A taste for horror
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it’s a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was written by Elizabeth George, whose crime novels also feature an aristocratic detective and his love life.
In this story the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, has married Harriet Vane, and their honeymoon is complicated by the discovery of the corpse of the previous owner of the house they have just bought.
I’ve read a couple of other whodunits by Dorothy Sayers, and while I’ve enjoyed them, I would not say that they are the best detective fiction I have read. Sayers is sometimes linked with the informal literary group the Inklings, and though not actually a member, she was a friend of some of the members, and they sometimes read her work at meetings.
When I read Sayers’s novels, I am very conscious of the period they are set in, and in which they were written, and so I’m also very aware of it being another age, another world. It is the world of Downton Abbey. Indeed, perhaps seeing Downton Abbey enables one to appreciate her stories more.
By contrast, when reading books by Inklings Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis I’m not so conscious of the period in which they are set. Though Lewis’s descriptions of Mars and Venus are nothing like what we now know them to be, one can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. And even though Williams’s novels are set on earth, there is nothing quite as dated as the descriptions in Sayers, perhaps because she gives more details of everyday life — characters smoking, ordering food, taking care of wine and the like.
There’s also a lot of erudite literary wordplay between the amateur and the professional detective, which is a bit spoilt by the slightly patronising tone. Of course back then being patronising was regarded as a good thing, noblesse oblige and all that. But there’s another thing — the characters keep breaking into French, with no hint of a translation. I suppose in that era educated Englishmen (of both sexes) could be expected to converse freely, if not fluently in French, but that too just makes one aware of how much times have changed.
But Dorothy Sayers nevertheless had a great influence on my literary tastes and preferences, not through her detective fiction, which I only began reading in this century, but through a collection of short stories she edited:
When I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustration, but they disappeared in several moves, when my mother got rid of a lot of surplus possessions. I read many of the stories, but my favourites, the ones I reread many times, were those in the “horror” section, and it was this book that gave me a taste for horror stories.
It was more than fifty years ago now, but the stories that made the biggest impression on me, that I read and re-read, were “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood and “Couching at the door” by D.K. Broster. After the books disappeared I sometimes wanted to read them again, but I could only remember the titles of some of the stories, and not the names of the authors, and I thought I would never find them again.
And then along came the Internet, with its access to knowledgeable people, and other resources. A web search engine quickly found the authors of both these stories, and “The Wendigo” was available in downloadable form. And so I discovered the author of …
… which immediately went on to my “want to read” list.
The collection, Detection mystery and horror by Dorothy L. Sayers gave me the taste for horror stories, but also determined the kind of horror stories I would like. I greatly enjoyed Dracula, but that spoiled all other vampire stories for me. Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s lot was a bit of a let-down, and Anne Rice’s vampire stories horribly boring. I doggedly read through Interview with the vampire just to be able to say that I had read it, but the experience was even worse than reading Ayn Rand. I suppose the one merit of the story was that it was shorter than Atlas shrugged.
Stephen King did, however, write a half decent story that features the Wendigo, Pet Sematary, not as good as Blackwood’s story, but good in its own way.
So, thanks to Dorothy Sayers, I like a good horror story. It’s just a pity that there are so few good ones about, and so much dreck. Sayers collected the best that was available at her time, but I came across another collection of stories, contemporary with hers, called The abominartions of Yondo, edited by Clark Ashton Smith. The collection seemed to be full of the genre of horror writers who tried to create an effect by piling epithet upon epithet, until the words wore out and lost their meaning. “Eldrich” seemed to be a particular favourite, with “nameless” a close second. H.P. Lovecraft sometimes seems to have c ome close to joining this school, but not quite.