In my favourite works of horror and supernatural fiction, the landscape itself is at least as important as whatever beasts or phantoms may roam across it. From the deserted strands of MR James to the Danube of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows", there seems to be a deeper resonance to those stories in which location is a junction between the mundane and the weird. HP Lovecraft, the American writer who, in a flurry of activity in the mid-1920s, defined the "Cthulhu Mythos" – a series of interconnected stories that Luc Sante has called "a sort of unified field theory of horror" – is particularly good at this. In his best stories, his descriptions of landscape are so meticulous that their woods and valleys are loaded with menace long before anything shambles or crawls through them.
The vast wastes and visibly ancient geology of Antarctica are fundamental to Lovecraft's long story "At the Mountains of Madness". In "The Whisperer in Darkness", the evocation of rural Vermont's "unfrequented hills" and lonely farmhouses are the story's highlight. But supreme within Lovecraft's work is his own invented corner of New England, Arkham (based on Salem and "full of witch legends") and the surrounding Miskatonic Valley. It's here, and to the economically but indelibly drawn landscape of "The Colour Out of Space", that I most often return, especially at this time of year. Just consider the story's opening sentences:
West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glimpse of sunlight.
At Halloween, what reader could resist turning the page?
The narrator of this 1927 story is a surveyor, taking measurements for a new reservoir. Folklore has it that the hills and vales he's visiting are "evil", and on arrival he can see why. The trees "grew too thickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood. There was too much silence in the dim alleys between them, and the floor was too soft with the dank moss and mattings of infinite years of decay." The epicentre of this bleak zone is a "blasted heath", "five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a grey spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields". At the centre of this stand the remains of a house and a stagnant well.
Intrigued, he unearths vague stories about a family, the Gardners, that "had disappeared or was killed" in the 1880s. He then tracks down Ammi Pierce, a local whose old house stands "where the trees first begin to get thick". There the narrator hears a story about a meteorite and the after-effects of its impact that makes him resign his post, so intent is he on never returning to that "dim chaos of old forest and slope". I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it, but a compelling feature of the story is the way in which contamination spreads through the land to which this farming community is tied. First the fruit of Nahum Gardner's orchard spoils, then the wildlife in the area begins to grow misshapen, "in a queer way impossible to describe". Those last three words are very important: elsewhere in his work, Lovecraft does sometimes strain to describe, which pushes a fair proportion of his stories past horror into ludicrousness. Here, by contrast, when Nahum Gardner's wife is driven mad by trees that move on windless nights, and the shifting windows and walls of her house, she screams "about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns."
Lovecraft's prose can be riper than corpses, but in "The Colour Out of Space" he displays an uncommon degree of control. Here, the most extraordinarily disquieting phrases bloom beside one another. On a single page we are told that the Gardners' pigs "began growing grey and brittle and falling to pieces before they died"; that the Gardners themselves, driven almost beyond reason, shambled about with a "stolid resignation about them all, as if they walked half in another world between lines of nameless guards to a certain and familiar doom"; and that, simply and unsparingly, "Thaddeus went mad in September after a visit to the well".
It was with the composition of "The Call of Cthulhu" in 1926 that Lovecraft began the story sequence, of which "The Colour Out of Space" is one, that encompasses his conception of "cosmic horror". These works, responding to Darwin, Freud, and the anthropology of James George Frazer, engage with the dethroning of anthropocentrism. Lovecraft's terrifying extraterrestrials position humans as one, very inferior race among many, and show life to be a short, fraught struggle on the lip of a void. His strikingly evoked landscapes are, finally, just strips on the fringe of oblivion. As Lovecraft's biographer ST Joshi has it, "whereas most of the religions and mythologies in human history seek to reconcile human beings with the cosmos by depicting a close, benign relationship between man and God, Lovecraft's pseudo-mythology brutally shows that man is not the centre of the universe, that the "gods" care nothing for him, and that the earth and all its inhabitants are but a momentary incident in the unending cyclical chaos of the universe". Happy Halloween.
Do I believe in ghosts? I don’t know. I believe in atmospheres engendered by people who are long gone; in auras retained in places where folk have been deeply affected; that profound emotions hang around, caught in corners of buildings, trapped in groves of trees. I can enter one house and immediately feel welcome before meeting its occupants; in another home the back of my neck tingles with unexplained unease.
Is our family ghost story explained by such sensibilities? Perhaps.
Our house on Clinton Heights Avenue was a friendly place. We had looked at dozens of smarter, tidier houses two years earlier. Many of them we thought we might have been able to call home, but knew we would have to work at it. We walked into Number 116 and could see the five of us settling in. We loved the deep two-leveled backyard with its dozen elms that had defied Dutch elm disease—a garden far too shady to grow anything. The house itself was old and shabby but bright with sunshine, and spacious enough for three children, two adults, and a mixed-breed pup. Three bedrooms; a dining room with French doors onto the yard; one inadequate bathroom with tub but no shower; a living room with a fireplace in which no fire could be lit; a small but efficient kitchen; and a mudroom, above which was a sleeping porch—furnished with a full-sized creaking metal bedstead—among the elm branches.
In the summer of 1970, my husband and our five-year-old James departed for Europe for two months. It was hot and humid as is usual for late June in Columbus, Ohio. I moved myself from the master bedroom onto the sleeping porch, where screened windows captured the slightest breeze. I lay naked, limbs spread wide on damp sheets. I slept well, not unpleasantly exhausted by two active children.
I think it was midweek, a night like any other. Before going to bed I checked on the children. They shared a room: Kate, aged four, and Simon—still occupying a crib—almost two. In light pajamas but bedclothes tossed aside, they exuded the salty smell of baby sweat, sticky curls plastered to foreheads. The window fan hush-hush-hushed.
At about two o’clock, I woke suddenly, violently. I sat up, heart pounding. Overpowering dread made breathing difficult. I had always thought that “night terror” was an alternative name for nightmare. Now I thought again, for this was different. I had no crazy dream-happening on which to hang my fear. My nakedness felt vulnerable. I pulled on a nightdress and lay down again, eyes wide open trying to pierce the darkness.
About ten minutes later, Kate screamed—a single terrified shriek. I shot out of bed, and ran to her. She was sitting up, her small body rigid. I picked her up, glanced at Simon, who was sleeping soundly, security blanket in one hand, two fingers thrust in his mouth. I tiptoed with my daughter in my arms out to the porch.
“What woke you, Katie love?”
Quivering, clinging, staring over my shoulder: “I don’t know.”
“A bad dream?”
She shook her head emphatically. I put her down on my bed, climbed in beside her and turned on the bedside lamp. Her shaking slowly subsided.
But then, suddenly, Simon: “No!” he was screaming. “No! No!” Clutching the hem of my nightdress in one hand Kate followed me to him. He was standing in one corner of the crib, shrinking back from something only he could see at the other end.
But he wasn’t even two. He couldn’t tell me. He held up his arms to be saved, and I snatched him out of there. I saw lying on the mattress his wooden crocodile—a strange painted toy from which he would not be separated, although it was a hard and knobby bedfellow.
“Did your crocodile bump you?”
“No! No! No!” he sobbed. His pajamas were wringing wet with sweat that smelled sour and strange.
“Tell you what,” I said, trying to be matter-of-fact, “We’ll all sleep in my bed and we’ll keep the light on.” I thought it best not to admit my own fear. I had another idea: “Let’s call Jan upstairs. Dogs are good at comforting.”
The young dog usually slept in the mudroom. When it was hot she often went down to the basement. She was allowed upstairs only as a treat. She would surely be delighted to be invited in the middle of the night. We went to the stairs and I called her. We heard her eager and still uncoordinated gallop coming up from the basement. She hesitated at the bottom of the stairs to confirm that I really meant it. “Come Jan, good dog!” She pounded enthusiastically up the first part of the stairway. Three-quarters of the way up was a landing, at which point the stairs turned a right angle. Here she stopped. Her plume of a tail lowered slowly.
“Here, Jan. It’s OK.”
On her belly she crawled the last steps, slower and slower. She reached us. She was shivering and whining. Suddenly she cringed, urinated copiously, turned with her tail wrapped between her legs, and ran back downstairs.
Stunned and wordless, I cleaned up her puddle. Then we all got into my bed. The children soon settled. I stayed awake until the sky lightened.
As the sun rose, I knew the house had resumed its usual benevolent disposition. The vapor, or misery, or malevolence that had passed through our rooms was gone.
Except that Simon refused to get into his crib next night, and I had to scramble to set up a bed for him; except that for at least two years he needed somebody’s hand—usually Kate’s—to hold until he fell asleep; except that he needed a nightlight for the next ten years of his life, everything was normal again. Indeed, as long as we lived there, Number 116 never entertained another evil presence.
This should be the end of the story. But, a year later, friends came to stay with a baby. We brought out Simon’s old crib and assembled it in the room in which our visitors were to sleep. Simon was intrigued. He asked if he could get into the crib. Surprised, I picked him up and popped him in. He stood there a bare ten seconds. Then, without a word and with amazing agility for a three-year-old, he vaulted over the railing. He hit the wooden floor with a thump and started crying. I thought he must be hurt and took him in my arms to comfort him. But that wasn’t it.
“I remember!” he whispered.
“What do you mean? What do you remember?”
“The hands!” he said. He was now old enough to have the words to describe what he had seen that June night. He told me of hands, long gray hands reaching through the bars of the crib to take him away. He was quite specific and clear about it. He still is, forty years later.
Do I believe in ghosts? I wish I knew.
Ann Elliot was born (1937), educated, and married in England. In 1967 she moved to Ohio with her family. Her husband is a geology professor (now emeritus) at Ohio State University. With a degree in pathology, Ann worked in medical research until the mid 1980s, and then began a freelance career writing and editing medical literature and history. Creative writing has been central to her life since childhood. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals. A biography, Charming the Bones; a Portrait of Margaret Matthew Colbert, was published by Kent State University Press in 2000. Music has also been important in her life. She plays viola in a community orchestra and in a string quartet; and plays piano for her own pleasure. She also enjoys gardening, photography, and exploring the wild places of North America.