I’ve been having a lot of good luck with my fiction reading lately, and have a backlog of really good (and weird) fiction to blog about. One that actually gave me a pleasant surprise is The Shadowy Thing (1928), by Henry Burgess Drake (1893-1964):
The Shadowy Thing is another in Hippocampus Press’ “Lovecraft’s Library” series, reprinting rare works of weird fiction that Lovecraft owned and thought highly of. Though I’ve generally been very satisfied with books Lovecraft loved (The Metal Monster, The Place Called Dagon), it hasn’t always been the case (The Dark Chamber); I admit that I wasn’t particularly optimistic about Drake’s book.
My apprehensions were misplaced! Once I started reading, I could hardly put down The Shadowy Thing: it is a compelling story with unrelenting tension that builds to a truly ghastly climax.
The tale is narrated by a young man named Dick Bellew, following the dark events of his life over the course of many years, events precipitated by his encounters and conflicts with a schoolmate, Avery Booth:
And first I had better tell you something about Avery Booth. But at the outset I ought to say that it will be no easy matter for me to be strictly fair to him. The man who cuts in between you and the girl you love… But that’s anticipating, for the quarrel between us was of older standing than the affair of Katrina. And yet it wasn’t exactly a quarrel, for we never came to words even, let alone blows. I suppose it was just a rooted antipathy born of our different natures. From my schooldays at Abbot’s Gate I had hated him, though as a boy I had told myself I merely despised him. I can’t pretend to analyse my feelings, so I don’t know how far jealousy might have come into the matter; for he had amazing powers and was extraordinarily popular, which was natural enough; for he could tell hair-raising stories and do a hundred and one clever tricks, and had a knack with the fiddle, setting simple melodies to haunting and unearthly rhythms. But it always seemed to me that his popularity had something shifty about it. I can see now that it was of that kind that compels by some subterfuge of sinister fascination, for through all the admiration that was lavished upon him — “slobber” I called it in schoolboy slang, for the fawning and the flattery of it all disgusted me — a fear followed him and an uneasiness of distrust. He was petted as one might pet a snake, for its stealthy and subtle attraction rather than for its beauty. And to me, encased I suppose in the conventional prejudice of an English schoolboy, all this was odious because it was perplexing. Not that I stood alone in my antagonism to Avery; but I think I was the chief among the few who refused to come under his sway.
Avery has a gift for mesmerism: he entertains and amazes his friends by placing them under his control and making them do amusing things. Dick, however, believes that there is a darker side to the games, and also begins to suspect that Avery maintains his hold on people long after “formally” releasing them.
His concerns are horribly confirmed when one of Avery’s subjects, a student named Gaveston, goes into a maniacal rage while under the influence. Gaveston is soon institutionalized, falling into regular bouts of madness. Avery darkly hints that Gaveston is suffering under the assault of a spirit from beyond, and is fighting for control of his mind and body.
Dick manages to block Avery from “helping” Gaveston further, and earns the mesmer’s direct enmity. He is fortunately uniquely resistant to Avery’s powers, perhaps because of his distrust of him. Avery can hold a grudge though, and he has many other tricks up his sleeve — and his power is growing.
The novel follows the conflict between Dick and Avery, which escalates over many years and encounters. Many other people will find themselves players and pawns in the struggle between them, and neither man will be left unscarred by the battle, which becomes increasingly personal. The story feels a bit like a “clash of the titans”: the supernatural mesmering powers of Avery versus the stubborn iron will and good heart of Dick.
The Shadowy Thing was a pleasant surprise to me because it starts out looking like a simple “evil hypnotist” story but evolves into a much weirder and more “cosmic” form of horror. Throughout there are hints that Avery has connections with inhuman and malignant forces from beyond and has sinister ambitions beyond performing simple parlor tricks. A mysterious troupe of gypsies seem to appear and disappear as Avery does, and their presence suggests a connection to old and forbidden secrets. The novel climaxes with a genuinely ghastly scene of horror that is well-worth the slow buildup.
Lovecraft himself spoke highly — albeit briefly — of The Shadowy Thing in the revised version of his classic essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:
In The Elixir of Life Arthur Ransome attains some darkly excellent effects despite a general naiveté of plot, while H. B. Drake’s The Shadowy Thing summons up strange and terrible vistas.
One of the great things about Lovecraft’s well-documented reading list and correspondence is that one can clearly trace how different literary works influenced his own. That is not to say that he was unimaginative in his writing, as all authors have their sources of inspiration. With Lovecraft we have a rare opportunity to trace those sources directly.
Two of Lovecraft’s tales were clearly influenced by The Shadowy Thing, namely The Thing on the Doorstep (1937) and The Shadow Out of Time (1936); both stories center on a character who is forced out of his own body by a supernatural power. In Thing, a man lives in fear that his wife, a powerful witch who is more than she seems, is planning to steal his body. In Shadow, the narrator ends up with months of his life blocked from his memory, and gradually realizes that during that time he had switched bodies with an alien monster from the past. To describe in more detail the relation between these two tales and The Shadowy Thing would entail spoilers, so suffice to say that the connection pretty much jumps out at you. Lovecraft was not merely copying the earlier works, however, and he added his own flavor of cosmic horror to the mix.
In conclusion, The Shadowy Thing is a wonderfully atmospheric horror novel with a very strong set of characters and a very powerful climax. Fans of weird fiction should consider taking a look at this classic but forgotten work.