This week’s weird fiction selection – kind of.
Review: “The Goddess of Death”, William Hope Hodgson, 1904.
This story strikes me as a bridge between gothic horror and Hodgson’s later weird fiction. But that’s just a hunch not being an expert in gothic horror or Hodgson and not having read that much of either.
The supernatural element is rationalized, explained away like something out of a Ann Radcliffe novel. There is a great deal of physicality which I associate with Hodgson. His narrator spends a great deal of time outdoors and running about.
That narrator, Herton, arrives in a small English village that’s in tumult because a dozen people have been killed there. Some claim a walking marble statue is doing the killing.
Herton goes to visit his old friend William Turner who lives in the town.
Once Herton hears the story of the killer statue, he decides to try his hand at catching it.
So, Turner and Herton go to the park with the statue in it late that night. The statue is not on its base.
Then, in the bushes, a carved marble face is seen. A giant looms out of the dark, and Herton and Turner run away.
Next morning, rather ashamed at their cowardice, the two go back to the park. The statue is back. It’s of a woman and made of white marble. In its right hand is a twisted cloth. The left hand is empty but in a gripping pose.
It was at this point I wondered if Hodgson was going to be working Thugees into the story.
We learn the statue is part of the estate of Colonel Wigham. He was a recluse and had an old servant from India. He died about nine months ago, strangled. Being childless, his estate was converted to the town’s park.
Herton examines the statue and is convinced it’s just marble.
The two men hang about the park for the next week. Then, one night, they hear a scream and find a dead woman. In a local bar, Herton and Turner get three men to go to the park and take care of the menace.
They see the statue walking about. The men try to sneak up on it, but Turner falls and accidentally discharges one of his pistols. The statue bolts off, the men after it. Herton even shoots at it. After a few minutes, one of the men catches up to it and gets killed. The chase concludes without its marble quarry.
The next day a group of men go to the park with the intent of destroying the statue, but it’s gone.
That night, Herton gets a brainstorm. He asks after Colonel Wigham and where his papers are.
He finds an account of Wigham’s. Looking to exterminate the Thugee cult in India – as per British policy, he comes across a temple to the sect’s deity, Kali. Specifically Kali in a previously unknown form. That statue is the one in the park. We also learn the Colonel barely escaped death at the hands of a Thugee high priest of enormous size and fury.
Herton immediately drags Turner out to the park in the night and to the bare pedestal of the statue. He examines it and, as expected, finds a switch. The statue rises up from the base. Herton finds another switch, swivels it off to the side, and reveals a passage leading down.
Herton follows the passage down. It leads to a tunnel that goes to the park’s lake. (The tunnel, it seems, preexists Wigham buying the place.)
By lamp light, just beneath the water of the lake, Herton sees “something of an indistinct whiteness”. He pulls a mask out of the water, a mask that matches the statue’s face.
Later, workmen pull out “the dead body of an enormous Hindoo” dressed in white. It is the high priest of the Thugee temple, dead from shots fired that night when he was pursued in the park. He was impersonating Kali to bring terror to Wigham’s town.
It’s a pretty so-so story. The prose is so bare-bone, brief descriptions, dialogue, action, that there’s no real buildup of atmosphere.
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.
Here are some random thoughts I have after reading this story.
You’d think that after a dozen villagers had been killed, the surviving villagers would have called in outside help and there’d be at least twenty police officers patrolling the park each night. Instead it’s left for two amateur sleuths with time on their hands to solve the case.
For me the story would have worked better and been more believable if there had maybe only been two or three murders instead of twelve and over a longer period of time before Herton shows up.
I didn’t quite understand just what the motivation of the “Hindoo” high priest was. I can understand why he would have killed Colonel Wigham. But his beef was strictly with the colonel, not random villagers. It was as though he just felt like terrorizing the village for the sake of it.
If the assumption was that it really was a walking statue they were up against, what did they think they could accomplish against it with heavy sticks and even guns?
This story, especially the ending, seemed rushed. In my opinion, another couple of thousand words with more descriptive detail and, as you said, more of a build-up to the atmosphere, would have made it a better story.
Having said all that, I found this story interesting because it reminds me somewhat of the much more polished Carnacki stories that Hodgson would write ten years later.
I recall that you wrote in another article that you hadn’t read Hodgson’s Carnacki stories yet. I hope you get the chance to read them sometime soon, as, in my opinion, some of them are extremely interesting and they might be something up your alley as well. One or two of them, like “The Goddess of Death,” have Ann Radcliffe/ Scooby-Doo endings, but all the others, if I remember right, employ strong supernatural elements.
All good points about the rather implausible reaction of the vilagers to all this. I guess, in regards to the Hindoo, we’re just supposed to think he just wants to continue his vengeance against the Empire.
I think you can forgive Hodgson a lot once you find out this was his first published story.
I’m in the middle of reading a collection of the Carnacki stories now. (I’d read “The Hog” previously but forgot it was a Carnacki tale.) I decided, if I was going to read a collection of Meikle Carnacki pastiches, I should read the original.
So far I think they are better than expected. I like that Carnacki doesn’t come across as a totally nonplussed investigator of the supernatural. He has anxiety and fear at times. I also liked the asides about other Carnacki stories Hodgson never wrote — though I would suspect writers of Carnacki pastiches attempted a few of those.
Granted, I’m being much too hard on Hodgson, considering that it was his first published story, but I’d nonetheless like– thanks to my overly analytical and pedantic nature– to add one more point that I’ve thought of.
The villain was supposedly living under the statue for months. We know this from the discarded tins, bottles, cans, etc., and “rough bed” that Herton found there. So, wouldn’t this “enormous” Hindoo have been noticed long ago in the village when out buying his groceries and come under suspicion as a possible suspect, especially since he roughly corresponds to the size and shape of the killer statue? At the very least, the police would want to know where he lived, and they would probably want to question him further after each murder to know if he was anywhere in the vicinity.
And, come to think of it, there was never one single mention of a police officer in the story, which almost leads you to think that there are, in fact, none. I guess maybe the villagers figure they can do without police officers and rely on bored amateur-sleuth visitors passing through to solve their murder cases once the unsolved murder rate gets up to a serious number like a dozen.
I’m glad to hear that you’re reading all the Carnacki stories — I think there are no more than 10-12, by the way — and look forward to reading your review of them.