This essay explores how one “listens to”—that is to say, how one takes in, makes sense of, and reacts to—“sounds” that are not really sounds at all but that are simply evocations of sounds served up by the authors of fiction. Although the essay’s conclusions apply to literary sounds in general, the examples on which the essay bases its observations and arguments are drawn—because their affective range is so very, very wide—from the vintage literature of so-called horror fiction. After a discussion of why some instances of scary literary sounds are more potent than others, emphasis is placed on sounds featured in the work of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, writers celebrated for their “aurality” yet whose structural use of sonic imagery—in dynamic patterns in the case of Lovecraft, as markers of plot points in the case of Poe—has hitherto been neglected. Throughout the essay parallels are of course drawn between literary sounds and actual sounds encountered both in the real world and in the fictional worlds of film, television, and radio drama. Readers of the essay are invited to decide for themselves, but it is suggested here that “silent listening”—because it demands creative involvement on the part of its participants—results in a richer aesthetic experience.
Persons interested in cinema soundtracks will surely be familiar with Claudia Gorbman’s 1987 Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. An outgrowth of Gorbman’s Ph.D. dissertation in comparative literature at Indiana University, this much-quoted but curiously out-of-print monograph marks the beginning of the current phase of film-music studies. The three-word subtitle comes close to explaining what the book is all about—that is, the various ways in which the so-called underscore (an originally composed score that plays under a film’s dialogue and sound effects) serves the narrative purposes of the so-called classical-style film;1 the two-word title encapsulates the generally accepted notion that the audience of a classical-style film of course always hears the accompanying score—its melodies and everything else—but rarely pays it conscious attention. That the book’s provocative title owes something to John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is evident from the epigraph, but Gorbman wisely quotes only the two lines that open the poem’s second stanza:
To have quoted more, or to have attempted to put the couplet into some sort of context, would have been counterproductive. Whereas throughout her book Gorbman deals with very real music that is “unheard” only in the sense that for the most part it goes unnoticed, Keats at the start of his 1819 poem deals with music that exists only in someone’s imagination. For a romantically inclined contemplator of the “mad pursuit” and “wild ecstasy” depicted on the upper half of the Sosibios vase that apparently was Keats’s inspiration,2 an imagined melody could easily be “sweeter” (or more erotic, or more frenzied, or more languid) than anything offered up by, say, an oboist or flutist during a balletic enactment of this same scene. After all, Keats reminds us, an imagined melody is the “foster-child of silence,” addressed “not to the sensual ear” but to an inner spirit for whom “ditties of no tone” make perfect sense. Compared with actual music, Keats suggests, music that exists only in a reader’s mind at least has the potential to be far more effective.
Whereas Keats’s poem refers to literary music, this essay deals with literary sounds in general, and in particular—because their affective range is so very, very wide—with literary sounds as occur in vintage horror fiction. In passing, comparisons are of course made between horrific sounds that exist only in the silent imaginations of readers and horrific sounds that physically touch the ears of those who attend to films and radio plays. But the emphasis here is on the ‘unheard’ sounds of literature, and on the qualities that make certain of these sounds more effective than others. The essay moves toward an examination of horrific sound in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, American writers whose sonic imagery has hardly gone unnoticed by scholars but whose structural use of such imagery—to form dynamic patterns in the case of Lovecraft, to mark plot points in the case of Poe—has by and large escaped critical notice.3 The essay begins, however, with a discussion of why some literary sounds are indeed scary and why other literary sounds that purport to be scary, alas, are not.
Two Contrasting Examples
Literary depictions of sound that one supposes are meant to be frightening but that are not frightening at all can be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 The Hound of the Baskervilles. In this serialized novel, Doyle on several occasions has his narrator, Sherlock Holmes’s assistant Dr. Watson, mentioning a strange sound that seems to haunt the Devonshire moor where most of the story is set. The first account of this sound occurs in broad daylight when Watson and the local naturalist are viewing from a distance, and discussing, the rocky outcrops that stand like islands in the moor’s sea of deadly quicksand. Watson interrupts the conversation:
“Halloa!” I cried. “What is that?”
A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again. Stapleton looked at me with a curious expression in his face.
“Queer place, the moor!” said he.
“But what is it?”
“The peasants say it is the Hound of the Baskervilles, calling for its prey.…”4
The sound’s second mention comes as Watson and the new owner of Baskerville Hall, recently arrived from North America and as eager as anyone to clear up the mysteries that have lately bothered the estate, set out late at night to capture the escaped convict who they know is hiding on the moor:
“We must close in on him rapidly, for he is said to be a desperate fellow. We shall take him by surprise and have him at our mercy before he can resist.”
“I say, Watson,” said the baronet, “what would Holmes say to this? How about that hour of darkness in which the power of evil is exalted?”
As if in answer to his words there arose suddenly out of the vast gloom of the moor that strange cry which I had already heard upon the borders of the great Grimpen Mire. It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a rising howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild, and menacing.…5
The third mention occurs at what might be regarded as the story’s climax, the complex moment in chapter XII that has Holmes, who for days had been living on the moor and conducting an investigation in secret, simultaneously revealing to Watson his solution of the case and explaining his belief that his and Watson’s efforts to protect Henry Baskerville had been all in vain. In this instance, there are two sounds—one human, one bestial—that fall into the category of the possibly horrific. The first of them interrupts Holmes’s calm peroration:
“…Your mission to-day has justified itself, and yet I could almost wish that you had not left his side—Hark!”
A terrible scream—a prolonged yell of horror and anguish burst out of the silence of the moor. That frightful cry turned the blood to ice in my veins.
“Oh, my God!” I gasped. “What is it? What does it mean?”
Holmes had sprung to his feet, and I saw his dark, athletic outline at the door of the hut, his shoulders stooping, his head thrust forward, his face peering into the darkness.
“Hush!” he whispered. “Hush!”
The cry had been loud on account of its vehemence, but it had pealed out from somewhere far off on the shadowy plain. Now it burst upon our ears, nearer, louder, more urgent than before.
“Where is it?” Holmes whispered; and I knew from the thrill of his voice that he, the man of iron, was shaken to the soul. “Where is it, Watson?”
“There, I think.” I pointed into the darkness.
Again the agonised cry swept through the silent night, louder and much nearer than ever. And a new sound mingled with it, a deep, muttered rumble, musical and yet menacing, rising and falling like the low, constant murmur of the sea.
“The hound!” cried Holmes. “Come, Watson, come! Great heavens, if we are too late!”6
A reader equipped with a willing imagination will surely ‘hear,’ in the mind’s ear, the “long, low moan” that swells from “a dull murmur…into a deep roar,” the “long, deep mutter” that turns into a “howl” and then dies away, and the “deep, muttered rumble, musical and yet menacing,” that rises and falls like “the low, constant murmur of the sea.” A technician charged with creating sound effects for a film based on The Hound of the Baskervilles will likewise read the descriptions and silently ‘hear’ the moan, mutter, and rumble and then go about selecting the recorded samples that, when mixed and processed through reverberation units and the like, result in the soundtrack’s actual representations of the titular beast. But there is not much room for creativity here. Because Doyle is almost as good as his fictional Holmes when it comes to reporting the results of close observation, the interestingly dynamic sounds of the hound—swelling and sinking, rising and falling—are limned in as much specific detail as are, throughout the Holmes canon, certain olfactory and gustatory phenomena. The technician who ‘goes by the book’ for the sake of a new Hound film would likely come up with ‘scary’ dog sounds similar to what readers for more than a hundred years have been imagining, and similar to what audiences for most of the earlier filmic treatments of The Hound of the Baskervilles actually heard.7
Sounds of an altogether different sort color the British writer Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 “The Willows,” an extended short story that H. P. Lovecraft, in his encyclopedic 1927 essay on supernatural horror in literature, praised as “the very highest development” in the combination of “art and restraint in narrative,” a tale that gives “a lasting impression of poignancy…without a single strained passage or a single false note.”8
At the beginning of part III of this five-part account of a camping adventure on a swampy island in the Danube, the story’s narrator is no longer infatuated by the setting’s natural beauty but is, instead, quite bothered by his sense that emanating from the island’s trees is “some essence…that besieged the heart.”9 The previous night’s attempt at sleep had been thwarted, so he tries again:
As though further to convince me that I had not been dreaming, I remember that it was a long time before I fell again into a troubled and restless sleep; and even then only the upper crust of me slept, and underneath there was something that never quite lost consciousness, but lay alert and on the watch.
But this second time I jumped up with a genuine start of terror. It was neither the wind nor the river that woke me, but the slow approach of something that caused the sleeping portion of me to grow smaller and smaller till at last it vanished altogether, and I found myself sitting bolt upright—listening.
Outside there was a sound of multitudinous little patterings. They had been coming, I was aware, for a long time, and in my sleep they had first become audible. I sat there nervously wide awake as though I had not slept at all. It seemed to me that my breathing came with difficulty, and that there was a great weight upon the surface of my body. In spite of the hot night, I felt clammy with cold and shivered. Something surely was pressing steadily against the sides of the tent and weighing down upon it from above. Was it the body of the wind? Was this the pattering rain, the dripping of the leaves? The spray blown from the river by the wind and gathering in big drops?10
Desperate for an answer to his questions, the narrator hurriedly exits the tent to find the tree branch whose scraping against the canvas he is sure produces the strange noises. Not finding such a branch, he searches—in vain—for other possible sources. “Still puzzling over that odd sound of infinite pattering, and of that pressure upon the tent that had wakened [him],” he rationalizes. “It must have been the wind,” he says to himself, “the wind beating upon the loose, hot sand, driving the dry particles smartly against the taut canvas—the wind dropping heavily upon our fragile roof.” Eventually he returns to his sleeping bag, “utterly exhausted, yet still in dread of hearing again that weird sound of multitudinous pattering.”11
In part IV of “The Willows” the mysterious ‘voice’ of the island expands considerably, and it is heard not just by the narrator but also by his guide:
“Come and listen,” he said, “and see what you make of it.” He held his hand cupwise to his ear, as so often before.
“Now do you hear anything?” he asked, watching me curiously.
We stood there, listening attentively together. At first I heard only the deep note of the water and the hissings rising from its turbulent surface. The willows, for once, were motionless and silent. Then a sound began to reach my ears faintly, a peculiar sound—something like the humming of a distant gong. It seemed to come across to us in the darkness from the waste of swamps and willows opposite. It was repeated at regular intervals, but it was certainly neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant steamer. I can liken it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense gong, suspended far up in the sky, repeating incessantly its muffled metallic note, soft and musical, as it was repeatedly struck. My heart quickened as I listened.
“I've heard it all day,” said my companion. “While you slept this afternoon it came all round the island. I hunted it down, but could never get near enough to see—to localize it correctly. Sometimes it was overhead, and sometimes it seemed under the water. Once or twice, too, I could have sworn it was not outside at all, but within myself—you know—the way a sound in the fourth dimension is supposed to come.”
I was too much puzzled to pay much attention to his words. I listened carefully, striving to associate it with any known familiar sound I could think of, but without success.…
This new sound, which in the narrator produces “a distressing feeling that made [him] wish [he] had never heard it,” comes increasingly to the fore. After a meal that was “beyond question a gloomy one,” the narrator reflects again both on the fear that he increasingly feels and the weird noises that he increasingly hears:
The curious sound I have likened to the note of a gong became now almost incessant, and filled the stillness of the night with a faint, continuous ringing rather than a series of distinct notes. At one time it was behind and at another time in front of us. Sometimes I fancied it came from the bushes on our left, and then again from the clumps on our right. More often it hovered directly overhead like the whirring of wings. It was really everywhere at once, behind, in front, at our sides and over our heads, completely surrounding us. The sound really defies description. But nothing within my knowledge is like that ceaseless muffled humming rising off the deserted world of swamps and willows.12
To make a long and not terribly logical story short, the final section of “The Willows” has the narrator at his wits’ end and the guide convinced that the island, whose spirit seems to be embodied in the “multitudinous soft pattering” and the “torrent of humming,” is somehow demanding a human sacrifice. The guide goes out of his mind and offers himself as the victim; rescued by the narrator just before he can throw himself into the river, he breathes a sigh of relief because he senses that the island has already found what it needs. Sure enough, the two of them soon come across the body of a recently drowned man. They start to examine the corpse, but as soon as they touch it
there rose from its surface the loud sound of humming—the sound of several hummings—which passed with a vast commotion as of winged things in the air about us and disappeared upwards into the sky, growing fainter and fainter till they finally ceased in the distance. It was exactly as though we had disturbed some living yet invisible creatures at work.13
The just-mentioned sounds in Blackwood’s “The Willows” and in Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles differ enormously in essence as well as in affect.
No matter how much they send chills up the spines of Doyle’s characters, the noises that drift over the moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles are clearly the sounds of a large canine animal; one suspects that even a child, were he having the novel read aloud to him, would know this straightway. Any child (or former child) who had experienced a frightening encounter with a dog would of course retain memories of menacing growls and snarls, and doubtless whatever emotions were associated with those memories would influence a ‘silent hearing’ of the relevant passages in Doyle’s novel. The reader might well wonder about the nature of the dog that produces the noises that Doyle so vividly describes, but surely the reader would have no doubt that the source of the noises was, in fact, a dog.
In contrast, the reader of Blackwood’s “The Willows” has little choice but to be as baffled as is the narrator regarding the cause of the strange noises that sweep over the island. Again and again the narrator makes the point that “nothing within [his] knowledge” resembles these noises, and he repeatedly suggests that his frustration at not being able to determine the noises’ source contributes as much to his anxiety as does the island’s generally oppressive atmosphere. The reader, if he or she is to ‘hear’ these sounds in the mind’s ear, must follow the example of the narrator and strive—but probably in vain—to identify them in terms of various sonic memories.
Because most readers have had at least some experience with large dogs, the imagined sound of a large dog as described by Doyle will likely indeed ‘feel’ scary. Because readers have not a clue as to how “multitudinous little patterings” or a ceaseless “humming of a distant gong” might sound, the imagined sounds associated with Blackwood’s island will always be mysterious; for readers who empathize with the story’s narrator, these inexplicable sounds will likely ‘feel’ not just scary but downright creepy.
In one of his rare ventures into comedy, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49) pokes fun at certain characteristics of his own literary style by having the editor of a periodical known for its lurid tales give a few pointers to a young woman who lacks talent yet nevertheless hopes to publish tales of just that sort. Poe’s 1838 “How to Write a Blackwood Article”14 is pure fiction, but the character he identifies as “Mr. Blackwood” is based on the very real William Blackwood—no relation to Algernon Blackwood—who in 1817 had launched a magazine whose stories had a profound effect on Poe’s writing.15 Likewise, the example that Mr. Blackwood suggests might serve as a model for the author (which he describes as “the history of a young man who goes to sleep under the clapper of a church bell, and is awakened by its tolling for a funeral”)16 is a reference to the very real (albeit entirely fictional) story “The Man in the Bell” that had appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1821.17 Vis-à-vis the theme of this essay, it seems only coincidence that the story mentioned by Mr. Blackwood revels in sound-related horror. Very much to the point of this essay, however, is the most important suggestion that Mr. Blackwood offers to the young lady. Referring to the narrator of “The Man in the Bell,” he says:
The sound drives him mad, and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he gives a record of his sensations. Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations—they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations.18
Another example of whimsical self-deprecation can be found in one of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). In his 1923 “The Unnamable,” Lovecraft’s narrator is himself a writer of horror tales of the sort that his friend, the principal of the local high school, mocks for being of low literary quality. The story begins with the two of them relaxing one afternoon in a cemetery and the writer wondering aloud about what sort of “spectral and unmentionable nourishment” an especially large tree might be taking from the nearby buried dead:
[M]y friend chided me for such nonsense and told me that since no interments had occurred there for over a century, nothing could possibly exist to nourish the tree in other than an ordinary manner. Besides, he added, my constant talk about “unnamable” and “unmentionable” things was a very puerile device, quite in keeping with my lowly standing as an author. I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced.19
One suspects that Lovecraft and Poe knew precisely what they were doing when again and again they spiced their tales not so much with third-person descriptions of potentially horrific sounds as with first-person accounts of not just the sounds themselves but also of the narrators’ terrified reactions to those sounds. But one can only wonder if they ever worried that, in terms of scary references to sonic phenomena, they perhaps overdid it. Unlike such modern producers of horror fiction as Stephen King and Clive Barker,20 neither of them ever wrote a guide for would-be emulators of their obviously successful styles (Lovecraft perhaps came close to such a thing with his 1925–27 “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in which he indeed makes the point that in horror stories “atmosphere is the all-important thing,”21 but this extended essay is less an instruction manual than a critical review of the horror genre dating back to Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho). Indeed, the above-quoted passages, in which fictional characters discuss the writing of fiction, count amongst the very few clues as to these authors’ own conceptions of their craft.
There are, of course, other writers of vintage horror stories whose sonic imagery is worth noting. Along with Algernon Blackwood, surely one of them is M. P. Shiel, whose 1911 “The House of Sounds” is an account of a near-fatal visit to an ancient island mansion whose owner is “somewhat deaf [yet] liable to a thousand torments…at certain sounds,”22 a mansion where the ocean-generated noise is such that the visitor reports that he “seemed to stand in the center of some yelling planet, the row resembling the resounding of many thousands of cannons, punctuated by strange crashing and breaking uproars,”23 a place where even the visitor begins to experience an “auditory fever” that “increase[s] in steady proportion with the roaring and screeching chaos around.”24 Another is the above-mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle, who understood very well how to use the descriptions of sounds to produce horrific effects yet who exercised this knowledge very little in his famous Sherlock Holmes stories; to ‘hear’ Doyle at his best, one must look beyond the prosaic Holmes mysteries and seek out such gems as “The Terror of Blue John Gap,” in which the narrator recounts experiencing “a most extraordinary sound” that “seemed to be a great distance away, far down in the bowels of the earth,” neither “a boom, nor a crash” but “a high whine, tremulous and vibrating, almost like the whinnying of a horse,”25 or “The Surgeon of Gaster Fell,” in which the narrator realizes that what had “sent that vague thrill through [his] nerves” was not something borne of a “half-formed dream” but “the eerie sound” of “a human step outside [his] solitary cottage.”26 And another, of course, is the Irish writer Bram Stoker, whose many stories and novels—although eclipsed by his 1897 Dracula—fairly teem with “phantoms of light and sound” that “seemed to have become real,”27 with accounts of “dreadful moments” that involve “the sights and sounds of the nethermost hell,”28 with situations so tense that their narrators fear they “shall multiply every sound into a new terror.”29
Before the advent of the radio drama and the sound film, English-language fiction was charged aplenty with sonic imagery. The lighter material draws heavily on the sound of parlor music, perhaps because this conventional music so conveniently serves “as a key to a character’s thoughts or hidden emotions…especially in situations where words are forbidden.”30 The darker fare—horror fiction in general, and in particular the many examples of so-called gothic fiction—tends to favor unconventional music that is heard at odd times and whose sources typically remain mysterious.31 More often, though, horror/gothic fiction stimulates its readers not with music but with “creaks” and “echoes,” with “disembodied voices,” with the noise of “rusty hinges”’ and “growling corridors.”32 Poe reveled in sounds of that sort, and he used them not just as mood-setting ‘objects’ within his mise en scènes but, often, as carefully placed plot elements; in the case of Lovecraft, horrific sounds indeed help set the scenes, but typically it is the patterns in which these sounds are presented that make his stories so memorable.
Patterns in Lovecraft
Midway through “The Call of Cthulhu,” arguably Lovecraft’s most famous story, the narrator makes an almost philosophical observation on the nature of horrific sounds. Near the end he indeed describes, often in disgusting detail, many sounds that relate specifically to the “gelatinous green immensity” that is the story’s title character.33 But early in part II of this 1926 three-part serialized saga the narrator simply generalizes about the difference in affect between sounds that are perhaps scary but that nevertheless seem ‘right’ enough in their contexts and sounds that are most definitely scary because they occur in contexts that seem altogether ‘wrong.’ He is observing from a safe distance as police officers break up a ceremony being held deep in a Louisiana bayou. Commenting on what he hears as the ceremony’s participants are brutally set upon, he says:
Only poetry or madness could do justice to the noises heard by Legrasse’s men as they ploughed on through the black morass toward the red glare and the muffled tom-toms. There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts, and it is terrible to hear the one when the source should yield the other.34
As is often mentioned in celebrations of Lovecraft, ineffable monstrosities35 and incongruous “nameless things”36—demonstrated not just in what characters hear but also in what they see, and in what they think, and eventually know—is indeed a characteristic of this author’s fiction. Seldom mentioned, however, is the way in which Lovecraft’s terrible incongruities tend to build up as his stories move along.
In his 1991 monograph H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq notes that although Lovecraft “did not much care for music” and had “tastes that veered rather toward Gilbert and Sullivan musicals,” in his fiction he always “demonstrates a particularly fine-tuned ear.” Indeed, Houellebecq asserts, “the maniacal precision with which HPL organises the soundtrack to his tales certainly plays an important part in the success of the most frightening of them.” Houellebecq calls special attention to Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” but only for the purpose of reminding readers that in this singular story it is actual music, not mere sound, that “provokes cosmic horror.” In the other stories, Houellebecq rightly contends, it is not music but only sound—albeit often in combination with bizarre visual imagery—that “brings us to a definite pitch of abject anxiety.”37
As its dark title suggests, Houellebecq’s book is about Lovecraft in general and, in particular, about how Lovecraft fits in with Houellebecq’s own dystopian fiction. It deals with many themes—among them Lovecraft’s interest in degeneracy, in ancient legends, in professorial figures, in dreams, in madness—but its comments on sound, telling though they sometimes are, are disappointingly brief; although it praises the way “HPL organizes” his sounds, it never in fact deals with sonic organization. As its title suggests, Dean Lockwood’s 2012 “Mongrel Vibrations: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Ecology of Noise” deals almost entirely with various “dimension[s] of Lovecraft’s noise-horror.”38 Yet despite its promise to “focus in [at least] a little depth” on the ‘soundtrack’ suggested by Houellebecq, Lockwood’s essay for the most part offers only examples—not analyses—of “sonicity” in this author’s work.39
It remains for future scholars to explore in considerable depth an idea that is merely hinted at in Lockwood’s and Houellebecq’s mentions of a Lovecraftian ‘soundtrack.’ As a prompt for such a study, let me note here that in Lovecraft the sonic elements are rarely mere accompaniments to, or illustrations of, the storytelling, in the way that more or less realistic sound effects and decidedly unrealistic musical underscore accompany/illustrate the narratives of films. In contrast to all that is contained on a film’s soundtrack, which is quite literally the ‘track’ on the celluloid strip that contains all the sonic information and which parallels the ‘track’ that contains the visual information, in Lovecraft the sonic elements typically follow a track, or a path, that takes the reader persistently and logically from one narrative plane to the next.
Movement along this track of sound never slows; it only accelerates. The typical Lovecraft story begins with sonic phenomena that, like those in The Hound of the Baskervilles, are scary enough but perfectly explainable; as the story progresses so do the intensity and weirdness of the sounds. As often as not, a Lovecraft story ends abruptly after terrifying and inexplicable sounds—sounds that speak to “primitive senses that we may not even have known we possessed,”40 sounds that congeal into a “hyper-cacophony”41—build up to their fullest manifestation.
Thus in Lovecraft’s 1921 “The Transition of Juan Romero” the story-within-the-story is filled with references to howling coyotes, shrieking wind, and underground rumbles that seem to be caused neither by explosions nor by machinery, but all of this is just a prelude to the climactic event in which, according to the narrator, “out of the darkness [there came] such a chorus of uncouth sound as I could never hear again and survive. In that moment it seemed as if all the hidden terrors and monstrosities of earth had become articulate in an effort to overwhelm the human race.”42
Thus in his 1920 “The Nameless City” an adventurer in the Arabian desert listens to “a sighing sandstorm,” sees his camel frightened by “the noise of a wind,” and, after he descends a hidden staircase into what he believes to be “some hideous haunted well,” to ease his worries sings aloud a poetic phrase about “the unreverberate blackness of the abyss.”43 Only after he realizes that the underground chamber contains the remnants of some ancient reptilian civilization, however, does he hear “a definite sound—the first which had broken the utter silence of these tomb-like depths,” a sound he likens to “a deep, low moaning, as of a distant throng of condemned spirits.” And only in the story’s penultimate paragraph—after he recounts how he barely escaped from “the hell-born babel of the howling wind-wraiths”—does the adventurer recall “that the fury of the rushing blast was infernal—cacodaemoniacal—and that its voices were hideous with the pent-up viciousness of desolate eternities.”44
And thus in Lovecraft’s 1921 “The Moon-Bog” the narrator, who travels from America to Ireland to visit an old friend who had recently taken possession of his ancestral castle, on his first several nights has his dreams bothered by “faint sounds from the distance” and a “shrill, monotonous piping” that he thinks might be “the crickets of autumn…come before their time.” Only after his friend makes the fatal mistake of attempting to drain the estate’s apparently sacred bog does the narrator accept the reality of “the maddening and incessant piping” that increasingly “whined and reverberated through the castle,” and only after the creatures of the bog have claimed his friend to the accompaniment of “shrieks [that] had attained a magnitude and quality which cannot be written of” does he flee the “accursed castle.” As he makes his escape, the narrator observes (again in the story’s penultimate paragraph) that “the stagnant waters” of the bog “now teemed with a horde of slimy enormous frogs which piped shrilly and incessantly in tones strangely out of keeping with their size.”45
To be sure, not every Lovecraft tale has a ‘soundtrack’ that features a long crescendo followed by sudden silence. But this pattern occurs often enough—to mark the finales of stories long as well as short, obscure as well as famous, and to mark the ends of key chapters in such novellas as the 1922 Herbert West: Reanimator and the 1930 The Whisperer in Darkness—for it to be considered a Lovecraft trait. Not without irony, and suggesting that Lovecraft cultivated this trait with full knowledge that it generated negative criticism, the pattern occurs even at the end of the above-mentioned “The Unnamable,” when the berating friend ultimately goes down with “a sort of gulping gasp” that is answered by “a creaking sound” from “some unseen entity of titanic size but undetermined nature.”46 After a relentless build-up to such an unholy noise, all a story can do—however inconclusively—is stop.
Plot Points in Poe
For those possessed of a certain taste, Lovecraft is relished not just for his vivid descriptions of horrific sights and sounds but also for his uncanny knack for using mere words to seduce readers into thinking that they actually sense, as they read, those same icky stimuli. The writing of Edgar Allan Poe, on the whole, is not nearly so lurid, and this is only in part because Poe’s range of genres is so much broader than Lovecraft’s. Whereas Lovecraft’s output consists almost entirely of horror stories, Poe’s output includes not only works of that sort but also examples of humor, adventure, mystery, science fiction, and—significantly—lyric poetry. Moreover, whereas most of Lovecraft’s narratives are fairly devoid of complex structure, the narratives of Poe’s stories, scary or otherwise, typically follow the more or less standard format of exposition, complication, climax, and dénouement; whereas in Lovecraft the most potent sounds are ingredients added to a sensuous stew that gets thicker and spicier as the story approaches its inevitable boiling point, in Poe the most powerful sounds are dramatically relevant elements placed, for structural reasons, at key points in the stories’ plots.
To be sure, some of the sounds in Poe are, as they were in the earlier tales, and as they would be in the Sherlock Holmes stories, mere illustrations of a tale’s setting or circumstances; they might be chilling, but they are easily attributable to natural causes, and appropriate for their environs. Other of Poe’s sounds, like so many of Lovecraft’s, are horrific in large part because they have no basis of comparison; early in “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal” (1835), for example, the narrator records in his journal that one morning he “was suddenly roused from slumber…by a loud, crackling, and terrific sound” that was “of very brief duration, but, while it lasted resembled nothing in the world of which I had any previous experience,”47 and in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) the narrator, some time before he finishes his story, reports that the voice emerging from a man everyone thought to be dead “was harsh, and broken and hollow” but otherwise “indescribable, for the simple reason that no similar sounds had ever jarred upon the ear of humanity.”48 Still other of Poe’s sounds are mysteriously ephemeral, because they elude the ears even of the person who tells the story and are only reported to have been heard by some other character; in “The Assignation” (1834) the narrator describes a man who had the disconcerting habit of “pausing in the middle of a sentence” and “listening in the deepest attention…to sounds which must have had existence in his imagination alone,”49 and in “Ligeia” (1838) the narrator tells with trepidation about how the increasingly deranged Lady Rowena “spoke, in an earnest low whisper, of sounds which she then heard, but which I could not hear.”50
The most effective of Poe’s sounds, however, are those more or less ‘normal’ sounds that do not simply ‘set a mood’ but that serve a structural purpose. Frances Clarke has remarked on how the chiming of bells in “The Masque of Red Death” (1842) is “frequently used” not just “to break a silence [or] stillness” and thus to remind readers “that time is passing” but also “as a signifier for the beginning or end of certain less regimented time phases,”51 and a browse through Poe’s fiction will reveal numerous other instances in which the noises of bells or wind or water similarly divide one section of a story from the next. Less frequent, but far more memorable, are the instances in which the introduction of a particular sonic phenomenon—horrific not in and of itself but made to seem so within the context of the narrative—is reserved for a story’s peak moment. Perhaps it is only coincidence that the best known of these ‘climactic’ sounds occur in stories that play on the theme of entombment.
As he starts to lay the bricks that will hide away the target of his revenge, the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) hears first “a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess,” then “the furious vibrations of the chain” with which he has fastened his victim to the wall, then “a succession of loud and shrill screams”; not until just before he lays the last brick does the story’s narrator hear the quiet sound of resignation—“only a jingling of the bells” on the victim’s jester costume—that will haunt him for the next 50 years.52
Sounds emanating from a burial chamber do not simply haunt the murderous narrator in two other of Poe’s more famous tales; they give him away, in the stories’ final paragraphs, to police investigators. The killer in that “most remarkable of Poe’s microauditory stories,”53 “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), smugly believes that his interviewers are convinced of his innocence until he hears—or thinks he hears—“a low, dull, quick sound…such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” that seems to rise up from the floorboards under which the corpse is hidden and then relentlessly grows “louder—louder—louder!” until, on the verge of madness, he confesses his crime.54 The killer in “The Black Cat” (1843) experiences no such auditory delusions, but he, too, is sure that he has gotten away with his crime, and in a “phrenzy of bravado” he demonstrates to the detectives the solidity of his basement walls by “rapp[ing] heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse” of his murdered wife. Doubtless along with the tale’s readers, the killer is surprised by what happens next:
No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb!—by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman—a howl—a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
He discovers, as do the detectives who tear down the brick wall, that perched on the head of the corpse, “already greatly decayed and clotted with gore,” is the tale’s eponymous cat, the “hideous beast…whose informing voice…consigned [him] to the hangman.”55
The central character in “The Cask of Amontillado” is a vengeful murderer, and the central characters in “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are psychopaths. There is no murderer at all in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and the narrator, like the narrator of so many of Lovecraft’s stories, is simply an innocent observer of the unfolding of events. A good deal of the tale’s first half is spent on descriptions, mostly visual, of the “melancholy” mansion to which the narrator has been invited, but much of it is spent as well in establishing the decidedly odd character of the narrator’s sono-phobic host (“there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror”) and the “morbid condition of [his] auditory nerve” that made him hypersensitive to noises of all sorts.56
It is only in the tale’s last several pages, after the narrator assists Roderick Usher in laying to rest his recently departed sister, that the sounds the narrator believes the nervous Roderick only thinks he hears (“I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound”) morph into sounds that the narrator himself hears with his own ears (“I harkened…to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence”, and “I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation”). The narrator approaches his host as if to inquire as to whether Roderick, too, has heard these sounds, and Roderick’s exhausted response, in the tale’s antepenultimate paragraph, contains one of literature’s most chilling accounts of how the mere mention of a sound so ordinary as footsteps can, in certain circumstances, be made to seem extraordinarily horrific:
“Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak!…Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart?…I tell you that she now stands without the door!”57
The French composer Claude Debussy in 1908 began sketching an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher”; he abandoned the project in 1917, probably in large part because he knew that Poe’s story “demands sound effects whose realization seems to defy all creative effort” and which would “guarantee falsification and acoustic-musical banality.”58 The makers of radio dramas and B movies, both of which came into existence only in the 1930s, seem never to have worried much about banality. Aided by recording equipment and electronic sound-modification techniques about which Debussy could not even have dreamed, over the years they generated a huge number of productions based directly, or more often ‘loosely,’ on Poe tales. With the exception of the handful of Poe adaptations made between 1935 and 1955 by CBS and NBC radio in the United States and by the BBC radio in England,59 most of these, alas, have been feeble efforts. They teem with creepy sounds, to be sure, but that is only to say that they teem with clichés.
Even in a well-made horror film or radio drama that manages to avoid clichés, all the sounds—ranging from the most innocuous bits of dialogue to the most gruesome noises—must of necessity be made concrete. Depending on their sensitivities and their familiarity with the genre, different audience members will of course respond to these sounds in different ways. But the sounds themselves, by virtue of the medium through which they are presented, will always be fixed and physical. They are what they are, and they will remain the same no matter how often they are revisited. Although as acoustic phenomena the sounds delivered by means of radio or cinema loudspeakers might very well give their first-time hearers a scare, their deep-reaching psychological power does not hold a candle to what the best writers can accomplish through words alone.
In a really good piece of horror writing, or even in an example of cheap hackwork that simply aspires to the level of Poe or Lovecraft, all the sounds—again by virtue of the medium through which they are presented—are forever fluid, for they exist only in the readers’ imaginations. In the case of Poe, whose stories tend to be teleological and whose sonic elements (like those in Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles) are for the most part realistic, the imagined sounds of, say, resonant bells or screeching cats are likely to be not far removed from what the reader knows from personal experience. In the case of Lovecraft, whose stories typically eschew logic and whose climactic sonic elements (like those in Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”) are often described as being utterly unlike anything ever heard before, the imagined sounds can only be whatever the individual reader fancies them to be. But even the most ‘realistic’ sounds of horror fiction are adjusted, in the mind’s ear of the reader, to suit the reading circumstances.
Any persons doubting the malleability of literary sounds are encouraged to revisit, for the sake of comparison, both a scary movie that they experienced a long time ago and a scary story that a long time ago they read. In the case of the film, the horrific sounds—however precisely or vaguely they might be remembered—will by definition be exactly the same as they were during that once-upon-a-time first exposure, and what will be different, probably, is the movie-watcher’s reaction to those sounds. In the case of the story, the words that describe the horrific sounds will of course be the same, but what is sure to be different in the new reading is those sounds’ imagined essence.
To realize the peak sonic moments of a horror film or a radio drama, the members of a production team have no choice but to offer actual sounds that they hope will hit the desired affective mark. At comparable moments in a short story or novel, the writer is not so constrained, and with the writer’s freedom comes freedom for the reader. The writer offers readers not the acoustic reality of a horrific sound but only the abstract idea of such a sound. So long as the writer’s prose is sufficiently evocative, and so long as the descriptions of these sounds are not overly specific, the reader of horror fiction—drawing on personal experiences and expectations, but also on private fantasies and fears—willingly does the rest.
In use since the late 1930s, the term classical-style film describes the familiar form of cinema as one in which the music, acting, mise en scène, and everything else serves primarily “to explain, not obscure, the narrative.” Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2000), 64.
For speculation as to which of the urns by the Greek sculptor Sosibios in fact served as Keats’s inspiration, see Tim Chamberlain, “The Elusive Urn,” British Museum Magazine (Summer 2005), 36–38.
Except for essays by Dean Lockwood and Isabella van Elferen, which focus exclusively on sonic imagery in Lovecraft, the mentions of sounds in Lovecraft as well as in Poe tend to be only fleeting. See Dean Lockwood, “Mongrel Vibrations: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Ecology of Noise,” in Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, ed. Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, and Paul Hegarty (London: Continuum, 2012), 73–83; Isabella van Elferen, “Hyper-Cacophony: Lovecraft, Speculative Realism, and Sonic Materialism,” in The Age of Lovecraft, ed. Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 79–96.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes (Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1976), 381–82.
The earliest sound film based on The Hound of the Baskervilles is a 1932 UK production that starred Robert Rendel as Sherlock Holmes. Before that there were two silent films, a UK version from 1921 and a German version from 1914; the German film was based on Richard Oswald’s 1907 four-act stage adaptation of the Doyle novel.
H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in Supernatural Horror in Literature & Other Literary Essays (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2011), 101.
Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows,” in Famous Modern Ghost Stories, ed. Dorothy Scarborough (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1921).
The story was originally titled “Princess Zenobia” and was published in November 1838 in the magazine American Museum. Retitled “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” in 1840 it was reprinted in Poe’s two-volume Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
Teresa A. Goddu, “Poe, Sensationalism, and Slavery,” in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 96; Maria Filipa Palma dos Reis, “A Reading of ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’ as an Exercise in Irony, Authorial Self-consciousness and Tuition for Creative Writers,” The Edgar Allan Poe Review 11, no. 1(2010): 142, 144.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven Edition, vol. 4 (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1903), 31.
“The Man in the Bell” was published under the name Thomas Mann, but it is the work of the Irish writer William Maginn.
Poe, The Works of Edgar Allen Poe:, The Raven Edition, vol. 4 (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1903), 31.
See, for example, Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Everest House, 1981), and Clive Barker, Clive Barker: The Painter, the Creature, and the Father of Lies, ed. Phil Stokes and Sarah Stokes (Northborough, MA: Earthling Publications, 2011).
H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in Supernatural Horror in Literature & Other Literary Essays (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2011),19.
M. P. Shiel, “The House of Sounds,” in The Colour Out of Space: Tales of Cosmic Horror by Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, Poe, and Other Masters of the Weird, ed. D. Thin (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002), 101.
Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Terror of Blue John Gap,” in The Last Galley: Impressions and Other Tales (New York: Doubleday, 1911), 157–58.
Doyle, “The Surgeon of Gaster Fell,” in Danger! And Other Stories (London: John Murray, 1918), 175.
Bram Stoker, The Lady of the Shroud (London: Rider and Co., 1909), 82.
Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (London: Foulsham & Co., 1911), 57.
Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars (London: William Heinemann, 1903), 46.
Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff, “Introduction,” in The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction, ed. Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004), xiv.
Aubrey S. Garlington, “’Gothic’ Literature and Dramatic Music in England, 1781–1802,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 15, no. 1 (1962); Frits Noske, “The Function of Music in the Gothic Novel,” Music & Letters 62, no. 2 (1981).
Isabella van Elferen, Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), 19, 21, 25.
James Kneale, “Monstrous and Haunted Media: H. P. Lovecraft and Early Twentieth-Century Communications Technology,” Historical Geography 38 (2010), 97.
Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Routledge, 1981), 39.
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, trans. Dorna Khazeni (London: Orion, 2008), 69–70; emphasis original. Originally H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le Monde, Contre la Vie (Paris: Éditions du Rocher, 1991).
Dean Lockwood, “Mongrel Vibrations: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Ecology of Noise,” in Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, ed. Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, and Paul Hegarty (London: Continuum, 2012), 78.
Ibid., 73; emphasis added.
Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 119.
Isabella van Elferen, “Hyper-Cacophony: Lovecraft, Speculative Realism, and Sonic Materialism,” in The Age of Lovecraft, ed. Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 79, 90.
In the story, the phrase about “the unreverberate blackness of the abyss” is attributed to ‘one of Lord Dunsany’s tales.’ At the time of Lovecraft’s writing the eighteenth Baron Dunsany was Edward Plunkett (1878–1957), a prolific producer of ‘fantastic’ tales forgotten by posterity but apparently admired by Lovecraft.
Ibid., “The Moon-Bog,” 104–7.
Ibid., “The Unnamable,” 180.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven Edition, vol. 1 (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1903), 33.
Ibid., vol. 2, 43.
Ibid., vol. 3, 79.
Frances Clarke, “Gothic Vibrations and Edgar Allan Poe,” Horror Studies 7, no. 2 (2016), 112.
Poe, vol. 2, 68–69.
David Toop, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (London: Continuum, 2010), 165.
Poe, vol. 2, 123.
Ibid., “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 50–59.
Caroline Abbate, “Debussy’s Phantom Sounds,” Cambridge Opera Journal 10, no. 1 (1998): 81. Debussy was not the only composer who found inspiration in Poe. For commentary on the impressively large number of serious musical works inspired by or based on Poe texts, see, for example, May Garrettson Evans, Music and Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1939); Burton R. Pollin, “More Music to Poe,” Music & Letters 54, no. 4 (1973): 391–404; Jack Sullivan, “Poe and Music: A Continuing Legacy,” The Edgar Allan Poe Review 4, no. 2 (2003): 72–76; and Charity Beth McAdams, “Edgar Allan Poe and Music” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 2014).
Lovecraft, too, has proved to be a muse for musicians, although most of the resulting work falls into the category not of ‘classical’ but of ‘popular’ music. See, for example, Don G. Smith, H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture: The Works and Their Adaptations in Film, Television, Comics, Music and Games (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005); Gary Hill, The Strange Sound of Cthulhu: Music Inspired by the Writings of HP Lovecraft (Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com, 2006); and Joseph Norman, “‘Sounds Which Filled Me with an Indefinable Dread’: The Cthulhu Mythopoeia of HP Lovecraft in ‘Extreme Metal,’” in New Critical Essays on HP Lovecraft, ed. David Simmons (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013),193–208.
Neil Verma, “Honeymoon Shocker: Lucille Fletcher’s ‘Psychological’ Sound Effects and Wartime Radio Drama,” Journal of American Studies 44, no. 1 (2010), 144; Richard J. Hand, Listen in Terror: British Horror Radio from the Advent of Broadcasting to the Digital Age (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), 70–77.