Friday, April 27, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #10: A review of "The Whistling Room" by William Hope Hodgson
Here we come to another of the big hitters. Back in the days of the pulps, writers made names for themselves with recurring characters. Normally, they fell into the category of mysteries because such a character was usually a detective, or a crime-fighter of some kind. They would be the literary grandparents of the superheroes in comic books. Folks like Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, and so on.
But horror had their fair share of such characters, most notably the protagonist of this story. While Hodgson will most likely be remembered for THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLANDS in the long run, he most certainly earned a place in horror fans’ hearts with Carnacki, a paranormal detective.
The story opens with him sitting at a party with the narrator and several others. He has a tale to tell, but unlike others of this kind, his story he's telling isn’t over yet. You see, he’s looking for advice, because this is a case that has finally stumped him. He’d just been to Ireland with a friend of his, Tassoc. Tassoc’s got a problem: he’s recently acquired a castle, and one of the rooms keeps emitting a horrible whistling sound. Surely enough, Carnacki investigates and hears an ear-piercing whistle coming from the empty room.
At first, he thinks it’s a hoax, and he digs deeply into every corner of the castle. He comes up with nothing. He tries a few hexes and warding spells, but nothing seems to stop the infernal noise coming from the whistling room.
He stops in the middle of the story because there’s nothing more to tell . . . yet. He doesn’t know what to do. But then, a fortnight later, he invites them all back to tell them about how it all ended, and he produces quite possibly one of the most chilling images so far in this volume.
He thinks to look through the window into the room, and he sees a puckered set of lips forcing the middle of the floor up, through which the horrible whistling comes. In all seriousness, this should be laughable, but Hodgson somehow manages to make it seem insidious.
The only problem is, the story doesn’t end with much of a bang, as most horror stories should. SPOILER ALERT: His solution is to bust up the room and burn everything in a furnace built in a pentacle. They do this without issue. However, when they do so, they discover some documentation as to why there was a pair of lips growing out of the floor, whistling incessantly. Naturally, it’s an ugly little story about an angry king who burned a jester alive for a betrayal. The jester whistled the whole time he burned in the fireplace of that room, defying the king with his very last breath. Pretty creepy, eh? END OF SPOILERS.
There is more to recommend this tale. In a pre-Lovecraft era, Hodgson made use of esoteric tomes and made references to paranormal things with strange names. He brings the level of the horror story up a notch until it’s almost like a science fiction story. Carnacki uses science to explain the supernatural. Very strange stuff for its day.
If you’re not familiar with Carnacki, you should make the time. Very few names in the genre are more recognized than his.
[This story first appeared in the March '10 issue of THE IDLER, and it can be read here.]