at the dog as he moaned and whimpered, and the steps drew nearer, and paused outside the kitchen door, as if Whoever walked that night paused to peer at us through the crack in the kitchen door, and laughed at us through the chink!
‘For sheer terror, that beat all that I have ever known, yet still the spell held us both motionless…the dog’s eyes fixed about five foot from the floor, followed – Someone – who entered…suddenly upon the silence broke a sinister little sound – the clink of a saucepan lid lifted…with a yell of mortal fear I threw aside the rugs, and bolted past that horrible stove like a maniac, Trevanion close at my heels, blundering madly over poor old Ben as he ran.’
At this, I laughed so much that I thought the story deserved a place in the collection for its sheer entertainment value. If it was written tongue in cheek, which I doubt, as it seems the author had little sense of the ridiculous, it is a masterpiece of understated satire.
None of the comedy of these two he man types running in terror from the apparition of a living and lovely young woman is indicated as the story draws to a close (for the siren murderer who owns the flat and who killed her husband with poisoned meals from the saucepan still lives abroad with her male accomplice).
Connor and Trevanion take Strutt into their confidence. He is all gratitude, and says he threw the dread saucepan out, but it turned up in the kitchen again. On no account is his beloved master to touch it.
The cook is called. Trevanion seizes her, and Strutt, rather like a school sneak, informs them that she laughed when Connor was taken ill, and threatens to make her eat something cooked out of the saucepan.
After this ungallant treatment, she crumbles and tells all of her former mistress, her lovers, and the elderly husband subject to painful attacks of acid indigestion , and the wife carefully cooking him invalid’s meals in the dread saucepan, laced with a strange white powder from her doctor lover. For all this deviotion, he faded slowly away. Then the doctor married the siren and they went abroad…
After that, the wicked old woman used the saucepan now and then to scare away tenants, as she wished to keep her caretaking job (it’s never explained why, with her skills as a chef, she didn’t take up work as a cook; but perhaps it was harder work). Connor sternly dismisses her:
‘The door closed on her dismissed figure, and Trevenion’s eyes met mine. With one accord we said, ‘My God, what a horrible yarn!’ That is redolent of Rinaldo Rinaldini, where his men are forever speaking in chorus.
It is left to Strutt to throw away the saucepan. The environmentally unfriendly Connor suggests he tie a stone to it, and sinks it in the Thames (but might it not poison the whole river?)
I was disappointed to come to the end of the tale; it had given me a wonderful laugh.
I hasten to add that there are far more spine chilling ghost stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ – ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ by F M Mayor, for instance, is brilliant and touching, and ‘The Eyes’ by Edith Wharton is truly alarming, and has a wonderful psychological slant that in no way detracts from the ghostliness.
It is also only fair to add, that I lived in a reputedly haunted house myself for several years, and I found listening to the sound of disembodied footsteps decidedly unpleasant myself (though their owner was almost certainly dead). I also found the inexplicable mechanical clicking noises which passed up one of the long corridors at dead of night disturbing, neither of which sounds frightening when recounted in the light of day (though I often heard them in the light of day, though more often at twilight, including the last time that I heard them, about which I will write next Halloween).
The problem, then, is less with the prosaic nature of a ghostly saucepan than the whole Boy’s Own Adventure Story atmosphere which surrounds this 1920’s ghostly tale. However, as laughter is the best tonic, I strongly recommend it.