Continuing my reading of classic horror stories, this weekend I read The Signalman by Charles Dickens and The Black Seal by Arthur Machen. Very different stories but both nice and creepy.
The Signalman begins with an unnamed first person narrator out for a walk in the country. While passing a deep railway cutting (the valley like area in front of a tunnel), he spies a lone signalman standing near the tracks below and hails the man. The signalman's reaction is somewhat odd and the narrator decides to follow a path down to the signal box and talk to the man. It seems that the signalman has recently been seeing a strange apparition and he initially thought the narrator was the ghost appearing yet again. The ghost is a harbinger of sorts because every time it is seen some tragedy occurs. The story progresses from there to a macabre ending that leaves the reader wondering about the exact nature of the ghost.
It's a little odd that I've never read this story before since I'm a big fan of Dickens. Somehow it had slipped through though and in fact, I'd never heard of it until The Doctor mentioned it to Charles Dickens in an episode of the first season of the new Doctor Who series. I'd been meaning to track it down and fortunately for me it turned up in H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror. Yet another reason you should seek out that book on the bargain tables and Barnes & Noble.
And speaking of Lovecraft, The Black Seal is another of Arthur Machen's stories that shows just what a big influence Machen was on old H.P. In this one, a professor comes into possession of a small black stone covered with weird, untranslatable glyphs. He feels this 'black seal' is the key to a theory he has long been developing that the myths of elves and fairies and little people have a sinister root in reality. Tension and terror mount as the professor gathers more and more information that leads him to an isolated country village where people have mysteriously disappeared in the lonely hills. Machen uses various newspaper clippings and letters and such to move the story along and create verisimilitude, much as Lovecraft would later do in stories like The Call of Cthulhu and there's a character that turns out to be the spawn of a not quite human father, rather like Wilbur Whately in my personal favorite Lovecraft story, The Dunwich Horror. And of course, like the protagonist of most Lovecraft stories, the professor follows his obsession to a bad end proving once again that there are things you really shouldn't go looking for.
Not to go all Freudian but I couldn't help but notice that in The Black Seal, just as in The Great God Pan, there are once again terrible repercussions of someone having sex with someone outside their own race, or in this case, species. I don't know if this theme pops up in more of Machen's fiction but in these two tales he does seem to exhibit Victorian attitudes about race, women, sex, and repression. His writing was considered decadent in the late Victorian era, and it still carries considerable power to disturb. Interesting stuff.