I have spent some time in Denmark – not enough time for my taste, alas, but sufficient to speak at length with an amateur's zeal – and when Scandinavia appeals to you, few things will be able to supplant this interest. Even those who know little about the region will confess that the countries and people of the North are incomparably beautiful, their landscapes as tranquil as their attitude towards the vicissitudes of life. Native speakers of English, however, are also drawn to the affinities of language: we may love our classical etymologies, but ours is a Viking tongue, and in the vast majority of our basic words we hear the echoes of berserkers, sagas, and longships. Before the Cross came to vanquish these pagans and find its way onto each of their banners, albeit in different shades, these were some of the most mysterious and obscurist peoples on our planet. Their intentions may have been to plunder, and their worship and combat ideals just as ferocious, yet amidst this violence came their alphabet, named after the Gothic word for "secret" or "whisper." My Danish host mother happened to have written a monograph on the odd hieroglyphs called the Runes, with the requisite asides as to their alleged mystic power. My enthusiasm for her pet project and occasional comments regarding the origin of these old symbols led her to believe I knew much more than I did about the subject – which was not quite untrue. As it were, this knowledge is primarily owed to a very famous English story.
We begin at the turn of the century with three letters, one not quite finished, dismissing the work of a man called Karswell who intended to publish an ominous tome entitled The Truth of Alchemy (notably, the book was not meant as a work of fiction). More than ten years before, the same mysterious gentleman brought out a History of Witchcraft – to scathing reviews:
It was written in no style at all – split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that the man didn't swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today – all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn't; he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short. Well, after the misfortune, I looked over the book again. It was no better than before, but the impression which it left this time on my mind was different .... now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed.
The speaker is Henry Harrington, and the misfortune in question befell his brother John, who deemed the History of Witchcraft the afflatus of a lesser god, perhaps one dwelling beneath the earth, and a literary mediocrity. Within weeks of his caustic comments, he was at a concert where a "stout, clean-shaven man" handed him a program that John had supposedly dropped. This program was nothing more than "a strip of paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black – most carefully done," which seemed to Henry to resemble "Runic letters [more] than anything else." The Runes were cast and three months to the day of this fateful handover, John Harrington was scared enough one night to clamber up a tree, only to fall and be crushed by a huge dead branch; he was found the next morning "with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined." All this narrative prefaces the fact that The Truth of Alchemy was refused by an expert on the subject, a man by the name of Dunning, with whom our real story begins.
Dunning also happens to come into contact with a "stout, clean-shaven man," and the reader is duly aware of the consequences of such interaction. Karswell is at present the Abbot of Lufford – that is to say, he is the proprietor of Lufford Abbey – and his mettle is shown in brief descriptions at the onset of the story, unbeknownst, of course, to poor Dunning:
Just at present Mr. Karswell is a very angry man. But I don't know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he's an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it .... Nobody knew what he did with himself; his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face ... he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.
What Karswell embodies should be clear to even the uninitiated reader; his aims, however, remain vague. A person of wealth should be able to have his works published without batting so much as an eyelid, especially when a self-effacing editor and hefty contribution to the publishing house can ensure a better product. Yet Karswell's quest for publication in the finest journals reminds one of his apparent need for another person to accept his Runic drawings: only through active acceptance can his black magic be implemented. This important point will come to bear on the dénouement of the story, one that, unlike many of James's miniatures of horror, has a cinematic flavor to it (indeed, the tale has been filmed more than once). Yet before we reach the end, we must endure the tortures of Mr. Dunning, who one day just so happens to notice "some way ahead a man with a handful of leaflets such as are distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms." A leaflet is thrust into his hand as he passes, and the hand of the giver seems "unnaturally rough and hot." He is unable to get a good look at the remainder of the man's shape, although he will become very familiar with it in time. And soon a change comes over him that he shall not soon forget:
More than once on the way home that day Mr. Dunning confessed to himself that he did not look forward with his usual cheerfulness to a solitary evening. It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men.
Impalpable at times, yes, but very palpable at others, especially when Dunning decides to reach under his pillow one night for a matchbox – and perhaps the rest should be left to more daring souls.