Half Lit: 31 Days of Halloween — Odes to Faust and Lovecraft

This is a guest post by author Jeremy Billingsley

Jeremy Billingsley studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas and received his MFA from Goddard College. He's published fifteen short stories and has recently published a novel -- SAMHAIN. His second novel, EYES ONLY: BOOK ONE -- A MIND FULL OF SCORPIONS, is due out February of 2018

In The Devil’s Own Work, by Alan Judd, the narrator tells the story of his friend Edward, who falls victim to his own success after acquiring a manuscript from a recently deceased famous author. While Edward realizes literary recognition, fame, and wealth, the narrator can see the toll such recognition takes on the soul of his friend, on their relationship, and on the lives of those most dear to both men. A cerebral read in the vein of Henry James, this short novel originally published in 1991 masks the supernatural in favor of the physical effects of possession. One cannot ignore the corruption of the flesh on all involved once Edward makes the fateful decision to subvert the old author, O.M. Tyrrel and take on the demonic manuscript.

The book was the winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize for best novel. Judd is a British author who has also written for the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, has written ten works of fiction and three nonfiction pieces. I searched online for a website and found only the briefest of references, a Wikipedia page and a brief biography on Fantasticfiction that contains basically the same information, along with a picture of the author. Like the elusive authors in this work of fiction, though, there is little more about Judd in the annals of literature or on the web.

I set my sights to traveling to the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, and hop a flight from Chicago’s O’Hare to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, where my car rests in long-term parking. The flight is short – ninety minutes from terminal to terminal, and soon enough I’m driving through the Ozarks, skirting Rogers for a direct connect to Highway 62 and the winding, two-lane path that delivers hair pin turns along cliff faces before rising to the hilltop town of Eureka Springs. The Crescent sits on a ridge overlooking the town, directly opposed to the Christ of the Ozarks statue. Knowing the hotel’s history, they are positioned as two opposing forces with the town in the throes between them. My biographer writes something similar in his forthcoming novel, Samhain. I park and stare up to the hotel. Inside the general manager is expecting me. He knows about HALF LIT and about the 31 Days of Halloween. He knows about my obsession with this time of year, and welcomes the attention that is brought to his hotel.

This isn’t a flippant decision, on my part, linking this particular literary work with this real-life hotel. The darkness in the hotel’s history and its old world design invokes a lot of the same feelings for me as reading this novel by Judd. Armed with my laptop and my suitcase and my camera, I lock my car and think about how long it’s been since I’ve been home. Like the narrator in Judd’s own work. I am traveling now, drinking and visiting literary sites, working out of hotels and airport terminals, and like the narrator, as I return to the crescent, I am pursuing something dark, perhaps too dark for me to handle.

 

British author Simon Kurt Unsworth has an impressive list of publications to his name. He has won horror awards and has released a number of novels and short story collections. His short story, “Into the Water,” appears in Best New Horror, Volume 25 as an ode to H.P. Lovecraft. It is ironic then that Unsworth prefaces this story with a harsh (though accurate) critique of Lovecraft, even while he admits to enjoying some of the stories.

I agree with Unsworth, who says Lovecraft can be stuffy – even claustrophobic – and hysterical, to the point of featuring cliché characters who veer dangerously close to the stereotypical (and, I’d add, given Lovecraft’s personal views – racist). There is something elemental about Lovecraft’s stories, but they are rarely subtle, and in tackling “Into the Water” after a haunting image refused to release his imagination, Unsworth had to find that balance in capturing the atmosphere of the classic author without embodying the more negative aspects.

“Into the Water” tells the story of journalists witnessing a massive global flooding event. Nothing imminent and quickly encroaching, but a slow, steady rise of the waters as towns are overtaken one by one all over Europe. Everyone is at a loss for why the waters are rising, but it is growing more and more apparent that the worst has yet to come. Cameraman Isaac Kapenda is on assignment when he meets the enigmatic David and starts finding strange figurines in some of the flood zones. The figurines represent denizens of a long-lost civilization, and as frightening as they appear, they are merely harbingers to what is coming in with the flood.

Unsworth succeeds in capturing the mythos of Lovecraft in this terrifying tale about the eve of humanity’s destruction as seen by one of the witnesses to the event, and possibly even the only person to know what’s going on.

I drink a Miller Lite at the Rowdy Beaver with my lunch – a double-cheeseburger and some fries – before walking around downtown Eureka Springs. The town is unlike anything one might expect from Arkansas. An artist community highlighted by Victorian homes that line the red-curbed historic district, a haven built onto the sides of two facing hills for the fringe of Southern culture: painters and writers and bikers and the sexually marginalized.

I visit the Basin Park Hotel and some of the underground historical Prohibition sites. It’s fun to visit the curio shops aligning the cobblestone streets. There are a few small art galleries with just enough paintings to take up time enjoying them. There is a magic shop whose curator is more than welcome to put on a brief slight-of-hand show. I visit the old library and search the reference stacks for historical books on Eureka Springs. Inspired by the magic shop and my month-long mission, I search for books on the occult. On real magic. I heard there is a secret history of the town. Mythic. Supernatural. Water flows in wellsprings underneath the soil. Limestone is the material of choice in the construction of the buildings. Ghosts are attracted to both.

When I emerge from the library, dusk is settling. The slope to the west is steep, enough to obscure the setting sun. It’s the same effect as being caught downtown in a major city under the penumbra of skyscrapers while at twilight, while in the suburbs it’s still sunny.

I have work to get done, and so I’m called back up to the Crescent. A set of concrete steps lead up a nearby hill, into the wilderness. I know the hotel is up there, somewhere. It is dark and the leaves scuttle over the steps, a solitary sound, made all the more ominous as the steps ascend to shadows.

Maybe it’s a sign. I’ve read too many horror novels and too many ghost stories. But I have a deadline to meet, and I’m only on October 11th and there are thirty-one days this month. And I haven’t even begun to touch on the number of great horror and genre stories out there.