Book Review: The Damned
Continuing the Halloween theme …
Tales about haunted houses generally aren’t my favorite. Often, the images, themes, and scary bits are derivative of other stories. It takes a deft hand to infuse the right amount of creepiness into the familiar trope.
Two favorites are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting (with its house that is born evil) and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (while technically not a haunted house story, it is creepy that the house is larger on the inside than outside).
Another personal favorite is Algernon Blackwood’s The Damned (1914). Not much happens in terms of plot, but what makes the story special is the unsettling atmosphere of dread.
Siblings William and Frances visit their friend Mabel, a widow, at her mansion. The Towers, by all accounts, should be a peaceful place. It boasts large, comfortable rooms and a beautiful landscape. Yet something weird permeates the place. Neither William nor Frances feels at ease, and Mabel herself has become rather lifeless. None of them can put their finger on what makes the place so unsettling.
The haunting is distinctive in that it affects William, Frances, and Mabel differently. Mabel appears to be losing any vestige of personality, fading into a shadowy nonentity. Frances, meanwhile, finds that her paintings of the grounds are also capturing the inherent grotesqueness of the place. And William senses that gateways might open onto alternate landscapes.
Mabel’s deceased husband, Samuel, had been a fire-and-brimstone preacher who professed salvation, but only for those who shared his narrow views of right and wrong. Over the years, he had conducted many religious services on the grounds. Now William begins to suspect that the Towers are infected by Samuel’s fanatical religiosity.
William discerns that there are layers and layers of damned souls vying to escape their tortured existence. They are all pressing on the veil separating the spiritual realm from the real world – like too many people trying to fit through a narrow doorway. As a result, the Towers is becoming uninhabitable; no one feels safe there because the damned are all straining to capture your attention:
“House and grounds were not haunted merely; they were the arena of past thinking and feeling, perhaps of terrible, impure beliefs, each striving to suppress the others, yet no one of them achieving supremacy because no one of them was strong enough, no one of them was true. Each, moreover, tried to win me [William] over, though only one was able to reach my mind at all. For some obscure reason – possibly because my temperament had a natural bias towards the grotesque – it was the goblin layer. With me, it was the line of least resistance.”
Both William and Frances express a desire for the terror to finally erupt, if only for the relief. While William struggles to comprehend the nature of the haunting, it is Frances who articulates the complexity of it:
“’What is the world … but thinking and feeling? An individual’s world is entirely what that individual thinks and believes – interpretation. There is no other. And unless he really thinks and really believes, he has no permanent world at all…. Only the strong make their own things; the lesser fry.’”
Blackwood's crisp, efficient prose conveys the awful anticipation, the endless waiting. Ultimately, The Damned is a story about atmosphere rather than events. Blackwood acknowledges that there isn’t much story here: “It remains, therefore, not a story but a history. Nothing happened.” What might happen is where the horror comes in.
As H.P. Lovecraft writes of Blackwood’s stories: “Some of these accounts are hardly stories at all, but rather studies in elusive impressions and half-remembered dreams. Plot is everywhere negligible, and atmosphere remains untrammelled.”
The Damned may be pale by today's standards of horror, but it excels at how ghostly presences vie for dominance.