Homefront Horrors: Frights Away From the Front Lines, 1914-1918

Homefront Horrors: Frights Away From the Front Lines, 1914-1918

by Jess Nevins


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The anxiety and dread of wartime Britain is recaptured in this anthology of horror stories and supernatural fiction dating from 1914 – 18. Rather than taking war as their theme, the tales offer readers escapist fare populated by ghosts, ghouls, and other malevolent spirits. Written amid the golden age of horror fiction — the decades between the turn of the twentieth century and 1940, when tales of terror and the weird flourished — these stories constitute forgotten gems by neglected masters.
Seventeen tales include Max Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames," in which an obscure poet makes a deal with the devil and travels forward in time to discover history's verdict of his work; "Laura," by Saki, a witty and moving perspective on death and loss that recounts a dead woman's reincarnation as an animal that plagues her friends; "The Three Sisters," by W. W. Jacobs, author of "The Monkey's Paw," involving a plot to expedite an inheritance by simulating a ghostly visitation; "The Pavilion," by E. Nesbit, in which a pair of romantic rivals challenge each other to spend the night at a haunted pavilion; and "The King Waits," Clemence Dane's account of the final five minutes before Anne Boleyn's execution. Additional stories include the works of Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Lord Dunsany, and others.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486809076
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 10/20/2016
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Boston native Jess Nevis is the author of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana as well as other works on Victoriana and pulp fiction.

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Homefront Horrors

Frights Away From the Front Lines 1914â"1918

By Jess Nevins

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81630-2



Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951)

Algernon Blackwood should be familiar to readers of this anthology. He was famous during his lifetime for his pantheistic fantasies (The Centaur (1911), Pan's Garden (1912)) and his children's books (Jimbo (1909), Sambo and Snitch (1927)) as well as his radio broadcasts, in which he told radio-formatted versions of his best stories. Since his death he has become known as one of the best writers of supernatural fiction of his day, author of classics like "The Willows" (1907), "The Wendigo" (1910), and the landmark occult detective collection John Silence — Physician Extraordinary (1908).

Blackwood's life makes for a good story, though not as frightening as his horror stories: hardships as a young man in Canada and New York City; travels through remote sections of northern Canada, the Caucasus mountains, and down the Danube; several years' experiences with the occult group The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; a broken heart when his "soul mate" married someone else; work as an intelligence agent and Red Cross volunteer during World War One; and eventual success and stability in his sixties in his radio career.

"The Wings of Horus" comes from Blackwood's Egyptian phase, from his time spent there in 1914, although it was not published until his Day And Night Stories (1917). Blackwood was much inspired by Egyptian culture and philosophy, and wrote a number of stories while there. "The Wings of Horus" is generally regarded as the best of the bunch, and one of Blackwood's best overall, what Blackwood biographer Mike Ashley calls "both a beautiful love story and an awesome story of power and belief."

Binovitch had the bird in him somewhere: in his features, certainly, with his piercing eye and hawk-like nose; in his movements, with his quick way of flitting, hopping, darting; in the way he perched on the edge of a chair; in the manner he pecked at his food; in his twittering, high-pitched voice as well; and, above all, in his mind. He skimmed all subjects and picked their heart out neatly, as a bird skims lawn or air to snatch its prey. He had the bird's-eye view of everything. He loved birds and understood them instinctively; could imitate their whistling notes with astonishing accuracy. Their one quality he had not was poise and balance. He was a nervous little man; he was neurasthenic. And he was in Egypt by doctor's orders.

Such imaginative, unnecessary ideas he had! Such uncommon beliefs!

"The old Egyptians," he said laughingly, yet with a touch of solemn conviction in his manner, "were a great people. Their consciousness was different from ours. The bird idea, for instance, conveyed a sense of deity to them — of bird deity, that is: they had sacred birds — hawks, ibis, and so forth — and worshiped them." And he put his tongue out as though to say with challenge, "Ha, ha!"

"They also worshiped cats and crocodiles and cows," grinned Palazov. Binovitch seemed to dart across the table at his adversary. His eyes flashed; his nose pecked the air. Almost one could imagine the beating of his angry wings.

"Because everything alive," he half screamed, "was a symbol of some spiritual power to them. Your mind is as literal as a dictionary and as incoherent. Pages of ink without connected meaning! Verb always in the infinitive! If you were an old Egyptian, you — you —" he flashed and spluttered, his tongue shot out again, his keen eyes blazed — "you might take all those words and spin them into a great interpretation of life, a cosmic romance, as they did. Instead, you get the bitter, dead taste of ink in your mouth, and spit it over us like that" — he made a quick movement of his whole body as a bird that shakes itself — "in empty phrases."

Khilkof ordered another bottle of champagne, while Vera, his sister, said half nervously, "Let's go for a drive; it's moonlight." There was enthusiasm at once. Another of the party called the head-waiter and told him to pack food and drink in baskets. It was only eleven o'clock. They would drive out into the desert, have a meal at two in the morning, tell stories, sing, and see the dawn.

It was in one of those cosmopolitan hotels in Egypt which attract the ordinary tourists as well as those who are doing a "cure," and all these Russians were ill with one thing or another. All were ordered out for their health, and all were the despair of their doctors. They were as unmanageable as a bazaar and as incoherent. Excess and bed were their routine. They lived, but none of them got better. Equally, none of them got angry. They talked in this strange personal way without a shred of malice or offense. The English, French, and Germans in the hotel watched them with remote amazement, referring to them as "that Russian lot." Their energy was elemental. They never stopped. They merely disappeared when the pace became too fast, then reappeared again after a day or two, and resumed their "living" as before. Binovitch, despite his neurasthenia, was the life of the party. He was also a special patient of Dr. Plitzinger, the famous psychiatrist, who took a peculiar interest in his case. It was not surprising. Binovitch was a man of unusual ability and of genuine, deep culture. But there was something more about him that stimulated curiosity. There was this striking originality. He said and did surprising things.

"I could fly if I wanted to," he said once when the airmen came to astonish the natives with their biplanes over the desert, "but without all that machinery and noise. It's only a question of believing and understanding —"

"Show us!" they cried. "Let's see you fly!"

"He's got it! He's off again! One of his impossible moments."

These occasions when Binovitch let himself go always proved wildly entertaining. He said monstrously incredible things as though he really did believe them. They loved his madness, for it gave them new sensations.

"It's only levitation, after all, this flying," he exclaimed, shooting out his tongue between the words, as his habit was when excited; "and what is levitation but a power of the air? None of you can hang an orange in space for a second, with all your scientific knowledge; but the moon is always levitated perfectly. And the stars. D'you think they swing on wires? What raised the enormous stones of ancient Egypt? D'you really believe it was heaped-up sand and ropes and clumsy leverage and all our weary and laborious mechanical contrivances? Bah! It was levitation. It was the powers of the air. Believe in those powers, and gravity becomes a mere nursery trick — true where it is, but true nowhere else. To know the fourth dimension is to step out of a locked room and appear instantly on the roof or in another country altogether. To know the powers of the air, similarly, is to annihilate what you call weight — and fly."

"Show us, show us!" they cried, roaring with delighted laughter.

"It's a question of belief," he repeated, his tongue appearing and disappearing like a pointed shadow. "It's in the heart; the power of the air gets into your whole being. Why should I show you? Why should I ask my deity to persuade your scoffing little minds by any miracle? For it is deity, I tell you, and nothing else. I know it. Follow one idea like that, as I follow my bird idea, — follow it with the impetus and undeviating concentration of a projectile, — and you arrive at power. You know deity — the bird idea of deity, that is. They knew that. The old Egyptians knew it."

"Oh, show us, show us!" they shouted impatiently, wearied of his nonsense-talk. "Get up and fly! Levitate yourself, as they did! Become a star!"

Binovitch turned suddenly very pale, and an odd light shone in his keen brown eyes. He rose slowly from the edge of the chair where he was perched. Something about him changed. There was silence instantly.

"I will show you," he said calmly, to their intense amazement; "not to convince your disbelief, but to prove it to myself. For the powers of the air are with me here. I believe. And Horus, great falcon-headed symbol, is my patron god."

The suppressed energy in his voice and manner was indescribable. There was a sense of lifting, upheaving power about him. He raised his arms; his face turned upward; he inflated his lungs with a deep, long breath, and his voice broke into a kind of singing cry, half-prayer, half-chant:

"O Horus,
Bright-eyed deity of wind,
Feather my soul
Through earth's thick air,
To know thy awful swiftness —"

He broke off suddenly. He climbed lightly and swiftly upon the nearest table — it was in a deserted card-room, after a game in which he had lost more pounds than there are days in the year — and leaped into the air. He hovered a second, spread his arms and legs in space, appeared to float a moment, then buckled, rushed down and forward, and dropped in a heap upon the floor, while every one roared with laughter.

But the laughter died out quickly, for there was something in his wild performance that was peculiar and unusual. It was uncanny, not quite natural. His body had seemed, as with Mordkin and Nijinski, literally to hang upon the air a moment. For a second he gave the distressing impression of overcoming gravity. There was a touch in it of that faint horror which appalls by its very vagueness. He picked himself up unhurt, and his face was as grave as a portrait in the academy, but with a new expression in it that everybody noticed with this strange, half-shocked amazement. And it was this expression that extinguished the claps of laughter as wind that takes away the sound of bells. Like many ugly men, he was an inimitable actor, and his facial repertory was endless and incredible. But this was neither acting nor clever manipulation of expressive features. There was something in his curious Russianphysiognomy that made the heart beat slower. And that was why the laughter died away so suddenly.

"You ought to have flown farther," cried someone. It expressed what all had felt.

"Icarus didn't drink champagne," another replied, with a laugh; but nobody laughed with him.

"You went too near to Vera," said Palazov, "and passion melted the wax." But his face twitched oddly as he said it. There was something he did not understand, and so heartily disliked.

The strange expression on the features deepened. It was arresting in a disagreeable, almost in a horrible, way. The talk stopped dead; all stared; there was a feeling of dismay in everybody's heart, yet unexplained. Some lowered their eyes, or else looked stupidly elsewhere; but the women of the party felt a kind of fascination. Vera, in particular, could not move her sight away. The joking reference to his passionate admiration for her passed unnoticed. There was a general and individual sense of shock. And a chorus of whispers rose instantly:

"Look at Binovitch! What's happened to his face?"

"He's changed — he's changing!"

"God! Why he looks like a — bird!"

But no one laughed. Instead, they chose the names of birds — hawk, eagle, even owl. The figure of a man leaning against the edge of the door, watching them closely, they did not notice. He had been passing down the corridor, had looked in unobserved, and then had paused. He had seen the whole performance. He watched Binovitch narrowly, now with calm, discerning eyes. It was Dr. Plitzinger, the great psychiatrist.

For Binovitch had picked himself up from the floor in a way that was oddly self-possessed, and precluded the least possibility of the ludicrous. He looked neither foolish nor abashed. He looked surprised, but also he looked half angry and half frightened. As some one had said, he "ought to have flown farther." That was the incredible impression his acrobatics had produced — incredible, yet somehow actual. This uncanny idea prevailed, as at a séance where nothing genuine is expected to happen, and something genuine, after all, does happen. There was no pretense in this: Binovitch had flown.

And now he stood there, white in the face — with terror and with anger white. He looked extraordinary, this little, neurasthenic Russian, but he looked at the same time half terrific. Another thing, not commonly experienced by men, was in him, breaking out of him, affecting directly the minds of his companions. His mouth opened; blood and fury shone in his blazing eyes; his tongue shot out like an ant-eater's, though even in that the comic had no place. His arms were spread like flapping wings, and his voice rose dreadfully:

"He failed me, he failed me!" he tried to bellow. "Horus, my falcon-headed deity, my power of the air, deserted me! Hell take him! Hell burn his wings and blast his piercing sight! Hell scorch him into dust for his false prophecies! I curse him, I curse Horus!"

The voice that should have roared across the silent room emitted, instead, this high-pitched, bird-like scream. The added touch of sound, the reality it lent, was ghastly. Yet it was marvelously done and acted. The entire thing was a bit of instantaneous inspiration — his voice, his words, his gestures, his whole wild appearance. Only — here was the reality that caused the sense of shock — the expression on his altered features was genuine. That was not assumed. There was something new and alien in him, something cold and difficult to human life, something alert and swift and cruel, of another element than earth. A strange, rapacious grandeur had leaped upon the struggling features. The face looked hawk-like.

And he came forward suddenly and sharply toward Vera, whose fixed, staring eyes had never once ceased watching him with a kind of anxious and devouring pain in them. She was both drawn and beaten back. Binovitch advanced on tiptoe. No doubt he still was acting, still pretending this mad nonsense that he worshiped Horus, the falcon-headed deity of forgotten days, and that Horus had failed him in his hour of need; but somehow there was just a hint of too much reality in the way he moved and looked. The girl, a little creature, with fluffy golden hair, opened her lips; her cigarette fell to the floor; she shrank back; she looked for a moment like some smaller, colored bird trying to escape from a great pursuing hawk; she screamed. Binovitch, his arms wide, his bird-like face thrust forward, had swooped upon her. He leaped. Almost he caught her.

No one could say exactly what happened. Play, become suddenly and unexpectedly too real, confuses the emotions. The change of key was swift. From fun to terror is a dislocating jolt upon the mind. Some one — it was Khilkof, the brother — upset a chair; everybody spoke at once; everybody stood up. An unaccountable feeling of disaster was in the air, as with those drinkers' quarrels that blaze out from nothing, and end in a pistol-shot and death, no one able to explain clearly how it came about. It was the silent, watching figure in the doorway who saved the situation. Before any one had noticed his approach, there he was among the group, laughing, talking, applauding — between Binovitch and Vera. He was vigorously patting his patient on the back, and his voice rose easily above the general clamor. He was a strong, quiet personality; even in his laughter there was authority. And his laughter now was the only sound in the room, as though by his mere presence peace and harmony were restored. Confidence came with him. The noise subsided; Vera was in her chair again. Khilkof poured out a glass of wine for the great man.

"The Czar!" said Plitzinger, sipping his champagne, while all stood up, delighted with his compliment and tact. "And to your opening night with the Russian ballet," he added quickly a second toast, "or to your first performance at the Moscow Theatre des Arts!" Smiling significantly, he glanced at Binovitch; he clinked glasses with him. Their arms were already linked, but it was Palazov who noticed that the doctor's fingers seemed rather tight upon the creased black coat. All drank, looking with laughter, yet with a touch of respect toward Binovitch, who stood there dwarfed beside the stalwart German, and suddenly as meek and subdued as any mole. Apparently the abrupt change of key had taken his mind successfully off something else.

"Of course — 'The Fire-Bird,'" exclaimed the little man, mentioning the famous Russian ballet. "The very thing!" he exclaimed. "For us," he added, looking with devouring eyes at Vera. He was greatly pleased. He began talking vociferously about dancing and the rationale of dancing. They told him he was an undiscovered master. He was delighted. He winked at Vera and touched her glass again with his. "We'll make our debut together," he cried. "We'll begin at Covent Garden in London. I'll design the dresses and the posters —'The Hawk and the Dove!' Magnifique! I in dark gray, and you in blue and gold! Ah, dancing, you know, is sacred. The little self is lost, absorbed. It is ecstasy, it is divine. And dancing in air — the passion of the birds and stars — ah! they are the movements of the gods. You know deity that way — by living it."


Excerpted from Homefront Horrors by Jess Nevins. Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Introduction by Jess Nevins
The Wings of Horus by Algernon Blackwood
Laura by Saki
The Place of Pain by M. P. Shiel
The Three Sisters by W. W. Jacobs
An Episode of Cathedral History by M. R. James
The Pavilion by E. Nesbit
Not on the Passenger List by Barry Pain
The Liqueur Glass by Phyllis Bottome
The Pin-Prick by May Sinclair
Thirteen at Table by Lord Dunsany
The Bird by Thomas Burke
Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm
The Ghoul by Hugh Clifford
Powers of the Air by J. D. Beresford
Old Fags by Stacy Aumonier
The Separate Room by Ethel Coburn Mayne
The King Waits by Clemence Dane

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