As winter creeps up behind you and wraps its icy fingers around your throat, what better time for ghost stories? Haunted Holidays has covered Charles Dickens (ground zero for both Christmas and Christmas ghost stories), occult detectives, and forgotten female writers.
This week, in the interest of gender parity, we’re focusing on the men. And not just any men, but manly men who encountered ghosts that smell like Old Spice while adventuring in India, riding manly railroads, hunting tiny animals and blasting them to bits, or while camping in the ghost-infested wilds of Canada. These are stories about punching ghosts! Wrestling with ghosts! And, like all macho men, they are terrified of intimacy. M.R. James…this is your life!
A lifelong bachelor, James is one of those guys who people like to speculate was gay, but to be honest we’ll never know if he was gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual. What we do know is that he was terrified of intimate physical contact (apart from his habit of suddenly jumping on and wrestling his friends to the ground). For James, true horror was touching a hairy mouth full of teeth underneath his pillow, a suffocating shapeless flesh bag that engulfed his face, or a leathery horror riddled with putridity sharing his bed. A master first at King’s College and then Eton, he was a dusty scholar and academic who tested his ghosts stories on friends in his rooms during the winter holidays, and most of his stories fall into a pattern: a dusty scholar or academic uncovers some old book or rare manuscript, and then something hideous tries to touch him.
In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” a scholar consulting the scrapbook of a country curate sees a hand resting on the table as he reads and realizes it belongs to something less than human standing behind him. In “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” an antiquarian goes down a well in search of antiquities and finds something cold and sack-like that wraps itself around his face. In “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” a rare book collector’s houseguest reaches over his chair to pat the dog, and finds that he’s stroking some hairy creature, “in the attitude of one that had crept along the floor on its belly.”
If you gave James a doll and asked him to show you where the bad man touched him, he would look at you and ruefully intone, “Everywhere.” In James’s stories there is only bad touching. “Casting the Runes” is a duel of malicious touching as two men pass a cursed parchment back and forth each trying to stick the other one with it because it summons a demon that will tear its bearer limb from limb. Families were also loci of horror. In “The Mezzotint” having a baby is a good way to attract a dead thing that will crawl into your house and carry it off. In “Lost Hearts” a little boy is adopted by an older man not for altruistic reasons but to have his heart ripped out in a cursed ritual. Snuggling up under the warm covers of your bed practically guarantees you’ll play host to an unwelcome intruder. James’s ghosts want to touch us, hug us, lie in bed with us, be petted by us, and their forms are so repulsive that all of this is just a bad, bad idea.
There is also lot of touching in macho man ghost stories. Professional Irishman, enormous mustache enthusiast, and proto-sci fi writer Fitz-James O’Brien delivers one of the earliest invisible creatures in his 1859 story “What Was It?” Two guys staying in a haunted house pass the time smoking opium in the back garden and asking each other stoner questions like, “What do you consider the greatest element of Terror?” They freak themselves out, go upstairs to bed, and suddenly an invisible ghost/demon/thing drops down on the narrator. He wrestles with it for a while, his friend wrestles with it for a while, then they tie it up and torture it in the name of Science.
Perceval Landon was a travel writer, war correspondent, FORK (Friend of Rudyard Kipling), and author of a strange hoax regarding a book of fictitious sundial inscriptions, but he’s best known today for “Thurnley Abbey” his M.R. Jamesian ghost story—Ramsey Campbell calls it “that most terrifying of English ghost stories.” It’s one of those stories where men meeting as they journey to or from some foreign country tell each other spooky stories, and while it’s an excellent story what’s most memorable is that the narrator’s instinctive response when faced with a ghost is to beat the crap out of it. Guy de Maupassant takes a far more sensitive approach to ghosts in his “A Ghost.” When his macho military man encounters a spooky lady in her haunted bedroom, he shows that he’s marriage material by brushing her hair for her. Unfortunately, she’s a hideous ghost and he winds up with her ghastly ghost hair stuck all over his clothes.
The most physical, and maybe best, of the macho ghost writers is W.F. Harvey. Relatively forgotten today, he’s one of those authors whose short stories are the uncut Bolivian marching powder of ghost stories. A Quaker, he drove an ambulance in WWI and received numerous medals as well as lung damage thanks to oil fumes he inhaled during a rescue operation leading him, like most of these guys, to die at the relatively early age of 52 (Perceval Landon: 59; Fitz-James O’Brien: 34; Guy de Maupassant: 42; only M.R. James made it to retirement, dying at 73 years old). Writing dozens upon dozens of very short stories, Harvey’s unadorned, straightforward style removes any barrier between the reader and the events being described. With James horror is always happening to some dry academic, but with Harvey horror is always sitting next to us in the chair.
Ranging from ghost stories, to monster stories, to occult stories, and even to psychological horror, Harvey spans the spectrum. “The Dabblers” is about a cult of schoolboy Satanists, “The Habeas Corpus Club” is about a club for forgotten fictional murder victims whose deaths launched some master sleuth on an epic adventure, and “The Tool” is about a man who loses a day of his life and can’t remember it. His most famous story is the downright Poe-esque “August Heat,” about an artist who comes across a tombstone carver. The artist has randomly drawn the sculptor in court, the sculptor has carved a tombstone for the artist, and now they’re locked in a no-win situation. It’s grim stuff that stinks of obsessive madness, executed in a tight 1750 words. “The Clock” is a more traditional ghost story, about a man who has to retrieve a clock from an empty house and is stalked by…something. A ghost chicken? Nevertheless, it is a very scary ghost chicken. But nothing is more famous than Harvey’s “The Beast with Five Fingers” about a hell hand that crawls out of Hades bent on destruction! Made into a film four times (once by Oliver Stone), it’s full of macho physicality as two men try to beat, nail, stab, and burn the poor hand to death.
No talk about macho ghost stories would be complete without mentioning the manliest of them all, Algernon Blackwood. Occultist, outdoorsman, and male model who was once framed for arson, Blackwood’s stories like “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” are full of camping and clean outdoor air. But one of his best stories flies in the face of all this, and features nothing more manly than running away. In “The Empty House” a young man and his spiritualist aunt decide to investigate a haunted house because why not? That’s pretty macho. What they find inside sends them running. Not so macho after all. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s very un-manly, but, like James, the mere appearance of an apparition is the source of terror, and it’s pretty terrifying. Worse than that, the greatest threat these ghosts possess is that at any moment they might reach out and touch you. And as we all know, being touched is the scariest thing of all.
Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.