One of the greatest horror stories ever written is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s A Woman Alone with her Soul. The story in its entirety is 26 words:
A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.
The power of this story comes from being so short. We could expand it, maybe name the main character – we could even give them a backstory. But those twenty-six words are enough to raise questions – and I think the questions are more interesting than the answers would be. There is a space for us to imagine: what has happened to the world? how does the woman know she is the last one left? what has destroyed “every other living thing”, and how come she is sitting alone in her house? What is going on here?
I encountered Splatterpunk before I heard the Sex Pistols, before I had any idea what punk meant. It’s a strange genre, desperate to shock, to transgress as much as possible. In the 1990 anthology there is one story by Richard Christian Matheson, called Red. It’s so short that it’s almost dwarfed by the introduction.
(Something I miss from short story anthologies is those long, indulgent intros, because they made the writers seem much larger than life). Red outshines every other story in the collection in little more than a page. The horror of the scene builds and is released. There are gaps in this story too, the same ones the characters ask: how can this be allowed?
But the tiny horror stories I love most are the microfictions in Harlan Ellison’s A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet. It’s a collection of twenty-six short horror stories, some of which were written as a stunt in a book shop window. A couple of them were quoted in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre. They were short, strange pieces, and probably stand as my introduction to flash.
I’ve read long novels that have vanished from my mind within hours. But Red and A Woman Alone with her Soul have stuck with me for years. And I think much of their strength comes from their brevity.
I would love to find a book on magic and walking, but I don’t think anyone has written one yet. There’s ample material for it, and not just in the more occult fringes of psychogeography. Some of the things that might go in such a book:
- My favourite example is Werner Herzog who kept someone alive by crossing Germany in Winter to visit them. He talks about this in his book Of Walking in Ice, which I wrote about last year.
- Pilgrimage is obviously important, and a huge topic, deserving a whole set of posts of its own.
- The second time I met Cat Vincent was at the Spirits of Place event, where he was giving a talk Where the Buddleia Grows: “as an urban magician, I’ve understood that you can’t truly grasp the magic and mythology of a place without walking it”. Cat has spoken recently about the importance of ‘knowing your patch’, which has resonance for me with the idea of beating the bounds.
- There are links between magic and landscape, connecting to earth magic. There are also links to ways of mapping and telling landscape, such as ley lines and songlines.
- Travelling particular patterns in cities occurs in psychogeography, with obvious examples being the letters walked in Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory or the pattern of the Hawksmoor churches in Alan Moore’s From Hell.
- During his time in London, the magic-obsessed writer William Burroughs carried out a campaign to drive the Moka Café Bar into closure. He combined patrols of the area near the cafe with the use of sound magic.
- William Seabrook tells a story about Crowley performing magic with gait (a tale I first encountered in Warren Ellis’s Hellblazer run). Crowley followed a man, synchronising his footsteps with theirs. Seabrook writes: “A.C., in taking a step forward, let both knees buckle suddenly under him, so that he dropped, caught himself on his haunches, and was immediately erect again, strolling. The man in front of us fell as if his legs had been shot out from under him.“
- Walking can be used for cursing, such as writing the name of the victim on the soles of the feet.
- One of the most powerful aspects of walking magic is The Moving of Stones (with cairns being one obvious aspect of this).
There is a magic to walking, to travelling, and a good walk is a spell.