CARNACKI #2: “The House Among the Laurels”

(Spoiler alert: This post discusses the plot of the Carnacki story, “The House Among the Laurels”.  If you do not wish to know the plot, you should stop reading now or go here to read the story.)

“The House Among the Laurels” is the second Carnacki story to appear in print.  It first appeared in the February, 1910, issue of The Idler (after January’s “The Gateway of the Monster”).  In the collections that follows, it is generally the third story in the book.  It is, admittedly, one of the weaker stories in the Carnacki canon.

Carnacki has just returned “from the West of Ireland” where he has been involved in a case concerning his friend Wentworth’s recent inheritance of a large manor and estate.  Upon arriving in the town, Wentworth learns that the manor has a dark history and that two tramps had died in the manor within the last seven years.  Wentworth is advised by the Agent of the Estate to “have the house pulled down, and a new one built.”

Wentworth (a perfect example of Carnacki’s clients who refuse to ‘walk away from real estate’) decides to disprove the haunting reputation of the manor by staying in it himself overnight.  The Agent and local pub owner try to dissuade him from this course to no avail and it is a group of stout-hearted men who follow Wentworth to the manor.

Once there, however, Wentworth’s resolve fades and he manages to convince the crowd to stay in the manor with him.  Fortified, of course, by a couple dozen bottles of whiskey.

Returning for the provisions, Wentworth is again assailed by the pub owner who tells something of the manor’s past and the terrifying ‘blood-drip’:

“‘Shure,’ he said, ”tis the bhlood av thim as ould Black Mick ‘way back in the ould days kilt in their shlape. ‘Twas a feud as he pretendid to patch up, an’ he invited thim — the O’Haras they was — siventy av thim. An’ he fed thim, an’ shpoke soft to thim, an’ thim thrustin’ him, sthayed to shlape with him. Thin, he an’ thim with him, stharted in an’ mhurdered thim was an’ all as they slep’. ‘Tis from me father’s grandfather ye have the sthory. An’ sence thin ’tis death to any, so they say, to pass the night in the castle whin the bhlood-dhrip comes. ‘Twill put out candle an’ fire, an’ thin in the darkness the Virgin Herself would be powerless to protect ye.’

The men proceed to drink and converse in the midst of a roaring fire as the night wears away and the great main door remains open.  Three hours later, with the whiskey flowing briskly, Wentworth notices the great main door slowly move and shut with a click.

Then a great bull mastiff (which had been given by one of the men for protection) begins to bark at the dark hallway.  Wentworth tells the culprit to come out and, when no one appears, fires several shots down the hall.  The dog begins to back at a hall door which slowly opens to show only darkness beyond.  Whimpering, the dog returns to the men.

Suddenly, Wentworth feels something wet upon his hand and, raising it into the light, sees a dark red blotch there.  Several of the men see this and they run from the manor, screaming “the blood-drip” as they flee.  The dog is left behind and Wentworth can hear the mournful howl as he escapes.

Wentworth sends for Carnacki the next day and he arrives by the “mail train” that night.

The next morning, Carnacki and Wentworth make an examination of the manor.

The next day we went up to the old Manor, which certainly lies in rather a wilderness; though what struck me most was the extraordinary number of laurel bushes about the house. The place was smothered with them; so that the house seemed to be growing up out of a sea of green laurel. These, and the grim, ancient look of the old building, made the place look a bit dank and ghostly, even by daylight.

The dog is found dead with its neck broken.  This shows Carnacki that there is something here dangerous to life.  For the next three weeks, Carnacki examines every inch of the manor but finds nothing amiss.  He then decides to spend the night in the manor, with his unique ‘protections’, which Wentworth begs him not to do.

Six policemen are acquired from the neighboring town and, that night, they descend on the manor along with Carnacki’s equipment and two great boar-hounds.  Carnacki proceeds much as he did in “The Gateway of the Monster” case with the sealing of the other doors with wax, the drawing of a circle around the men, a garlic circle smeared outside it and the building of his ‘electric pentacle’ inside the circle.  He posts the six men at points along the pentacle as he makes the “eight signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and gives them instructions not to move or break the patterns.  The dogs have been placed on opposite sides of the room with protective circles placed around them as well.

An hour later, the dogs stand at attention, staring at the great main door which Carnacki had latched open.  Suddenly, they begin barking at the door and Carnacki can see the hook being lifted by some invisible force.  Quickly, Carnacki takes out his camera and snaps a picture as the dogs bark ferociously.  The door swings shut quietly and the dogs are reduced to whimpers.

They sit in silence for over an hour when the candles begin to be put out.  There is nothing near them nor any draft but they wink out in great succession.  Startled, Carnacki takes more pictures as he tries to catch a candle in the act of being extinguished and the men grow uneasy.

Then the great fire they had built slowly goes out… as if it had been smothered.  An hour later, all of the candles within the protection also go out.  All that is left is the weak light of the electric pentacle.

 “I tell you, for a moment, I just sat there as though I had been frozen solid. I felt the ‘creep’ go all over me, and seem to stop in my brain. I felt all at once to be given a power of hearing that was far beyond the normal. I could hear my own heart thudding most extraordinarily loud. I began, however, to feel better, after a while; but I simply had not the pluck to move. You can understand?”

The sound of wax breaking fills the room as Carnacki realizes the other doors are being opened.  Quickly, he takes another photo and, in the split second of light, can see that all the doors are now opened.

The sound of drips comes upon them as the ‘blood-drip’ begins.  They can see the drops fall on the electric pentacle and outside but nothing falls upon them.  Suddenly comes the “terrifying howl of agony” of one of the dogs and the sickening snap as its neck is broken in the dark.  Carnacki knows that something has crossed the ‘protection’ he drew around the animal and that they are all in grave danger.

Unable to bear any more, one of the men breaks for the door and they all follow… even Carnacki.

Back at the inn, where half the village had been waiting for them, the frightened men fortify themselves with spirits while Carnacki develops his photographs.  Examining one, he makes an important discovery that impels him to sneak out of the inn and back to the manor.  Instead of opening the great gates, Carnacki crawls over the wall and into the back of the building.  Walking quietly, he hears the voices of men coming from the great hall where they had all fled.

“There were several men there, all in a group. They were well dressed, and one, at least, I saw was armed. They were examining my ‘Barriers’ against the Supernatural, with a good deal of unkind laughter. I never felt such a fool in my life.”

Concluding that the men comprise a gang that had been using the manor for an illicit hangout, Carnacki watches them trip a level and leave through a secret door in the staircase.  Quickly he runs back to the village and informs the men of the truth about the haunting.  Angered by the trick played upon them, they converge on the manor and attempt to capture the gang.  However, they must have been alerted by the attempts to break through the secret door as they all escape.  Through the secret door, Carnacki and the men discover a system of tunnels that lead out to the grounds, away from the manor.

Carnacki finds that the ceiling of the great hall was hollow.  This allowed the gang to sneak above and drip the ‘blood’ down onto the unsuspecting group.  It also enabled them to pass a wire down to unhook the great door and swing it shut.  It was this wire that Carnacki had seen on his photo and which gave him the necessary clue to disprove the haunting although even he is baffled as to how the candles and fire were snuffed out.

The mysterious death of the tramps in previous years also remains a mystery as it could have been the ‘gang’ (anxious to promote the legend) or they could have died of natural causes.

With that, Carnacki throws his guests out onto the London Embankment and so ends another case.

That “The House Among the Laurels” is unsatisfying lies in the fact that the haunting is not supernatural at all.  Although Carnacki’s deduction of this is interesting from a detective standpoint, it is disappointing that the ghosts are not ‘real’.

However, Hodgson’s descriptions of the incidents remains powerful and spine-chilling.  It is this, if anything, that makes one so disappointed at the natural conclusion as it negates the wonderfully creepy episodes shown previously.

In this story, mention is made of yet another unwritten case: “The Steeple Monster Case”.  It was the successful conclusion of this case that prompts Wentworth to contact Carnacki but, sadly, we know nothing about this case other than the name.

The Saaamaaa Ritual is used once again as is the electric pentacle.  The Saaamaaa Ritual is now seen to have “Eight Signs” that have to be performed for it to be complete.  We also hear, for the first time, a quotation from the enigmatic Sigsand MS.: “Theyre must noe lyght come from wythin the barryier.”  This is interpreted by Carnacki to mean that no matches are to be lit or tobacco smoked.  However, he contradicts himself because not only are there lighted candles but Carnacki himself creates light by the use of his flash photography.  Perhaps it was a good thing that the haunting was not real!

In addition to Professor Gardner’s article, “Experiments with a Medium” (which inspired Carnacki to create the electric pentacle), Carnacki mentions another essay called ‘Astarral Vibrations Compared with Matero-involuted Vibrations below the Six-Billion Limit.’  I can only assume that this is also part of the inspiration behind the electric pentacle.

Mention is also made of something new:

“Yet, unless it should prove to be one of the cases of the more terrible Saiitii Manifestation, we were almost certain of safety, so long as we kept to our order within the Pentacle.”

No further explanation is given.  We are only left to assume that the “Saiitii Manifestation” has the ability to break through Carnacki’s ‘protections’ and that even Carnacki himself fears it… whatever it is.

Also in this story we see two interesting characteristics of Carnacki that are not always shared by his fellow ‘ghost-detectives’.  Carnacki can be wrong and, more importantly, Carnacki gets scared.  Unlike other such characters, Carnacki is flawed and it is this quality that makes him more endearing.

(The artwork for this post comes from the original appearance of this story in The Idler and was by Florence Briscoe.)



Filed under Carnacki, Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

2 responses to “CARNACKI #2: “The House Among the Laurels”

  1. Micky

    This was my first WHH‘s story which introduced me this master of horror genre and I chose to read it only because I liked the title 🙂 I remember reading it on a summer day and when I had read five or six pages, a friend of mine called me to join them in our local. So I went to the pub wondering what would become of the unfortunate howling dog and what kind of supernatural agency was at work in the old manor-house. The next day I finished reading the story and I liked it so much I started to search more about mr. Hodgson. It was some twelve years ago and information on WHH were very scarce then and (sometimes) incorrect; but things have mercifully changed since then.

    As far as the story goes, what I like about it most is the perfectly built and creepy atmosphere, though one must admit the climax brings a slight disappointment. I do not mind the supernatural agency turns out to be a bunch of some desperadoes or mad scientists who want the manor house to be at their disposal for some unknown reason; what I do not like about it is the way the ilusion of the haunting is created – it is very and unnecessarily complex; the front door unhooked by the wire, the blood dripping down by means of small crevices in the celling, the strange extinguishing of the candles, the bell apparatus warning the gangsters in the underground rooms reached by a hidden trapdoor, the doors of the rooms in the hall opened and closed by the wire-mechanism, the hidden stairs inside the big stairs and etc. I really doubt an individual would go out of one’s way to evoke the haunting illusion by such a complicated method. My great advantage was I did not know the Carnacki series so I could only guess what to expect from the story and though it is nothing to write home about (compared with Hodgson’s stories like “The Derelict“ or “Baumoff Explosive“) it still works.

    • You know, it’s funny how the mystery fans like the non-supernatural Carnacki stories while the horror fans prefer the supernatural ones! Ellery Queen preferred the former while Lovecraft didn’t care for the non-supernatural ones at all. Still, as you point out here, even the non-supernatural stories are not without merit even if some of their premises are pointlessly contrived.

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