This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.
Essay: “The Horror-Horn”, E. F. Benson, 1922.
The story opens with the narrator on winter holiday at Swiss mountain resort near Mt. Alhubel. (This may or may not be a real place – I definitely see a Mt. Alphhubel in Switzerland but no Alhubel in a web search). He is there with his cousin Professor Ingram, an expert in physiology and a mountain climber.
In an English newspaper, Ingram reads a report about the yeti (though that name is not used). This story was first published in September 1922, and I’m pretty sure it was inspired by journalist Henry Newman reporting, in 1921, that British mountain climbers on an Everest expedition had seen mysterious footprints.
Ingram points out that the climbers were operating at a high altitude and their brains as well as hearts and lungs may have been affected. They could have misinterpreted marks in the snow as footprints.
But Ingram doesn’t think they were imagining the footprints. He has seen strange creatures in the mountains.
He then points to a large mountain nearby, the Ungeheuerhorn, the “horror-horn” of the title and tells a story.
On an expedition to do the first ascent of the mountain 20 years ago, he and his guide Chanton spent several days around the base of the mountain looking for a route up. Chanton doesn’t really seem to like the work and is nervous. Around sunset one day, they hear what seems to be a wolf howling. Chanton goes into a panic.
The next morning Chanton tells Ingram about a group of dwarfish, human-like creatures covered in black hair that live in the area. They are strong and agile, perhaps the remnant of “some wild primeval race” “still in the upward stage of evolution”. They carry off young girls to breed with them. “Young men also had been raped by them” to mate with their females.
Ingram doesn’t believe Chanton’s story. He thinks, at most, it’s a folk memory of when such a tribe existed in the mountains. Chanton says his grandfather saw three of the creatures and only escaped capture because he was on skis.
The next day, around the large rocks at the base of the mountain, Ingram sees one of the creatures. Benson then evokes the strangeness and disquiet of encountering a group of primitive humans in the modern world. It is a different sort of feeling than Arthur Machen evokes in his little people stories.
Ingram emphasizes the creature’s “sensual and malevolent beastiality”, its “gross animalism”, but he also says “the horror lay in the fact that it was a man”. Ingram is sighted by the creature, but he and Chanton manage to flee.
To emphasize the contrast between this bestiality of these primitive men, Ingram tells his story during tea-time at the resort in a room with a band playing “potpourri from the works of Puccinni”.
Ingram says he felt “a horror of spirit” that he has never recovered from:
I saw then how terrible a living thing could be, and how terrible, in consequence, was life itself. In us all I suppose lurks some inherited germ of that ineffable bestiality, and who knows whether, sterile as it has apparently become in the course of centuries, it might not fructify again. When I saw that creature sun itself, I looked into the abyss out of which we have crawled. And these creatures are trying to crawl out of it now, if they exist any longer.
Ingram is grateful it was only a male creature he saw.
That night a storm comes up and lasts three days. The narrator imagines he hears strange calls in the dark.
After the storm, the narrator goes off on a two mile hike to a nearby resort where a friend of his is staying. Returning towards dusk, the path is fog-shrouded, and he loses his way.
He sights one of the creatures, a female. She is eating a living chamois.
Never had nightmare fashioned so terrible a countenance; the beauty of sun and stars and of the beasts of the field and the kindly race of men could not atone for so hellish an incarnation of the spirit of life. A fathomless bestiality modelled the slavering mouth and the narrow eyes; I looked into the abyss itself and knew that out of that abyss on the edge of which I leaned the generations of men had climbed. What if that ledge crumbled in front of me and pitched me headlong into its depths?….
For the narrator, the creature symbolizes the horror of nature and the state humanity emerged from. I wonder if this could be sort of a post-World War One anxiety about man devolving to a previous, uncivilized state. In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator says “the fate of nations and life and death had seemed to me of far less importance” since he started the holiday. The story is also written close on the heels of the Great War. Now, perhaps, the narrator is reminded of the state humanity could fall back into with another war.
The narrator is pursued by the female creature and another. At one point, the creature struggles with him, and the narrator swings the bag with his ice skates at the creature’s head and cuts its forehead. He does manage to escape back to the lodge. (Benson himself was a good enough figure skater to represent England in competitions.)
When he gets back to the lodge (where it’s again tea time and the band is again playing), he gasps out that he saw one of the creatures and that its blood is on his bag, and then he faints. The last paragraph notes that an armed party of three or four men went into the mountains. They did find some corroborating evidence for his story: the chamois’s body and a pool of blood. They do not find the creatures. In the last sentence, the narrator says he thinks the creatures are still alive and the incredulous are invited to look among the caves of Ungeheuerhorn themselves.
The horror of the primitive is well depicted here. It should also be noted that, in what is probably the earliest piece of popular fiction to use the idea of the yeti, we don’t have the stock yeti of later years: tall and white furred.