The famed H.P. Lovecraft was not only a masterful author of horror fiction, he was also a connoisseur of it. He eagerly snapped up volumes, new and old, seeking the best work of the genre, both famous and obscure. His research culminated in his famous essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, first published in 1927 and revised in 1934.
Not all of Lovecraft’s favorite works made it into his essay, but nevertheless many of them have been reprinted in recent years as the Lovecraft’s Library series by Hippocampus Press (though not all). I’ve reviewed a number of these works — The Shadowy Thing, The Place Called Dagon, The Metal Monster — and recently got around to reading one of the most recent releases in the series, Barry Pain’s The Undying Thing and Others:
This volume collects all of the shorter weird fiction of Barry Pain (1864-1928), including the novel The Shadow of the Unseen, coauthored with James Blyth.
Pain’s work is not the best of that praised by H.P. Lovecraft, but it contains a few surprisingly effective stories that hit home for me.
Like many of the early greats, Pain’s primary occupation was not horror writing. He was a journalist and writer of comic stories and was a contributor to the famous satirical magazine Punch. Nevertheless, he generated a large body of weird and supernatural fiction work, much of which is contained in the Hippocampus Press collection. The collection includes stories from the volumes Stories in the Dark (1901), Here and Hereafter (1911), Stories in Grey (1912), as well as the 1907 The Shadow of the Unseen. Not included is Pain’s novel An Exchange of Souls (1911), which I will return to in another post, and An Octave of Claudius (1897), which was turned into the 1922 silent horror film A Blind Bargain starring Lon Chaney. This film is now considered to be forever lost, the surviving negatives destroyed.
But what of Pain’s stories? I found them of rather uneven quality, and overall it took me quite some time to make my way through the collection. Nevertheless, there are some really excellent works:
- Exchange. A young girl out to ice skate encounters a supernatural being, and she is forced to make a choice that will not only affect her life but others that she cares about.
- The Moon-slave. A disconsolate princess enters a forbidden maze and makes an impetuous wish to the moon — her wish is granted, but it comes with a price that must be paid.
- The Bottom of the Gulf. The real story about a legendary Roman soldier who rode his horse into a chasm to save Rome.
- The Undying Thing. Sir Edric murdered his first wife when he became tired of her, and as an apparent supernatural punishment, his second wife gives birth to a monstrous child. The creature is isolated from the world in a remote ruin; decades later, it returns to fulfill an ancient curse and end Sir Edric’s family lineage.
- The Tree of Death. For the love of a woman, a young man sets out on a quest to acquire a seed from the Tree of Death, which legend says will grow in a single day and seek a life to claim for the next day. Events do not go as planned, with horrifying consequences.
One thing that Pain captures remarkably well is sheer malevolence. The villains in a number of the stories show a shocking hatred of their victims, all the more because it is seemingly quite random. This is most explicit in Exchange, which genuinely disturbed me, but is evident in other tales as well. Curiously, I can’t think of another horror author off the top of my head that has captured quite as dramatic a sense of personal hate.
The Shadow of the Unseen, the novel included in the collection, is a curious but less effective example of this theme of hatred. Linda Merle, a young woman finally come of age and free to wander, chooses to visit her family’s ancestral home of Merlesfleet. Once there, she runs afoul of Judith Jennis, the resident witch, who seeks to wreak revenge on Linda for an ancient grievance. Linda’s friends and family seek to protect her from the insidious machinations of Jennis and her demonic black goat.
The story is a rather “slow burn,” carrying relatively few dramatic events and coming across as as much romantic drama as horror. One thing that intrigues me about the story, though, is the flirtatious relationship that Linda has with her older female friend Mrs. Devigny — I can’t decide if Pain is implying that there is more to Devigny’s affections beyond friendship.
Of Pain’s work, Lovecraft singled out The Undying Thing as a story of particular note, saying* of it, “Ugh! I really half-believe I ought to mention this in my article.” Of course, this is sort of faint praise — “half-believe” — but it indicates that Lovecraft considered Pain’s work of some significance. However, it didn’t make it into the later edition of Supernatural Horror in Literature, but it may simply have been too late to include it in the 1934 revision.
Overall, The Undying Thing and Others is an interesting albeit uneven collection of supernatural and weird fiction. Those who are intrigued by the description of Pain’s malevolent characters might consider giving it a look.
* Lovecraft wrote this in a 1934 letter to August Derleth, and I take the quotation from the introduction to the collection by S.T. Joshi.