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Illuminating Supernatural Fiction, Horror, and the Gothic

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William Hope Hodgson's The Whistling Room: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Carnacki Ghost Story

Perhaps using a touch of M. R. James (cf. “Count Magnus,” “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”), Hodgson riffs off of the legend that Solomon was given a series of rings by God with which he could control demons. The “Monster” of the story, therefore, is implied to be a djinn once in Solomon’s service, recovered by a Crusader, and unleashed by hubris and negligence. Amongst Carnacki’s steampunk warbag are several now famous weapons which we read about for the first time here. Among the most pedestrian is the sensible use of baby’s ribbons (and later – more occultish – human hair) secured with blots of sealing wax. There is little supernatural about this because it is only a weapon against humans perpetrating a hoax.

 

Higher up on the spookometer is the elaborate Saaamaaa ritual; this Van Helsing-esque process involves drawing a pentacle (an encircled star, usually either the five-pointed pentagram or the six-pointed Seal of Solomon) on the floor in chalk, followed by circles of garlic and blessed water, and setting alternating dishes of water and bread in the pentacle’s peaks and valleys. The Saaamaaa ritual is implied – by its triple a’s – to be borrowed from Icelandic or Norse paganism, and is said to have been found in the Sigsand Manuscript (a name which also suggests Scandinavian roots).


The premise of “The Gateway of the Monster” is probably borrowed from H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room, or the Ghost of Fear.” In that frequently anthologized horror story, a skeptic takes a bet to sleep in a haunted room in a manor house operated by three superstitious servants – all elderly invalids. Despite a fatal history (several people have died in the room, including one man who broke his neck trying to escape it), the man eagerly retires there with a stack of candles. He is immediately put off by the Red Room’s macabre aura, but lights enough candles to dispel the darkness, and eases into his new surroundings.

 

Over the course of the story, the candles are blown out – one after another, then relit, then blown out again – at first harmlessly enough to suggest a draught, before skepticism is impossible to support any longer, Plunged into a darkness which has no respect for science, the man rockets through the door, trips in the identical spot of the dead man, and is lucky to only be knocked unconscious. In the morning, the mournful servants interrogate him as to what he saw, but only the very oldest of them guesses that he saw no ghost, only the elemental manifestation of Fear.

 

Carnacki’s most popular story – the first that I ever read (in Henry Mazzeo’s Edward Gorey-illustrated anthology Hauntings) and one of only two adapted to the screen – is perhaps the strangest, most unusual ghost story written before Stephen King (who was himself a fan of Hodgson and Carnacki). “The Whistling Room” is no misnomer, and its combination of mystery, mysticism, adventure, the weird, and abject horror is remarkably deft. The third installment in the series, the editors of the “Idler” (where it was published in March 1910 – the same year as Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”) decided to advertise the tale by including the following blurb:

 

“Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr. W. HOPE HODGESON’s ‘Carnacki’ stories are producing a widespread epidemic of Nervous Prostration! So far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that “The Whistling Room”, which we publish this month, is worse than ever. Our advertising manager had to go to bed for two days after reading the advance sheets; a proof reader has sent in his resignation; and, worst of all, our smartest office boy — But this is no place to bewail or seek for sympathy. Yet another of those stories will appear in April!”

 

Cheeky sensationalism aside, you will not go mad from reading this, nor will you likely even have a nightmare, but the story is unquestionably one of Carnacki’s best – outdone only by “The Hog” – and will leave a deep impression in your memory as being a very uncommon story for its time. Even more of Carnacki’s faux spiritualism makes an appearance here (although the Electric Pentacle is never employed), and near the end there is a fairly dense discussion over astral projection, spiritual guardians, and other dimensions that does a great deal to color in the unique aspects of Carnacki’s mythos, which combine to make “The Whistling Room” both a standalone masterpiece and an indispensable building block in the overall arch of the Ghost-Finder tales.

 

II.

 

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder – who habitually gathers his friends to regale them with the story of his latest case – breaks with form by calling on his friends while in the middle of a case, with a promise for an update (should he survive his return to the haunted house). This case has taken him to Ireland, to a Dark Ages castle north of Galway. Its new owner, the hotheaded Mr. Tassoc, is struggling with one of his rooms which appears to be haunted. The room in question is a stone dining hall with a massive hearth, high windows, and a dreary atmosphere. Tassoc, who is not a local, has just become engaged to the pretty Miss Donahue, whose family live nearby. Somewhat like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” this outsider’s success with the local beauty rises the ire of the neighborhood lads, who spend their time harassing Tossac, and are the prime suspects in the possible haunting.

 

Strangely enough, this consists of an almost solely auditory phenomenon: a low, hooning whistle that emits from the room at night – an unquestionably sentient whistle. Tassoc is convinced that it is a prank, but Carnacki is concerned. Not long after arriving and checking the room out, he witnesses the sound in person, and is thoroughly chilled by it – it is “impossible to explain to one who has not heard it – with a certain, horrible personal note in it; as if there in the darkness you could picture the room rocking and creaking in a mad, vile glee to its own filthy piping and whistling and hooning… It was as if someone showed you the mouth of a vast pit suddenly, and said: That’s Hell.” Certain that the sound presents a physical danger, he urges everyone out of the hall.

Armed with a garlic lei and several other occult devices, Carnacki returns to the room and sets up a series of tests, all the while concerned about his safety in the now-silent room. He uses sealing wax to stretch a series of long human hairs across the openings (at the fireplace he crosses one hair perpendicularly across the others). Just as he is wrapping up, the hooning recommences, and Carnacki gets the impression that the sound is coming from the stones themselves (recalling an excerpt from the Necronomicon-esque “Sigsand Manuscript” which describes the terrible implications of a spirit which can speak through stone and wood). Tassoc is infuriated by the noise and is determined to break into the room, but Carnacki – horrified at the consequences – convinces him not to.

 

In the morning he is disturbed to find that none of the hairs are broken – except the one which he had crossed over the others (the meaning of this is left to our imagination, but suggests that the invader is from another dimension). Later that week he catches the local lads causing a ruckus outside, and briefly suspects them to be involved, but quickly dismisses his self-doubt. This is the point at which the investigation has stopped, and before he ushers his friends out into the night, he promises a sequel in two weeks.

 

His experience was even more harrowing than he anticipated. Having returned to the castle, he decided to spy on the room during one of its violent fits by climbing a ladder and looking in through the window. What he sees is a mind-bending transmutation: “The floor in the middle of the huge, empty room, was puckered upwards in the centre into a strange, soft-looking mound, parted at the top into an ever-changing hole, that pulsated to that great, gentle hooning. At times, as I watched, I saw the heaving of the indented mound, gap across with a queer, inward suction, as with the drawing of an enormous breath; then the thing would dilate and pout once more to the incredible melody. And suddenly, as I stared, dumb, it came to me that the thing was living. I was looking at two enormous, blackened lips, blistered and brutal, there in the pale moonlight….”

 

Shocked and horrified, he is further frightened by the sound of Tassoc’s voice screaming from the room, begging for mercy. Quick to action, Carnacki breaks through the window and plummets inside, desperate to save his client from psychological torture – but finds the room empty. To his abject horror he realizes that the evil spirit had replicated Tassoc’s voice and lured him into a trap. Aware now that he is threatened with a danger “a thousand times worse than death,” he pulls out his revolver to commit suicide before the manifestation can overtake him, when he hears the “Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual” whispered over him by an unseen spirit. This mystical chant allows Carnacki’s body and spirit to “blend” back together, giving him the strength to stand and run.

 

Once safely outside of the room, he is positive of what must be done: the room must be utterly demolished. Carnacki has a blast furnace erected inside of a protective pentacle, and has every stone torn out and vaporized. During the deconstruction, a scroll is found near the fireplace telling the story of Dian Tiansay, jester to the ancient Irish King Alzof, who wrote the mocking “Song of Foolishness” about his hereditary rival, the brutal King Ernore and sang it to delight his master. Humiliated and outraged by the song’s contents, Ernore plunges the cold war that existed between the two royals into blood: he overthrows Alzof, captures, Tiansay, rapes his wife, and tears his tongue out of his head as punishment for the song.

 

One night, Tiansay’s wife – Ernore’s sex slave – disappears, and is found dead in her husband’s arms in what would later become ‘the Whistling Room.’ As tears drip down his face, he whistles the “Song of Foolishness” in defiance, and Ernore has him burned alive in the massive fireplace where he dies whistling. The room was ever after plagued with Dian’s spirit, and was avoided at all costs at night. Carnacki supposes that Dian’s hatred metastasized over the years until it manifested physically.

 

Adding to this hypothesis he discovers that Tassoc’s fiancée is a direct descendent of King Ernore, and her presence was likely exacerbating the spirit. Repressing a shiver, he wonders aloud what other-dimensional horrors could have happened if she had ever entered the room. He ends the story with this thought and the narrator -- a Watson-type character who chronicles his adventures ponders his concerns on the walk home: "He nodded his head, grimly, and we four nodded back. Then he rose and took us collectively to the door, and presently thrust us forth in friendly fashion on the Embankment and into the fresh night air."Good night," we all called back, and went to our various homes. If she had, eh? If she had? That is what I kept thinking."

 

III.

For some reason, every time I read “The Whistling Room” I am hooked by those last lines. There is a teasing sense that Hodgson is pointing to the silhouette of something monstrous lurking behind a curtain without pulling it back for our consideration. There is a sense of a far more malevolent, far more insidious universe with machinations that might – at any moment – claim the most vulnerable parts of our personalities. While we never really meet Miss Donnehue and can never really form an opinion on her character, Hodgson chooses to leave us pondering HER fate rather than, say, Carnacki’s. It might even make more sense to make the question “Just think, if I hadn’t managed to get out of that room in time…” and the parting meditation “If he hadn’t, eh? If he hadn’t?” But Hodgson has something deeper stirring in this story – a narrative that highlights the vulnerability of random innocents and – perhaps most importantly – the unquenchable power of Hate.

 

Hate, after all, is the emotion that energizes and sustains the haunting. While Carnacki – duped by the ventriloquist act and nearly devoured – stood to be a civilian casualty in Dian’s war with his enemies, it is the clueless and harmless Miss Donnehue who is the object of his deathless rage, and both Carnacki and Dodgson seem to suspect that her death would not have been like Carnacki’s – as horrible as it would have been. Like Dian’s own demise – tongue torn out by the roots, roasted to death in a fireplace – Miss Donnehue might have expected a peculiarly detailed sort of punishment. It is to Hodgson’s credit that he leaves all of this to our imagination, but there is no question that the implications are brutal and potentially very sexualized. The organ of manifestation – the mouth – is of course both a very personal and a very erotic human attribute, and this sweat-dewed, fire-scorched pair of lips has an unmistakably carnal quality to it. We are made to think of Dian’s wife and her fate: raped by the king and dead either by suicide or assisted suicide by her heartbroken husband.

 

Miss Donnehue – or so a structuralist literary critic would point out – is positioned to be the replacement of Dian’s wife , and a corresponding vengeance would likely include a suitable element of sexual violation – an eye for an eye, a tongue for a tongue, a rape for a rape. The story is done with the same powerful attention to suspense, subtext, and Gothic wonder that Holmes’ best tales – “The Sign of Four,” “The Speckled Band,” “Hound of the Baskervilles,” etc. – are, and it remains memorable as a carefully calibrated study in awe, supernatural sublimity, psychological terror, and the emotional weight of its sober ending. All of these elements line it up ably with “The Speckled Band” in particular (another story where an affianced woman is haunted by an unsettling whistle in a ruined mansion, where a band of ruffians serve as a red herring, and where the story is propelled by tense wonder but doused suddenly in a disturbing conclusion).

 

“The Whistling Room” is probably most memorable for both its brilliant manifestation – a room that puckers into a mouth without being ludicrous is quite an accomplishment, and Hodgson manages it with skill and craft – and the crippling pathos of Dian’s story. Neither of these elements is successfully conveyed in the film adaptation: a 1954 special starring Alan Napier (the original Alfred “the Butler” Pennyworth) as a buffoonish, wild-haired, nutty Professor Carnacki. One of only two adaptations of Carnacki’s stories, I recommend watching it (currently available on YouTube) only because of the rarity of Carnacki adaptations.

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Hodgson's best supernatural tales HERE!

 

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