A number of literary works from some of my favorite authors are celebrating their quasquicentennial, or 125th anniversary, this year. Released in 1898 were H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” Jules Verne’s The Mighty Orinoco, and H. Rider Haggard’s Doctor Therne. Those first two titles, of course, are acknowledged all-time classics; the latter two admired to this day by fans of the authors. Another book that turns 125 this year is one that is barely known at all by the average reader, yet one that is every bit as deserving of remembrance and admiration as any of those four mentioned above; namely, Tenebrae, by the English author Ernest G. Henham. It is a book that I myself was completely ignorant of until recently, and yet it has turned out to be, surprisingly enough, one of my favorite reads of 2023.
The book’s relative obscurity can be fairly easily understood today. Tenebrae was originally released by the British publisher Skeffington & Son as a hardcover volume (the previous year, Skeffington had released Richard Marsh’s classic novel of Egyptian horror The Beetle, which outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula; I hope to be reading that novel shortly), after which it went OOPs (out of prints) for no fewer than 111 years! The novel was finally resurrected by the fine folks at Ramble House in 2009 and, three years later, by Valancourt Books. It is the Valancourt edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on; a beautiful edition, indeed, that includes the novel’s original cover art, as well as a scholarly introduction by Henham authority Gerald Monsman. Monsman’s (spoiler-laden) introduction is indeed so very erudite and astute as to practically comprise the “last word” on the subject of this Gothic-inflected, psychological horror masterpiece. Still, I will endeavor to throw my middlebrow 2 cents’ worth into the discussion.
Before doing so, however, a brief word on the author himself. Ernest G. Henham was born in London in 1870 but relocated to the Canadian Northwest as a young man. After penning some dozen novels under his own name, he moved back to England around 1906, settled in the forested area of Dartmoor, and wrote another 18 or so novels under the pen name of John Trevena, many of them centering around life in that rural area. Henham wrote at least three novels with fantastic content: Tenebrae, The Feast of Bacchus (1907), and The Reign of the Saints (1911). He ultimately passed away in 1948, at the age of 77.
Now, as to Tenebrae (the Latin word for “darkness), Henham’s third novel, itself: The book, for the most part, takes the form of a journal written by a man named … well, we never do learn his name, actually, and this is as good a time as any to mention that none of the other characters in the book are ever named either. Unusual, right? Our narrator is a youngish man in his early 30s who lives in the gloomy old house that he had inherited from his deceased parents. Also dwelling in this abode are his madman uncle, who had earlier in life wrecked his body and mind with opium, morphine, laudanum and alcohol, and who now spends his days talking to the bugs in the garden (he calls himself “King of the Insects”), concocting new drugs, and hallucinating reptiles; his handsome younger brother, with whom he is very close (so close, indeed, that the two kiss each other good night); and the aged nurse who had brought them up since infancy. Our narrator’s house sits on the edge of a moor that is scattered with dead, gnarly trees and that contains a black, stagnant lake at its center; on the house’s other side is a pine forest leading to a cliff high above the sea. As we soon learn, our narrator, already half mad when we meet him, is an antisocial sort who spends his days poring over old Norse manuscripts, reading about Chaldean witchcraft, and studying the myths of the heathens, when he isn’t imbibing some of his uncle’s various narcotic potions. The one bright spot of normalcy in his life seems to be the love he bears for a beautiful local woman. But he soon begins to suspect his brother of being in love with that same woman, and when he sees the two together in the pine forest, the love he holds for his brother instantly turns to hatred. And before long, in a passionate rage, and with the thought of the Cain and Abel story in his mind, he slays his brother horribly, casts his body from the cliff, and buries him with rocks beneath the sea. So ends the book’s first section, “The Foreshadowing.”
In the second section, “The Under-Shadow,” our narrator beings to go completely off the deep end, devoured by guilt and remorse. He has the temerity to ask his brother’s former lover for her hand in marriage, a proposal that the young woman, remarkably enough, agrees to, although we sense an ulterior motive in her acquiescence. The marriage turns out to be a horrible one, with our narrator afraid to so much as share a bed with his new bride, lest he blurt out something incriminating in his sleep. His madman uncle repeatedly warns him that the woman is “a tiger” who is out to get him, but our narrator has other things to contend with now. An arachnophobe from an early age, he now begins to see an enormous spider that appears to him in a most threatening guise … the embodied spirit, he fancies, of his dead brother’s vengeance. The visits of this hideous spider invariably leave our narrator in a state of absolute paralysis, as his mind teeters closer and closer to complete collapse…
While making my way through our narrator’s increasingly crazed journal, this reader could not help being reminded of those immortal words of Wednesday Addams, from the very first episode of The Addams Family back in 1964: “It’s so nice and glooooomy.” And truly, Henham’s book really is a thing of delicious dreariness and morbidity. The house is dreary, the grounds are dreary, the weather is, usually, dreary. Most especially dreary, perhaps, is our narrator’s favorite chamber in his abode, the Blue Room, with its walls and furnishings done all in black but with blue-tinted windows to throw a ghastly light over all. And just get a load of our narrator’s dreary description of his walk across the moor:
…A sombre gloom pierced through the shivering haze of colours. Everything was motionless, peaceful, yet with the gloom of the tomb, the statuesque quietness of eternal death. The black trees, blasted and bent into frightful shapes, stood as emblems of tortured souls; the rank grass, with bleached heads hanging droopingly, represented life in its nakedness, stripped of its smallest pleasure; the black mirror of the lake, with its noxious miasma of bursting gas bubbles and fetid herbs, spread before me as a symbol of the unknown that confronts the soul beyond death, and the continual horror of that same phantom over life. The gaunt rocks were tombstones, that sealed down the crumbling bones of a forgotten past…
Such a pleasant, cheery young man, right? Henham here reveals himself capable of a stunning writing style, effortlessly capturing the Gothic mode of a century before. The comparisons to Poe that Monsman makes in his introduction are understandable; the killers in such Poe stories as, oh, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) suffered no fewer mental pangs after their crimes than our narrator does here. Even the multiple-killer Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), doesn’t go through as much hallucinatory self-torture as our poor nameless wretch here. Tenebrae doesn’t have much of a story line other than its narrator going bonkers after committing fratricide, but the interior monologues that we are privy to are endlessly fascinating, delivered as they are in beautifully florid prose. The book is a wonderfully detailed portrait of a rapidly deteriorating mind, and our narrator is as unreliable as they come. Still, we cannot help but marvel at his consistent unpleasantness. Again, here’s what he tells his lady love, when he espies her placing some flowers by her mother’s grave: “It is a strange custom, this spreading of flowers upon graves … What connection can fragrant blossoms have with the rotting flesh or brown-dried skeleton beneath?” Honestly, what woman could possibly resist such a charming chap?
Tenebrae, despite the outwardly simple story line, yet features any number of tremendously effective and dramatic sequences. Among them: our narrator’s initial discovery of the two lovers in the pine forest; the nighttime murder of the brother, following a remarkable dialogue between the two; the three sightings of that giant spider (in the second, the arachnid appears as a 20-foot-long monstrosity, clinging to the outside wall of our narrator’s house!); our narrator, believing himself to be dead, approaching his wife to torment her, causing the woman to cry “You vile creature … you miserable madman”; and, of course, the final conversation between our narrator and his wife, during which all cards are laid upon the table.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what a wonderful character our narrator’s madman uncle is; one who, despite his insanity, is a lot shrewder than he initially appears. How amazing it is that the uncle has taught our narrator to flavor his coffee with a touch of arsenic, and when he gives his nephew his newest concoction: brandy laced with liquefied nicotine! But still, ultimately, it is the nephew who turns out to be the most wackadoodle character of all. Whether endlessly bouncing a ball against the wall of his chamber (shades of Steve McQueen’s “Cooler King” in 1963’s The Great Escape), insisting that chrysanthemums are in fact poppies, laughing and declaiming to himself, chopping off the tops of flowers in his garden (shades of Morticia Addams!), refusing to consummate his marriage, hallucinating demons and spiders, and sitting in his chamber, paralyzed, for hours, he really is a character for the ages … whatever his name might happen to be. His narrative is compellingly readable, and really, I can’t say enough about Henham’s wonderful style and beautifully written prose. Is it any wonder, then, that the family doctor, after reading this manuscript, remarks on sections of it being “beautifully and carefully written”? I could quote any number of impressively rendered passages here for your delectation, but perhaps have already given you a sufficient sample. As the doctor also mentions, the manuscript is “the strangest history that is ever likely to come within my knowledge,” and after reading it yourself you might be inclined to agree!
If I were to levy one complaint regarding Henham’s wholly remarkable piece of work here, it is that it remains consistently unclear whether or not the narrator is writing of the events depicted on the days they occur, or at some future remove. Thus, when an entry is dated “Friday, 2nd May,” are we supposed to think that our madman narrator is writing in his journal on that date, or that he is writing much later of things that transpired on May 2nd? The argument can be made either way. For example, in the book’s very first chapter, our narrator already mentions his brother’s death; “ages have rolled away since we [we?] buried him.” Matters become even more confusing when, breaking from a strict chronological order, the entries proceed from August 27th back to August 19th. In that latter section, he mentions being married to his wife … although he would not be married, we’d been led to believe, until the 27th. A mistake on Henham’s part, or just another instance of the mental rot occurring in our narrator? It is impossible to tell. Still, other than these two minor cavils, I could find no fault in Henham’s Gothic doozy here. Valancourt Books is to be thanked for reviving this marvelously macabre entertainment from its century-plus languishment in limbo. Today, that first edition of Tenebrae from Skeffington & Son is almost impossible to find; a truly scarce rarity. One online seller yesterday was offering the book for $3,500 (!), but thanks to Valancourt, we now have a nice new edition that can be had for a song. Personally, I can’t wait to order that other supernatural title by Ernest G. Henham, The Feast of Bacchus, which is also part of Valancourt’s most impressive catalog. Bottom line: All lovers of Gothic fiction, weird horror, and beautifully written Victorian fare will find much to love in Tenebrae, and are well advised to pounce like a jumping spider … unless, of course, they happen to suffer from arachnophobia…