It was my son-in-law (a science-fiction fan) who found a reprint of Willam Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) while we were on holiday at Hay-on-Wye.
I pounced on it, and he kindly let me have first read of the stories. These are highly entertaining examples of pure hokum that on occasion manage to be genuinely chilling. Hodgson has the knack of racking up the suspense unbearably as his ghost-hunting hero sits inside his electric pentacle, waiting for some nameless horror to appear.
The stories mostly figure the return of malevolent spirits connected to objects and places by acts of ancient cruelty; they manage to be chilling even when the details are ludicrous. The Whistling Room (the best of them, I think) maintains its horror despite Carnacki’s strategy of protecting himself against evil sounds by sticking cloves of garlic in his ears.
I decided to find out more about Hodgson (1877-1918) and discovered that on the outbreak of War in 1914, he enlisted, becoming a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. In 1916 he suffered a head injury when thrown from a horse, and left the Army. He later re-enlisted, however, and was killed at Ypres in 1918.
A little more research led me to an extraordinary piece of his writing, first published in 1908, in the New Age; in this, his talent for the horrific is turned to a satirical end. It is called Date 1965: Modern Warfare, and takes the form of a parliamentary speech supposedly given in what was then the distant future. Mr John Russell, M.P. proposes a new scheme for rationalising war:
Given the fact that there is, and seems likely yet awhile to be, a need for human butchering; then in the name of any small fragment of common sense we may possess, let us put the thing on a saner, more business-like footing – And Save The Meat!
In the case of international conflict, the two countries involved each send an army of men (dressed in butchers’ overalls and armed with butchers’ knives and steels) to try to slaughter the opposition. The survivors would be declared the winners and:
The slaying over, the meat would be packed and sold by the winning side to defray expenses, in this wise minimising a somewhat unpleasant but – according to many learned men – a very necessary and honourable business.
The meat should sell well, for I can imagine that there should be considerable satisfaction in eating one’s enemy; moreover I am told that it is a very old custom.
I would suggest, in closing, that the butchers receive instruction from the Head Butchers in the proper methods of killing. At the moment there is more science in destroying bullocks quickly and comfortably than in performing the same office for their fellows. If a man must be killed, at least let him be treated no more barbarously than a bullock. Further, they would have to learn, when killing, not to spoil the joints. Let every man understand his trade!
During his time amid the waste and cruelty of Ypres, maybe Hodgson found the memory of this modest proposal coming back to haunt him.