Well, we’ve done it. We’ve made it to the end of our months-long exploration of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales with the short story “Phantoms” by Laurence R. D’Orsay. Let’s take this story as a chance not just to enjoy one last Weird Tale, entirely on its own merits, but to muse a bit on what we’ve learned from this ongoing time trip ninety-five years into the past and the beginnings of the modern horror and dark fantasy genres. We’ve read some great stories, some not so great. We’ve met authors who remain mysterious and a few whose work has stood the test of time. And now we come to…
Often enough in the past I’ve said that suspense comes from an imbalance in information. You’ve let your readers in on something the POV character in a particular scene doesn’t know, and that lack of knowledge is sending her into danger while we cringe knowing what’s around the corner, waiting for her. Or one character knows something another doesn’t and we (your readers) see the manipulation or the ignorance… the conflict inherent in that, and we squirm. Here’s a great example of two characters who know something we readers don’t know, and the suspense comes in the form of: What are they talking about? What did he say? What happened? Why does Sellars want Carson to forget he heard it?
“I would promise, and welcome,” said the other slowly, “if it weren’t for the victims. The child, man! You know, Sellars, your case is serious. If you die with that on your soul! I guess I’m old fashioned and all that; but the child, apart from the—the other thing—abandoned, as you say, in the woods! See a priest—let me call Father Quinn. My God, Sellars!”
There’s definitely something terrible going on here, or something terrible has happened. Even the telling of it is traumatic. It’s a clever way to open a story in media res, that’s for sure. I get into more detail on that in my post “Punch, Push, Explain.”
As the story progresses we fall into a flashback, which is fine by me, but here’s a good example of what I was talking about in my post “I Had Encountered Past Perfect Tense Far Too Many Times Before Writing This Post.” I would leave the first paragraph of this example alone:
This was the third day that he had passed alone in the old cabin since Martha died. But three days—they seemed like years. Like years it seemed since he had returned in his skiff from Vallejo to his home above the inlet and Martha, noting his drunken state, had started the argument.
This sets in the readers’ minds that we’re now going back in time, that a flashback has begun. Here are the next two paragraphs as published:
It had degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, womanlike, seeing that she was being worsted in the argument, had pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.
Then he had risen in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, had dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she had slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar had descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.
With a bonus edit to make it a smidge less overtly sexist, here’s how I’d rather it read:
It degenerated into the usual squabble, for both were of uncertain temper. Martha, seeing she was being worsted in the argument, pushed him through the door of the cabin, causing him to land full-length in the sticky mud outside.
Then he rose in a towering rage and, grabbing a heavy iron bar, dealt a terrific blow at his wife’s head, expecting to see her dodge as on many similar occasions. But she slipped and lost her balance, and with a crunching, sickening sound the bar descended on her unprotected head. He could see her now, lying where she had dropped without a cry or groan.
Once it’s clear we’re a step farther back in time, let the story live there. I left the last sentence alone to show how that can remind us we’re in a flashback and imply we’re coming out of it with “lying where she had dropped.” But in the actual story, the flashback continues with had after had after had after… On page 176, the word had appears twenty-five times. This may not seem like a big deal, but read this story again, having had had pointed out, and let me know what you think.
What then follows, I think, is a scary, fun ghost story that may not be the most original of tales, but it was weird, and I dug it. This is another story of a criminal driven mad by guilt, seeing ghosts either real or imagined, and hounded to his grave by the weight of his misdeeds. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first published in 1843, predates “Phantoms” by eighty-two years, but so what? This is a type of ghost story that’s been told over and over again ever since, and the originality comes in the author’s unique spin on it.
As for “Phantoms,” I liked the epilogue in which Carson dismisses the supernatural as the result of a “constitution undermined by long and excessive use of alcohol and drugs.” There was no ghost hell-bent on revenge. Sellars was just nuts. This is a simple but effective example of what I called “The Persistence of the Logical.”
And so there we have it for our last story: two positive examples and one negative—not a bad ratio for Laurence R. D’Orsay, who, wrote a handful of stories and a single novel, and wrote books on writing. Looks like all those books, and his novel, are long out of print. Too bad—I’m going to keep an eye on the used marketplace in any case.
And there we have it for Weird Tales Vol. 5, Number 1, from January of 1925, a look back at genre fiction in its formative years. Throughout this series, as with “Phantoms” on its own, there are positive examples—what to do in your own writing—and negative examples—what not to do in your own writing—in every story. Though when it comes to a lot of parts of the craft of writing (where the comma goes, is a semi-colon okay here?) it’s generally more instructive to read more recent fiction, storytelling has changed in only fairly subtle ways in the decades between the initial release of this pulp magazine and now, and positive and negative lessons are here for us all to absorb, think about , and make of them what we will.
And for those of us who just love the whole history of science fiction, fantasy, and horror… well, long live pulp!
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