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E. F. Benson's "The Horror-Horn"
This is from a series of 2-component posts that include, first, an excellent curated short story, and then an analysis of that story.
This story, “The Horror-Horn,” is yet another recommendation by Sandy Petersen, the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. It is the third of his October stories that I have read, and although it wasn’t as good as the first two, I still enjoyed it a lot.
Please read the story before proceeding. It can be found here. Content warning: this story includes mention of sexual violence.
Note: the first post in this series is here:
These excerpts will not offer as much to somebody who has not read the story.
A quick criticism: I am not certain what country this takes place in, so certain things are harder to visualize.
and every night the serene and windless frost had made the stars sparkle like illuminated diamond dust
What a pretty description! Furthermore, there’s some alliteration in there as well, giving the sentence an extra nice ring. This is part of the ‘nature is stunningly beautiful’ motif that will be violated later on.
"And yet you don't think that these naked human footprints were illusions," said I. "You told me you would have thought so, if you had not known better.
This is the stage of the story where we are building curiosity in the reader while simultaneously helping to make the story seem plausible.
A good approach is to have a skeptical and resistant narrator, and this is done here. Interestingly, we already have The Expert present to weigh in that The Bad Thing is real. This is done here much earlier than usual.
Does it pay off? It is refreshing in any case.
the austere cliffs of the Ungeheuerhorn: the Horror−Horn, as indeed it was to me.
Because the story is named after this. It is extra foreboding because it adds a touch of dramatic irony, and thus, suspense.
It was not because of the difficulty or danger of the climbing, for he was the most fearless man I have ever met when dealing with rocks and ice
A positive panic seized him, and I don't think he closed his eyes till morning
We have The Brave One Showing Fear, making it more credible that The Bad Thing really exists and is scary.
A note: naturally, these characters always refuse to say why they are afraid. Why is that, I wonder? Leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, I suspect, is the motive. Lovecraft certainly took this to the extreme and made it part of his trademark, but in this story, they will presently reveal the monster in detail.
They were dwarfs in size, four feet high or thereabouts, but of prodigious strength and agility, remnants of some wild primeval race
Young men also had been raped by them, to be mated with the females of their tribe.
This is that early 20th century pre-occupation with race and primitive offshoots of mankind. If only they knew where that pre-occupation would take the world only 15-20 years later… unfortunate.
Note: we are now in the mode of having one character recount a nested story to an outer story character. These stories within stories used to be common, but are less-so nowadays. I rather like it, but I don’t understand what it does. Perhaps, by doing so, it makes the world of the story appear to be larger than it would be otherwise?
the news of this had been handed down and was still current round the hearths of the peasants
Old stories often speak of peasants who have superstitions to share with modern people. I wonder: were peasants a common thing 120 years ago? We don’t use the term any more, but I suppose the idea of ‘peasants’ is helpful when you want superstitious locals available to tell you about The Bad Thing (so that the narrator can ignore them as part of the dramatic irony).
What is the less offensive, modern equivalent of this?
This man, he averred, was no other than his grand−father
Ie, much more reliable than ordinary hearsay
They had pursued his grandfather, then a young man, at an extraordinarily swift canter, running sometimes upright as men run, sometimes on all−fours in the manner of beasts, and their howls were just such as that we had heard that night in the Blumen hut. Such at any rate was the story Chanton told me, and, like you, I regarded it as the very moonshine of superstition.
First reaction was to visualize this, and it felt vivid and worrisome; my second reaction was to think, “but of course we don’t believe in such things.” Finally, my third reaction was to note that the storyteller agrees with this skepticism.
Well done. Do we now enter the manage-suspension-of-disbelief phase of the story?
But the very next day I had reason to reconsider my judgment about it.
I feel the professor is a mountain weirdo now, regardless of his expertise — but will I feel the same a page from now?
We hit on the long fissure I have spoken of, we explored the ledge which from below seemed to end in nothingness, and with an hour's stepcutting ascended the couloir which led upwards from it.
While difficult to follow, the vocabulary here feels convincing in that I believe the climbers are knowledgeable now. I’m not qualified to judge it, but the words feel right.
This reminds me of Doyle’s The White Company, that used period-vocabulary extensively to amazing effect. See the article below for extensive details!
I saw that which made it clear that the stories Chanton had told me were no figment of traditional superstition.
This sets up the next paragraph very nicely, which is:
Not twenty yards in front of me lay one of the beings of which he had spoken.
This feels extremely ominous, but why? I feel so worried!
Perhaps it is because I find it so easy to visualize these things due to comics and movies? These things feel so dangerous for some reason… the earlier descriptions maybe left a larger impression than I realized?
I can picture them so vividly as being extremely dense, muscular creatures.
Chanton was a dozen paces behind me, and with a backward wave of my hand I caused him to halt. Then withdrawing myself with infinite precaution, so as not to attract the gaze of that basking creature, I slipped back round the rock, whispered to him what I had seen, and with blanched faces we made a long detour, peering round every corner, and crouching low
That was slick. The story wouldn’t have worked otherwise.
Sane people do not go towards danger, they back away from it.
When I saw that creature sun itself, I looked into the abyss out of which we have crawled.
I was not sold on the ‘scary because it was a man’ narrative until here — what a great phrase, even though numerous authors from the time over-used it.
my cousin, on that day twenty years ago, had missed an opportunity for study which would probably never fall again either to him or another.
Interesting: the narrator is now a believer, but feels the case is one mostly of lost opportunity, and not of horror or danger (although he had nightmares).
I think this is a mistake, perhaps: the harder sell is that these things exist, and not whether they are dangerous or not. Since it’s so helpful for the narrator to feel the opposite as the reader about things, it may have been better for him to be skeptical of their existence, but appreciative of the danger if they did exist?
Otherwise, the reader feels skeptical about how this narrator’s mind works.
a letter from a friend (…) proposing that I should come over for a morning's skating and lunch afterwards
Now he’s in trouble. We are ready to watch him fall into it. Dramatic irony is creating a ton of suspense here.
made it needful to bar my mind against that despair of loneliness which so eats out the heart of a man who is lost in woods or on mountain−side, that, though still there is plenty of vigour in his limbs, his nervous force is sapped, and he can do no more than lie down and abandon himself to whatever fate may await him...
What great phrasing… it feels so vivid, and without using sensory words. ‘Nervous force is sapped’ would ordinarily be rather weak phrasing, but it is so powerful here.
Theory: this paragraph works because of how strongly a reader can identify with this feeling, and because it’s a feeling, ordinary descriptions are inadequate for it.
In other words, the author is speaking from the heart about what such a thing feels like, and his intuition translated it to the page.
the beauty of sun and stars and of the beasts of the field and the kindly race of men could not atone for so hellish an incarnation of the spirit of life
Says that mother nature, who we presume to be so beautiful, has a terribly ugly side as well. This is made all the more effective by the beautiful descriptions of the setting leading up to this.
A blow from its hindleg caught her withered thigh, and with a grunt of anger she seized the leg in her other hand, and…
This paragraph is utterly horrific! I cut the quote short to not spoil one of the hardest hitting parts of the story.
It is completely primal, muscular, and suggests how helpless we would be in this situation. I feel almost in danger myself, hah.
there was no safety until I was back among the haunts of men. I flung myself against the door of the hotel, and screamed for admittance, though I had but to turn the handle and enter
The contrast between safe and warm humanity, and the cold, dangerous mountains, is vivid.
That is all the corroboration of my story that I can give the reader, and for myself I imagine that the creature which pursued me was either not killed by my blow or that her fellows removed her body ... Anyhow, it is open to the incredulous to prowl about the caves of the Ungeheuerhorn, and see if anything occurs that may convince them.
The story ends with the narrator wishing he could convince others of what he’d seen.
5300 words or so, so that means I’m reading about 91 wpm while taking notes
The author seems to have passed away in 1940 I think, and the story might be from 1923?
The chase sequence near the end of the story… I found boring. The narrator would surely live, due to the mode of storytelling, and there was no suspense in the chase. The story did not progress, and that section felt only like an extended span of flavour. If nothing else, it could have been shortened.
I have been writing for 20 years and I still have a lot to learn. If you are also studying writing, why not join me? Issues come out once per week, and I love discussing these topics with people!